• J. W. Barlament

Your Story of the Start of Civilization is All Wrong

The story of agriculture is simple and obvious.

The people of the Fertile Crescent, having been hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, made the sudden revolutionary discovery of deliberately planting crops for planned harvests. From there, the practice and its corresponding results of increased prosperity, food security and potential for permanent settlement caught wind from region to region until it dominated the globe.

Except, apparently, none of this is true. And I’m not just referencing the fact that the development of farming was a millennia-long process or that many societies invented it independently. Agriculture may have won out in the end, but in many places and in many ways, it seems, it was not at all an intuitive switch for most. In fact, the rise of agriculture to a place of global dominance over the hunter-gatherer lifestyle may have been more due to conquest than anything else.

First, it’s crucial to explain just how unhealthy early agriculture was. Hunter-gatherer societies, on average in comparison to agriculturalists, don’t need to accumulate a surplus of a select few crops in order to survive. Therefore, they work far fewer hours and are more egalitarian, valuing cooperation over accumulation. They do less hard labor, too, and are less susceptible to disease due to living in smaller communities with fewer domesticated animals. Their diets are far more varied and they are thus better nourished, they have fewer vitamin deficiencies, their teeth are less rotted, and they’re taller.

Why, then, were so much less healthy farming populations able to dominate their hunter-gatherer neighbors over several thousand years and eventually relegate their once-universal lifestyles to the fringe of the world? Perhaps an answer can be found in war; though farmers faced many problems, they still had a population advantage considerable enough to crush any hunter-gatherer enemies, and were often ruled by expansionist empires hell-bent on subjugating neighbors. Even then, nomadic peoples worldwide fought against farming societies all the way through the 1800s. The spread of agriculture has always been contentious.

In fact, though southern and central European populations very quickly adopted agricultural practices at their introduction around 8500–8000 BC, we have evidence from the period (from a study of thousands of carved beads, no less) that the northern European populations of the time actually resisted farming for several centuries despite their direct exposure to it by southern neighbors they’re known to have heavily traded with. Even in the early years of the spread of farming, it seems to have been rejected by hunter-gatherer cultures until those cultures’ decline.

How, then, was farming even able to catch fire in the first place? Some have speculated climate change was to blame; as the Ice Age ended and the megafauna died, agriculture was one useful way to temporarily ensure survival which persevered via tradition after that original need had passed. But what then made the agriculturalists so hell-bent on spreading their practice?

Others claim, too, that the desire to show off a surplus of food was the trigger. But this assumes a recent development of the idea of greed. Farming only started around 12,000 years ago, but humans had the physical and social ability to farm tens of thousands of years earlier. Some kind of new factor must’ve triggered the development. And, if farming was motivated by greed, that then presupposes greed itself to have been a recent development, even though the evidence suggests human cognitive and emotive abilities have remained basically the same for at least the last 40–50,000 years.

The fact is this: if the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was so much healthier and so much more natural, then some external factor, whether environmental, social, or behavioral, must’ve motivated our ancestors to take up farming. And that motivator must have been important enough for those early farmers to spread the practice by force.

Well, what was the first domesticated crop in the world? Wheat, in about 12000 BC, around Karacadağ Mountain in southeastern Turkey. And where was the first livestock domestication in the world? In a long process about 12000–8000 BC, involving animals like goats, sheep and pigs, in sites such as Çayönü in southeastern Turkey. And where was the first monumental architecture in the world? Göbeklitepe, founded in about 12000 BC in southeastern Turkey.

carving on a pillar at Göbeklitepe (image by Vincent J. Musi, National Geographic Stock)

The story of the start of agriculture is a story of religion, as Göbeklitepe and countless surrounding sites in southeast Turkey tell us. Göbeklitepe is not only the earliest monumental architecture in the world by a long shot; it is, without a doubt, a temple.

The story, then, goes as such: first, some sort of regional religion dictates the building of a temple as a center of worship and of rituals, and in the building of this permanent site, a permanent food supply for the builders and users of the temple is established in the surrounding fields by farming. Note that, although small settled populations likely lived around Göbeklitepe to support the temple’s functions, no evidence of permanent residence is found at the temple; it is a temple, and a temple only.

Those hunter-gatherer populations using the temple would hesitate to move too far away from it and the center of culture it would’ve likely served as, and over the years, they’d begin to cluster in the surrounding area. And within a few thousand years, even though they were dramatically sacrificing their health by doing so, these hunter-gatherers slowly adopted agriculture and settled in permanent villages to be closer to the temple, their culture, and their gods. By Sumerian times, villages had turned to cities — the first of which are known to have been ruled by priest-kings.

And just like that, civilization started. It’s no coincidence that dozens of countries’ oldest permanent manmade structures were religious in function; Newgrange in Ireland, the Goseck Circle in Germany, the Ggantija Temples in Malta, and many more. It’s indicative of the common origins that all agricultural societies share.

Note the sacrificial aspect above all else. First came the temple, and then came the city, even when all the benefits of city life were only to come some thousands of years after the building of the temples, because the move from the hunter-gatherer wild to the settled agriculturalist was self-sacrifice to a greater other.

This fits in nicely with the discovery of several skulls at Göbeklitepe with strikingly similar drill and incision marks. Not to mention that Çayönü is commonly thought of as the first place where human sacrifice can be confirmed to have occurred. Sacrifice was not a foreign concept to the last hunter-gatherers and the first farmers. It was a viscerally real part of social life, and it may have been strong enough to spark settled social life.

The study of the Mesolithic European beads yielded an interesting conclusion. Since the northern European populations resisted agricultural practices for so many centuries, according to our model of religion driving settlement, they seem not to have had the same religious beliefs as southern Europeans. According to researcher Solange Rigaud:

“The transition to farming was not a linear process. Its success was also concurrent with a complex succession of demographic booms and busts in the European populations, a decline in health, and a raise in labor cost for food supply in many areas. It appears that the adoption of domestication and sedentary lifestyle was likely ruled by a system of beliefs rather than real technical needs.”
relative locations of Göbeklitepe, Karacadağ Mountain and Çayönü in southeastern Turkey (image by author)

Now, I’m not proposing that we return to monke, or all adopt #vanlife, or send letter bombs to universities. But it’s not a trivial thing to know how the entirety of civilization got its start; that it was the desire to worship and to build in the names of their gods that caused prehistoric people to start the first farming revolution and make the leap into city life. This reconstruction, if even only slightly true, constitutes nothing short of an unlocking of our understanding of our own origins. And, in an era when our understanding of our own place and purpose is changing faster than ever, this piece of the puzzle couldn’t be more crucial.