May 25, 2010
The Age of Anxiety: An Exploration of Agricultural Values
Consider this as a movie plot: man finds a way to get ahead; accumulates tons of wealth and power; gets increasingly anxious about losing it all; starts acting weird to try to keep real and imagined threats at bay. Sounds familiar? It’s a classic story which has created some of the greatest movies of our time, such as Citizen Kane and The Godfather, Part II. It’s also the story of mankind, as the first generations of agriculturalists, whose ancestors had forever been hunter-gatherers, found themselves taking up new habits and getting themselves embroiled in a new set of values that had never before been part of the human experience.
The shift to agriculture is viewed by many anthropologists as “the most profound revolution in human history,” one which established “the ultimate economic foundation for the past 10,000 years of population growth amongst the human population, indeed for the phenomenon of civilization as we know it.” It began with the simple, but powerful, realization that if you did certain things to crops and animals, they produced more. If you collected seeds from this year’s harvest of wheat and planted them, then more wheat would grow next year in the same place. If you captured that baby goat and fed it your scraps, then it would produce milk for your family and could eventually be killed for meat.
These new techniques led to something that had never occurred before in human history: surplus. And over many generations and thousands of years, this simple change in home economics led to the development of vast civilizations that stretched around the world, a process described here by archaeologist Graeme Barker:
The ability to produce food and other products from domesticated plants and animals surplus to immediate subsistence requirements also opened up new pathways to economic and social complexity: farming could mean new resources for barter, payment of tax or tribute, for sale in a market; it could mean food for non-food producers such as specialist craft-workers, priests, warriors, lords, and kings. Thus farming was the precondition for the development of the first great urban civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, China, the Americas, and Africa, and has been for all later states up to the present day.
The thing about a surplus is that it changes how you live your life. If you were smart or lucky enough to collect a whole lot more wheat than your family really needs, this is something you have to deal with. First, you need to protect it, so no-one takes it away from you. Then, you can use it, trading it for something valuable someone else has. And if that other guy wants your wheat but doesn’t have anything to trade, well, how about trading his labor instead? “The way is open,” writes archaeologist Colin Renfrew, “to the appropriation of property and to differentiation in terms of property: the roots of inequality.” And if you’ve spent your life accumulating more than those around you, then it’s natural to want to pass it on to your kids. As a result, “social reproduction takes on new forms. The children will wish to secure ‘their’ land and ‘their’ cattle from appropriation by outsiders, and rules will have to be established to determine which children have the right to which land.”
Before too long, a new value constellation has arisen that no hunter-gatherer community would ever have conceived of: property, wealth, hierarchy, gender inequality and power. “Nothing in the development of human society,” Renfrew believes, “appears more significant than this ascription of meaning and value to material goods and to commodities.”
In the view of some scholars, this agricultural value constellation was the cause of some things that we generally view as part of human nature: the urge to compete, even the institution of monogamous marriage. “The propensity to compete,” in the view of Egyptologist Barry Kemp, “and thereby to disturb the equilibrium appears to be inherent within those societies which settle and create an agricultural base.” And in a recently published article, anthropologists Fortunato & Archetti argue that “monogamous marriage emerged in Eurasia following the adoption of intensive agriculture, as ownership of land became critical to productive and reproductive success.”
As ownership and hierarchies became more established, the boundaries of group identity expanded. An individual hunter-gatherer identified with his extended family, or clan. But as agriculture’s surplus permitted increasing social stratification and complexity, the organizational group also began to grow, first to the size of a tribe, then to a chiefdom, and as the millennia unfolded, some of the great early civilizations, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, began to form.
Unfortunately, group identities weren’t the only thing to increase in scale. As we all know, the more you have, the more you have to lose. And as the boundaries of agricultural communities expanded along with their populations, the desire for power, wealth and security played itself out over the millennia in the form of ever-increasing scales of warfare. Here’s how anthropologist Brian Ferguson describes what happened:
War emerged when humans shifted from a nomadic existence to a settled one and was commonly tied to agriculture. With a vested interest in their lands, food stores and especially rich fishing sites, people could no longer walk away from trouble.
That seems to be the reason why, around the 5th millennium BCE in Europe, (what’s referred to as the late Mesolithic era), “warfare had become a common reality,” according to archaeologist Barry Cunliffe. He tells us how “forty-four per cent of the burials found in Denmark displayed evidence of traumatic injuries on their skulls.” And if you read the heroic literature from the civilizations that arose thousands of years later, you can see that the slaughter of your enemies had become something to be immensely proud of, as in the words of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad around 800 BC:
Thirteen thousand of their warriors I cut down with the sword. Their blood like the waters of a stream I caused to run through the squares of their city. The corpses of their soldiers I piled in heaps… The city I destroyed, I devastated, I burnt with fire, and I… laid claim to the whole of the country under the ancient title of “King of Sumer and Akkad.”
This was, of course, no isolated example. Homer’s Odysseus was proud to describe how, in his sack of Ismarus, where he “destroyed the menfolk, we divided the women and the vast plunder that we took from the town so that no one, as far as I could help it, should go short of his proper share.”
Nice guys, both of them. But of course, things didn’t always go as well as they did for Shamshi-Adad and Odysseus. And that’s why, perhaps the greatest new human experience that agriculture and its surplus brought to the human race was anxiety.
I’m not talking about a simple moment of anxiety, such as “will I be hungry today?” or “will I get laid tonight?” I mean a profound, cosmic anxiety shared by agricultural civilizations across the world, described by historian Calvin Martin as “the anxiety over cosmic disorder that seems to lie at the core of all the agrarian religions.” The more complex, grand and ordered early civilizations became, the more concerned they were about the forces of chaos that might destroy them.
In another post I’ve described how, for hunter-gatherers, Nature appeared as a giving, nurturing parent. Not anymore. Once you’re committed to agriculture, you become utterly dependent on the whims of the seasons. If the rains don’t come; if the freeze lasts too long; if the floods are too intense… then all collapses around you. And so, in a strange and inexorable evolution, Nature becomes more distant, more irascible, more unpredictable. It’s no longer regarded as the parent, but is increasingly associated with the more distant ancestors. Everywhere around the world, from China to Mesopotamia, Egypt to Mesoamerica, worship of the ancestors becomes predominant.
The increasingly hierarchical structures and market economies that characterized agricultural societies also infused the worship of those ancestors, who were believed to only give their wealth “in return for favours rendered.” Archaeologist Jacques Cauvin describes how “the theme of the ‘supplicant’ introduces an entirely new relationship between god and man… a new distinction at the heart of the human imagination between an ‘above’ and a ‘below’, between an order of a divine force, personified and dominant, and that of an everyday humanity.” The gods were just as likely to be threatening as they were to be benign, so you’d better treat them with the same respect you’d show to the king.
Just as the gods were becoming more separate from the humans who worshiped them, so nature was also becoming more distant. Barker describes the modern view of the cognitive shift that occurred from the hunter-gatherer to the agricultural idea of nature:
Prehistoric foragers probably saw themselves as part of the cosmos, along with the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. …[O]nce people became farmers, their cognitive world had to shift profoundly from a sense of belonging to and being part of the wild to ‘acculturating’ it as it became something to control and appropriate rather than be part of.
But no matter how distant the gods and the natural world became, they were always seen as sharing the same cosmos that the people inhabited. There were no sharp distinctions between humans, ancestors and gods. Instead, the borderlines between all these categories were blurred in what one scholar has called an “ontological continuum … a natural, organic connection between man, gods, and nature, all of which are formed from the same substance and governed by the same causal framework.” This continuum between humans and the gods existed in all early civilizations and agricultural communities around the world. Whether for the Aztecs, the Yoruba, the Egyptians or the Chinese, it was “possible for humans to become deities, as well as for deities to be woven into human history.”
While we might think this cosmic continuum offered a sense of comfort that’s missing from our denatured modern world, it also brought with it a momentous weight of responsibility. Anthropologist Anthony Aveni, for example, describes how the Maya “believed they were active participants and intermediaries in a great cosmic drama.” They had to participate in rituals to help the gods “carry their burdens along their arduous course,” because “without their life’s work the universe could not function properly.” And strangely, as the gods became ever more distant and threatening, so the actions that needed to be taken to propitiate them became ever more extreme. In the case of the Aztecs, that sense of active participation led to their infamous blood sacrifices. “Only by supplying the sun with life’s vital fluid,” Aveni tells us, “could they hold it on its course in the present age.”
Blood sacrifice to keep the gods propitiated? Not even Citizen Kane went that far… But the parallels are, I believe, instructive. We have agriculture to thank for so many of the comforts that we take for granted, but also for many of the values that – for good and bad – structure our lives. It’s interesting to see how some of those values have become embedded deep into our collective psyche, while others have been layered over and have virtually vanished from view.
Let’s take a final look at that value constellation:
- Ownership, property, wealth, social hierarchy are all new good things in agricultural society.
- Demolishing your enemies and stealing their women and possessions are virtuous acts.
- Propitiating the ancestral gods, and treating them with abundant fear and respect, are essential behavior if you hope for a long, happy life.
- Even more important is participating with the rest of the community in the ritual requirements necessary to keep the cosmos ordered and chaos at bay.
These values developed over thousands of years, and it’s striking how, even though the outward manifestations were so different from one civilization to the next, the underlying values were shared by each of the civilizations. But then, beginning around 1,000 BCE, some of these civilizations entered what’s become known as the Axial Age, a period when new value systems appeared in China, India, Greece and the Middle East , systems that were as different from each other as they were from anything that had gone before. And that Axial Age is what we’ll be exploring in the next post.
 Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 414.
 Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 14.
 Barker, op. cit. 1-2.
 Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 122.
 Ibid, p. 135.
 Kemp, B. J. (1991). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, New York: Routledge, 35.
 Fortunato, L., and Archetti, M. (2010). “Evolution of monogamous marriage by maximization of inclusive fitness.” Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 23, 149-156.
 Quoted in Horgan, J. (2009). “The end of war.” New Scientist(4 July ), 39-41.
 Cunliffe, B. (2008). Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD 1000, New Haven: Yale University Press.
 Cited by Dilworth, C. (2010). Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind, New York: Cambridge University Press, 282.
 Cited by Dilworth, op. cit. 307.
 Quoted by Barker, op. cit., 410.
 Barker, ibid.
 Barker, op. cit., 414.
 Cauvin, J. (1994/2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, T. Watkins, translator, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 69-70.
 Barker, op. cit., 38.
 Uffenheimer, B. (1986). “Myth and Reality in Ancient Israel”, in S. N. Eisenstadt, (ed.), The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
 Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 421.
 Aveni, A. (2002). Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures, Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 223.
 Ibid., 241.