The Invention of Scarcity – The First Information Revolution

Introduction – Setting up the problem

It has generally been assumed that people began practicing agriculture as soon as they thought of it, but since we have examined modern hunter/gatherers we know that this is not true. We saw above that hunter/gatherers make their food choices based on what will yield the best nutrition for the least energy expended[1] and all hunter/gatherers have had some contact with people who plant. [2] We know specifically that the !Kung and the BaMbuti live near farmers, know all about agriculture and reject it as a life style.

It is also apparent from our examination of modern hunter/gatherers that the world of hunter/gatherers was idyllic in many ways – little work, sharing, high quality diet, good health, peace, and no sense of ‘the daily grind’ just walks in the forest picking up what is needed, telling stories, dancing, and singing songs.

We also know from our examination of the Ice Age world above, hunter/gatherers in pre-agricultural times lived in more productive environments. In addition, the archaeological record shows that they had continent-wide networks so were in touch with more people, which would have given them access to more information, more trading and sharing partners, and an even better quality of life than modern hunter/gatherers.

We can infer, therefore, that they too perceived a world of plenty.

Finally, paleo-pathologists have shown, on the basis of observations of skeletons and mummies, that farming created health problems that were absent in hunter/gatherer populations:

    (1) chronic infection was greater among Neolithic farmers,
    (2) they suffered more from yaws and tuberculosis,
    (3) they had more intestinal infections and parasites,
    (4) they experienced more anemia and malnutrition,
    (5) they were more often stunted, and
    (6) dental evidence suggested they were under greater stress.[3]

So, why did people abandon their Eden and begin to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow?[4]

What Happened? – The Impact of Extinction

If we fast forward from twelve thousand years ago, the world of the Ice Age, to nine thousand years ago, just before the beginning of agriculture, we find much has changed. The huge ice caps, horses, sloths, other giant animals, the carnivores that ate them, and the paleoindians, all are gone.* Climate is like it is today. In the New World the parklands are gone. There are belts of closed canopy forest on the coasts and grassland in the center of the North American continent.

In the New World, there are far fewer people than there were during the Ice Age. Their stone technology is far less developed, less beautiful and more local than that of the people of the Ice Age. They live in small isolated bands and their technology is different in different areas suggesting that their vast information network has disappeared. In the Old World the cave painters have disappeared. There are fewer animals and people and their technology has deteriorated.

The extinctions at the end of the Ice Age had a profound impact on the ecology and therefore on the people. There is considerable controversy on what caused the extinctions. Regardless of the cause, the extinctions drastically reduced human populations[5] and it would have changed the environment quickly enough to produce a change in how people perceived their world.

One theory, Second Order Predation, suggests that people killed the carnivores that controlled herbivore populations causing herbivore populations to boom and subsequently bust when the herbivores ate all the vegetation available[6] [7].

If true, this suggests that people experienced a loss of both animals to hunt and plants to gather. There were massive famines[8] [9]. As populations shrunk, skills were lost – leading to a paleo-dark age.

During the last days of the extinction event, people and animals were starving. The people’s World View became more restrictive than that of today’s hunter/gatherers – they saw a world of scarcity rather than plenty. It was no longer enough to know where something grew or where animals would pass, it became necessary to own, to control, and to restrict resources to one’s own family. They became increasingly involved with owning material goods rather than with sharing information. The strong could take away things from the weak.

Even if this particular theory of the extinctions is not true, the fact remains that the extinction of the large herd herbivores suddenly made the world people perceived shift from a world of plenty into a world of scarcity. They had little time to adjust so from their perspective Eden was no more.

The Beginning of Scarcity – the Beginning of Evil

The world had actually changed – there were fewer large herbivores. At first glance, it would seem plausible to tie the start of agriculture directly to the reduced availability of megaherbivores as food. However, three things undermine this direct link.

First, once the environment settled down into its new pattern, it is reasonable to assume that there was plenty of game and plenty of food to be gathered.

Second, the reduction in human population would have left more food for those who survived. We know that the hunting/gathering way of life can be sustained in the Kalahari Desert, in deep rainforests, and in the high arctic – all far less appealing, less rich environments than the environments where agriculture was first practiced.

So the important difference between the people of the Ice Age and those who had survived the extinction was not the loss of food. Rather, those who lived through extinction perceived scarcity whereas their forebears had perceived abundance. Scarcity and the possibility of starvation and want had been alienated from their tacit understanding of how to “get their living”. They suddenly lost confidence in the goodness of the environment.

Once they saw the need to protect themselves against scarcity they could think about how they could protect themselves against it. They could use the knowledge they already had to make the changes necessary to provide for the future. They could put more energy into the storage of food against the lean times so they probably increased their concentration on storable food.

This suggests the following picture. The initial effect of the new perception of scarcity was a greater emphasis on and involvement with material goods – storable food, and storage places. Hunter/gatherers in this transition began to think more about the future – to prepare for the possibility of another period of scarcity. In order to store their material goods they became more sedentary at first, perhaps, storing things in a place they revisited year after year and then, later settling down in one place where they could be with the things they stored.

The also put more emphasis on foodstuffs that could be stored, such as seeds and tubers[10]. In Woodburn’s terms, they became delayed return hunter/gatherers.[11]

Gradually, as populations increased animals learned to avoid villages and the wild foods, that could be gathered, were exhausted. The people then had to rely more and more on agriculture and domesticated animals instead of hunting and gathering

They used their knowledge of plants to raise cereal grains and pulse crops (field peas, lentils, field beans, fava beans, and soybeans) and domesticate animals as a supplement to their normal subsistence activities.

The increased use of soft food, such as cooked beans and grain, allows mothers to wean their babies earlier, which decreases spaces between births. Increased sedentism also leads to more body fat which signals the starting of ovulation after pregnancy. The combination results in an increase in population – a positive feedback system:

    More planting –> More people –> More food needed –> More planting.

People in modern delayed return hunter/gatherer societies, like the inventors of agriculture, perceive the world as scarce rather than as plentiful. They accumulate material goods or the means to gain material goods. But since they all live in relatively rich environments with resources like salmon runs, or rich hunting grounds, or they remain nomadic or semi-nomadic, they never needed to domesticate plants or animals.

The shift to sedentism and agriculture was not universal. Some groups used their knowledge of animals to become herders, following the animals from one pasture to another, gradually taming them, controlling their breeding, and protecting them from their natural predators to the benefit of people.

Agricultural, herding, and delayed return hunter/gatherer societies are all driven by the perception of scarcity. The introduction of scarcity changes the way people see their security. The go from seeing their security primarily based on information – I-adaptation – to seeing their security based on owning and controlling material goods (cultivated plants, animals, fish weirs, or boats) – M-adaptation.

Archaeological Evidence

The archaeological evidence supports the notion that agriculture is a response to the perception of scarcity and that the shift to agriculture took place over time. We will look at three transitional villages Abu Hureyra, ‘Ain Ghazal, and Çatalhöyük each has something to contribute to our understanding of the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Abu Hureyra

Abu Hureyra is the earliest village we will examine. It is an ancient village Northern Syria on the Euphrates River. It has been more or less continuously occupied since the end of the last Ice Age. Archaeologists have studied the history and environment of Abu Hureya from before 11,000 BCE until it was abandoned, in 7000 BCE. In soil samples taken from a cross section of the period of occupation they found that as soon as pollen and seeds from wild starch staples (wild cereals, feather grasses, and club-rush seeds) decline there is an increase in the use of roasted domesticated grains, and seeds from weeds that only occur with cultivation.[12]

From this we can infer that when people stay in the same place they eventually use up the wild plants. To compensate for the loss of wild vegetable food they use their knowledge of plants to begin cultivating. At first this is just a supplement to wild foods but over time they have to invest more and more time and energy in cultivation. This means agriculture comes after the shift from I-adaptation to M-adaptation; from immediate return hunting and gathering to delayed return hunting and gathering and after the beginning of sedentism. Therefore the perception of scarcity is the important shift rather than agriculture per se.

Thus the flow of events is:

    Extinctions –> The perception of scarcity–> Storing material goods–> Sedentism –> Depletion of local wild flora–> Increase in agriculture/domestication.

At Abu Hureyra the full transition took 4,500 years. The sequence is shown in table 1

Years BCE Village Hunting Gathering Agriculture Animal husbandry
6000 youngest 17 acres of mud brick houses

Cereal & pulse* Sheep, goats, cattle, & pigs
7000 39 acres of mud brick houses

Cereal & pulse* Sheep, goats, cattle, & pigs
8000 19 acres of mud brick houses Gazelles

Cereal & pulse* Sheep and goats
9000 Timber and reed huts Gazelles Reduced
activity
Cereal & pulse*

10000 Timber and reed huts Gazelles Wild plants Initial cultivation

11000 oldest Pit dwellings Gazelles Wild plants

* field peas, lentils, field beans, fava beans, soybeans
Table 1 the steps toward agriculture at Abu Hureyra (the oldest level is at the bottom of the table the most recent at the top)

After the adoption of agriculture the increase in population, over time, exhausted the land’s ability to provide. This is seen in the fact that more recent occupation level (6,000 BCE) the village is smaller than at earlier post agriculture levels.

‘Ain Ghazal

This pattern of agriculture-induced boom and collapse is also true of other mid-eastern sites. ‘Ain Ghazal in North-Eastern Jordan, on the outskirts of Amman, is younger than Abu Hureyra. It was first settled about 7250 BCE. Over the next 2000 years, the mixed hunting/ gathering/ farming economy shifted more and more to farming and domestic animals until finally land was exhausted and the people abandoned the site. In the archaeological report on ‘Ain Ghazal, Gary O. Rollefson and Zeidan Kafafi write:

The replacement of wild meat resources by newly domesticated ones shows the cleverness, flexibility, determination, and perhaps desperation of a people who were confronted with a persistent and increasingly severe decline in nearby habitats, a situation that undoubtedly added to social stresses as the population increased in size [13]

Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük is roughly contemporaneous with ‘Ain Ghazal. It was a large village that was occupied during the transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural in Southern Anatolia (Turkey).

In his book on Çatalhöyük Ian Hodder suggests that people became invested in material goods. He calls it “material entanglement”. Owning material goods means people need a place to store them and protect them from the elements and other people. This, in turn, leads to a sedentary life style. Material entanglement and sedentism brings along with it a host of long term social entanglements as well because people no longer move away from others when they are annoyed. It also leads to more disease because germs are passed more easily amongst a larger population. All of these presented social challenges for the first sedentary people. [14] [15]

We will see in the next chapter how the people of ‘Ain Ghazal and Çatalhöyük met these challenges differently.

Our story thus far – Conclusion

The picture that emerges is that early hunter/gatherers lived in a peaceful, egalitarian, I-adapted, immediate return hunter/gatherer cultures, knit together by bonds of kinship and trade. They lived well with little work and little violence. They perceived a world of plenty – a world where everything they needed was there for the taking – an Eden. Because their world was both perceived as, and was, a world of plenty they saw no need to keep track of who contributed and who didn’t and since the best contributions were stories and songs, material contribution was less important. People defined their world by their kinship networks. Their cultures were continent-wide and possibly their kin networks were as well. Local shortages were dealt with by calling upon the kinship network.

There was an actual reduction in resources with the extinctions at the end of the last Ice Age. This is especially true if the extinction event caused a disruption in vegetation as well as the loss of animals. So there was real scarcity. However, the perception of scarcity was even more important than the true lack of resources. The perception of scarcity prompted people to base their security on storage of material goods, shifting away from I-adaptation toward M-adaptation – from immediate return hunting and gathering to a delayed return hunting and gathering strategy.

The need to store accumulated goods made sedentism necessary. Over time sedentary hunting and gathering took its toll on the environment and people began to plant crops or domesticate animals as supplements to their hunting and gathering. The transition to farming was a gradual process and one that also eventually created scarcity through environmental exhaustion.

The step by step transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was not uniform. It was different in different locations. This suggests that it was driven by local ecological conditions not people needing to learn about agriculture.

In short, we have seen that even though we are almost incapable of conceiving of a world of where everyone thinks they have everything they need, scarcity is a relatively recent perception not a “natural instinct” and that people started using their existing knowledge to plant and husband – that agriculture was not the result of a great intellectual breakthrough but rather the result of the switch from I-adaptation to M-adaptation – the result of scarcity.

In the next chapter we will take a more detailed look at early agriculture as we examine “how it was before” the invention of symbol systems and writing.


[1] O’Connell, J.F., and Hawkes, K.
1981. Alyawara Plant Use and Optimal Foraging Theory, In Hunter-Gatherer Foraging Strategies, B. Wihterhalder & E.A. Smith (eds) Chicago University Press, Chicago, p 99-125

[2] Kelly, R. L.
1995. The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC

[3] Cohen, M. N.
1994. “The osteological paradox reconsidered.” Current Anthropology 35(5): 629-631.

[4] Paraphrase of Genesis 3:1 based on the New International Version

[5] Excoffier†, L. & Schneider, S
1999 Why hunter-gatherer populations do not show signs of Pleistocene demographic expansions, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 September 14; 96(19): 10597–10602. Table 2

[6] For a discussion of the various theories of extinction please see Appendix A

Whitney-Smith, E
2004. “Late Pleistocene Extinctions Through Second-Order Predation,” in Settlement of the American Continents: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Human Biogeography C. M. Barton, G. A. Clark, D. R. Yesner (eds) Tuscon: University of Arizona Press p177-189

[7] Whitney-Smith, E
2009. The Second-Order Predation Hypothesis of Pleistocene Extinctions: A System Dynamics Model. Saarbruken, Germany, VDM Verlag Muller

[8] Angel, J. L.
1975. “Paleoecology, paleodemography and health” in S. Polgar (ed.), Population, Ecology and Social Evolution. The Hague: Mouton. p. 167-190

[9] Whitney-Smith, 2004 p. 180

[10] Hodder, I.
2006. The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük, New York: Thames & Hudson.

[11] Woodburn

[12] Moore, A.M.T., Hillman, G.C., and Legge, A.J.
2000. Village on the Euphrates: from Foraging to Farming at Abu Hureyra. Oxford University Press p.396-7.

[13] Rollefson, G.O. and Kafafi, Z
2007 Introduction: The Town of ‘Ain Ghazal, web presentation http://menic.utexas.edu/ghazal/intro/int.html from forthcoming report, Symbols at ‘Ain Ghazal, to be published by Ex Oriente, Free University, Berlin

[14] Hodder Leopard’s Tale

[15] Cohen, M. N.
1994. “The Osteological Paradox Reconsidered”. Current Anthropology 35(5): 629-631.