Bread and the Rise of Civilization

The division of societies into different social groups begins with grain, which, from its earliest domestication has always been a sign of power and influence. Early hunter-gatherers were nomadic peoples who ate nuts, berries, and wild animals. Their tribes were extremely egalitarian; everyone contributed to the survival of the community. The lack of an important commodity that could be controlled meant that no individual had greater control over resources (and therefore, greater power) than anyone else. Food and tools were shared equally. That all changed with the development of agriculture.

Anthropologists disagree on exactly why the strong and healthy hunter-gatherers settled down and adopted farming and the difficult lifestyle it brought. Archeological evidence has shown that early farmers’ diets consisted of a narrower variety of food than that of hunter-gatherers living at the same time. The farmers suffered from malnutrition, and experienced a lower life expectancy. They were much shorter than their mobile ancestors, a result of periodic food shortage. But though agriculture seems to have provided a lower quality of life, it spread from the Middle East through most of the rest of the world in just a few millennia – a blink of the eye in the span of human existence.

The Fertile Crescent, where agriculture and civilization began
The Fertile Crescent, where agriculture and civilization began

 

Many converging factors explain this swift change. One is the rise of sedentism, meaning hunter-gatherers spent their year in fewer locations for longer periods of time. Settling next to a body of water meant that food (such as fish) was more readily available to a less mobile population. Another factor is the warming of the world’s climate after 9,500 B.C.E. These factors both encouraged and enabled hunter-gatherers to permanently adopt agriculture, forever changing the course of human existence.

Agriculture, by providing a food surplus, planted the seeds of a new kind of society. The sedentism of a farming lifestyle allowed for the acquisition of wealth, in the form of food (specifically grains, which were the first crops to be domesticated), and other goods. The accumulation of grain equaled the accumulation of wealth, and the accumulation of wealth equaled the accumulation of power. The result was the emergence of income inequality: societies in which some people had more than others.

From this single example we can see how illuminating the story of bread can be.  How wonderful that an exploration of societies can be filled with recipes and dusted with flour!

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