One of the bigger mysteries in modern anthropology is the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to agricultural-based settlements. This is known as the “Agricultural Revolution”. There are as many ideas and theories for the independent and relatively sudden transition from hunter-gatherer to settlements dependent of farming, as there are anthropologists who have pondered the issue. There are proposals for external factors vs. internal (social, cultural, economic) factors; global conditions vs. local conditions; climate related vs. population related; or a combination of circumstances: maybe even just the “it’s time” factor.
The issue is the transition all happening at roughly the same time – about 10,000 years ago, give or take, in Europe, Mesoamerica, the Andean cultures, Egypt, the Middle East, Asia, etc. especially in the Fertile Crescent, N.E. China and Central America. Only North America (with the exception of the eastern half of what would become the United States), Australia and the far northern regions, like Siberia, retained for the most part a nomadic lifestyle.
But the really anomalous thing is that ever since our ancestors came down out of the trees and started walking upright, for all those millions of years, until roughly 10,000 years ago, we were hunter-gatherers or nomads. Then all of a sudden, wham, we settle down and raise crops and become ‘civilized’ just about universally across the social, cultural and geographical board. No one really has solid evidence to explain why.
The only idea NOT given or advanced is in fact the very one which human culture’s themselves give – in their global mythologies. Agriculture (including the domestication of various species of wildlife – cattle, sheep, goats, horses, etc.) was a gift from their gods. Human mythologies presumably written down and/or orally passed from one human generation to the next human generation, gives no credit to humans for the transition. Humans rarely pass up an opportunity to pat themselves of the back, but this is an exception to that generality.
Humans have certain basic needs: air, water, sleep, certain temperature range and food. We’re instant experts at breathing (air) and sleeping. We don’t need to seek out, grow or harvest these. We have some control over temperature, and water supplies are usually pretty constant – rivers, springs, lakes, ponds, etc. Food is the dicey item.
The hunter-gatherer method of finding food takes less effort than agricultural tilling-the-fields settlements, so why settlements and why the shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture is relatively short time frames in diverse parts of the world. Well, what the gods want, the gods get. And if the gods give you a gift, by the gods you’d better make use of it!
These gods (a sampling) oversaw and gave the gift of agriculture to humans thus explaining our transition from hunter-gatherers to settlements and civilization.
* Ninurta was the god of agriculture in the ancient Near East who taught all about crop production.
* Kumarbi: The Hittites had Kumarbi, the father of the gods and a grain deity.
* Osiris (Ancient Egypt): Before being bumped off and dismembered by his brother Seth (Set), and reassembled and resurrected by his sister-wife Isis, and promoted to god of the underworld, he was the god of agriculture who taught men (and women) how to raise corn and vines. That’s why ancient Egyptians depicted him with green skin.
* Ceres was the Roman goddess of grain and agricultural fertility (from which we get the term cereal).
* Demeter was the Greek goddess and counterpart to Ceres; she was the goddess of corn, crops and fruit groves as well as fertility of the fields who taught humans agriculture.
* Triptolemus, under the direction and guidance of Demeter, brought people the gift of wheat and who spread the benefits of agriculture around the world.
* Chaac was the Mayan god of rain, hence a patron of agriculture like maize and vegetables and hence fertility.
* Xipe Totec was the Aztec god of maize and vegetation.
* Viracocha was a top Inca god who walked among humans, and, among other subjects, instructed students on agriculture. Further, Viracocha fathered two deities, Inti and Mama Quilla, who in turn had an offspring Manco Capac, the first Inca ruler, who also taught agriculture to his human subjects. The odd thing about Viracocha, the highest god in the Inca pantheon, was that he was depicted as pale, bearded with Caucasian features and with green eyes. This is quite akin to the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl (Kakalcan to the Mayan and otherwise known throughout Mesoamerica under various aliases).
They both, Viracocha and Quetzalcoatl departed their respective regions to head over and across the sea with an “I’ll be back” promise. That the Aztecs mistook the Spaniard Cortes for the return of Quetzalcoatl# speaks volumes about what Quetzalcoatl looked like – white, bearded, with Caucasian features. Alas, the enigma here is that there never was any cultural contact between Mesoamerica and the Incas, so why the similarity between Viracocha and Quetzalcoatl? Some New Agers view these white bearded deities of the Americas, who mysteriously vanish, as Jesus in the flesh. That aside, the important point is that Viracocha was a travelling professor of agriculture.
* Shennong: In Chinese mythology there’s Shennong, the farmer god who invented the plough and taught people how to farm.
* Inari was in Shinto Japanese mythology a rice and fertility god.
* Bulul was a Philippines rice god who looked over seeds and the harvest.
* Nummo or Nommo (hybrid creatures) of the African Dogon culture of Mali were teachers (from the star Sirius according to some) who taught farming to mankind.
Of course what our ancient ancestors viewed as supernatural gods and goddesses, we think of them today more akin to flesh-and-blood extraterrestrials (‘ancient astronauts’) who came to Earth long ago with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal humans of that era. The ‘gods’ would have conducted their worldwide agricultural tutorials at roughly the same time, say about 10,000 years ago. Being practical, they ignored regions impractical for low-tech sustainable agriculture like vast deserts, the tundra, tropical rain forests, etc.
Now the obvious question is why would the ‘gods’ want to give us the gift of agriculture in the first place? That can probably be summed up by the Biblical phrase “be fruitful and multiply”. In a hunter-gatherer society, babies are a burden. They contribute no labour, consume resources, and divert time and energy required for their care away from the daily survival tasks at hand. Since you have to carry your newborn brat around, being a nomadic troop, it hinders your hunting-gathering, so it is best to keep your brats well spaced – every four or five years apart minimum, so one brat can start to contribute a bit to the greater good before your next one pops out into the world.
But once in a settlement scenario, with a reliable food supply, you can start dropping your little bundles of joy nearly every year. There will be the establishment of a sort of child care centre or facility where one person, unable for health or elderly reasons to work the fields can look after all the little darlings, leaving mum free to toil away in the rice paddies or whatever. Though infant mortality will take its toll in either a hunter-gatherer society or in a settlement community, the more frequently bundles are dropped, the faster the population will increase; more workers to produce new and widen fields already under cultivation; build buildings, etc. And of importance too, once you take up a settlement way of life, then you have a need to defend that territory since a lot of sweat and toil went into staking out the community’s land claim and making it productive. A rapid population increase makes defending your turf easier.
But what’s in it for the ‘gods’? Two things – first mythologies around the world are full of references that the ‘gods’ created humans to do the hard work, just like the CEO and Board of Directors of a mining company hires the great unwashed to actually do the hard work – go down into the mines with picks and shovels, etc. while the CEO and company watches from on high: more population – more workers. That’s probably the real reason Adam and Eve got booted out of Eden and directed to start the daily grind and toil of farming (Genesis 3:23). It was probably all a setup from the get-go.
Secondly, what do ‘gods’ want? Well, to be worshiped. Do you get a greater buzz out of a hundred people bowing and scraping down and building small monuments to you, or a thousand or a million doing the same and building great big monuments to your glory? No dictator ever wants to appear in public and not have anyone turn out to render a worshiping salute.
Having achieved their objective, well it’s on to the next inhabited planet for another challenge in civilizing the great unwashed.
And so, thanks to the ‘gods’, or ‘ancient astronauts’, most of us no longer have to wander the lands in search of our daily bread!
# In all fairness, not all scholars believe there actually was a connection.