The Gospel reading at Mass yesterday got me to thinking about ancient agriculture:
“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.
It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep,
and when the sun rose it was scorched,
and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Back in those days, it seems, farming was kind of haphazard. Seed was scattered in ways that today would seem quite haphazard. Whenever I read that passage, I think, why didn’t they put the seed IN the ground? Had the dibble not been invented, or what?
Which reminded me of my theory of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
It suddenly hit me as I was reading one of those books about the history of our species, from hunter-gatherer days until now — which as y’all know I frequently mention. I don’t remember whether it was Sapiens, or Guns, Germs and Steel, or what. But it was one in which the idea that the big move to agriculture was a decidedly mixed blessing.
Oh, it afforded advantages to the cultures that embraced it, in a competitive sense. As Jared Diamond stressed, the peoples who moved the earliest, and the most successfully, to food and fiber production dominate the world today. That’s how Pizarro conquered the Incan Empire with a handful of Spanish soldiers. He not only had the guns and the steel, but smallpox had spread ahead of the Conquistadores and had hit the Incas pretty hard just before he arrived. More than that, he had writing — not him personally, but the scribes he had along. He knew how Cortez had taken down the Aztecs, and followed suit. Emperor Atahualpa hadn’t known either the Spanish or the Aztecs existed.
It’s why Maori conquered and wiped out the Moriori — former Maoris whose forebears had moved away and gone back to hunter-gathering — on Chatham Island. You may not have heard about that, though, since the Maoris themselves were eventually dominated by European newcomers.
But that’s not my point. The point is that some of these things I’ve been reading make the argument that the big advantage that farming offered had a steep price. Basically, the farming life sucked compared to hunting and gathering. Before agriculture, people worked less each day, and on the whole ate better. They went about and gathered what they needed, and had plenty of time to chill after that. They didn’t think about the future. They didn’t worry about their land, or the weather over the coming months, or the price of cotton. They weren’t the slaves of the farms they worked day and night to keep going.
I was thinking about that, and suddenly it hit me — that’s what the first chapters of Genesis were about. In the Garden, Adam and Eve could just stroll around naked and eat their meals off the bounty of their property, and life was good. Then they fouled up — they couldn’t obey one simple rule — and got booted out. And then they were cursed with farming, in no uncertain terms:
Cursed is the ground because of you!
In toil you shall eat its yield
all the days of your life.
Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you,
and you shall eat the grass of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you shall eat bread,
Until you return to the ground,
from which you were taken;
For you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Which certainly sounds like a raw deal to me.
And it hit me: The people who composed the story of Adam and Eve — and later wrote it down — were on some level remembering the switch to agriculture, and saw it pretty much as Yuval Noah Harari did, thousands of years before he wrote that “the Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.” And they saw it as the ultimate human fall from natural grace.
So did I make some great discovery? No way. This was too obvious, and had been too obvious for ages. Search for “garden of eden hunter-gathering,” and you’ll see this idea all over the place. I liked this summary:
Apparently, the trauma of this transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers had a huge and lasting impact on humanity. We’ve never forgotten it. It’s burned into our consciousness. And, that’s why it’s the subject of the Bible’s foundational story. The Torah tells us that when humans were first created, we lived in the Garden of Eden, where we ate the fruit that God provided for us. We didn’t have to work hard or grow anything on our own. In other words, we were hunter-gatherers….
I don’t know where I was when everybody else was talking about it. All I can say in my own behalf is that I realized it on my own. All the talking that people do about Adam and Eve — usually, unfortunately, in the silly arguments between biblical literalists and those who think a story about the Earth being created in six days means all faith is bunk (both sides seem to have trouble grasping the concept of allegory) — and I’d never heard a reference to this.
And it sort of blew my mind. I love it when I see connections to things I had not previously seen as connected — such as the Bible’s foundational story of life on Earth, and the findings of secular scientists and philosophers in our own age — and this was the Mother of All Connections. It tied everything about the origins of humanity and our world together.
And the most amazing thing is that it appears as though the originators of the Eden story had some memory — consciously or unconsciously — about what had happened to people ages earlier, long before writing, before Abraham, much less before anthropology, archaeology, DNA testing or carbon-14 dating.
I marvel at it…