Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and palaeo-romanticism

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri is one of those grand, sweeping books that skips deftly between disciplines and gets you thinking in equal measure. Its title may recall Hawking’s Brief History of Time but a more salient comparison might be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, Steel.

The book is subtitled ‘A Brief History of Humankind’, but it’s Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution that really interests me – not unsurprisingly given my interest in grain-based foods.

In my Anglo-centric education, the term “The Agricultural Revolution” was used to refer to the changes in British farming in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Harari is looking at a much bigger picture though: the Neolithic (new stone age) Agricultural Revolution. The period when Homo sapiens made the transition from hunter gatherers, foragers, to cultivators, agriculturalists.

The received wisdom is that learning to farm freed up humanity from the dirty primitivism of the forager lifestyle. Harari, thrillingly, turns this on its head. It wasn’t a liberation, he posits, but an enslavement. Most specifically an enslavement to Triticum, the wheat genus. This includes that dietary bogeyman modern wheat, as well durum and their forebears spelt, emmer and einkorn.

“Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity,” he writes. “They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced even more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.”

“That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time… Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. … The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

Not being an accomplished archaeo-anthropologist, I can’t contest this. It’s certainly a compelling theory.

Feeding humanity
Humans – the whole Homo genus – had been hunter gatherers for about 2.5 million years. Then, around 12,000 years ago, it all changed: “The transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant.” Wheat and goats came first, around 9000BC, then peas and lentils, then olive trees, horses and by around 3500BC, grapevines.

“Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity [my italics] come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500BC – wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, millet and barley”. For all our culinary flamboyance and seeming diversity today, he writes that “If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.”

Unnatural selection
If you think of living things as repositories of DNA, which they are designed to simply pass on as much as possible, then Triticum, other food grains and farmed animals, have overcome the literal process of natural selection and been given huge, unnatural leg-ups by modern humans.

In a nice little exercise Hariri says, “Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria… wheat has become one of the most successful plans in the history of the earth…. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?”

No turning back
How indeed? Well, by the aforementioned enslavement. “Wheat did it by manipulating Home sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering… but then began to invest more and more effort into cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn till dusk.”

Homo sapiens shifted from a wandering lifestyle and an omnivorous diet to a hard-working settled lifestyle and a grain-based diet. “By 8500BC, the Middle East was peppered with permanent villages such as Jericho, whose inhabitants spent most of their time cultivating a few domesticated species,” he says. “The average person in Jericho of 8500BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500BC of 13,000 BC.”

We may have invented writing (in Sumeria and Egypt by around 2500BC, China by 1200BC, Central America 1000-500BC) and culture, but, he suggests, Homo sapiens has been trapped ever since, with the escalation of commitments of the early agriculturalists still echoed today in the habit of needing to work more to earn more to afford more.

It’s fascinating, but the theory does seem to have a certain inherent palaeo-romanticism. Indeed, many people who feel stressed or adrift or lost in the rush that is modern life, the idea of sitting around chatting with your tribe, spending a few hours foraging, then sitting around some more, before moving on to a new spot where you’ve previously had good fortune with the foodstuffs is potentially appealing. I certainly do, despite my love of grain-based foods.

Thing is, we’re somewhat committed now.

Arguably people today do indeed try to act out palaeo-romantic fantasies, notably with the so-called “paleo diet”. It really bugs me. I’m sorry, but Stone Age man didn’t have a shopping bag filled with chia berries, and lemons, and avocado, and beef, quinoa and kaniwa, stevia powder and fresh tomatoes. All that stuff’s from different continents and different seasons and, indeed, mostly wasn’t even available as a foodstuff yet in the Stone Age. He would have had a load of starchy roots one day, stripped a tree of fruit another, ground up some wild grains another, then maybe had a pig-out on mammoth or giant elk or a giant flightless bird, depending on where he lived, the season, knowledge and luck.

Am I being too literal? Yes. But gah, food faddism drives me mad, especially so in the paleo case as it’s so much the product of a pampered, wealthy, western culture. Sure, I agree wholehearted that one should avoid industrially processed foods and artificial sweeteners and beef from drug-pumped cattle standing in their own faeces in concentrated feed lots. But really – what happens when all 7.3 billion (World population clock) of us want to live on beef and seafood and year-round avocado? A serious acceleration of the environment crisis, that’s what, as such diets are heavily predicated on an inefficient oil economy.

We could not feed humanity without staples: grains and legumes. There’s still a place for whole grains and legumes – the staples of the Agricultural Revolution – in a balanced, realistic, healthy, minimally industrial diet.

That said, if we do destroy our own civilisation with greed and overconsumption, maybe Homo sapiens will be able to go back to being hunter-gatherers after all (if if we survive at all). Something for your grand-children to look forward to perhaps?


Filed under Discussion

9 responses to “Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and palaeo-romanticism

  1. So glad that I used reading this post as a way of pushing aside or further down the list other computer based jobs. Thought provoking stuff, and yes a pretty convincing theory, as man ‘advances’ he becomes only more enslaved. I like your realism, fads like the Paleo are as you say for the pampered, and grains in their various forms feed the world.

    • Thanks Alice. It is strange situation and I continue to wonder about it. Grains etc caused population growth, now we have an unsustainable human population that’s destroying the planet but if – compassionately or whatever – you believe people have a right to eat, the only way to feed them is with grain etc. It’s quite a conundrum we’ve created for ourselves.

  2. Stefanie Stephens

    A good strong fluidly written piece Dan

  3. Dianne

    The problem with mankind is not that we eat certain things, is just that we eat too much, in general, and too much of one thing, in particular. I have developed intolerance to gluten, and it’s made my life extremely difficult. The food industry puts wheat flour into every single product today and unless I go the whole foods path, I have no chance of ‘thriving’ or even doing acceptably healthwise. There is no cure for this condition either, except staying away from what makes me sick. Why is the food industry so keen on adding wheat (or flour) into every product, from chocolate to sausages? Because grasses (sorry, wheat, rye, barley, etc are grasses) are cheap. It’s a cheap food that’s filling the stomach. And I think this was the main appeal of wheat to prehistoric man anyway: high yield food that fills the stomach, so you don’t feel hungry in between meals. But in reality, nuts, fruit, roots and meat are the true power diet, that may not feel so fulfilling, yet such a diet gives you all the nutrients you actually need.

    • Seven billion people can’t be fed on nuts, fruit, roots and meat though, I suspect. Wholegrains particularly remain enormously important for a balanced diet.

      • Sia

        I’m unsure anyone really knows the answer to that question. Grains were not the staple food of the whole world, even after the agricultural age. Much of the southern hemisphere and the islands had roots and tubers as their first foods or their staples. Arctic peoples had very little starch-based staples at all. It is curious that this narrative that we could not feed all these people without grains is taken as fact. For one, we have little way to know one way or the other. For another thing, whole grains cannot be a necessary part of a balanced diet when they were never included in any significant amount in the diets of people in many regions of the world. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, much of the starvation in the world (and certainly the malnutrition as well) is caused by the grains themselves. Ok, saying the grains caused it is not very fair to the grains, but the way they have been used creates famine and dependency. Farmers and Indigenous people in many countries were doing fine with their own ancestral foods, until the U.S. enticed them to grow other crops (usually through financial incentives), oftentimes genetically modified and not well-adjusted to the climate. Crop failure causes starvation, which then gives cause for aid from the same countries which caused the famine, putting people into a state of perpetual dependence on the United States or other powers because they no longer have the supply of their ancestral foods.

        This is not an argument against grains; my ancestors one one side are from the place where wheat originated and cultivated grains along the Nile. My ancestors from the other side brought agriculture into Europe from Asia Minor – all the wonderful and horrible things that came with that. This is a challenge to the assertion that, even though this is not working, there is no other way to go. Diversify the diet, hold people’s first foods sacred, don’t exploit people or their land, and encourage community sufficiency rather than paternalistic agendas, and perhaps we could figure this thing out. This is what this discussion should be about – not middle and upper class people looking to “perfect” their diet by sampling from all over the world, but the fate of the Indigenous diets and other locally-based cuisines which were far more diverse, nutritious, and fostered a very close relationship with one’s food. Indigenous people today suffer because of grain-based diets, among other results of colonization and violent removal.

        Thanks for a great, balanced discussion!

  4. Nana

    “Seven billion people can’t be fed on nuts, fruit, roots and meat though, I suspect. Wholegrains particularly remain enormously important for a balanced diet.”

    Why do you think this is a fact? I’m curious.

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