This the sixth post in an ongoing big history series. It follows the structure of the course developed by historian David Christian. This post will explore the origins of agriculture and modern civilizations.
The story so far
(adjusted scale: all of time condensed into 13 years)
About 13 years ago, unknown conditions set off the Big Bang. This produced space, time, energy, and matter (mainly hydrogen and helium). The universe was born.
About 36 days later, cooling and tiny variations in the density of matter allowed gravity to bring together hydrogen and helium into high pressure clumps. Stars were born.
High temperatures within those stars, along with supernova explosions, allowed for the synthesis every other element on the periodic table. Chemistry was born.
As new stars formed around chemically rich clouds, solar systems were born. About 4.3 years ago, the Earth formed.
About 3.5 years ago, unknown conditions led to the first prokaryote. Life was born. About 85 days ago, the first mammals evolved from a branch of reptiles that loosely related birds.
About 1.6 hours ago, Homo Sapiens evolved. Our powerful brains and symbolic language allowed us to share ideas very efficiently. Collective learning was born.
For the majority of our 200 thousand-year existence, humans hunted and gathered for food. We would migrate to a new location, gather what we could find, then migrate elsewhere, giving nature time to restock. This worked great until it didn’t.
About 10 thousand years ago, after the last ice age ended, the human population reached 7 million. Nature was starting to have difficulty restocking nuts and berries. Dense human communities and increasing competition for resources meant something needed to change. Thanks to collective learning, humans had about 200 thousand years worth of knowledge to use for a solution.
Armed with that knowledge, we began to adapt the environment to suit our needs. Agricultural methods were developed to increase nature’s yield (or maybe we just wanted alcohol) and animals were domesticated. This theme, of adapting the environment to suit our needs would continue to the present day, where it is causing some new issues.
Farming had some downsides, diseases and hard labor, but the upside laid the foundation for everything we know today. Farming allowed us to support a huge amount of people in a relatively dense area of land. Over the next 5 thousand years, the human population ballooned from 7 million to 50 million.
Once we were able to produce enough food, we could have a new class of people who didn’t need to farm. This was a pretty big deal. People could now spend their time adding new branches of knowledge to our collective learning. People could become writers, artists, doctors, engineers, etc. People could also become emperors and employ that agricultural surplus in waging war. Modern civilizations were born.
This concept of surplus led to a virtuous (or vicious, depending on your point of view) cycle, in which surpluses allowed for greater populations, which in turn allowed for greater innovation, which then allowed for even greater surpluses. Today, the human population is around 7.5 billion and should hit 9 billion by mid-century. But to get from those 50 million people to today’s 9 billion would take another drastic change in how we harvested the sun’s energy. More on that next time.
Over the course of 200 thousand years, the human population boomed to a point where the hunter gather lifestyle could no longer support us. Competition for resources motivated us to develop new sources of food. The main being agriculture. Agriculture led to a food surplus, which in turn allowed people specialize in new works. Around 5000 years ago, the first modern civilizations started to take form.