Addictive carbs & early farmers
December 02, 2020
In response to my article on the origin of the modern grain-based diet, I received the following question on Twitter (paraphrased):
“If grains are easier to tax and less nutritious, why would people not return to hunter gathering?”
This is an excellent question, especially given what we know about early city-states. James C. White, in his book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States calls the border between agriculturist states and hunter gatherers “permeable.”
The idea that going from hunter gatherer to farmer was a one-way street is, as he argues, fundamentally wrong. In his words:
First, [this idea] ignores the millennia of flux and movement back and forth between sedentary and nonsedentary modes of subsistence and the many mixed options in between. Fixed settlement and plough agriculture were necessary to state making, but they were just part of a large array of livelihood options to be taken up or abandoned as conditions changed.
If there was a drought or a blight, farmers would move back to hunting and gathering. Individuals, families, and societies were constantly moving between these two worlds.
Okay, so. If, as I pointed out in my previous article, grains are really not good for us, and farming is hard work, and agricultural states came with the added bonus of tax collectors… why pick up farming at all?
And if you can easily return to hunting and gathering, why would anyone STAY a farmer?
I hope to explore this question more in future articles, but for today, I want to bring up one possible factor: those darn addictive carbs.
Stone Age Herbalist on Twitter said the following:
It’s often the case with hunter gatherers that they will trade almost anything to get hold of cereals and cheap carbs. The Commanches would trade luxury buffalo cloaks just for corn. So no surprise to see Neolithic grain appearing on Meso sites well before farming took hold. (link)
This argument matches what we know about the effect of carbs on the brain… mainly, they’re really, really satisfying.
A mind-blowing article on the link between mental diseases and bread argues this point:
Arguably, foodstuffs whose digestion releases exorphins are preferred exactly because of their drug-like properties. It has been speculated, in fact, that this chemical reward might have been one incentive for the initial adoption of agriculture (Wadley and Martin, 1993). Why cereals rapidly and extensively replaced traditional foods even though they were less nutritious and required more labor has been widely regarded as a puzzle. Also, cultivation of cereals continued even when the abundance of more easily processed foodstuffs—such as meat, tubers, and fruit—rendered it unnecessary (see Murphy, 2007).
The article takes it even further, and argues that the opioid-esque effects of grain consumption could have helped citizens weather the unpleasant conditions of early city-states. That seems like a stretch to me, but not impossible.
The gist is: carbs are addictive, and have been for a very, very long time.
We became agriculturalists not because grains are great for us, but because they have addictive properties, which makes them valuable for consumption and trade.
Over time, those grains took over the world.