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The long, slow dawn of farming November 20th, 2022 by

In a recent book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow summarize recent archaeological and ethnographic literature, to rethink the start of the state, social inequality, agriculture, property, monarchies, the enlightenment, and much else.

As they explain, agriculture did not start a revolution leading immediately to cities, monarchies and stratified societies with specialized artisans. Current archaeology suggests that wheat and rice may not have been fully domesticated until 3,000 years after people first began planting these crops. The early development of farming was long and slow.

When agrarian cities did eventually emerge, they were also slow to embrace autocratic rule. The earliest Mesopotamian cities, from about 3500 BC, show no signs of royal rulers for at least their first 500 years. In ancient Ukraine, sites large enough to be called cities were occupied for at least 800 years (4100 to 3300 BC) without the palaces and lavish burials left behind by kings.

Some agrarian societies also seem to have been able to shake off authoritarian rulers.  For example, in Mexico, the ancient city of Teotihuacán was certainly led by a central authority from AD 100 to 200, when the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent were built, complete with human sacrifices during the construction. But after AD 300 signs of authoritarianism vanished: for example, human sacrifices stopped, and Teotihuacán was rebuilt to provide decent “social housing” for most of the 100,000 or so residents, until this central Mexican city was abandoned about AD 550.

On the Greek island of Crete, art from the Minoan Civilization (especially from 1700 to 1450 BC) depicts women in positions of leadership, holding staffs of command, performing fertility rites, sitting on thrones and meeting in assemblies with no men present. Graeber and Wengrow speculate that women in this classic agrarian civilization may have formed governing councils which ruled by consensus.

These (and other) examples of agriculture-and-cities without monarchies have been obscured in our current view of “Western Civilization”. Certainly in the past 2000 years, monarchs ruled with absolute power. But can these warlike states with their arrogant kings and their humiliated subjects really be called “civilized”?

“How did we get things so wrong?” Graeber and Wengrow ask, without answering their own question.

After I put the book down, I thought how we are getting it wrong a second time. True, in a way the nature of authoritarianism has changed, and concentration of power has shifted. However, world governments are allowing multinational corporations to dominate the global food supply, to have control over seeds, fertilizer, and even food processing and sales.

There are things we can do to help keep agriculture close to its democratic origins.

  • Plant a garden
  • Buy food from local, family farmers
  • Buy organic and agroecological produce
  • Support local food traditions
  • Experiment with organic soil fertility and other methods that allow you to avoid using chemicals in farming or gardening
  • Lobby your government to apply anti-trust legislation to large corporations in agriculture

Further reading

Graeber, David and David Wengrow 2021 The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Fuller, Dorian Q. 2010 An emerging paradigm shift in the origins of agriculture. General Anthropology 17(2): 1, 8-12.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

In Against the Grain, James C. Scott also concludes that early agriculture in the Near East was sustainable, based on self-governing villages for thousands of years before states developed in that cradle of civilization. Paul and I like his book so much that we have reviewed it twice:

The early state and the bad old days

Against or with nature

We have also written before about the rising food oligarchy

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GMOs by hook and by crooks

Formerly known as food

Fighting farmers

Family farms produce more food and jobs

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Our threatened farmers

The village hunter


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