The Revolution comes to Britain

Forgive me for posting another video (I’ve got quite a bit of original stuff waiting on the production line but am having some trouble engaging the machinery needed to crank it out) but last night I watched the second episode of ubiquitous Scot, Neil Oliver’s BBC series, ‘A History of Ancient Britain‘, and thought it provided a pretty decent exploration of the arrival of intensive agriculture in the British Isles some 6,000 years ago – an important subject to me for obvious reasons. Anyway, some kind soul put the whole thing up on youtube, so when you’ve got an hour to spare…

I wasn’t aware of the theory about multiple ‘first contact’ with farmers in Kent, Ireland and even the Orkneys (voles in grain sacks, you say? – well okay, unless they arrived on driftwood or hitched a ride with a friendly eagle), or that the Carnac stones in Brittany were put in place by hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic (‘We will be remembered’, eh? – reminds me more of the civilised preoccupation with stamping a mark on the landscape in the form of dead monuments rather than preserving a living legacy in thriving ecosystems, but I could be wrong…)

I spotted the old trope of hunter-gatherers ‘struggling for survival’, even alongside evidence of the backbreaking nature of the farming lifestyle – cutting down all the trees, killing all the wild animals & plants, building walls to protect livestock, yearly ploughing, the ‘daily grind’ of an hour or more of processing wheat for a family’s daily bread, the insecurity of next year’s crop being dependent on this year’s harvest…etc. He also says they stuck to the coasts and waterways and perceived the forested interior as a ‘dangerous, forbidding world’ [8:06] after making it clear that they derived a large proportion of their subsistence from hunting woodland animals and saying himself that ‘these people didn’t just live close to nature – they were part of nature’ [2:36]. I would’ve thought it was the farmers who were far more likely to see the forests in that way. As Luther Standing Bear put it:

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’. Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was it infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.

Although he does his best among the Carnac stones and with the meditation at the end on how ‘sad’ it was that the farmers were trying to ‘separate’ themselves from the wild, undomesticated world (or rather, I would say, trying to impose their way of doing things and thus destroying that world), I thought Oliver’s account was rather ’embedded’ in the experience of those oh-so courageous pioneer farmers. He could have looked at examples throughout the historical record of clashes between hunter-gatherer and farming cultures to convey the likely attitudes of prehistoric British tribes towards the people clearing the land of all the species necessary for their subsistence. I even saw an exploration of this on the BBC in the form of Marco Bechis’s film, ‘Birdwatchers’, about the struggle of the Guarani Indians in Brazil who are in the process of being displaced from their land by cattle ranchers and sugar cane farmers:

I was struck by the stark contrast in the visuals throughout the film of lush, green rainforest on the one hand next to bleak, brown farmland on the other. There must have been a similar disparity between the early wheatfields and stone-walled livestock enclosures of Neolithic Britain and Ireland and the vast, peopled Wildwood they too were setting out to conquer. At one point in the film a Guarani shaman instructs his pupil to not eat the meat from a domestic cow the tribe has just poached, because such a beast does not belong to that landscape in the way that the rainforest species – considered brothers and sisters by the Indians – do. After showing us [55:33] the difference between the ankle bone of domesticated and wild cows in prehistoric Britain, I wish Oliver had followed in the footsteps of Jared Diamond and Weston A. Price in showing us the difference between domesticated and wild humans. Is the evidence here consistent with evidence around the world indicating that hunter-gatherers lived longer, were taller, healthier, stronger, less stressed, more … human than their genetically identical farming counterparts? Who most truly belongs to the British landscape; to any landscape – Homo sapiens domestico-fragilis or Homo sapiens neo-aboriginalis?

(hat-tip to C)

Altogether, though, I want to applaud Oliver’s effort here in shedding light on this important transition, putting modernity into its ancient context and going some considerable distance towards rescuing what was surely an epic, richly meaningful drama from the precious few scraps of evidence that survive.

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20 Responses to “The Revolution comes to Britain”

  1. christine Says:

    So much conjecture.

    Of course it’s all we have, but it’s interesting how our views of those past peoples change as we change.

    Is it that gender affects perspective here as well?

    Jared Diamond, in the link above, says of the spacing of children “nomadic huntergatherers have to keep their children spaced at four year intervals by infanticide and other means because a mother must carry her offspring until its old enough to keep up with the adults. Because farm women don’t have that burden, they can and often do bear a child every two years”
    To which I have several objections – first, breast feeding spaces children naturally 4 years apart. second, although nomadic in a sense, these people were not necessarily constantly on the move, but *seasonally* as they followed the food supply,and other members of the group helped to carry children and finally, it is often the case that those people who have domesticated milk animals will wean their children from the breast earlier, leading to unwanted pregnancies and higher rates of infanticide.Does he make his infanticide-as-child-spacing assumption because he’s male or because he comes from a society that is unaware of the natural spacing of children (due to the rarity of breastfeeding)?
    /end rant Sorry, but it was a rather bizarre statement on his part I thought.

    Do you, like me, wonder at the assumption in the first place that the changeover to farming was a revolution rather than a slower evolution? (or devolution!) Here in North America, and in many other cultures there was a blend of the two, but because the gardens looked so much like natural forests and wetlands they were not recognized (til recently) to have been deliberate.

    Last summer I met a pair of botanical archeologists (not sure what the correct title is) who told me that the places I forage in were in fact, ‘tended’ for perhaps thousands of years by the First Peoples, who used fire and other methods to encourage berries.

    The BBC piece was gorgeous to watch. When I got tired of yelling at the screen 😉 I just turned off the sound and looked at the scenery. So damn pretty. The archeology is fascinating, esp. the underwater shipyard.Thanks for this Ian, I had plenty of time, our weather is foul (snow/sleet) and I’m trapped indoors.


  2. Ian M Says:

    Hey Christine, thanks for that and glad to provide you with a diversion. After they instituted a hose-pipe ban it’s been raining here pretty solidly for about 2 weeks now, so I’ve been pretty housebound too.

    Ya got me on breast-feeding and child-spacing. Not my area, I’m afraid – and no, it doesn’t look like ol’ Jared’s either! The ‘nomadic’ part seems to have been thrown out there without much thought too.

    I guess the more salient point would be that H/Gs have an incentive to keep their populations low (too many mouths eat the ecology) whereas farmers have the opposite incentive (more hands needed to work the fields). Agriculture/domestication allows people to increase food production at will, thus ‘defeating’ the ABC’s of ecology and divorcing their population from feedback pressures applied by other animal & plant populations in the food web. If you over-hunt wild deer that will feed an increase in your population, but soon there won’t be as much food available so your population will decrease accordingly. If, on the other hand, you eat too much of your wheat harvest or slaughter too many sheep/pigs/cattle one year, then all you have to do is cut down a little more forest, select more strongly for fertility in your flock, kill more wolves etc. next year to make up the shortfall. The health and success of farming societies is inversely proportional to the health and success of ecosystems. In that situation there’s no such thing as an unwanted pregnancy (from the point of view of the culture) and it’s very easy for the role of women to devolve to one of baby factory or beast of burden as JD describes.

    re: revolution/evolution/devolution – I used to assume the change was as swift and brutal during prehistoric times as it was in the Americas, Australia, Africa etc. during colonial times or last refuges in the Amazon or Indonesia up to the present day. But then I learned that it took around 2,500 years for the Neolithic (as identified by evidence of domestication and pottery) to work its way through Europe and that in some instances farmers and H/Gers lived side-by-side for upwards of 1,000 years. So now I look at it a bit like a game of Risk, where one player slowly manages to occupy a continent and then just sits there, building up armies continuously over many turns before going rogue and splurging over the entire board in one fell swoop. Farming hit a wall when it conquered the farthest reaches of Europe. Then it spent several millennia trying and failing to intensify in the regions already under its sway, going through constant famines, chronic warfare and epidemic diseases. When colonialism finally let these hardened, fierce people (and the diseases that came with them) loose on the rest of the world, they burned through it in no time. How long did Columbus et al take to drive the peaceable indigenous peoples of the Caribbean to the brink of extinction – 50 years? 100? The rest of N America followed suit in a breathtakingly short space of time, comparatively to Europe before it. Africa took longer because of malaria and the tropical climate being unsuitable for European agriculture, but at that point subsistence was going out the window anyway as the colonies imported everything except the cash-crops they were growing from back home or one of the other hubs of empire. So I’d definitely view that process as revolutionary rather than evolutionary, simply because of the whirlwind speed and all-encompassing nature of the change: out with the old, in with the new.

    Ah, I seem to have responded to your rant with a lecture 😛 Sorry!

    Last summer I met a pair of botanical archeologists (not sure what the correct title is) who told me that the places I forage in were in fact, ‘tended’ for perhaps thousands of years by the First Peoples, who used fire and other methods to encourage berries.

    Archaeobotanist? Yeah, I think the consensus is that those more gentle forms of cultivation were pretty much ubiquitous (in varying doses) before full-time intensive ag got underway. Kat Anderson and Nancy Turner are your babies for that (apologies for amazon links – they don’t have their own webpages), or have a look at leavergirl’s blogpost and its epic comment thread, if you didn’t already. I’m jealous that you get to benefit from and continue that legacy! Make sure you don’t get banged up for arson now… 😉


  3. Ian M Says:

    More conjecture, but after writing that Risk analogy I remembered this part in Neil Oliver’s narrative:

    [16:02] By 4,500BC the Neolithic Revolution had conquered almost all of Europe. But around here it came to a halt because of that [pointing to the English Channel]. Farming might have swept across the landmass of Europe but the last few watery miles presented a different challenge. It would take hundreds of years, but that final leap across the Channel and into Britain was inevitable.

    I don’t know what he’s basing that emphasised part on. It seems sound enough to me at first glance – even assuming people in Neolithic France had the boat technology, it would be a pretty massive operation to start from scratch on a distant shore, requiring powerful incentives to leave their land and people behind likely forever. Also it wouldn’t be so easy to send reinforcements if the natives rebelled against the invasion, thus requiring an already well established, stressed-out overpopulation on the French coast before any colonisation attempt would stick. Admittedly this is exactly what happened in the Americas, so if anything it just explains a slight delay of the ‘inevitable’.

    Anyway it made me wonder if the arrival of agriculture in the British Isles resembled first contact in America in microcosm. Maybe an agrarian culture built up pressure and stress in NW Europe over several centuries and then vented all of this over the ‘new world’ in Britain over a relatively short space of time. This, coupled with subsequent invasions by Celts, Vikings, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans (all farming cultures BTW) would have perfectly prepared the Brits to push the frontier out to the rest of the world…

    Yes/no/maybe/no point in guessing?

  4. christine Says:

    And yet – dare I say this?- I don’t have much against agriculture. Big Ag, yes, but I live in a ‘backwater’ where there are still plenty of small independant farms. And most of those farmers are hunters as well, so know the value of the wilderness and protect it.

    But I really don’t think the transformation to agriculture was as destructive as the transformation to industrial strength ag. Or even the invasion of Xtianity, now that was some damage! And a debate for another time.

    I’m considering setting up a PayPal account for bail in case I do get the urge to recreate the ‘old ways’ of the First Peoples here. The firechief is a friend of mine but I don’t think he’d see the humour.

  5. Ian M Says:

    And yet – dare I say this?- I don’t have much against agriculture.

    ::Gasps all round as a horrified chill descends on the auditorium:: 😉

    You’re aware that agriculture (organic and small-scale compared to modern farming) was the chief agent in deforesting and desertifying the Middle East and much of Europe, right? The Woodland Trust’s Book of British Woodlands links the clearing of the Wildwood explicitly to farming practices, later intensified by the use of iron (mostly for better ploughs and axes, as well as requiring lots of wood to smelt it in the first place) – ‘By 1086 only about one sixth of Britain was wooded, and probably this proportion had remained constant for several centuries before the Norman conquest’ (p.95) This was centuries before the industrial revolution. Even the long process of enclosure of the commons was barely underway. Most of today’s towns and villages were already established at the time of the Domesday Book (1086), but because farming yields were lower it required more land to feed the populations, and ‘Large areas would have been open, more or less treeless, and cultivated to grow wheat, barley, oats or rye.’

    Nowhere could you travel in a straight line for more than about five miles through the forest without finding a village or hamlet, and many villages were several miles from the nearest woodland […] nearly half the settlements investigated had no woodland at all […] by 1086 the original primeval forest, the wildwood, to all intents and purposes had disappeared. England was not a dense forest with clearings; it was open farm land with woods.

    Oliver Rackham, who made the calculations needed to translate Norman units of measurement into modern ones, and who concluded that the traditional picture of Domesday England was grotesquely wrong, was so startled by his own discovery that he examined it from many different points of view. He considered the number of ploughs that Domesday recorded, for example, to arrive at an estimate for the area of arable land, and found it occupied about one-third of England. He took the number of cattle and calculated the pasturage they would need, together with sheep and horses; he allowed for towns, gardens, and meadows. He found that the decline in woodland recorded in Domesday is if anything an under-estimate rather than an exaggeration. (p.94)

    (Sorry, don’t mean to quote-bash, just think it provides interesting background for the subject.)

    To me this doesn’t look like a remotely sustainable situation, even before petrochemicals and genetic engineering get thrown into the mix. We may have been gifted plenty of lovely post-glacial soil and blessed with plenty of rainfall, but it still seems axiomatic to me that monoculture crops & routine tilling of the soil eventually kills the fertility of the land to the point where nothing grows. It’s just a matter of time: No trees = you die.

    Anyway, I’ll grudgingly admit that your farmers sound pretty enlightened (the importance of maintaining a foraging/hunting element to your subsistence strategy emerged in the Leaving Babylon discussion). I want to know what their farming is like though. It was my understanding that the marketisation of agriculture basically made it impossible to NOT rape the land if you wanted to stay competitive & in business. Also: farmers in Medieval England sounded like pretty sane, sensible people too, given their circumstances. Plenty of hunting and wild foods too from what I understand, at least until the insane poaching laws started coming down on them. But they made their living from agriculture. When push came to shove, that’s what got expanded at the expense of everything else. Wouldn’t it be the same thing with your guys?

    But I agree that by now there are bigger, more important targets to deal with before we get to the small-time farmers.

    Hope I wasn’t too preachy in all of that…

    PS – lol’ed at ‘bail’ – I’m good for that!

  6. christine Says:

    “It’s just a matter of time: No trees = you die”

    Exactly. In the grander sense all this is moot. We can wring our hands at the destruction we have wrought. We should. Yet in terms of the planet’s history this is nothing. And barring the sudden annhilation of most of the humans and sudden regrowth of balanced ecosystems, H/G societies are not sustainable either. We’re stuck with this. It will bring on our eventual long drawnout painful downfall. Well deserved, too, according to some.

    Ok, something you don’t yet know about me. My parents were part of the Indian Residential Schools in the 60’s and 70’s. You know, that cultural genocide at the hands of so-called well meaning Christians. You want guilt? I got guilt! I grew up surrounded by hundreds of small brown children who had been ripped away from their families – by my own father. Yeah. Some of those kids held it against me, of course they did. I carried that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach most of my life. This is much more immediate than the guilt we foragers feel for what was done to the land thousands of generations ago – and continues. This is face to face guilt.

    My point? It’s not useful to dwell. What’s useful is to move forward knowing that ultimately we are not responsible for what was done by our (fore)fathers. We are responsible for what *can* be done for our children and grandchildren. End of.

    I once spent a long evening with an elder of the Algonquin and he actually laughed (kindly, but heartily) at my feelings of regret and guilt over what the white man had done to his people and the land. He laughed because of our romantic notions of the H/G, pointing out that they moved around so much because they soiled every place they made camp. He laughed at the notion that I would take responsibilty for “my” people’s atrocities. He taught me that guilt paralyzes us in the past, that ultimately the best thing to do is embrace the gifts our parents leave us, even if those gifts are nothing more than the lessons of what not to do.

    In short – choose joy over grief. Choose to encourage rather than damn. Feed the children as best we can. Feeding the children is what most farmers, rich, poor, modern, ancient, have been doing all along. I try to remember that. Flawed as their methods may have been, they were humans, struggling.

    I’ve been poor enough to wonder how I would feed my children, perhaps that gives me perspective that many of the hand-wringers do not have.

    When we are gone, the trees will again have their time.

    I learn all I can about the gifts the land gives so freely and easily *including what I plant* so that my granddaughter can feed her children well on the lessons I learned. There is nothing more or less that I can do.

    I don’t mean to knock those who point out the errors of our collective ways, we need those people. I just refuse to knock the famers, because on the whole the solutions lie with them as they try to feed us all.

    BUT if Monsanto gets too much of a foothold in my beloved Pontiac, them I’ll go after. Glad to hear you’ll help with my bail 🙂 Luckily there’s a better chance this place will become a haven for organic/sustainable/polyculture type agriculture, as that seems to be the current trend. If that can happen here, it must be happening quietly in more areas than we know. Time may be on our side after all.

  7. Ian M Says:

    Hey, thanks for telling me that. It’s totally fucked up, which totally gives me new insights into your personality 😉 Seriously, I can’t imagine what that must have felt like and it amazes me that you’ve managed to come out so completely on the other side. Overturning the colonial impulse within one generation … Yowsa!

    But you misunderstood me if you thought I wanted your (or anybody else’s) guilt in dragging up all this ancient history. I don’t feel guilty for what the farmers did to this land. Okay, it helps that both of my parents are from mainland Europe and I don’t (to my knowledge) have any ancestry here, but even if I did I wouldn’t feel inclined to blame them or to atone for their misdeeds. I’d be inclined to assume that they did their best in their given circumstances – to feed the children, as you say (great point btw, I’ll remember that) – and were most likely trapped into the destructive behaviours against their will. I think people, like ecosystems, will spontaneously ‘rewild‘, that is to say go through various successional stages to undo the process of their domestication, if left alone for five minutes to do their thing. That’s why the Domesticators have to hassle the kids to ‘train’ and flay them into the most productive forms from day one; why bosses can’t let the workers slack off even for a moment; why chronic insecurity and artificial scarcity are pillars of Capitalism.

    I just want to know the truth of what happened here, as a way of getting to know this land and to learn what’s possible after serious attempts at restoration; to give me something to aim at. I think it was Bill Mollison who said that deforestation also clearcuts the imagination of local people who, after a few generations, can no longer remember that any other way of subsistence other than farming was possible. I see lots of value in learning history, not to dwell on the morbid details and damn long-dead people for the mistakes they made, but to understand what went wrong (or what went right!) and to learn from the experience of those gone before me so I don’t run headlong into the same pitfalls.


    My point? It’s not useful to dwell. What’s useful is to move forward knowing that ultimately we are not responsible for what was done by our (fore)fathers. We are responsible for what *can* be done for our children and grandchildren. End of.


    He laughed because of our romantic notions of the H/G, pointing out that they moved around so much because they soiled every place they made camp.

    Tee hee – lovely and down-to-earth.

    He taught me that guilt paralyzes us in the past, that ultimately the best thing to do is embrace the gifts our parents leave us, even if those gifts are nothing more than the lessons of what not to do. […] In short – choose joy over grief. Choose to encourage rather than damn. Feed the children as best we can.

    Yes. Wise.

    When we are gone, the trees will again have their time.

    Why do we have to go? People have tended and eaten the fruit of trees right from the start some 3 million years ago. We get sick when we try to eat the grasses. Why would we not stick around to help with the reforestation? We’d heal ourselves through the same process. It’ll be great!

    I learn all I can about the gifts the land gives so freely and easily *including what I plant* so that my granddaughter can feed her children well on the lessons I learned. There is nothing more or less that I can do.

    Again, yes. I don’t see any other way for it to work. Oh, and I don’t have any problem with you planting things! As long as you do it sensitively, you know…

    Okay, that’s that 🙂

    cheers, m’dear

  8. Ian M Says:

    More pieces of the puzzle…

    Oliver Rackham writes:

    There is no doubt about the ‘Neolithic revolution’. Farmers – whether actual settlers, or people who had acquired the crops, domestic animals and weeds, and had learned to use them – arrived about 4,500BC. They set about converting Britain and Ireland to an imitation of the dry open steppes of the Near East in which agriculture had begun. They attacked elms and caused a sudden drop in elm pollen production, perhaps by letting loose Elm Disease (p.90). This ‘Elm Decline’ is associated with early pottery and Neolithic tools, with an increase in plants of non-wooded country, and with crops such as emmer wheat and weeds such as plantains. Within 3,000 years large tracts were converted to farmland or heath. Wildwood vanished from terrain as diverse as the chalklands, the Somerset Levels, and the coastal Lake District.

    During the Bronze age (2,400-750BC) most wildwood disappeared from high altitudes and river valleys. Inroads were made on some of the heavy soils. I shall hazard a guess that half of England had ceased to be wildwood by the early Iron Age (500BC); some archaeologists would put it earlier. (The Illustrated History of the Countryside, p.35)

    and also poses the interesting question, ‘How Was Wildwood Destroyed?’:

    To convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was the greatest achievement [sic] of our ancestors. It belongs to an age far beyond record or memory. We know nothing of how it was organized, how many man-hours it took to clear an acre, or what people lived on while doing it. Experiments on ‘clearing’ woodland with prehistoric tools should not be hastily extrapolated to prehistoric Britain. Most British trees are difficult to kill; they survive felling or ringbarking, though their regrowth is eaten by cattle and sheep. In the twentieth century, Amazon wildwood is easier to destroy (acre for acre) than ordinary English coppice.

    A persistent myth claims that prehistoric people ‘cleared wildwood by fire’. This is not possible in Britain or Ireland, where woodlands (except pine) burn like wet asbestos. As Dr James Dickson tells me, the frivolous youth of Glasgow try every year to burn down the oakwoods around the city, and have never succeeded. To burn trees, one has to cut them down, cut them up and stack the pieces, a far more laborious task than merely felling them. A log of more than 10 inches in diameter is almost fireproof and is a most uncooperative object. There are the bigger problems still of digging up or ploughing round the stumps and preventing regrowth.

    Cattle, sheep and goats probably helped by browsing regrowth and killing the stumps. This has been done in historic times, but it takes a great deal of grazing to go on consuming all the saplings year by year for centuries. How often was there enough livestock to do this in prehistory? (ibid, p.35)

    John Fish Kurmann has drawn my attention to a series of BBC articles talking about what recent DNA research reveals about the transition to farming in Europe. Follow the related stories from this page, which seems to vindicate my above depiction of invaders mounting a bridgehead of domesticated species across the channel into wild-wooded Britain:

    A new study of DNA from ancient remains provides further evidence that farming was first spread to Europe by migrants.

    It casts doubt on the alternative theory in which agriculture was adopted by Europe’s existing hunter-gatherer populations, spreading via cultural exchange with neighbouring tribes.

    Finally, if I gave the impression that farmers in the Middle East and Europe went about their business in a slower, more gentle manner than the genocidal maniacs who vented their rage on the rest of the world during the colonial period, I’d like to include a couple of pieces of evidence from a little-known book called ‘The Holy Bible’. Firstly, the story of Cain and Abel:

    I learned, for example, that the subjugation and slaughter of the aboriginal peoples of the New World bore an uncanny resemblance to the story of Cain and Abel. Cain the tiller of the soil “watered his fields with the blood” of Abel the herder (a metaphorical way of saying that he killed Abel in order to gain the territory he wanted to farm). This is of course exactly what we did on coming to the new world. All our fields were watered with the blood of hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of hunting-gathering Abels.

    The authors of the story of the Fall were Semites — the ancestors of the Hebrews who claimed the story as their heritage. But the agricultural revolution didn’t begin among the Semites, it began among their neighbors to the north, the Caucasians. So the Fall was not something that happened to THEM. I formed a theory — like all theories, an explanation to be judged on the basis of how well it explains the facts it sets out to explain. My theory was this: Like Cain (and us), the Caucasians began to encroach on the territory of their neighbors — the Semites being their neighbors to the south. They began to water their fields with the blood of the Semites.

    The Semites (the theory continues) needed some sort of explanation for this behavior on the part of their neighbors to the north. Their neighbors were acting as if they were the gods of the world, as if they had the right to decide what and who shall live here and what and who shall not. They must believe, therefore, that they have the very knowledge the gods use to rule the world. And what is that knowledge? It’s the knowledge of good and evil, because whatever the gods do, it’s good for one but evil for another. It’s impossible for it to be otherwise. Their neighbors were acting as if they ate at the gods’ own tree of wisdom, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But embracing this knowledge carried its own penalty. Instead of living the easy and carefree life they formerly enjoyed, they were now living by the sweat of their brows as tillers of the field. Eating at the gods’ tree of wisdom is assuredly going to carry a curse, and the authors of the story felt sure that this curse would be the death of man (Adam, in Hebrew). (link)

    And secondly, this delightful quote from Deuteronomy 12, where Moses delivers ‘a series of mitzvot (commands) to the Israelites regarding how they ought to conduct themselves in Canaan, the land promised by Yahweh, the God of Israel’:

    2 Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree:

    3 And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.

    Is there any reason to suspect this process would have played out differently wherever the farmers migrated to, spreading the best values of the Neolithic Revolution?

  9. christine Says:


    I’ve just now ventured into the “epic” comment thread at leavergirl’s blog that you so kindly linked and once again you’ve sent me off to exactly where I needed to go. Once Stephen Simpson gets involved and introduces Christine Jones’ work onliving soil and especially the concept of ‘liquid carbon’, well, wow. can’t thank you enough.

    More relevant to this thread, however, the reference above to the new (to me) take on the Cain and Abel story is very interesting indeed. Reminds me of old days when we Goddess worshippers used to discuss the beginnings of the patriarchal “power over” relationship with the Earth …

    back to the garden..:)


  10. Ian M Says:

    Sorry, have been meaning to reply to this…

    I didn’t follow up on the Christine Jones stuff yet, but sounds interesting so thanks for the tip-off! Glad to introduce you to LG’s site – I get the feeling you two could cook up a storm between you 😉

    Oh mama, you never had someone bully you into reading Dan Quinn before? Start with Ishmael, where he goes into the Cain & Abel / Genesis theory in depth, and which took him 15 years to write, going through 8 different versions before it won the Turner award in ’92. Then move on through the other sequels. He has a totally unique perspective – going through facts, figures, stories you think you know slowly and methodically, then hitting on a key which unlocks a whole new way of perceiving the problem. It’s uncanny to watch him do it, even 10+ years after reading the book for the first time. Plus it’s a novel and extremely well written – crafted, I would say – so not your typical ‘ideas book’.


    Will try not to send you off to too many places at once!

  11. christine Says:

    Nobody bullies me into anything 🙂
    But I am very interested, I’ll keep an eye out. And you, my friend, didn’t I mention that you should be reading Shikasta? I’ll see your Turner winning novelist and raise you with my Nobel laureate in Literature, Doris Lessing.
    Thanks for the tip, C.

  12. Ian M Says:

    Sounds good – will keep my eye out likewise. ‘Invasive Plant Medicine’ is sitting pretty in a pile of recently purchased books on top of my dusty record player. Am looking forward to getting my teeth into it to counter the weed-nazi propaganda I’m subjected to on nearly a daily basis…

    ‘ta for that too

    • christine Says:

      Oh good, you got it! Why am I not surprised to hear you have a dusty record player? We have one of those too 🙂

      I enjoy LG’s blog but wow, dark place.

  13. leavergirl Says:

    What? Even after I swore off doom? 🙂

  14. leavergirl Says:

    Ian, wonderful post and discussion. Sorry I am late to join. My two cents… it not ag that’s the problem, it’s “intensive” that’s the problem. It was the ag folks who created much of the richness of the forests around the Amazon…

    Yes, the “intensive” nastiness goes back to the Paleolithic (only a few examples) and definitely to the Mesolithic. Hunter/gatherers infected by the intensifying madness did damage too.

    Also, I object to the assertion that the farming life is “backbreaking.” Only if you intensify… otherwise, having a garden or a field or pasture along with the bounty of the land offered freely, has been a favorite human lifestyle. If you intensify, then you got back problems… whether from farming or putting up endless salmon… or sitting in a cubicle.

    As to the health evidence, forager/farmers were healthy. Once you intensify, destroy the abundant foraging grounds, and become stratified so that some have lots and others have little, then the elites show health and tallness and the peasants show poor health and shrinkage. And eating a lot of stone ground grain was rough on everybody’s teeth.

    Also, breastfeeding as birth control is not altogether reliable… infanticide has always been a tribal option. Though breastfeeding and leanness (high protein, low starch diet) together probably did pretty well. I too have seen evidence that the farming peoples and the foragers coexisted in Europe for a long time, and it seems to have been a fairly peaceful evolution at least early on, where forager women often married into the farming communities. Last I heard, only about 10% of European genes derive from the Near East… do the links you posted tell a different story now?

    Been meaning to ask you, Ian, whether the term “downs” comes from downed forests that once grew on those now-bare hills in England?

  15. Ian M Says:

    Hey LG, thanks for chipping in.

    Sorry but I still wince when you call the Amazon stuff ‘agriculture’. Maybe I have too much invested in the notion that ag=bad, but I’d be happier with ‘horticulture’ or ‘forest gardening’. I still have in mind Peter’s contention (from the rewild forum conversation) that intensification of horticultural techniques can lead to climax ecology / old growth forest. On the other hand we don’t know what the Amazon looked like at the time people relied on it to provide their subsistence needs. Maybe they would consider the jungle, seen by early European explorers after the smallpox apocalypse, as ‘wilderness’ in the same way farmers over here look at scrubby farmland during agricultural depressions? Maybe the real ‘working environment’ of the place was much harsher and intolerant to wildlife – which only flourished once the people were gone? Meh, more info needed… Though I feel like I need to believe that it’s possible for humans to relate to other species in a non-antagonistic peer-to-peer manner.

    Yes, the “intensive” nastiness goes back to the Paleolithic (only a few examples) and definitely to the Mesolithic. Hunter/gatherers infected by the intensifying madness did damage too.

    Possibly a question I’ll regret asking (you’ve already given me plenty of research projects to be getting on with!) – what examples are you talking about here? The events in prehistoric Oz; salmon-based competitive feasting in N America; supposed h/g responsibility for over-hunting of large mammals that we’ve talked about before? Maybe it’s time for you to do a new post to re-enlighten the rest of us 😉

    re: breaking backs – did you see the part of the program [33:33] where they talked about wearing down of the vertebrae in Neolithic skeletons attributed to the daily grinding action of grain seeds on flat stones? Pulverising wild root or seed matter in a mortar & pestle might be hard work but at least you can do it standing or sitting upright! I guess it depends how central the grains are in your overall diet. Also there’s the question of annuals vs. perennials, with the latter obviously taking much less energy to maintain once they get established. I see Ran has provided another timely comment (June 8th entry):

    A great article on annual vs perennial plants. The big idea is that annuals are short-sighted — they want to gobble as much soil fertility as possible to make a lot of seeds. But perennials are going to be around for years or decades, so they have an incentive to stabilize the local ecosystem. Does this remind you of different human societies?

    With forest gardening I’ve heard that after a time the main energy expenditure lies simply with harvesting, minimal processing and preserving the crop plants. Can’t say that about the annual grains, which I’m guessing is why they don’t get a mention in Ken Fern’s otherwise comprehensive book titled Plants For A Future. With livestock pasturage I accept that it’s relatively easy going once you’ve got over the initial hurdles of felling the forests (preventing regrowth) and culling all the predators that want a piece of your hoard.

    I’d be interested to see your evidence for co-existence in Europe – I feel a bit precarious relying just on that paragraph quoted in the Wikipedia article! I’m not convinced it was peaceable though – this doesn’t fit with conflicts observed elsewhere around the world. The ‘marriage’ thing is a case in point. Here’s the relevant BBC article: ‘Most European males ‘descended from farmers’‘ where researcher Dr Patricia Balaresque tells us that:

    […]more than 80% of European Y chromosomes descend from incoming farmers. In contrast, most maternal genetic lineages seem to descend from hunter-gatherers.

    “To us, this suggests a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the switch from hunting and gathering, to farming – maybe, back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer.”

    I’ve seen this ‘sexy’ bullshit before. Of course there’s another possible interpretation – that the male farmers were conquering warriors who forced themselves on the women of those they vanquished. Or maybe Taino women just had an irresistible attraction towards Spanish men (whose DNA would no doubt figure highly in the remnant population)?

    Columbus and his men also used the Taino as sex slaves: it was a common reward for Columbus’ men for him to present them with local women to rape. As he began exporting Taino as slaves to other parts of the world, the sex-slave trade became an important part of the business, as Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.” (link)

    Ooh boy, it’s getting late…

    Downs? I feel like I should know this… Oh well, Etymonline say:

    down (n.2) O.E. dun “down, moor; height, hill, mountain,” from P.Gmc. *dunaz- (cf. M.Du. dunen “sandy hill,” Du. duin, “probably a pre-insular loan-word from Celtic” [Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names], in other words, borrowed at a very early period, before the Anglo-Saxon migration. The non-English Germanic words tend to mean “dune, sand bank” (cf. dune), while the Celtic cognates tend to mean “hill, citadel” (cf. O.Ir. dun “hill, hill fort;” Welsh din “fortress, hill fort;” and second element in place names London, Verdun, etc.). From PIE root *dheue- “to close, finish, come full circle.” Meaning “elevated rolling grassland” is from c.1300. Ger. Düne, Fr. dune, Italian, Spanish duna are said to be loan-words from Dutch.

    I’ve walked the length of both the North and South Downs in southern England and these days they’re actually quite well wooded compared to the national norm. Although the main conservation focus is on maintaining the chalk grassland wildflower ecologies which are the legacy of 1000s of years of livestock grazing.

    Okay I’m tired of typing ‘a href=’ and ‘blockquote’ now.

    Thanks again & nighty night.

  16. leavergirl Says:

    I don’t feel comfy with “horticulture” because it’s a specialized anthro term that does not mean what people mean when they talk about gardening. But you are right, maybe I should stick with “cultivation.” Recently, I came across the term “garden farming.” That is what I think of those tribes did in the Amazon, and on Pacific islands. “Forest gardening” too.

    Peter redefined “intensification” — cheating in argument. By intensification, I mean getting more and more food out of a given environment. Eventually, you gonna ruin it, if you keep on intensifying. Whether you use foraging, gardening, or fields and pastures, is immaterial. You’ll still bring ruin to the land.

    The paleolith stuff I was referring to were places in Europe where there was extraordinary plentifulness of game, often associated with fords. There, cultures thrived that seem to turn… well, consumerist, and possibly stratified (unequal). For a time, while the riches lasted. These were exceptions in the Paleolith.

    When Mesolith rolled around, it was no longer an exception. Those rock burial places in Europe were made for the elite. Ancestor worship is an early con. 🙂

    You are right to be suspicious about those DNA studies and their interpretations. How do you tell “marriage” from “kidnapping”? I am not up on the latest so I can’t really say anymore.

    Down from dun. Those darn Kelts… they are everywhere. 🙂

  17. Ian M Says:

    Sorry, eventually got round to this…

    Happy to stick with ‘cultivation’, though again I don’t think it matters what you call it; what matters is how it plays out in the real world.

    re: intensification – I think Peter’s point was about the direction the various subsistence strategies push in relation to the process of succession. What he calls agriculture always pushes back towards the ‘ground zero’ of clearcutting vegetation (via annual tilling of the soil) back to the first wave of plant colonisers – usually annual seed-bearing weed species, among which the select few global grain crops have been selected. Other strategies – called permaculture, horticulture, forest gardening, whatever – have at least some allowance for moving with spontaneous succession, incorporating perennial plants, shrubs and trees. As Ran said, these have more of ‘an incentive to stabilize the local ecosystem’ than the annuals which devote their energies to creating lots of offspring with the intention of keeping the soil covered and held down until the deeper-rooted, longer-lived plants get a chance to establish. (Sorry, don’t mean to lecture – am writing this down partly to cement my own understanding.)

    I think I agree that coaxing more and more food from your subsistence strategy can cause things to crash past a certain point (viz. my argument about humans stealing biomass from the rest of the community of life) but I guess there’s a lot more slack for this in systems that go with rather than against succession, probably because there’s more allowance for nonhuman life to thrive independently of the outcome of human food production. For example: intensifying production in an olive grove or fruit orchard – through means such as pruning, grafting, closer spacing, training etc. – still leaves habitat for insects, birds, even mammals who can feed on basically anything that isn’t fruit without coming into direct competition and antagonism with the human orchardist. Grain fields offer much less opportunity for this, and any wildlife attempting to live in them is much more likely to be considered a ‘pest’ because there are no leaves, roots, ground layer herbs or woody parts that they can feed on. They can only feed directly on the monoculture crop, most likely damaging it or lessening the harvest in other ways. In other words the stabilising effect of perennials means that those who cultivate them also create more space for nonhuman life to coexist than would otherwise be there. Intensification of those systems (up to a certain point, I would guess – not including heavy use of pesticides & fertilisers, indoor growing, hydroponics etc.) is still compatible with a thriving ecology of far greater complexity & resilience than what manages to exist among cultivated annuals.

    The paleolith stuff I was referring to were places in Europe where there was extraordinary plentifulness of game, often associated with fords. There, cultures thrived that seem to turn… well, consumerist, and possibly stratified (unequal). For a time, while the riches lasted. These were exceptions in the Paleolith.

    When Mesolith rolled around, it was no longer an exception. Those rock burial places in Europe were made for the elite. Ancestor worship is an early con. 🙂

    Sounds interesting, although I wish you wouldn’t use loaded words like ‘consumerist’ to describe stone age people we only know about through archaeology! Can you give me some links to follow up on the ford culture, please? And are you talking about the Carnac stones with ‘rock burial places in Europe’, or are there other examples?


  18. More Rewilding | Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    […] every year from then on to prevent reversion to what the land actually wants to do (as we saw before). And this comment is a strong contender for the Agrarian-Fundamentalist-Asshole-Remark-Of-The-Year […]

  19. Coming down from the mountain #2 | Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    […] for fear of monopolising the discussion. I wish in hindsight that I’d shared more of my understanding of the spread of agriculture through Europe and its arrival in Britain, though. The discussion […]

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