Hunter Gatherers' Agrarian Shift

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  • Topic: Agriculture, Hunter–gatherer, Original affluent society
  • Pages : 9 (3271 words )
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  • Published : September 9, 2008
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The most important task in human history has been to find a way of extracting from the ecosystems in which people have lived, enough resources for maintaining life … the problem has been to balance their various demands against the ability of the ecosystems to withstand the resulting pressures. [Ponting 1991, p17]

The period that has come to be known as the Neolithic Revolution (somewhat erroneously so [see Ponting 1991, p37]) marked the most fundamental shift in human development seen since the first bipedal human-like species walked the earth. During this time and the brief era [see Ponting 1991, p18] that has followed it to the present, humans have made a multiplicity of social, cultural and technological advancements (inclusive of the political and religious realms), all of which began with an agrarian shift by an array of hunter-gatherer societies – a shift that marked the transition from ‘savage’ Palaeolithic man to ‘economic man’. It is a frequently stated detail that the hunter-gatherer way of life was much less energy intensive than its successor and offered a relaxed, care-free lifestyle. Indeed, Marshall Sahlins contends that hunter-gatherer communities were “the original affluent societies” [Sahlins 1972, p1] who enjoyed a bountiful way of life “free from market obsessions” [Sahlins 1972, p2]. Why, then after ninety-nine percent of current human history had elapsed, were hunter-gatherers suddenly restricted to a smattering of groups across the globe? This essay will address this question and will then proceed to examine the multitude of effects (cultural, social, political; positive, negative) that this shift of modes of production had on world societies.

There exist several theories as to why the Neolithic Revolution took hold of hunter-gatherer societies, the least compelling of which is the extremely base notion that it was simply an inevitable, natural human progression into the agricultural mode of production. This ‘theory’ is tantamount to the following quote by Voltaire: It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the most is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. [Voltaire in Gowdy 1997, p.xxix] This ‘backward chaining’ can be extrapolated to the transition from one mode of production to another: humans fit agriculture better than they did their nomadic ways just as a stocking fits a leg more snugly than a pair of jeans – they both fit, they merely fit in a different manner. Rather than this, let it be suggested that humans’ progression from one mode of production to another is a process of forward chaining (seeing the jeans and stockings as being designed for the leg, and hunter-gatherer societies and agriculture as being designed for humans), of looking at the current system and how humans fit into it and deciding if there is another system that fits the current society in a more precise manner and why that system might be a better option.

The shift from nomad to agriculturalist was one that required “no radically new techniques or development of new relationships between humans, plants and animals” [Ponting 1991, p40] so it stands to reason that there must have been an almost implacable rationale for making the decision to catalyse the transition. It has previously been mentioned that Sahlins cited hunter-gatherers as the “original affluent society”. Affluence can be roughly defined as the ‘satisfaction of material wants or desires’ and can be attained by “producing much or desiring little” [Sahlins 1972, p2]. For the greater part of history hunter-gatherers have been considered by some such as Sahlins to be affluent because they possessed few material desires that easily satisfied. As material desires increase over time, as history has shown them to, greater...
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