In the long-awaited, final installment of his God's Garden series, Christopher Ash demonstrates how Graham Hancock's "Lost Civilization" accords well with some major
theories by which the origin of agriculture has been explained. Furthermore, those theories receive additional support from (and thus perhaps imply) the presumed
existence of a "Lost Civilization" in pre-history, a postulate advocated by Hancock in his latest book, "Underworld."
Part 5: Feast or Famine?
Nowhere in the world are there any signs of agriculture during the 100,000 years prior to the Holocene but, suddenly, with the close of the Ice Age,
agriculture is everywhere. Why?
Lewis Binford was the first Anthropologist to trace the
origin of agriculture to the rise in sea level that occurred at the close of the Ice Age. According to Binford, agricultural methods were developed, not as the
consequence of coincident climate change, but as the result of population pressure induced, in part, by
the forced migration of post-Ice-Age refugees from the coasts.
Binford even went so far as to speculate that some of these displaced communities might have formerly been
"relatively sedentary" and maritime in character.
If Binford's migrants really were the originators of agriculture, they make a good match with Hancock's lost maritime civilization, also said to have migrated from
the coasts to the most fertile regions of the post-flood world. Hancock, in Underworld, also notes the proximity of many early centers of agriculture to those areas
of major inundation identified by
Geologist Glen Milne's computer models of Ice Age flooding.
The models of civilization's development proposed by Binford and Hancock, on the surface, appear to differ only by degree: the degree to which the culture of these
hypothetical, Ice Age maritimers was sedentist and incorporated recognizable
trappings of "civilization." Binford would no doubt err toward a conservative picture
of the past, in keeping with traditional images of hunter-gatherer society, while Hancock encourages us to entertain more radical possibilities (Binford, for
instance, would probably object to this essay's general thrust, as
he was ontemptuous of any notion that a "Garden of Eden" inspired original
The truth is that Hancock and Binford differ fundamentally. Binford's
"Functionalist Model" remains largely consistent with the
views of most anthropologists: that
"civilization" arose as a consequence of agriculture's development. Hancock seems to suggest the very opposite: that agriculture arose in response to civilization's
The scenario Hancock seems to envision in his latest book Underworld (though it is nowhere made explicit), is one where the descendants of his Ice Age maritimers (like those envisioned by Binford) devise agriculture in response to the loss of the lands of the continental shelf, whilst their Ice Age progenitors relied on agriculture for not but the most marginal, supplemental resources: that is, medicinal plants and delicacies.
Despite the central role played by agriculture in the conventional understanding of the story of civilization, Hancock, in Underworld, devotes a surprisingly small amount of space to its discussion. One gets the feeling that Hancock is not a little bit uncomfortable with the subject. His avoidance here parallels his earlier-noted reluctance to provide explanations for his hypothetical civilization's settlement patterns. Hancock seems cognizant of the fact that his grand thesis is most open to challenge in these two areas and, not having any easy answers, he tends to avoid these difficult questions.
Hancock is very honest with regard to the settlement problem, openly confessing his inability to explain why his proposed civilization settled where it did, but he is less forthcoming when dealing with the problem of the origin of agriculture.
The lack of agricultural technology during the Ice Age poses a problem to Hancock because, without it, it is difficult to see how substantial, urban communities could have been possible.
It is a truism of anthropologists that agriculture is a prerequisite of sedentism; that, without agriculture, a nomadic lifestyle is mandatory. This, however, is an overstatement. Urban community requires only a renewable, local food source, in supplies sufficient to reliably sustain a fixed and contiguous population. The source and means of supply would seem immaterial.
Agriculture, as a means of sustenance, is a specific technology by which quantities of food are induced from the soil in excess of that which the soil produces of its own accord. As such, it is an artificial means of generating a renewable, local food source. It cannot be said that, by definition, a non-artificial (that is, natural) means is impossible, though such a means be unknown or undiscovered. Were natural soils capable of generating such a food supply, urban communities could develop (indeed, they might be expected to) without recourse to agriculture.
Therefore, two choices are open to Hancock. He can challenge the accepted chronology of agriculture or he can propose some alternative means by which sizable urban communities might have been sustained in the Ice Age world. Unfortunately, in Underworld, he does neither.
What Hancock appears to see as his thesis' weakness (consequently giving it scant treatment), may actually be its greatest strength. His implicit proposal that agriculture was unknown to his hypothetical "Lost Civilization" constitutes the first characteristic ascribed to that ancient culture by which it may be differentiated from all (or most) communities of the Holocene world. As such, this characteristic might serve to explain the idiosyncratic settlement pattern he ascribes to these ancient mariners (that is, their confinement to specific coastal territories) for, in all human social groups -- both nomadic and sedentist - settlement patterns are dictated by modes of sustenance.
Not too long ago, most anthropologists assumed that humans developed agriculture in response to deprivation. What might be called the "Garden of Eden scenario," handed down to us through Judea-Christian mythology, placed the first humans within an abundant natural world that later fell into deprivation and decay, thus forcing our first parents to turn to the tilling of the soil. This view seems intuitive and, for long, scientists who considered the problem of civilization's origin supported it. British anthropologist V. Gordon Childe, who in 1925 coined the phrase, "Neolithic Revolution,"
imagined an original fertile world that was later struck by an Ice Age,
prompting the development of agriculture in response.
There are today still some anthropologists who argue for a similar model, but the temporal windows and geographical regions into which they place their "golden age," have grown progressively smaller. The reason being, we now know that for most of the time in which Homo Sapiens Sapiens inhabited this planet, the world was in a deep freeze. Thus the hypothetical Eden gets shoehorned, into theoretical "Oases," snuggly between the Ice Age and the Younger Dryas (11,000 to 10,000 BP) - the latter period bringing
a sudden and disastrous cold-snap to the general warming trend of the early Holocene.
Today, most anthropologists see
the available evidence running contrary to this "Oasis Theory."
The climate preceding the Younger Dryas appears insufficiently superior to that of the evolving Holocene to have inspired any myth of a golden age or to have afforded natural food stuffs in any quantity greater than those available in our modern world. Rather than for the worse, conditions seem to have taken a drastic turn for the better at precisely the moment that agriculture got off the ground and, ever since, the world climate has tended to generally "improve."
Nevertheless, Childe and his supporters just may have things right; at least, partly so. After all, his model makes such good sense.
Imagine three playing cards.
On the first card is written the phrase, "Need for Surplus," on the second, "Agriculture" and on the third, "Urban Community." Each card represents a stage in the development of a hypothetical civilization. The "Need for Surplus" card signifies some want for a food supply greater than that which is needed to meet the immediate needs of individual members of the community; the "Agriculture" card refers to the development of agricultural technologies; and the "Urban Community" card represents the emergence of a fixed, local, contiguous population.
Asked to arrange these cards in chronological order (that is, the order in which each stage is encountered by an emerging civilization),
which ought to be placed first? Which last?
Or some other combination?
If one begins with a presumed need for surplus, how is this need explained without the pre-existence of an Urban Community? Why would nomadic hunter gathers ever desire a surplus?
On the other hand, if one explains the need for surpluses by beginning with an Urban Community, how is the rise of the latter explained in the absence of Agriculture?
This conundrum has led some anthropologists to introduce what might be called, in keeping with this thought experiment, a "Wild Card:" Chance Surplus.
This model proposes that the first surpluses arose by chance, in separate locations all over the world, once the earth's environment became amenable to their occasional generation at the close of the Ice Age.
This currently quite popular model goes something like this…
- [Chance Surplus] Nomadic humans, accidentally discharge gathered fruit and vegetable materials near the seasonal settlement. During the Ice Age, the germination of these seeds is unreliable, due to unpredictable climate conditions (thus for millennia, the accident leaves no lasting cultural effect). Once the climate stabilizes however, at the beginning of the Holocene, such randomly discharged seeds begin to sprout reliably, year after year.
- [Agriculture] This happy accident makes the gathering of resources in subsequent years easier and the "harvest," more abundant. Resourceful and inventive humans notice the natural process and begin to repeat it with intention.
- [Urban Community] Soon, many communities no longer need to migrate in search of food but, through the mastery of storage techniques, are able to survive in a fixed location. Moreover, an aristocracy of supervisors emerges, necessary to organize the collection and storage of food reserves.
- [Need for Surplus] The adopted sedentary mode of living, an "Urban Community," demands a continuation of the agricultural habit - permanently locking civilization into the cycle of planting and harvest.
This may well be an accurate model. However, a number of objections are immediately obvious.
First, the model requires of the Ice Age,
a climate so harsh as to render impossible the reliable generation of chance
surpluses anywhere in the world. To some extent, the climate data provides support for the assumption in the broad sense - however it is somewhat problematic to argue, and difficult to confirm, the universal presence of such conditions for tens of millennia. Though possible, it seems unlikely that no place on earth provided a suitable region for reliable cultivation cycles, regardless of the broader climate.
Second, the model requires that a complex interaction between the natural world and human ingenuity take place almost simultaneously, for many distinct peoples all over the planet. While isolated cultures might occasionally develop in parallel, it stretches credulity to imagine multiple parallels, of such complexity, occurring in near perfect synchronicity.
Third, this model fails to explain the process of domestication, which by definition,
implies the movement of plants from one environment into another.
Where a foodstuff easily grows with abundance, domestication is unnecessary (and actually, impossible). It is only when a plant (or animal, for that matter) is moved
to an environment generally inhospitable to its reproduction that humans need to intervene in the process of regeneration. In an environment naturally conducive to a particular plant's growth, no change in the plant genome would
The only alternative to transplantation is climate change, which might then prompt already sedentary humans to intervene in the maintenance of plants, now endangered
by a suddenly upturned environment. Unfortunately, this apparent "solution" would make a chaotic climate, rather than a stable one, most conducive to encouraging agricultural technologies.
A fourth objection is fundamental.
Recent anthropological studies of ancient human skeletons indicate that reliance upon agriculture had a generally negative impact upon human health and life expectancy. Other studies suggest that, in contrast with hunting and gathering, agriculture required longer hours and greater physical effort to provide just simple sustenance. This evidence strikes at the very heart of the model's primary assumption: that the proximity of artificially induced growth made resource gathering easier. It simply did not.
Yet, perhaps the biggest difficulty existent in this model, and all others that rely on climate change to explain the rise of agriculture, is found in the notion that
sets the foundation for the theory: that the Earth's climate, at the end of the Ice Age, somehow "improved."
If we accept this proposition then we must also accept a rather strange set of circumstances for Homo sapiens as a species.
Apparently, for fifty to a hundred thousand years or more, modern humans dwelt on a planet with a climate so
"harsh," "desolate" and "chaotic" that plants suitable for human consumption could be made to grow reliably neither by fortunate accident nor by force of human will. Then, when the environment finally "improved," rather than taking advantage of the vast expanses of new and untouched natural food resources awaiting nomadic exploitation, human beings, en mass, switched to a less-healthy and more-difficult form of sustenance - one which actually required some ingenuity to invent.
To put it bluntly, this does not make the least bit of sense.
The peoples of the Ice Age, who are said to have endured a chaotic climate that propelled them from region to region in a never-ending search for food, should have most appreciated agriculture. These were people who would have truly benefited from a technology by which reliable surpluses might have been generated on demand. Yet, they did not pursue such technologies. Instead, the inventors of agriculture were the people of the climatically stable, Holocene world: the inheritors of vast, unexploited and newly fertile lands, ripe for nomadic exploitation.
Impossible for those who needed it most; inevitable for those who needed it least: such is the paradox of agriculture when its origin is made dependent on
Arguments, such as this, that rely upon posited impossibilities for human beings, are inherently weak (human ingenuity being what it seems, should our ancestors have wanted to grow potatoes on ice caps, surely they would have devised some method of doing so?). Stronger arguments are founded in human need. Thus, the failure of agriculture to emerge in the Ice Age has one obvious though ill-considered solution: it was not needed
Agriculture, like all technology, is unlikely to have emerged in a world in which it had no benefit to confer. History records many frustrated inventors who gave the world fascinating devices that, though technically ingenious, were left unexploited, simply because the tool met no apparent need within the wider cultural context.
Thus, the development of agriculture, if it follows the pattern established by historical technologies, presumes a preexistent unmet need for surpluses. One can generate as many chance surpluses as one likes but unless those surpluses appear in a society with a pre-existent need for surpluses, they will never lead to agriculture. The solution cannot precede its need.
Where do the other "cards" fit in?
Borrowing the anthropologist's "Wild Card," the deck may now be slightly rearranged. Retaining the accidental surplus as the starting point, we proceed first into urban civilization, then into a need for surplus, and finally, the development of agriculture, as a response to this need.
Here is how the model works.
- [Chance Surplus] Human society begins in a uniquely abundant environment that generates surpluses without any artificial inducement.
- [Urban Community] This circumstance of natural surplus gives rise to Urban Civilization in its midst - and does so immediately.
- [Need for Surplus] After some millennia of social stability, the natural food supplies deteriorate - either gradually or catastrophically.
- [Agriculture] In response to this change in the environment, adaptive and resourceful human beings invent a technological means of generating the surpluses upon which they have come to depend.
And thus we return to Childe's "Oasis Theory," which would seem a good model were the primary objections answered: a suitable location for the first such communities proposed, and the temporal restriction on the fertile period expanded (it being assumed the 1,000 years of warm and wet, prior to the Younger Dryas, too brief and too limited in direct impact to have fostered global cultural change).
Being in precisely the right place (globally) and available over precisely the right time, the outer margins of the continental shelf, exposed exclusively during the long, glacial period and submerged at the beginning of the Holocene, suggest a solution to both problems. The temporal pattern of shelf exposure exactly parallels that of agricultural development: at no time while the shelf is exposed do we find evidence of agriculture and immediately after the shelf is submerged we find agricultural technologies appearing over the whole of the earth.
On first glance, it is tempting to conclude that these apparently correlating phenomena are but twin effects of a single, primary cause: that is, the same warming that melted the Ice Caps also made the climate sufficiently stable for agriculture. This has generally been the assumption
of anthropologists interested in the subject.
There is another possibility however. Rather than being its sibling, the rise in global sea levels, fostered by climate change, may be, as Binford suggested, the direct parent of agriculture.
This essay has presented a case for the existence, during the Ice Age, of a world characterized by concentrated bounty. If the hypothesis regarding the high productive capacity of certain flat, lowlands, lying below the Eemian/Holocene waterline holds true, there is every reason to suspect that this land was capable of naturally generating reliable foodstuffs even in the context of a chaotic global climate.
If so (and admittedly, that has yet to be conclusively established), climate change is probably the wrong place to look for clues to the origin of agriculture. It is more likely that loss of habitat provided the impetus for this behavioral adaptation of Homo sapiens.
Thus a radical new view of human pre-history emerges: one where the fertile continental shelf becomes the "natural habitat" of our species (and perhaps of all Hominids) and Urban, sedentism becomes
our natural state (rather than hunting and gathering, which has been grossly exaggerated in scope by studies limited to what were inland areas during most of
It was already-settled lowland communities that were displaced by the floods of the early Holocene, and already urbanized migrants who made their way to the higher ground of inland regions. Having lost access to the only soils on earth capable of sustaining settled communities with natural surpluses, an adaptive mechanism was required to extract, from the comparably infertile inland soils, quantities of food those soils were incapable of producing in the absence of human intervention. The adaptive system our ancestors devised was agriculture. Transplanting themselves; they too became a domesticated strain: of Hominid.
This new "flood model" of agricultural development requires two things: regions of abundance on the Ice Age continental shelves (a case for which, this essay has endeavored to make) and, sustained by those resources, sedentary human communities of some size, capable of organized adaptive efforts. These communities need not have been large nor need they have been "advanced," in the sense in which that term is normally employed. They need only have been non-nomadic fixtures on the landscape, unaccustomed to a nomadic lifestyle and thus eager to develop a technology to allow for the maintenance of the sedentary existence to which they were inclined.
Unfortunately, we still lack evidence for the existence of these communities. However, if the thesis outlined in this essay has any validity, this can no longer be characterized as surprising.
Due to the distribution of fertile soils outlined previously, and trade links that ocean travel facilites, these early populations should have concentrated on the
outer rim of the shelf. Thus it is likely that excess population, rather than moving upriver, followed the path of least-resistance along the coasts, moving laterally
inline with the narrow vein of fertile soils running along extensive but limited stretches of the shoreline.
If anthropologists are correct in concluding that agriculture was unknown to the pre-Holocene world, urban communities would have been virtually impossible above the Eemian/Holocene waterline (as they are, in fact, impossible today - in the absence of artificial methods by which the carrying-capacity of the local soils may be increased). As for the continental shelf, the data is insufficient to reach any conclusion regarding its natural carrying capacity. However, the argument presented elsewhere in this paper suggests there is every reason to suspect its capacity was significantly higher than that of any known natural soil.
If Urban Communities existed during the Ice Age, there is only one place on earth in which they could have done so: the coastal margins. Moreover, the existence of such communities would provide a simple and elegant explanation for the origin of agriculture, allowing for the marriage of "Oasis Theory" with "Functionalist" Push/Pull Models.
It is somewhat surprising to find, now united, the seemingly competing theories of two of the 20th century's most-influential anthropologists. It is even more disconcerting to realize that this union is made possible by the postulate of an Ice Age "Lost Civilization," such as proposed by the unlikely Graham Hancock.
Is this how the ancients understood the 'Habitable World?' In the absence of agricultural technologies, Ice Age India might have appeared an
archipelago of fertile "Islands" floating between two barren seas: one of water and one of earth.
All attempts to explain the rise of agriculture in human society, by climatic models, have assumed that the end of the Ice Age produced conditions more suited to sedentary farming - while the harsh and chaotic Ice Age world limited the availability of arable lands, making domestic food production impossible or less productive.
These models are all quite interesting. However, they are also all quite inadequate - for reasons outlined. These models are also completely at odds with everything our ancestors have ever told us about our past. Advocacy of such models requires a complete disregard for this ancient testimony.
Once there was an Eden - so the story goes -- and, in that Eden, no man neither tilled the soil nor lived by the sweat of his brow. There, in that more-perfect place, the gods planted a garden and made available to our first parents every good thing.
Once there was a "First Time" -- so the story goes - when gods shared with us the earth in harmony, and there was no war and no discord between men.
Once there was an Atlantis -- so the story goes - and in that country, every good and perfect fruit and vegetable grew in abundance, without need of cultivation.
The ancients saw the history of their world as split violently in two by a thin demarcation line. On one side was a golden age, on the other, a world of endless effort and misery. These stories leave no room for doubt regarding their interpretation: the best the earth had to offer is now lost forever and all that man has achieved has been accomplished against a backdrop of deprivation.
Today, we presume that the climate of planet earth represents the best of all possible worlds; that any aberration from our modern ideal must have detrimental effects so far as humanity is or was concerned. We worry about the planet getting "too hot" or "too cold" as though, like some collective "Goldilocks" sampling varied bowls of porridge, our species happened to stumble upon an ecology that was "just right," at the end of an eon of unsatisfying climatic sampling.
The odd thing is; if species are endowed by evolution with traits especially adapted for their environment, then our species must best be adapted to the Ice Age - not to the Holocene. It was the Ice Age that gave birth to us and it was the Ice Age in which we thrived for the greatest breadth of our history on this planet.
Modern scholars, to describe the conditions of that lost world, use words such as "harsh" and "desolate," without ever stopping to ask why modern Human Beings could evolve in a world so unsuited to their presence. The testimony of our ancestors, however, is that such words more aptly describe our present.
Surprisingly, this testimony accords well with the evidence of modern science. If we examine the history of the planet over the past 500,000 years or so, our current epoch is clearly the aberration. The deviant climatic periods are ones such as in we live. While we speak of ages of "Ice," we ought to speak of ages of "Fire."
Such is the Holocene.
In that light, all of recorded history appears in the context of an ongoing disaster - one from which our Earth has not yet recovered. That disaster was the sudden and dramatic loss, not of the planet's "ice sheet," but of its ice shield.
Civilization had once a cradle, but from it, humanity was pushed violently and irrevocably. Agriculture arose, not because humans were able to take advantage of a
suddenly improving climate, but because humans were desperately struggling to survive in an environment so alien, we must be forgiven for failing to recognize it as our own. We are but accustomed to our condition: mistaking famine, for feast.