Why did humans start to use agriculture?

There are many theories on why humans began to intensify food cultivation to the point of agriculture. I’m curious what people’s thoughts are?

My current thought is that the human brain requires a lot of calories. Everytime I used to go full original paleo (which has no carbs and minimal fats) I couldn’t think straight. People told me it would go away. 9 months later, I ate a potato and could think again. I think the large amounts of calories from the fat of Mega Fauna probably fueled human expansion. As climate change killed the megafauna, humans needed those calories, and so switched to intensification of plant cultivation through horticulture and agriculture. I don’t have any evidence to back up this theory, and I don’t know if it’s considered one in the scientific community. Anyone have anything that disproves or supports this theory? What are you theories?

Also of importance, what are the myths we have created for why humans started agriculture? Such as, it was our god-given destiny, etc.

Great question. I think the origins of agriculture are most likely multifaceted. Some of the theories I’ve heard that make sense to me include:

[ol][li]1. Need for concentrated calories after megafauna extinction,[/li]
[li]2. Addiction to opium-like compounds in cooked grains and legumes when these foods were first consumed in quantity,[/li]
[li]3. Addiction to alcohol which was made from fermenting grains, which prompted people to cultivate more grains.[/li][/ol]

These aren’t mutually exclusive of one another.

I’ve heard the addiction/alcohol one before too.

It makes me think of the story of Genesis, and Cain and Able too.

And how we think that agriculture was somehow important, it’s what brought us up out of the disgustingness of nature. That manipulation and control is “progress.”

Just so everyone knows, the “paleo diet” as it’s currently practiced isn’t actually very healthy. Way too much meat to be realistic, and not nearly enough foraged food, among other issues. If you were adhering strictly to the modern paleo diet, it doesn’t surprise me that you felt terrible.

I also really doubt humans needed to switch to agriculture for food with a high fat content. Ancient tribes usually kept their populations very stable, so it’s not like they had an unprecedented population to feed, and humans don’t require many calories or very much fat. There are mountains of evidence that switching to agriculture left people with excess food, but malnourished compared to HG tribes nonetheless.

I’ve read, instead, that agriculture was an extension of the sort of low-level permaculture practiced by many delayed-return tribes, and that it was done specifically to allow rapid population growth. As soon as an agricultural village comes into conflict with a HG/IR tribe, the population advantageof the agricultural society is almost impossible to overcome.

I’ve actually read in a few different books that it was more for religious reasons. Like in animal sacrifices, when you domesticate an animal, you have a ready supply of them. And to have the supply of animals, you need to have a ready food supply as well. Now I’m sure that isn’t the only reason, but I heard that it was a starting factor.

But that information might have been dated.


Yeah, there is definitely a lot of meat on a lot of people’s “Paleo” diets. However, it’s mostly misinterpereted by newbies and outsiders. The book “Paleofantasy” is a great example of someone who did no research into what the actual paleo community thinks of the paleo diet. There are all of the concerns within the paleo diet community that outsiders project onto them, such as the quantity of meat, there was no one paleo diet, diversity of foods is key, fermented foods, fats, etc.

That said, people living in the tundra at almost exclusively meat/fat. The Inuit of North American are one such group. During the ice age, those in more northern regions would have lived similarly. The size of human brains expanding is thought to correlate with hunting/scavenging/eating meat. That we could get this many calories from large game allowed our brains to increase in size. I think the switch to agriculture correlating with the extinction of megafauna is interesting and pretty good evidence that it is a possibility. Agriculture doesn’t give you fat, it gives you calories. This also points to evidence in the archeological record, where nutrition from fat is replaced with non-nutritions grains and we see the birth of tooth decay and a loss in bone density, etc. This theory makes sense to me, because agriculture is more work than hunting and gathering. I think environmental conditions (lack of calories) would be a motivator for people to take up this way of life. I have a hard time imagining people just doing agriculture for fun. I think there had to be an environmental reason for pushing people in this direction to begin with.


Yeah totally. It makes me wonder if the religion came later, after people had been living this way for a while, wealth amasses, a sociopath rises and manipulates people into continuing the lifestyle.

The mythology of grain, or “the gifts of the gods”, as described in The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners, by Wolf. D. Storl, 2012, pg. 171-172:

“Staples are the staff of life. They are usually grains–grasses growing upright into light, air, and warmth that mature into nuggets of gold, capable of sustaining civilizations. Indeed, most civilizations that developed out of the Neolithic grew up on grain…”
“The staples were always regarded as the gifts of the gods, if not the body of the gods themselves: “Take, eat; this is my body, given to you…” The loaf of bread, everywhere considered holy, symbolizes the sacred bond of man to God, of the soil and sun, and of man to man (“companion” is from the Latin com + panis = “together” + “bread”; i.e., those who eat bread together). In the presence of bread (and honey) European peasants did not curse or tell untruths…”
“Only in marginal regions did tubers take the place of cereal grasses as the staple…These, too, were regarded as sacred. They were seen as gods or goddesses that had been sacrificed, buried, and turned into food tubers.”

That’s fascinating! It makes me wonder how that transition occurred.

I have also read over and over again about grain and bread becoming a substitute for earlier traditions of animal (and perhaps human) sacrifice. Often the sacrificial bread was made into the shape of an animal (or person). Descriptions of the old European religion/s often speak of the sacrifice of the grain god as well, (think Lughnasadh, and John Barleycorn), who must be killed so he can return to the underworld during winter, then be reborn in the spring. Without the sacrifice, the cycles of the seasons would be broken. People would also dress in costumes representing the grain spirits/gods, be celebrated and fed, but then afterwards the costumes would be sacrificed–burned or buried in the earth.
Also here you can see how Christianity includes an overlay of the old religious traditions. The sacrifice and the resurrection, and the use of bread to represent the body of Christ.

Perhaps the problem with agriculture is less the problem of grains, but more the problem of violently planting and taking the grains en-mass, instead of planting what we need with love and then receiving their harvest gratefully, and as a sacrament–as the flesh of our own gods?

As for the no carbs + minimal fats paleo diet, I think that Chinese medicine says that eating too many veges and not enough staples will unbalance the body’s yin and yang (too much yin/not enough yang could totally mess up your focus/health brain functioning). But I would prefer to discuss that idea with someone more educated in TCM before completely committing to it.

I found this old gem.


The mystery of agriculture’s origin seems even more impenetrable in light of the recent reversal of long-standing notions that the previous era was one of hostility to nature and an absence of leisure. “One could no longer assume,” wrote Arme, “that early man domesticated plants and animals to escape drudgery and starvation. If anything, the contrary appeared true, and the advent of farming saw the end of innocence.” For a long time, the question was “Why wasn’t agriculture adopted much earlier in human evolution?” More recently, we know that agriculture, in Cohen’s words, “is not easier than hunting and gathering and does not provide a higher quality, more palatable, or more secure food base.” Thus the consensus question now is, “Why was it adopted at all?”

Hmmm… I was just thinking about this, and came up with my own simpler theory…

Agriculture is the practice of cultivating plants found in fields, the plants that are usually found in the earlier stages of succession. When agriculture is used shortly after the land experiences a catastrophe, and if the land is guided back to a forest after a short period, then agriculture isn’t unsustainable (in of itself).

My guess is that early horticultural societies who planted with the stages of succession found themselves in an area with frequent catastrophe (like river floodplains) and so found themselves only working with the first few stages of succession. In time they forgot about the other stages because they were so adapted to the first stage, and so, when these societies expanded outside of these areas, they simply didn’t know how to sustainably work with the land.

So more of a loss of knowledge kind of thing. But who knows, just another idea.

Here is an interesting article. I haven’t gotten through the whole thing yet, and I think their parameters are a bit off, but food for thought.


I can’t remember if I’ve posted this anywhere on this site yet, but it’s a really interesting article about a religion in Iraq (the birthplace of our agricultural civilization) that is older than all other religions there. In their story of Genesis (which most religions to come from that region are related to) the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is actually wheat. Like, the ancient wheat that agriculture first began domesticating. This is the literal idea of what Daniel Quinn hypothesized about the fruit in Ishmael. Very interesting, and relates to this discussion as agriculture becoming part of the religion.

Were ‘Devil Worshipper’ Yazidis There for the Birth of Human Culture?

I want to digress for a minute. I find the question “Why did humans start to use agriculture?” really interesting, and will totally get to the ‘Devil Worshipper’ Yazidis article in a second, but as I started reading this thread I realized how often I wonder the same thing about what has come to be known as patriarchy. How and when and why the hell did THAT start? It makes no sense to me. Who ever thought it was a good idea? How did it ever really benefit anyone?? So far as I can tell female/male imbalance just makes things harder. It has at least that much in common with agriculture. And I feel like we’re so used to it being the norm, even if we don’t “agree” with it, that most people take it for granted that it must just be human nature—that it stems from men being assholes, for example, or violent. Whereas I’d argue that it goes against human nature and requires a ton of training and daily maintenance. This kid knows what I’m talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0w24DLClOg.

Anyway, back to agriculture…I just wanted to point out this stray but related question. Imbalance makes life harder, not easier, whether you’re talking about food production or patriarchy (or a number of other related things that aren’t immediately occurring to me).

I read that Yazidism article. Whoa! Interesting!

Well, it’s true. Men are assholes. :wink:

That aside, there are a lot of theories on this idea. I just started reading The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which attempts to blame the written word for the advent of patriarchy. I’m a few chapters in and still doubtful, however, there is so much food for thought within the book itself in this regard that I think it’s certainly a valuable book to read. I’m considering starting a thread dedicated to it. Perhaps it would be a good book club book.

I really think this female/male imbalance thing is at the heart of a lot of rewilding concerns. I may need to move this over to a new thread, I don’t know.

In “The Story of B” Daniel Quinn talks (through B) about how “we are not humanity,” how people aren’t innately crazy, it’s just this one crazy megaculture. I agree. But so many people feel like humanity is innately flawed, crazy, destructive—some rewilders seem to feel this way based on discussions I’ve read. Obviously that’s pretty fundamental. That kind of perspective is going to affect everything.

And then there’s this feeling that men are really at the heart of the destructiveness, not just because they hold more power but also because there’s something inherently uncaring and violent about them. That video of the toddler with the pinata (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0w24DLClOg) feels so bittersweet to me because I can imagine what kind of bullshit he’s going to have forced on him from all directions on account of being a boy. That nature of his that is so clearly on display in the video is going to be thrashed, and he’ll have to build up all kinds of weird structures around himself to handle it.

And I think this question of balance of feminine/masculine energies (for lack of better language) is at the center of what’s off with our relationship to the earth. Our relationship to ourselves and each other and the earth. Because it’s all the same stuff. That toddler is connected. He was born that way. He is inherently predisposed to hug Spiderman and not beat Spiderman. That’s the way I see it. He was born a lover but will be told to fight, and a lot will depend on him developing a certain amount of self-hatred. Whether or not he’s consciously aware of it.

Making us hate ourselves is pretty fundamental to upholding this insanity we exist in.

Also, as cliche as it is to point out, the parallels between human behavior toward Mother Earth and women in general seem worthy of attention. She is here to produce for us. We’ll MAKE her produce for us. We don’t trust her processes, so we’ll impose our own. We’ll control her. We’ll till her. We’ll own her. We’ll turn everything upside down: Eve was born from Adam, not the other way around. Soooo weird.

Why? Where did this attitude come from? I mean…what the hell. This “feminine” quality is part of ALL OF US, female and male, human and other-than-human; it’s not like it’s just coming from women. It seems to me there must have been some major upheaval in mindset and disconnection from the heart. Like something blew us into pieces and we’ve been working to collect parts of ourselves ever since.

Thanks for bringing this one up again. I just put it on hold at the library. :slight_smile: Still have to finish “The Story of B,” though!