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12 October, 2013

Agriculture and Bias

Orchards count as agriculture

In the past day or three, I've been reminded of how weird our understanding of agriculture is in modern America. Another blog that I regularly read, written by an educated, smart woman, linked to an article about the novel theory that the introduction of agriculture actually led to instability and population collapse in Europe. Then today, working with some other archaeologists and archaeologists-in-training, we talked about how generations of our forebears (and their cultural anthropology kin) have sworn that in the Northwest there was no indigenous agriculture or horticulture, just hunting and gathering.

Like most children of Western civilization, I was taught that the rise and refinement of agriculture allowed production of surplus, which was what allowed humanity (some of it, at least) to step off the dreary treadmill of subsistence, so that some people could become businessmen, priests, bureaucrats, artists, and all of the other divisions of labor that make up a civilization. Even among the cynical who viewed some of these jobs as blights upon humanity, there were few that argued the basic tenet that by making the transition from gathering and hunting wild foods (yes, in that order, if you are to be honest about where the calories came from) to farming domesticated crops represented an advance, creating some respite from the struggle for survival.

Only, if you look at it from an evolutionary point of view (so long, Bible Belt readers), agriculture does not provide stability. It is inherently unstable. From a diverse spectrum of wild plants, adapted to local conditions over millenia and more, people came to depend on a select and quite small group of species, using temporaryu success to grow larger human populations. Over time, this became more pronounced. Hundreds of wild starches gave way to dozens of grains and roots, and ultimately to a handful of cereals and russet potatoes, often grown outside their optimal range through generous application of non-renewable chemicals. Nomads moved to villages, which became cities and morphed into megalopolises. We stand now as the coyote did in the old road runner cartoons, over a canyon on a board nailed to a board nailed to a board, cantilevered so far out on a gamble that we are doomed to fall, unable to skitter back to solid ground. Evolution punishes monocroppers and urbanites who forgot how to find or grow their own food.

In our hubris, we have assumed that human selection can successfully replace natural selection, when in fact all domestication amounts to co-evolution. From corn's point of view, it has caused humans to adapt their behavior toward its own ends. We winnow down the gene pool to emphasize the parts that maximize kernel production, eliminating competition from weeds and even regional maize variants, maximizing acreage, extracting fossil fuel to fertilize and distribute the crop. Zea mays has domesticated and trained Homo sapiens to its benefit, not ours.

What amounts to genocide of other grains and the once diverse array of locally adapted cultivars of corn has resulted in such a narrow, patented gene pool that we are now at greatly increased risk of collapse in a major element of our food supply (and the same goes for soybeans, rice, wheat, and any other major food crop) should evolution create super-bugs, fungi, weeds, or diseases that could rip through the millions of acres planted in the same damned genome. Or maybe  the dirty work will be done by climate change, or the growing scarcity and cost of the chemical additives and artificial genetic alterations that are already deeply entrenched responses to the biological and climactic threats we already face.

Our smug modern bias that by replacing a "primitive" society (in which nearly every family produced its own diverse and locally adapted bread, vegetables, and protein) with a few corporately owned farms churning out the national output of food and food-like subtances is misplaced. Even before evolution engineers collapses in production, the elmination of diversity and removal of people from the healthful effects of working the land has created epidemics of heart disease, diabetes, and the other diseases of civilization that decrease individual fitness and create increasing drains on social resources. More angioplasty, less art.

Camas fields do not count as agriculture

But let's step back from that brink, back to the early days of agriculture. The domesticated crops all began as wild plants. As a young anthro, I was taught that this happened in a few select places: Mesopotamian cereals, Mesoamerican grains, Andean tubers, and a few others. While this select club would be expanded from time to time, membership rested on transformation of primitive forms to highly productive domesticates. People who ate "wild" foods were not agriculturalists, or even horticulturalists. They were foragers.

A prime example of that class were the indigenous tribes of the Northwest, who stood out among hunter-gatherers in having a higher level of social stratification and cultural elaboration than anthtropologists expected of tribal, non-agricultural peoples. Being an exception only proved the rule, however, since it was pointed out that a peculiar natural abundance of food, from salmon runs to camas meadows, was what allowed them to advance beyond, for example, their Great Basin counterparts.

But the more we look, and the more we listen to the Native cultures, the more we see that the Northwest tribes (and although I am ignorant of the details, I would have to suspect the tribes in other parts of the country) were not passive collectors of a random bounty. People burned meadows to return nutrients to the soil to such a degree that once-poor glacial outwash became black loam, while at the same time arresting succesional processes that would have liked to establish forest where berries and root foods grew. Harvesting techniques aerated the soil, gave next year's crop room to grow, rotated the burden of harvest, and propagated new generations of food. There was weeding and transplanting. Just because Tribal knowledge acknowledges first and foremost the role of Coyote for the origin of many foods does not mean that the actions of mortals played no role in the perpetuation of those foods. My suspicion is that the "wild" characterization of foods like camas and cous has as much to do with our lack of investigation as with absolute reality--the same people who weeded out the death camas, who harvested roots and berries over millennia, am I to believe that they never rooted out smaller, sicklier plants in favor of tastier or more productive ones? Are we supposed to think that because a food plant is found within it's "natural" range, it was not the result of transplanting or establishment of patches convenient to trails and settlements? I find that hard to swallow.

But our bias is that if a plant is native to its range (typically defined thousands of years after people began eating it, hmm...), it is wild. If it is not ridiculously oversized, the food part dwarfing the other elements, it must not be domesticated. If it is merely tended, rather than planted in rows or milpas, it is not agriculture. Our bias is that hard farming work, rather than knowledge of how best to feed off of natural systems with minor inputs, is superior.

We see what we want to see (I'll admit that I want to see humans who adapted to a place over millennia as pretty wise to its ways), and so Euro-Americans who conquered continents generally want to see that as progress. Casting agriculture as a noble effort, even as a single God's will that Man exercise dominion over the earth and its lesser creatures (Indians included), serves that goal. Defining what everyone else did as inferior helps make the stealing and subsequent transformation of the land more justifiable to most Americans, eases the guilt of wiping out thousands of little societies attuned to nature to make way for a large one attuned to itself. Bad as that particular bias may be, the one that may come back to haunt us more deeply is that other bias, the one in which we presume that civilization is always getting better, that we are exceptional, and our agriculture is smart and sustaining, rather than unstable, a dangerous taunt toward evolution.

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