The Dawn of Everything - Farming (Part 2)
What were the first Neolithic communities really like?
The First Neolithic Town
To find out what life in the earliest farming communities might have been like, Graeber and Wengrow turn the world's first Neolithic "city".
The town of Çatalhöyük sprang up around 7400 BCE (i.e. 9400 years ago) in modern-day central Turkey. Starting from a few simple mud brick houses, it eventually grew into a vast settlement by 6500 BCE and was occupied for about 1500 years. That's a very long time—the same amount of time, the Davids inform us, that separates us from Amalafrida, Queen of the Vandals.
The town was a dense honeycomb of mud-brick dwelling units built directly adjacent to each other with no streets or alleyways. Houses were accessed from above via ladders, traversing along the rooftops to get to them. The walls of the houses were consistently torn and rebuilt in the exact same locations for hundreds of years, displaying the same artistic motifs time and time again, signaling a remarkable degree of cultural continuity: "Individual houses were typically in use for 50 and 100 years, after which they were carefully dismantled and filled in to make foundations for superseding houses. Clay wall went up on clay wall, in the same location, for century after century." (222) Walls were plastered, floors were swept clean, and surfaces were covered with reed mats. Murals decorated the walls. Some houses had platforms underneath which dead people were buried, yet, mysteriously, the bodies do not seem to be directly related to the people living inside the house.
The most striking feature of Neolithic Çatalhöyük was how egalitarian it appeared. There were no palaces or temples, nor were there any telltale signs of inequality between households or genders. There doesn't appear to have been a ruling class or bureaucracy, which are often considered to be hallmarks of early farming communities. Instead, each house was effectively "a world unto itself," which had "a significant degree of control over its own rituals." (221).
The authority of long-lived houses seems consistent with the idea that elders, perhaps women in particular, held position of influence. But the more prestigious households are distributed among the less, and do not coalesce into elite neighbourhoods. In terms of gender relations, we can acknowledge a degree of symmetry, or at least complimentarity. In pictorial art, masculine themes do not encompass the feminine, nor vice versa. If anything, the two domains seem to be kept apart, in different sectors of dwellings. (222)
It's possible that Çatalhöyük may have been a part of the Neolithic trading network we talked about last time. Obsidian—a volcanic glass used to make sharp edges—was obtained from the highlands of Cappadocia 125 miles to the north. Obsidian artifacts were found on the site, including what are thought to be the world's oldest mirrors.
Çatalhöyük: 9,000 years ago, a community with modern urban problems (Phy.org)
In all likelihood, the inhabitants practiced flood retreat agriculture, sowing cereal crops along the fertile alluvial plain of the nearby Çarşamba river. In the spring and summer, inhabitants would move to the upland hills and mountains to pasture sheep and goats, hunt prey, and gather wild plants. In the wintertime, they would return to the village, corralling their animals in pens and subsisting on the crops harvested from the banks of the river, displaying a “dual mode” of existence like those discussed in earlier chapters. This method meant that there was no need to parcel out fixed plots of land, since floods would wipe out any permanent boundaries. Çatalhöyük seems to reflect the winter mode of habitation, similar to the winter villages of the Kwakiutl in the Pacific Northwest:
Çatalhöyük was situated in an area of wetlands (whence all the mud and clay) seasonally flooded by the Çarşamba River, which split its course as it entered the Konya Plain. Swamps would have surrounded the site for much of the year, interspersed with raised areas of dry land.
Winters were cold and damp, summers oppressively hot. From spring to autumn, sheep and goats would have been moved between areas of pasture within the plain, and sometimes further into the highlands. Arable crops were most likely sown late in the spring on the receding floodplain of the Çarşamba, where they could ripen in as little as three months, with harvesting and processing in the late summer. (223)
Seasonal variations of social structure were alive and well at Çatalhöyük, and these carefully balanced alternations seem central to understanding why the town endured...It is in fact quite likely that what we are seeing...are largely the social arrangements prevalent in winter, with their intense and distinctive ceremonialism focused upon hunting and the veneration of the dead. At that time of year, with the harvest in, the organization required for agricultural labour would have given way to a different type of social reality as the community's life shrank back towards its houses, just as its herds of sheep and goats shrank back into the confines of their pens. (224)
While today we tend to think of agriculture as heralding an entirely new way of life, from the perspective of the town’s inhabitants, farming activities didn't seem to matter all that much despite supplying the vast majority of people’s calories: "Perhaps the most striking thing about all this art and ritual is that it makes almost no reference to agriculture." (222) Farming was more in the spirit of Adonis than Demeter.
Altars were found adorned with ox skulls, leading to speculation that Çatalhöyük was an early center of cattle domestication. However, these skulls all turned out to be wild varieties, suggesting that inhabitants deliberately refused to domesticate certain animals like cattle and pigs, even though domesticated sheep and goats were common and pigs and cattle had been domesticated in other parts of the Near East. The Davids suggest that this was because hunting these animals played an important role in cultural life of the town based on art and ritual: "Allowing cattle to remain exclusively in their ancient wild form...meant keeping intact a certain sort of human society. Accordingly, cattle remained wild and glamorous until around 6000 BC." (225) Once again we see that food choices were made for cultural reasons as much as economic and practical ones.
It is often thought that plant and animal domestication and sedentism were intrinsically linked with inequality, class conflict, and status differentiation. Yet here was a town where people lived alongside on another for over a thousand years with no apparent signs of inequality or a ruling class emerging. The overall impression one gets of life in such early farming communities is of a fairly egalitarian social arrangement with women playing an important role in ritual and domestic life.
The importance of women's roles was suggested by the artwork, which featured numerous clay statues of corpulent women seated on thrones. Early archaeologists speculated that these were '“fertility goddesses” and that the town may have been the center of a goddess cult. Some even speculated that that the town was an example of primitive matriarchy. This leads Graeber and Wengrow to consider the work of Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas.
Gimbutas speculated that early Neolithic farming communities in what she termed "Old Europe" were mostly peaceful and egalitarian. But her most controversial claim by far was that women may have played a central role in these societies, and may have even been objects of worship and veneration.
These ideas spawned a number of popular books such as “The Gods and Godesses of Old Europe,” and "The Civilization of the Goddess," which depicted egalitarian, gynocentric, earth-friendly farming cultures in stark contrast to the repressive, warlike, aristocratic cultures of later eras, including our own. In addition to Gimbutas’ own writings, a number of popular authors, inspired by the counterculture and New Age movements of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, offered their own radical, speculative visions of Old Europe. Unfortunately for Gimbutas’ later reputation, many of these books relied more on ‘shroom consciousness than on solid archaeology.
In the same way that social rebels, since the 1960s, tended to idealize hunter-gatherer bands, earlier generations of poets, anarchists and bohemians had tended to idolize the Neolithic as an imaginary, beneficent theocracy ruled over by the priestesses of the Great Goddess, the all powerful distant ancestor of Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte and Demeter herself—that is, until such societies were overwhelmed by violent, patriarchal Indo-European-speaking horsemen descending from the steppes, or, in the case of the Middle East, Semetic-speaking nomads from the deserts. (214)
In the nineteenth century, a number of scholars posited that the universal social structure of all early societies was that of Matriarchate, or "mother-rule" based on the idea that primitive people "didn't understand physiological paternity and assumed women were single-handedly responsible for producing babies." (217) Under “mother-rule,” they claimed, "institutions of government and religion were modelled on the relationship of mother to child in the household." (215) Advocates of these theories hypothesized that this primordial form of human society was subsequently overthrown by violent, patriarchal warrior cultures from the deserts, mountains and steppes, devaluing the status of women to chattel. Such ideas typically went hand-in-hand with radical anarchist, feminist, and anti-religious views of the time.
This idea was first put forward by the Swiss jurist Johann Jakob Bachofen in a book called Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World, published in 1861. It was later taken up and developed by Freud's student, Otto Gross, who envisioned a pre-agricultural world of sexual freedom and openness which had fallen away when men gained oppressive control over women’s bodily autonomy. In the United States, such ideas were promoted by the abolitionist and suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage (Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum's mother-in-law), who published Woman, Church and State in 1893. These ideas also highly influenced Marxist concepts of social development such as those put forth by Friedrich Engels in The Development of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Gimbutas was seen by many as trying to revive these discredited nineteenth-century notions, and was widely criticized for doing so, her work being subsequently ridiculed and dismissed by the archaeological community. As a result of this, the role of women in Neolithic societies became something of an academic "no-go zone" almost on par with "scientific racism." (215) But as the Davids point out, Gimbutas was not, as often portrayed, arguing for the existence of Neolithic matriarchies in the sense that women held exclusive political power. Instead, "she was arguing for women's autonomy and ritual priority in the Middle Eastern and European Neolithic." (217).
While no true matriarchies have been found in the sense where the system of government is exclusively dominated by women, the Davids make a distinction between gynarchy—the political rule of women—and matriarchy, which is the centrality of women and mothers to cultural and economic life. The latter has frequently been attested to in the ethnographic record. For example, in the Iroquois Confederation, clan mothers controlled the distribution of goods, and there are many other examples from around the world (e.g. the Mosuo, the Hopi, the Minangkabau). As they note, "once it's clear that such arrangements can exist, we have no particular reason to exclude the possibility that they were more common in Neolithic times, or to assume that Gimbutas—by searching for them there—was doing something inherently fanciful or misguided." (220)
In fact, subsequent research—including DNA studies—has shown that Gimbutas' intuitions about "Old Europe" appear to have been largely correct. It's now commonly believed that invaders from the Pontic-Caspian steppe gradually spread into Neolithic Europe, displacing and assimilating earlier farming communities and spreading the Indo-European language family westward. Furthermore, these "Kurgan" cultures do appear to have been male-centric and warlike (andocratic), just as she had suggested.
Back in Çatalhöyük, the idea of goddess worship gradually fell out of favor. As additional statues were discovered, it was found that domesticated animals were depicted just as frequently as women, which were presumably not objects of worship. Furthermore, new statues were found, "not in shrines or on thrones, but in trash dumps outside houses with the heads broken off and didn't really seem to have been treated as objects of religious veneration." (213) Nowadays, archaeologists simply insist that, “We simply have no idea why people created so many female images and never will.” (214)
Although notions of a goddess cult have fallen out of favor at Çatalhöyük, the Davids note that, while female figurines have been found under burial platforms, similar male figures are absent. Thus, it is entirely possible that women and their lineages did indeed play a significant role in the domestic and religious affairs of households and in the town’s social structure. Even though Gimbutas may have been engaged in a degree of “myth-making,” they argue that this is no different than the kinds of “grand narratives” that Big History authors are offering, except that those authors are spinning stories from a male perspective rather than a female one as Gimbutas had done: “Gimbutas was seen as meddling in, and quite consciously subverting, a genre of grand narrative that had been (and still is) entirely dominated by male writers such as ourselves.” (218)
Overall, the impression one gets of early farming communities—whether in the lowlands of the Fertile Crescent, the dense settlement of Çatalhöyük, or the scattered longhouses of “Old Europe”—is not one of hierarchy and domination. Instead, it appears that early agricultural societies were relatively egalitarian in their basic social arrangements, with a high degree of female autonomy and freedom. This is certainly different than how the arrival of agriculture is normally portrayed in Big History books as directly leading to hierarchy, bureaucracy, and patriarchy compared to hunting and gathering.
Beyond the Fertile Crescent
Rather than striding forth and conquering all before them, the first farmers were the clear underdogs in the struggle for survival in nearly every environment they found themselves in. Thus the Davids describe farming as having "hopped, stumbled and bluffed" its way across the world, in contrast to the usual triumphalist narratives of agriculturalists sweeping away everything in their path. In fact, they point out that early farming communities were often highly fragile and could—and often did—fail, most notably in central Europe where the population of farmers underwent a dramatic population crash, nearly becoming extinct.
Especially for the first several thousand years after the end of the last Ice Age, most people were still not farmers, and farmers' crops had to compete with a whole panoply of wild predators and parasites, most of which have since been eliminated from agricultural landscapes...domestic plants and animals could not 'spread' beyond their original ecological limits without significant effort on the part of their human planters and keepers. Suitable environments not only had to be found but also modified by weeding, manuering, terracing, and so on. The landscape modifications involved may seem small-scale—little more than ecological tinkering—to our eyes, but they were onerous enough by local standards, and crucial in extending the range of domestic species. (255)
To help us understand exactly how farming spread around the world, they do a quick survey of several sample cases: the Balkans and central Europe, the Nile Valley, the Pacific Islands, and the Greater Amazonia.
We know that, once the full Neolithic package of crops and domesticated animals was established in the Fertile Crescent, farming spread from Anatolia to the Balkans and southern Europe starting around 8000 BCE. Shortly thereafter, farming began also spreading along the Danube corridor into central Europe starting around 6-5000 BCE, which archaeologists track using a distinctive style of pottery used by these Neolithic farmers known as Linear Pottery (or LBK, from German Linearbandkeramik).
In Europe, dense populations of foragers lived along the coasts and waterways. The first farmers avoided these established centers of population, moving instead into the empty spaces and forest clearings of central Europe that foragers weren't particularly interested in, exploiting the heavy loess soils along lakes and riverbottoms. Interestingly, it appears that many of the female skeletons found among Mesolithic hunter-gatherers during this time had grown up on terrestrial—as opposed to aquatic—resources. They speculate that there may have been a drift of women from farming to hunter-gatherer communities, either voluntarily or involuntarily (most likely the latter based on fortifications surrounding Neolithic villages). One is reminded of the flight of certain people—especially women—from colonists in early America to join the Native Americans.
The first farming populations of Europe didn't immediately take over. In fact, after moving into central Europe, after an initial boom, farming populations absolutely cratered, nearly dying out between 5000 and 4500 BCE. There is also evidence of widespread violence and conflict. Some outposts may have survived only through intermarriage with local hunter-gatherers. Only after a 1,000-year pause did cereal farming once again gradually start to spread throughout central and northern Europe.
...cereal farming...underwent some important changes during its transfer from Southwest Asia to central Europe via the Balkans. Originally there were three kinds of wheat (einkorn, emmer and free threshing) and two kinds of barley (hulled and naked) under cultivation, but also five different pulses (pea, lentil, bitter vetch, chickpea and grass pea). By contrast, the majority of Linear Pottery sites contain just glume wheats (emmer and einkorn) and one or two kinds of pulse. The Neolithic economy had become increasingly narrow and uniform, a diminished subset of the Middle Eastern original. Furthermore, the loess landscapes of central Europe offered little topographical variability and few opportunities to add new resources, while dense forager populations limited expansion toward the coasts.
Almost everything came to revolve around a single food web for Europe's earliest farmers. Cereal-farming fed the community. Its by-products—chaff and straw—provided fuel, fodder for their animals, as well as basic materials for construction, including temper for pottery and daub for houses. Livestock supplied occasional meat, dairy and wool, as well as manure for gardens.
With their wattle-and-daub longhouses and sparse material culture, these first European farming communities bear a peculiar resemblance to the rural peasant societies of much later areas. Most likely, they were also subject to some of the same weaknesses—not just periodic raiding from the outside, but also internal labour crunches, soil exhaustion, disease and harvest failures across a whole string of like-for-like communities, with little scope for mutual aid. (272-273)
Egypt represents a "cattle before crops" scenario, where inhabitants adopted nomadic pastoralism beginning around 4000-5000 BCE. Pastoralism was integrated into a riparian way of life centered around fishing and hunting waterfowl. The Sahara at this time was still a lush region of wetlands, marshes and grasslands, which would dramatically change once the monsoon shifted. Cereal crops like millet and sorghum were sown near abundant water supplies and harvested during the dry season when pastoralists settled down near riverbeds and wadis, erecting tumuli that were the ancestors of Egypt’s later stone monuments. Cereal farming became more important as the Sahara gradually dried out, forcing inhabitants to migrate into the fertile floodplains of the Nile Valley and Delta. Long before there were cities of the living, cities of the dead sprang up along the Nile corridor, attesting to a longstanding obsession with the afterlife which became a central feature of later Egyptian culture.
These first African farmers reinvented the Neolithic in their own image. Cereal cultivation was relegated to a minor pursuit (regaining its status only centuries later), and the idea that one's social identity was represented by hearth and home was largely thrown out too. In their place came a quite different Neolithic: supple, vibrant and travelling on the hoof.
This new form of Neolithic economy relied heavily on livestock-herding, combined with annual rounds of fishing, hunting and foraging on the rich floodplain of the Nile, and in the oases and seasonal streams (wadis) of what are now the neighboring deserts which were then still watered by annual rains. Herders moved periodically in and out of this 'Green Sahara', both west and east to the Red Sea coast.
Complex systems of bodily display developed. New forms of personal adornment employed cosmetic pigments and minerals, prospected from the adjacent deserts, and a dazzling array of beadwork, combs, bangles and other ornaments made of ivory and bone, all richly attested in Neolithic cemeteries running the length of the Nile Valley, from Central Sudan to Middle Egypt. (264)
In Asia, rice and millet farming cultures expanded out of Taiwan and southeast Asia, spreading across the Pacific starting around 1600 BCE. They picked up a variety of other crops during their voyages, building stilt houses along lagoons and riverbanks where they cleared garden plots and raised pigs. Like other farming expansions, they largely avoided places which already had dense indigenous populations. As in Europe, they brought with them a distinctive pottery style which allows archaeologists to track their movements, which eventually spread over 5000 miles east to Polynesia. Their cultures featured elaborate feather headdresses, jewelry made from shells, and tattooing.
Known as the 'Lapita horizon’, this precocious expansion—which called into being the world's first deep-ocean outrigger canoes—is often connected to the spread of Austronesian languages. Rice and millet, poorly suited to tropical climates, were jettisoned in its early stages of dispersal. But as the Lapita horizon advanced, their place was taken by a rich admixture of tubers and fruit crops encountered along the way, together with a growing menagerie of of animal domesticates (pigs, joined by dogs and chickens; rats too hitched along for the ride). These species travelled with the Lapita colonists to previously uninhabited islands—among them Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa—where they put down roots (quite literally, in the case of taro and other tubers).
On virgin islands and beside vacant lagoons they founded their villages, comprising houses perched on stilts. With stone adzes, a mainstay of their travelling toolkit, they cleared patches of forest to make gardens for their crops—taroes, yams and bananas—which they supplanted with animal domesticates and a rich diet of fish, shellfish and marine turtles, wild birds and fruit bats. (265)
In Greater Amazonia, as already mentioned, the inhabitants practiced farming in a loose and flexible manner, moving in and out of cultivation and combining it with seasonal foraging. There was little desire to produce fully domesticated varieties of crops, which remained in a semi-wild state. Instead, they adopted hybrid methods of cultivation like agroforestry, arranging nature to do much of the work for them which allowed a greater degree of mobility than most other farming cultures. They planted doorstep gardens and small forest clearings near settlements to grow a diverse variety of cultivars, enriched with soils created from organic by-products. While they didn't have domesticated animals, they did keep tame animals like monkeys, parrots and peccaries as pets which went with them wherever they traveled.
In the lowland tropics of South America...they spent the rainy season on riverside villages, clearing gardens and orchards to grow a panoply of crops including sweet and bitter manioc, maize, tobacco, beans, cotton, groundnuts, gourds, and more besides. Cultivation was a relaxed affair, with little effort spent on keeping different species apart.
As the dry season commenced, these tangled house gardens were abandoned altogether. The entire group dispersed into small nomadic bands to hunt and forage, only to begin the whole process again the following year, often in a different location...From 500 BC, this neotropical mode of food production expanded from its heartlands on the Orinoco and Rio Negro, tracking river systems through the rainforest, and ultimately becoming established all the way from Bolivia to the Antilles. Its legacy is clearest in the distribution of living and historical groups speaking languages of the Arawak family. (267-268)
The impression one gets is of an enormous diversity of methods and techniques, each especially adapted to the unique environments practitioners found themselves in. There was no one-size-fits-all approach. From the outrigger canoes, pigs and tubers of the Pacific, to the cattle and sorghum of the Nile Valley, to the barley, sheep and goats of central Europe, to the tropical forest gardens of South America—each of these represent an entirely different approach to farming—some serious; others “playful”. That diversity is often missing from Big Picture accounts, which flatten all of this history into a unitary lifestyle spreading uncontrollably around the globe like a virus. The reality on the ground, however, as the Davids remind us, was quite different.
In the end, like other parts of the book, I find myself divided.
I think that Graeber and Wengrow's granular account of the rise and spread of farming is most certainly the correct one, and far more accurate than how it’s usually portrayed in history books, even if a few details may be off here and there. That's why I wanted to cover it. It’s fascinating and well-written.
But it's worth noting that, as far as I know, this is also the universal view among scholars, archaeologists, and historians. It's now widely accepted that there was no “aha” moment when we discovered the ability to grow crops or domesticate animals. It's obvious that we knew how to domesticate animals for thousands of years before we bothered doing it to herd animals, because dogs had already been domesticated for thousands of years by that point. Nor was this an invention that immediately transformed human history in a short, abrupt time frame like the invention of the steam engine (which still took centuries to refine and develop and further centuries to be fully integrated into production). Instead, scholars now generally accept the idea that cultivation stated out as a relatively minor supplement to hunting and gathering activities, gradually becoming more and more important over an immensely long time frame.
But in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Farming did end up taking over the world, after all, and nearly all of us today are utterly dependent upon domesticated plants and animals to survive. The total biomass of domesticated plants and animals far outweighs their wild counterparts by a large margin. Farming allowed populations to drastically increase their food supplies beyond what nature alone could provide, even with extensive environmental modifications used by hunter-gatherers like burning, pruning, weeding, and water diversion. Of course they didn't know the end result of all this at the time, but that's beside the point.
There's something in math called the rule of 70. It says that if something is growing exponentially at 1 percent, it will double in roughly 70 years. Increase the percentage and you divide it by 70 to find out the doubling time. So something growing exponentially at 2 percent will double in 35 years, for example (70/2 = 35).
But it works the other way, too. For under 1 percent growth, you simply multiply. So something growing exponentially at 0.1 percent (a tenth of a percent) will double in roughly 700 years. And when we're talking about thousands and thousands of years, it's easy to see that almost imperceptibly small changes will add up to massive changes over a long enough time frame. So of course it was a slow process. But that doesn't make it any less relevant.
Graeber and Wengrow address this toward the end of these chapters. They write:
...while some modern historians may allow themselves the luxury of disposing with 'a few short millennia' here or there, we can hardly extend this attitude to the prehistoric actors whose lives we are trying to understand. (233)...Pretending it was all just some kind of very extended transition or rehearsal for the advent of 'serious' agriculture is to miss the real point. (239)
You can't simply jump from the beginning of the story to the end, and then just assume you know what happened in the middle. Well, you can, but then you are slipping back into the various fairy tales we've been dealing with throughout this book. (274)
If I understand what they are saying, it's that if you skip to end without describing the process in detail, it becomes no more than a 'fairy tale' (or a 'just-so' story). But is that really true? The Davids are telling one story, and the authors of Big History just happen to be telling a different story. Both stories are important in their own right, but that doesn't make one any more true than another.
It's certainly important for a variety of reasons to understand how the process of farming actually unfolded. The Dawn of Everything fills a gap that is missing from most popular accounts of the so-called “Agricultural Revolution.” As Walter Scheidel notes in his review, "directing the spotlight at hybrid forager-farmers and at developmental lags, detours and hiatuses is a worthy goal, and bound to enhance our understanding of historical dynamics."
Where I agree with them is that farming alone did not lead to inequality and hierarchy. But does anyone really think that it did? I don't think many scholars working in these fields would accept that simplistic explanation. Instead, we know that things like economic and population growth, specialization, technological changes, interdependence, and ideological attitudes played important roles as well. In simple farming economies like that of Neolithic Çatalhöyük—where everyone was essentially either a farmer or herder—it makes sense that there was not a whole lot of room for vast gaps in status to develop. You need more than that.
I think of it like oxygen. Without oxygen, there is no fire. You need oxygen for combustion to take place—it can't happen in the absence of oxygen. But clearly just because oxygen is present doesn't mean there is a fire, just as surpluses alone don't guarantee inequality. You need a number of other factors for a fire to occur such as a fuel source, accelerants, a spark, and so forth. The actual path to inequality may be “unclear”, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to understand it better. Agriculture played a role to be sure, but not the only role, and perhaps not even the most important one.
Once incipient specialization began to become more widespread, there was a lot more room for inequality to emerge. Similarly, burgeoning military conflict between societies was also a factor. In fact, we know that inequality isn't associated with the earliest experiments in farming and domestication, which were not vastly different from the food procurement strategies which preceded them. Rather, it was actually during the Bronze Age when inequality took a dramatic leap upward. By looking exclusively at the earliest Stone Age farming communities, it's easy to debunk the relationship between agriculture and inequality, but their snapshot in time just happens to be before inequality seriously took off. That might give us just as distorted a picture as the Big History authors.
With the Bronze Age came increasing specialization as people developed “secondary products” like wine, wool, dairy products and hides, leading to more extensive trade. More sophisticated economies led to the need for advanced coordination methods beyond what was required for simple agricultural economies like those of the Stone Age. Metalworking was a particularly specialized skill, which also fomented trade since copper and tin are usually found in different regions. With bronze tools came more agricultural efficiency, which led to booming populations. With bronze weapons, too, came more effective methods of warfare (along with horse domestication). All of these factors played perhaps just as large a role as agriculture in the subsequent development of inequality, but they are not explored in the book. Graeber and Wengrow have indeed debunked the naïve notion of farming = inequality, but that view doesn't really reflect the opinion of most scholars anymore. It might seem like Big History authors are pushing that view, but that's only because they are telescoping thousands of years of human history by definition.
In the end, farming produces more calories per unit of land, and calories equals energy. When we think of societies as superoganisms which seek to maximize their energy inputs, we enter a higher level of abstraction which gives us a different understanding than archaeologists trying to accurately reconstruct what happened on the ground. Both of those approaches are valuable, neither one moreso than the other, and the latter is what Big History authors are trying to convey. I can't help but think there's a lot of talking past each other going on here between the Davids and the people and ideas they are so desperately trying to “debunk”.
Peter Turchin writes about this phenomenon in this post: "In several regions into which first European farmers spread (this is known as the LBK culture) we see, as expected, an initial population boom, resulting from a more productive economy. But instead of leveling off, the boom was abruptly followed by a bust...While we know that population busts in early farming societies were a frequent occurrence, we don’t yet know whether such cycles were universal, or whether there were periods and places when population levels stabilized for long periods of time."
A study comparing levels of inequality between the Old World and Pre-Columbian America found that inequality levels were much higher in the Old World. The researchers attributed this to the presence of domesticated and draft animals, which did not exist in the Americas. So farming clearly had an impact on inequality, and it's foolish to deny that. See: Rising inequality charted across millennia (Science Daily)
An excellent post, as always! Your post hints at the key differences between flood irrigation agriculture and. plow agriculture. When it comes to the mysteries of Çatalhöyük, the introduction of the iron plow may have transformed their more egalitarian flood farming society to hierarchal plow farming, which, as you mentioned, requires land ownership and partitioned land. Also, planting went from "women's work" of sowing the ground to "man's work" working cattle and plows. I wish I could find the sources, but I've read several articles about this dynamic.
Do we understand why it took so long for humans to discover metallurgy? I know iron smelting requires more advanced technology, but bronze shouldn't have taken as long as it should have, intuition would say.