Capitalisms Last Frontier#15 Growing Diffusion & its Limits

We have traced the protohistory of political economy, looking at the origins of agriculture and settlement. We have a picture of villages with agricultural hinterlands, of agriculture requiring sedentism, for four reason, the need to sow, the need to reap, the need to defend crops as they grow, and fourthly and probably more importantly the need to grind grains and bake.

Of course with higher yields a potential for an agricultural surplus. This has two consequences, firstly enabling the expansion of population through expanding the calorific value that could be obtained from an area of land, and secondly the potential of an agricultural surplus if this was not taken up by expanded population. This surplus requires storage, thus reinforcing sedentism.

Humankind would would not expand its population in place to the extent it would overrun its food supply, as populations grew they expanded. As we found in the previous sections the greater numbers of agriculturalists, enjoying their food/energy efficiency advantage, created an advantage in numbers, if not health of individuals, over other hunter gatherers and proto- agriculturalists. These groups either had to retreat to the margins or innovate and defend their territory. In only a few thousand years agricultural sedentism would diffuse from the middle east across Eurasia, and during that period several other independent sources of agriculture grew up, such as in the Ethiopian highlands and in China.

But as these practices grew it would run up against margins of cultivation where local climate and soil made growing marginal or difficult. These edges included mountains, cold dry steppe and hot desert.

In these marginal lands humankind cannot utilise the plants that grow there, but animals can utilise them. Humankind cannot eat grass but goats and cattle can, and we can eat these animals and drink their milk. Such a survival strategy – pastoralism – or to be precise Nomadic Pastoralism – is much less energy efficient, can support lower populations per area of land, but it is the only viable survival strategy beyond the margin of cultivation.  So in these areas vegetarianism is not necessarily the most efficient energy strategy for humans, indeed vegetarians would starve.

How then did pastoralism begin. The Victorian concept was that it was a universal precursor to cultivation. This concept was held by Marx, and repeated by Engels in ‘The Origins of the Family, Private Property and The State’. We now know this to be untrue, as there early sites of cultivation have no records of goats or cattle domestication. This appears to be a later phenomenon.

Let us first consider the issue of animal domestication. Only 12 species of large animal have proven capable of domestication. One key factor leading favouring domestication in sedentary communities is the ability to live off food sources, such as grass or food waste, which humans cannot consume, otherwise domestic animals and humans would be competing in the same space for energy. (see  Diamond, Jared (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: Norton Press which also lists other traits necessary for domestication).  The key domestications that led to food sources (unlike the earlier domestic of dogs which aided in hunting) were ,  goats, pigs, sheep, and cow, between 6-13,000BP, with cow domestication occurring last.  But domestication of goats and sheep appears to have occurred within hunter gatherer communities, as goats could travel within a nomadic group, hence creating a form of proto-pasoralism.  The wild boar, which became the domestic pig appears to have been first domesticated in the Tigris basin in a similar way to modern new guinea hunter gatherers. With pregnant females captured in the wild and piglets kept close to their tethered mothers.  With the growth of cereal crops more formal tending was needed to avoid competing from th esame food source.   (Ancestors for the pigs: pigs in prehistory Sarah M. Nelson, University of Pennsylvania. Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology UPenn Museum of Archaeology, 1998).

Cattle domestication appears to have occurred from around 6-8,000 BP in several independent areas, with cattle descended from the now extinct Auroch.  It used to be thought that it was first domesticated as a beast of burden, but the archaeological evidence in the last 30 years seems to indicate that Cattle, like pigs, sheep and goats, were domesticated first as a source of meat, and that this domestication occurred first in sedentary cultivating communities.

Andrew Sherratt has developed his thesis of what he calls the the secondary products revolution, the realisation  animals also provided a number of other useful products other than meat and skin, such as manure, wool, meat and traction. This phase in agricultural development enabled humans to make use of the energy possibilities of their animals in new ways.  Sherratt even argues that  and permitted permanent intensive subsistence farming and crop production, and the opening up heavier soils for farming.  It certainly through ploughing allowed more intensive and externive cultivation, but it is going to far to suggest this triggered agriculture per-se.  (A. Sherratt, Plough and pastoralism: aspects of the secondary products revolution, in Pattern of the Past: Studies in honour of David Clarke, edited by I. Hodder, G. Isaac and N. Hammond (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 1981), pp. 261–305.)

Deomestication made possible nomadic pastoralism.  During the younger dryas drying many of the farmers in the middle east were forced to leave, taking their domesticated animals with them, and distributing distribute these animals to the rest of Afroeurasia. This emigration was mainly on an east-west axis of similar climates, as crops usually have a narrow optimal climatic range outside of which they cannot grow.  Jared Diamond has postulated that this is why plant and animal domestication spread so quickly from the Fertile Crescent to the rest of Eurasia and North Africa.

As cultivators expanded they would have pushed against areas occupied by hunter-gatherers/proto-pastoralists some of whom with domesticated herds sheep and goats.  In marginal areas herding will have predominated over hunting and gathering.   Interaction with agriculturalists such as through trade/diffusion of innovation or the expansion of agriculturalists,  led to nomadic pastoralism.

To acquire enough forage, large distances have to be covered by herds, with larger hers requiring nomadism to avoid overexplotation of local grasses. This resulted in a higher labour requirement for animal tending and a divergence and specialism between sedentary cultivation and pastoralism  and specialization took place. Both developed alongside each other, with continuing interactions. (See Levy, T. E. (1983). Emergence of specialized pastoralism in the Levant. World Archaeology 15(1): 15-37. Hole, F. (1996). “The context of caprine domestication in the Zagros region'”. in The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia. D. R. Harris (ed.). London, University College of London: 263-281.)

Nomadism continued to exist  in symbiosis with such settled cultures trading animal products items not produced by the nomadic herders, with trade occurring across the margin of cultivation.  The margin of cultivation being the frontier between pastoral and agricultural ways of producing.

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