The Chan Hypothesis for the Origin of Agriculture

December 5th, 2008

One of the big debates in archaeology is the origin of agriculture. Agriculture marks an important turning point in human history: it sparked a change from nomadic to settled groups, it enabled population growth, and our modern lives depend on it. So it is natural to wonder about the hows and whys of the origin of agriculture. One theory is that hard times forced people to develop agriculture, which caused population to grow. Another theory is that population grew from good times, which forced people to develop agriculture. Yet another is that the common tradition of throwing giant feasts to show one’s own status caused people to develop agriculture to enable larger feasts (this is the least sensible, IMO).

Personally, I don’t think there is a monumental event that led to the invention of agriculture. My theory is that agriculture developed simply because it is more attractive than foraging!

Imagine you’re a forager. Every day you spend several hours hiking a few kilometers gathering nuts and fruit, and hunting small animals for food. It’s a nice life, but involves a lot of legwork (and armwork, carrying that stuff). Now, while chatting with a buddy about foraging, you put a few pieces together: the seeds bring back, when dropped accidentally on the ground, sometimes sprout into a whole new plant! Well hold on, if you could organize these seeds, you could control where your favorite plants show up. Now instead of hiking a few kilometers for scattered nodes of plants, you have a ton of plants growing next to your house! Who wouldn’t go for that? The same thing happens with herding animals: after a good hunt you find a cache of baby animals with no parents. You take them home and put them in a pen so they can grow up big and delicious. From there you realize if you didn’t eat the adults and instead let them do their thing, they’ll make more babies, and so on. No more hunting! It’s dangerous and likely to fail. Just keep a breeding population next to your house and you won’t have to go ten yards for a nice, guaranteed meaty meal. Your animals will need a food supply though… luckily you have dozens of edible plants next to your house!

Of course my story is not testable scientifically, but it is based on a sequence of very likely events. Also, yes agriculture takes a lot of work too, and there is a lot of scientific evidence that agriculture led to a decline in health. But, people don’t care about stuff like that. Given the options of hiking around or working around your house, the choice is pretty obvious. It just takes people to figure it out, and I don’t think that is very hard either given a few lucky observations and some patience. So that’s the Chan hypothesis for the origin of agriculture: it’ developed because it is a lot more convenient than foraging and people are lazy.


Leave a Reply