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No guarantees

Our human forebears everywhere did not just passively gather food and basketry materials but actively tended the plant and animal populations on which they relied. There was no clear-cut distinctions between hunter-gatherers and the more “advanced” agricultural peoples of the ancient world. Moreover, California Indians had likely completed the initial steps in the long process of domesticating wild species…
– Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild

In Agriculture: villain or boon companion, I argued that we sapiens have been cultivators since time immemorial, that a combination of foraging and cultivation is a sensible, durable way of life that has served us well, and that the “origin of agriculture” really is the intensification of cultivation that becomes visible in the archeological record.

I have since been stymied in my quest for clearer understanding by the ongoing insistence of some folks to paint agricultural cultivation into a corner as a disastrous turn for humans and the root of our present troubles. They point to foraging and horticulture as modes of food production that avoid the damage agriculture has brought about. I wanted to test this claim.

It became quickly apparent to me that one does not need agriculture to intensify and produce an increasing surplus. For example, the rich salmon-and-candlefish-based economy of the Kwakiutl provided plenty of surplus to support elites and even to motivate slavery. Foragers are said to live in harmony with their environment, to keep their populations low and their hierarchies flat (if any). Unfortunately, it ain’t necessarily so. There are compelling data showing that the Australian aborigines wreaked continent-wide devastation with their use of fire on a highly vulnerable landscape, degrading the vegetation, causing massive runoff and loss of soil during monsoons, and eventually precipitating a change in climate for the worse. While in North America the native tribes may have had but little to do with megafauna extinction, not so in Australia. The human-precipitated change of vegetation deprived the largest and most specialized browsers of adequate food, and they began to disappear not long after the arrival of humans, some 45,000 years ago, along with their marsupial predators. That should hardly be surprising, as the same story repeated many millennia later with the colonization of Far Oceania. For example, in New Zealand. the South Island Maori, former horticulturists who returned to foraging as more suited to that environment, slaughtered the moas and other vulnerable creatures in an orgy of gluttony, only to turn on each other when protein ran low. The populations of both aborigines and Maori fluctuated according to food availability. Some of the tribes lived in hierarchical societies.

It has also been claimed that horticulturists for the most part remain egalitarian and lack despots, armies, and centralized control hierarchies, and have built-in constraints against large populations and the hoarding of surplus. Nothing could be further from the truth. There have been, indeed, some horticulturists who remained egalitarian, chose to limit their population when it was getting out of hand, and whose gardens and edible forests leave the soil and ecosystem in a good shape. The small island of Tikopia comes to mind. But they seem no more common than those horticulturists (such as Easter Islanders and many others) who pillaged their new island home, wiping out much of the native flora and fauna, permanently degrading the living environment. The horticulturists who settled Far Oceania were generally rigidly ranked peoples whose chiefs extracted a goodly portion of the harvest, waged wars on neighbors, built fancy tombs and megaliths, and occasionally came close to a state formation. The puzzle of intensification cannot be sidestepped by a reference to a golden age of horticulture.

Still, it bears stressing that many — perhaps most? — ancient forager/cultivator societies coexisted very well with their landbase. For example, the Moriori, cousins of the Maori, also switched to settled foraging on Chatham Islands, and were such careful stewards of their environment that seal colonies flourished within a stone’s throw from their villages. They lived notably egalitarian lives and carefully controlled their population. Until they were wiped out by the Maori, they were an impressive example of cool temperate region people living in close symbiosis with their ecosystem.

The illuminating and well-researched book Tending the Wild documents various Indian tribes who were also, by and large, careful stewards of their coastal California homelands. “They were able to harvest the foods and basketry and construction materials they needed each year while conserving — and sometimes increasing — the plant populations from which these came. The rich knowledge of how nature works and how to judiciously harvest and steward its plants and animals without destroying them was hard-earned; it was the product of keen observation, patience, experimentation, and long-term relationships with plants and animals.” Living among a similarly abundant natural environment as the Kwakiutl further north, they did not succumb to ongoing intensification, and continued to share any accumulated seasonal surpluses. Why did Kwakiutl intensify, while their close neighbors to the south, the Coastal Yurok, did not?

I conclude that neither the foraging nor horticultural modes of food production are by themselves a guarantee against ongoing intensification and the eventual damage it brings. There is a streak of persistent idealization of the forager and simple horticulturist among primitivists and other uncivilization-minded people. Slavery might be reframed as “captivity,” environmental damage rationalized, potlatches celebrated as evidence for gift-economies rather than economic warfare, and discussion shut off. Surely it’s not necessary to ostracize people who point out the facts on the ground, and a need for a rethink? After all, egalitarian forager/cultivators do show us that this particular mode of existence — so successful and durable during most of our species’ history — functioned mostly within the ‘Law of limits’ that allows ecosystems to thrive.


Below is an artist’s portrait of the California flightless diving ducks. They were finally driven extinct by the Indians who could reach Catalina Island by boat. But… it took them 8,000 years to do it.

flightless duck

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