Farmers War

Not only did farming increase our work hours, reduce our travel, impoverish our diet, and increase social hierarchy, it also greatly increased war.  From a Science book review:

There are four extant great ape species. Each has a different social system, with chimpanzees being the only species to regularly evidence multimale violent coalitions. …. In chimpanzees, each female … mates with every male in her group. Males join forces to defend their territory … and each male will have access to all those females… Marriage is a universal human behavior, and it is defined by cultural and legal rules proscribing sex outside of marriage, particularly by women. … All available evidence suggests that intergroup violence, practiced primarily by males, does have a long evolutionary history in our species. However, the intensity and nature of that violence is highly variable. …

The hunting and gathering adaptation, especially in its mobile form, does not appear to promote large-scale warfare, not only because groups are small, but because incentives are largely absent. Monogamy is the most common marital form (probably because women depend on men’s meat contribution and it is difficult to support two wives), so there is less incentive for bride-capture warfare. There can be territorial conflicts, but nothing in comparison to the conflicts that occur over precious lands when agricultural becomes the dominant way of life.

The scope for warfare has changed considerably as human economic systems have changed. Once people settle and the value of land varies from place to place, large-scale warfare becomes a persistent feature of human behavior, almost exclusively practiced among men. The riches to be had from control over productive river valleys (such as the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile) not only led to large-scale warfare but also to extreme differences in power and status, harems, and rape of women during and after war.

If people had known the consequences farming would bring, should they have tried to resist it?  I say no, but mainly because farming allowed so many more people to exist with lives worth living, even if those were near subsistence level lives.

Added 31Oct: Kukan points us to an excellent summary.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Rob

    For those subsistence level lives, would it not have been better never to have been?

    • Matthew Hammer

      At the risk of wandering off-topic, I am curious about how Robin justifies a life being “worth living”.
      He clearly feels that subsistence level lives are a net positive, but I really don’t understand how you define the zero-point in a utilitarian theory. Being from a physics background I liken it to potential energy, in that where you define zero is somewhat arbitrary, except with utilitarian ethics one has to worry about more than just changes in utility. When your ethical choices result in greater or lesser numbers of people to come into existence, where you set the zero point matters.
      After perusing the first few pages, I’m afraid my inclination is to reject the book linked to above out of hand as not likely to pay back the time spent, but Robin, do you have a justification for the opposite conclusion beyond the simple revealed preference of people not seeming to want to commit suicide?

      • gwern

        > but Robin, do you have a justification for the opposite conclusion beyond the simple revealed preference of people not seeming to want to commit suicide?

        What more could one ask? Someone who doesn’t commit suicide is at every moment of their life stating they think life is worth living. What demonstration or reason could be more convincing than that?

    • eadwacer

      Pat: Our subsistence level lives are so miserable, it’s better never to have been.
      Mike: Oh, sure, but how many people are that lucky?

  • I’d thought the EEA was supposed to have been mildly polygynous. Or had I read that wrong? I’d thought that polygyneity drove some of the evolutionary explanations for inequality-aversion.

    • Helga Vierich

      It depends on which phase you are looking at.. it is possible that in the early stages before the emergence of the genus Homo there was a phase of mild polygyny.

  • Neal W.

    Farming has also been detrimental to the human diet. As fossil records show humans became less healthy after the advent of agriculture.

  • blink

    I think a signaling explanation makes more sense here. As Geoffrey Miller explains, male hunting was about status, not about food; women mainly supported men because hunting usually failed, and even when men hunted successfully much of the meat rotted before it could be eaten. With the advent of agriculture, men could no longer signal status through hunting, so signaling efforts shifted to a new realm: war with another group.

    • Hunting was about status because it was about food. Generally, hunting produced fewer calories return per hour worked, but they are higher quality (protein and fats), and in time of drought or other difficulties, plant foods get harder to find faster than animals do.

    • Helga Vierich

      Miller did not do his homework. Meat does not rot before it could be eaten. It is shared with the whole camp. Amounts in excess are dried or, among arctic groups, cached frozen. Hunting is not about status. I’ve lived with hunter-gatherers. Men rise in status for generosity and other valued behaviour like cooperation, diligence, shrewd intelligence and diplomacy. The most respected men is not necessarily the best hunter. That is just one of many qualities that create a good reputation.

      I have also lived with horticultural and other food producing groups in West Africa: hunting is still a common source of extra protein.

      The thing that is “signalled” is willingness to engage in cooperative ventures of all kinds, including, if necessary, raids or group punishment of bullies or cheats. Willingness to support the welfare of the community is the measure of reputation and status, but not it’s aim. The respect and honour accorded to men as they prove their loyalty and courage is an end in itself, as it secures them a place in the society. It is only through these measures that men can get the support of the community, and in most cultures, this is needed for marriage and raising a family.

  • Breathing, but bereft of butter and beef — it’s barely worth being.

    For a lot of them, it must have been closer to torture than what mere “subsistence” suggests — eating corn or potatoes all day would actually make hunger sting more than “only” fasting, since digestible carbs make your blood sugar crash and crave more *right now*.

    Plus there were the epidemic diseases — even nastier than now since we had no time to evolve genetic defenses. Malaria, small pox, typhoid, etc.

    Due to both of these, new farmers must have been unimaginably exhausted mentally and emotionally. Fatigued all the time. They may have had things worth living for, but I can’t see that they had much time or energy to see this themselves and enjoy it.

    • Aren’t farming and livestock breeding generally considered to have been invented and practiced together? They complement each other nicely, not just in regard to the resulting diet

      • Except most people didn’t get to eat the products of that livestock. Even as recently as the past few centuries in Europe. Pellagra was endemic in Spain because they relied so much on corn, despite there being lots of lovely hogs in Spain. And livestock in Ireland didn’t help them when the potato famine struck because most were relying almost entirely on potatoes. Just two examples, but the point is general.

  • These days, those days

    It seems that early agricultural practices towards food would lead to war as well. If there are stores of food, that’s a source of plunder, a new reason for the enemy to attack. And why might the enemy need to attack? Possibly because they were totally reliant on farming to meet their needs for food, having lost the skills of foraging. Then, they had a bad farming year, and the only other way to get food was to launch a war.

  • Funny thing is, I heard this notion once before, in a fantasy story where the queen of fairies gave three gifts to humans, in return for three human archetypal servants imbued with powers corresponding to the gift. In the story, the first two of these, the Hunter and the Fisher appear early on as near-mythical, feared figures. The third is revealed much later, after much foreshadowing and with everyone (including the fairies) being terrified of him. His title: the Reaper. The gift was agriculture, and what it brought humanity was warfare.

    Um yes, you may not ridicule me for bringing up fantasy stories in a blog about rationalism.

    But there was one point in the story relevant to this discussion: that warfare as the result of agriculture did not happen because of land prices or bride capture, but primarily because agriculture for the first time made it possible to produce food in sufficient quantities to stockpile it and supply cities and army campaigns.

    I think this is a very convincing point: how can you have a real war when the soldiers constantly have to forage and there are no farmers they can rob food from? An army of any significant size would be completely unsustainable under those circumstances.

  • improbable

    I fully agree about diet.

    But I think you might be confusing “large-scale warfare” with “lots of warfare”. Certainly larger clans, alliances, states lead to larger battles, but little battles aren’t obviously less deadly. And I thought the evidence showed a decline in the proportion of adult males who died at the hands of other adult males, with every step, even though the battles themselves grew larger.

    • Kakun
      • improbable

        As far as I can tell the article you link to is about “big battles” not about “lots of deaths”.

        “large group confrontations – war – appear by 6000 years ago…” etc.

        This is exactly my point. I don’t dispute that war appeared along with agriculture. Nobody before then was organised into such large groups.

        But this does NOT imply that your chance of dying in a conflict increased. Little groups of hunter-gatherers were pretty violent, even if each “battle” claimed only a life or two. See eg. Curt Adams’s links below. Stephen Pinker writes a whole lot about this fallacy too.

      • Kakun


        “…in China, except for a single skeleton with a point embedded in its thigh, there are no hints of war until at least 4,600 years ago…In Japan…Archaeologists have excavated some 5,000 skeletons that pre-date [farming] and of those only ten show signs of violent death. In contrast, out of 1,000 postmigration skeletons, more than 100 show such signs…In the southern Great Plains, out of 173 skeletons reported from before A.D. 500, only one indicates homicide…Roughly speaking, that is where my survey leaves off. But my preliminary work leads me to expect no surprises…In sum, if warfare were prevalent in prehistoric times, the abundant materials in the archaeological record would be rich with signs of warfare. But the signs are not there; here it is not the case that ““The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

        @ Pinker: From the articles of his that I’ve read, he appears to be speaking about the post-agricultural period. Please do correct me if I’m wrong.

        @ Curt Adams links: Huh, I somehow missed those. See my response below.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    >If people had known the consequences farming would bring, should they have tried to resist it? I say no, but mainly because farming allowed so many more people to exist with lives worth living, even if those were near subsistence level lives.

    Depends on the short term or the long term. Short term – several thousands of years – it was all a disaster. Long term, it produced the modern world, and the technological inovations that end up making life much easier and give life and humanity a chance of surviving beyond the next two billion years.

    Overall, I’d also say no.

  • Curt Adams

    I’m not sure exactly what it means that “warfare” is associated with farming. Hunter-gatherers can be extremely violent (55% of deaths by violence in the Ache, 30% in the Hiwi). That’s worse than the mortality for a soldier in WWI; e.g. 15.6% for France, never mind a civilian. Agricultural societies may “war” more only in the sense that they are generally better organized and so organize their violence better. Death and destruction from violence may not have gotten worse.

    • Kakun

      The paper appears to be presenting this data as an exception to a general rule- “Violence is the major cause of death among the precontact Ache (55% of all deaths) and very important among the Hiwi (30% of all deaths), but notably less important in the two African societies and the Agta (3% and 7% of all deaths)….On page 451, the paper points out that violence and accident cause as many deaths in the Hiwi young adults as occur in most other hunter-gatherers from all causes combined…If high mortality, warfare, homicide, and accidental trauma are typical of our Paleolithic ancestors, the Hiwi mortality patterns may be more representative of the past than those derived from other modern hunter-gatherers.” That seems rather circular to me.

      Furthermore, these are studies of contemporary societies, which have presumably been somewhat influenced by modern ideas. The closest thing to direct evidence that I’ve seen- the fact that the percentage of skeletons that died violently is much lower before agriculture than after it- seems to indicate that the Ache and Hiwi are either exceptions, or have been contaminated with modern memes.

  • The reduction in deaths from war/violence was actually a pretty clear upside to agriculture. Unfortunately, deaths from disease went up by about the same amount, so on the likelihood of dying from something nasty scale, it was probably a wash.

  • Homicide among hunter-gatherers is believed to be at about the level of an American inner city, maybe Detroit. Small-scale hunter-gatherers like the Yanomamo are even worse though.

    Eric Crampton, yes mildly polygynous. The sexual dimorphism in our species is less than other ape species.

  • Eric Johnson

    Yanomamo practice quite significant agriculture and may have done so before 1492, but it’s controversial. They certainly hunt and take honey and (I think) wild plants. I don’t think any part of Detroit has a 30% lifetime homicide rate for men, does it? That’s the Yanomamo rate – as stated by Chagnon, at least.

    > [Because of monogamy,] there is less incentive for bride-capture warfare.

    This is questionable. Greg Cochran suspects (I’m not sure quite how tentatively) that pre-ag people mostly lived below the malthusian limit. Also, engaging in bride capture doesn’t mean that many groups see a robust net increase in women. Yet it is a collective action problem, to stop all fighting over women. Those few that do gain lots of women are strong.

    > probably because women depend on men’s meat contribution and it is difficult to support two wives

    At least for the Yanomamo, Chagnon showed that they had plenty of protein, probably more than double what they needed.

    Anyway, Yanomamo don’t have kings that have force – just “inspirational” headmen who lead by consent. States do have force. There is enough surplus at the top to retain the loyalty of a professional army that defeats rebellions with high probability. The monopoly on violence probably suppresses violence on net, most of the time. (And I wouldn’t call a military coup a rebellion. An army must always have a ruler over it, but nevertheless it is really the army that is the state – except to the extent that their minds are controlled by state propaganda.) Basically, under the state, you weren’t allowed to fight the people near you – not anymore. To fight you would have to do it abroad, which up until the industrial age (and particularly 1914) was not a very efficient way to spill a lot of blood. Fighting abroad was expensive. The expense limited the number of troops that could be fielded (in a time of very small surpluses). So did the need to control civilians at home, and dissuade foreign attacks on the homeland. You can’t send all your force abroad. And smaller armies meant less deaths proportional to the population.

    Highly skilled fighters were also sometimes used, such as in the long “chariot age” (prior to classical antiquity) when chariot archers dominated battle. More skilled fighters with more equipment = more investment = less of ’em. (When better arrow-resisting armor ended the chariot age, it was kind of like what would’ve happened if bullet-proof vests had been invented during the American Civil War. In the chariot age, your very expensive “armor” was to always be in a chariot that moved around really fast and was hard to shoot.) BTW, I am relying largely on McNeill’s long and broad “Pursuit of power.”

  • Rob

    “The level of economic inequality in hunter-gatherer societies is on a par with the most egalitarian modern democratic economies.”

  • Chimps’ is a very different definition of marriage. One cannot meaningfully use this term to refer to group mating.

  • ek552

    Based on the behavior of modern blacks (who did not have much of a chance to evolve under an agrarian system), it’s reasonable to infer that hunter-gatherers were violent, stupid, rude, dishonorable, and generally unpleasant people to live with.

    • Doug S.

      “Violent, stupid, rude, dishonorable, and generally unpleasant people to live with” seems to apply to any group of people one doesn’t like…

    • This comment deserves to be censored.

    • Actually, sub-saharan Africans (excluding bushmen and pygmies) have been evolving under an agricultural system for some time. Malaria was not as much of a problem before cleared land created environments that served as reservoirs for mosquitoes, and there has been intense recent selection for resistance to malaria. The continent used to have far more bushmen, but they were pushed into the Kalahari by the expansion of Bantu pastoralists. Bushmen are still hunter-gatherers, and anthropologists who have lived among them tend to find them pleasant enough compared to primitive agriculturalists. They’re more violent than a modern first world population, but significantly less violent than Yanomamo. Australian aborigines are another group that never had agriculture.

    • Helga Vierich

      How dare you! Do you have any idea what was done in Africa during the early industrial period when colonialism was imposed? I suggest you have a look at a bit of history.

  • ek552

    “‘Violent, stupid, rude, dishonorable, and generally unpleasant people to live with’ seems to apply to any group of people one doesn’t like”

    I disagree. I don’t like liberals, but I would not consider them violent, stupid, rude, or unpleasant. If I were to wander into an environmentalist march, I would not flee in terror. I am not afraid to walk on the street on the Upper West Side at night. And so on.

  • ek552

    “This comment deserves to be censored.”

    Are offensive opinions prohibited on this blog? If so, that would be ironic.

  • ek552

    “Actually, sub-saharan Africans (excluding bushmen and pygmies) have been evolving under an agricultural system for some time. ”

    Do you have a cite/link for this? I would like to read further. Thanks.

    • TGGP

      The 10,000 Year Explosion by Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending, and Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond both discuss the beginnings of agriculture in Africa.

      • ek552

        I was sort of hoping for something I could read online. Anyway, I don’t know about “10,000 Year Explosion,” but “Guns Germs and Steel” is complete ideologicially driven nonsense.

      • There’s a good deal to complain about in Jared Diamond’s work, but I still greatly enjoyed GG&S, and to a lesser extent Collapse. If you want an online book that argues against Diamond’s political correctness, you’re in luck.

      • ek552

        Thank you . . . does it address your original point about agrarianism in sub-Saharan Africa?

      • Michael H. Hart disagrees with the conventional wisdom (which numbers Jared Diamond among its adherents) that the Sudan and tropical west Africa are sites were farming was independently invented. He thinks it spread from the fertile crescent (where it began ten thousand years ago) to Egypt to the Sudan. He does think the agriculture was practiced in the Sudan seven thousand years ago and in western tropical Africa five thousand years ago. He also thinks they may have independently invented cattle herding six thousand years ago. He does believe that New Guinea highlanders independently invented agriculture (most likely six thousand years ago, but possibly nine thousand). They are related to the Australian aborigenes and have lower IQs (one of Hart’s favorite explanatory variables) than sub-Saharan Africans. His account of how Africa became majority Negroe (Diamond just says “black”) is the same as that in GG&S: proto-Bantu speakers practiced agriculture & ironworking and hence had an advantage over the hunter-gather Pygmies (the other member of the “Negrid” family) and Sanid (his term for the racial family containing Bushmen/Hottentots aka Khoi-San). The Bantu expansion began a few centuries BC and made them the majority in sub-Saharan Africa by around 1000 AD.

  • ek552

    Thank you . . . . I will check it out if I get a chance.

  • ek552

    Ok, I read the book. Overall, I would say it’s decent, and certainly provides a compelling rebuttal of Guns, Germs, and Steel. The latter half of the book is somewhat speculative, although I would guess the author himself would admit that if asked.

    Anyway, it did change my mind about black africans. It does seem that most of them had gotten beyond hunting/gathering by the 19th century. I imagine they would have evolved European level intelligence given a few few more thousand years.

  • Pingback: PANDORA The Perfect World? NOT REALLY()

  • Pingback: Welcome! – GNOLLS.ORG()

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : On Sex & Violence()

  • Pingback: Welcome! – GNOLLS.ORG()

  • Pingback: Welcome! – GNOLLS.ORG()