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Meat consumption research – Part 2 The introduction of agriculture

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work

It is not known exactly how agriculture spread after emerging in the middle east around 10-15 thousand years ago and political ideas have skewed some of the theories raised from archaeological findings in the last couple of centuries. The political influence often promoted theories of descent from “civilised” farming ancestors rather than from what were considered “savage” hunter-gatherers. Consequently, the idea of hunter-gatherer incumbents being replaced by a wave of “civilised” farming peoples coming from the middle east was preferred by many in the field and seemed to fit the evidence. However, examination of the current state of research leads Richards (2003) to conclude “the majority of European genetic lineages have their roots in the European Palaeolithic.” This suggests that agriculture was a technique that was taken up by existing peoples rather than being the preserve of a conquering or replacing immigrant farming population.

With the development of agricultural methods such as the domestication of various food plants and animals, humans gave themselves significant ecological advantages. In many ways they were able to make their food supply more secure. For example having meat from domesticated animals would require considerably less skill and work than getting that meat from wild animals and would remove some of the uncertainty that was inherent when relying on supplies of wild animals. Similarly, domesticated plants reduced the time spent looking for wild alternatives and seed selection allowed the gradual improvement of plant varieties in terms of nutritional and practical ease.

Humans had almost always had a big influence on ecological habitats where they lived. Fire was the most powerful tool in this respect, being used to clear forest and alter vegetation patterns and in the hunting of animals. However, agricultural societies, with their growth and reduced reliance on natural processes and cycles, were to have an even greater effect on ecology.

Agriculture allowed some fundamental changes in the human way of life, milking of animals and growing grains provided foods that allowed the weaning of children earlier and therefore for mothers to become pregnant again sooner. This, coupled with the efficiencies that agriculture offered allowed birth rates to grow. By dictating what grew where, humans were able to maximise the efficiency of the land in terms of human food supply.

However, while agriculture seems to have been a valuable strategy for improving the quantity of human life and developing culture, it appears not to have been so beneficial for the quality of life. Nutritional health declined, possibly due to the large decline in meat eating within agricultural societies when compared to hunter-gatherers (Smil 2003).  Increasing population sizes would have further stressed food supplies.

Another factor behind this diminished nutritive health was the stationery nature of agricultural societies. Hunter-gatherer groups were often transitory, moving to different areas as food became more and less abundant with the seasons. This was beneficial as it diversified the underlying soils and water supplies that were involved in their nourishment. If one area lacked an important mineral, it was likely to be found at another site or provided by a different species of plant or animal in the diet. Agricultural societies were much more likely to become bound to the land they had chosen and were therefore more at risk of nutritional deficiency (Manning 2004). Also, their diets were less diverse in general. The reliance on a few crops in discrete locations left these people especially vulnerable when disease or weather affected their harvest. For this reason, agricultural societies became more at risk of famines than hunter-gatherers had been.

As populations grew, villages enlarged and became towns and eventually cities. With larger and larger numbers of people living in close proximity infectious diseases proliferated and further diminished health.

Agriculture also changed humans’ relationship with aggression and violence. In hunter-gatherers societies hunting was mostly carried out by men working in groups and the nature of hunting with its necessity to kill, sometimes dangerous animals, required certain skills, aggression and organisation.  These activities would also have been useful for preparing for defensive or aggressive actions when there were conflicts with other human groups.

The idea of hunter-gatherers as being an essentially more aggressive and violent way of life came to typify Western thinking of such groups as explorers encountered them around the globe.  This was despite the fact that many peaceful and friendly populations were found and often exploited. Agricultural societies were thought of as being more civilised and peaceful. However, in reality, their possessive relationship with land coupled with the increased population sizes that agricultural societies enabled often required the expansion of their territories.  This created more opportunities and need for conflict. Hunter-gatherers generally had small, fairly stable population sizes and did not need to expand or shift their territories unless forced by external factors. Therefore, agriculture could be viewed as an inherently more violent system than hunting and gathering. Looking back at history, it is clear that the competition for land and resources by large agricultural societies has been behind countless conflicts, aggression and suffering and continues to be so.

Agriculture brought another fundamental change with the possibility of power accumulation within societies and economic systems of trading. The efficiencies that agriculture brought meant that less time was needed to feed a group of people, allowing more delegation and specialisation of work-loads. It also revolutionised the conservability of food – the grains and seeds that were the key crops of agriculture could be stored for long periods after harvesting. This conservability of food allowed stock-piling and advantageous trading which lead to power accumulation within societies. Some members of society became relatively wealthy in terms of food or land and were able to live better than those that had less, these imbalances were able to grow over generations. Agriculture had created “the poor” and this unfortunate group, often making up the majority of society, was to suffer dietarily for the rest of history, not least in their reduced access to meat.

Eventually societies grew larger and with the power benefits of agricultural systems, it was the most agrarian societies that were able to grow and dominate their times. By the time of the ancient Greeks and the Roman empire, this agrarian base to the way of living had become a powerful part of their cultural identity with agricultural thinking at the heart of religious and practical philosophy. Agriculture was seen as a simile for civilisation and was contrasted with the wilder, more meat-based food systems of other, “less civilised” peoples that were termed barbarians. Romans made important distinctions between saltus, the wild, uncivilised and civitas (Montanari 1994). Originating in the central Mediterranean area, both the Greeks and Romans had three key agricultural elements in their food systems, bread from grain, preferably wheat; oil from the olive; and wine from grapes. With the importance of agriculture and the need to differentiate themselves from their barbarian enemies, food became an important cultural identifier, with bread, wine, vegetables being seen as refined and civilised and meat, milk and beer representing savagery and lack of civilisation.


Manning, Richard. 2004. Against The Grain: How agriculture has hijacked civilization. North Point Press.

Montanari, Massimo. 1994. The Culture of Food. Blackwell Publishers.

Richards, Martin. 2003. The Neolithic Invasion of Europe. Annual Revue of Anthropology 2003. 32:135–62

Smil, Vaclav. 2003. Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns, and Consequences. Population and Development Review 28:4, 599-639


2 Responses

  1. Interesting to read. I hope you keep going and take us through modern day food and eating. Why are some of us fat and hungry and others really starving. Is there a link between land, politics, democracy and food? Has it always been so? What is considered food today? Is food still an important culturer identifier? You really bring up some interesting thoughts. Keep on writing.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, there are another 7 parts dealing with later history/present and health/ethics etc. I’ll be putting the rest up over the next week or so. I hope more of your questions will be answered. I just spent 3 years studying food because I think it is so central to environmental, health, economic and social issues.

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