For much of human history, there was no Ingles, no Kroger. There was no grocery cart full of goods for the week. There are many who pine for the days when each person made their own way, surviving off the land without the aid of anyone else. There’s an old-time general know-how that is largely lost in our world of specialized tasks. And we may eventually revert back to a land where only those with that survivalist knowledge make it. But I’m certainly not eager for such days. The competition for resources would be brutal.

No, I’m thankful to roll in to the grocery store and stroll the aisles admiring the options. I appreciate not having to hit the woods for every meal. I’m thankful that our society includes people dedicated to stocking those aisles with food. We certainly would not be where we are without them.

I recently watched the first hour-long segment of a documentary that lays out how agriculture shaped the rise of Western Civilization. “Guns, Germs and Steel” tells the story of human development over the past 13,000 years, “from the dawn of farming at the end of the last Ice Age to the realities of life in the twenty-first century.”

Jared Diamond, who wrote a book by the same name, is the primary speaker in the documentary. He visits Papua New Guinea and recalls a question a native of the land posed to him in 1974. The man asked why the white people who visited the land had so much “cargo” and the natives of the land didn’t.

“Diamond realized that Yali’s question was far bigger and more complex than it first appeared,” the narrator says. “It was really about the roots of inequality – a question as old as human history itself.”

Why did some societies progress faster than others?

The answer comes down to one simple word: farming.

Approximately 13,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age, people were still largely hunter/gatherers who existed in small, mobile groups.

Many natives of Papua New Guinea still have a lifestyle similar to their ancient ancestors. Diamond notes that this can be attributed to the land.

“This jungle around us, you might think it’s a cornucopia, but it isn’t,” said Diamond, standing in a modern New Guinean jungle. “Most of these trees in the jungle don’t yield, don’t give us anything edible.”

There are not large game animals to hunt. Consequently, much of the natives’ caloric intake comes from the cutting down of sago trees, stripping them, then collecting the pulp at the center, which can be cooked. It takes three to four days to process a tree.

“So it’s a lot of work really for not a great deal of food, plus the sago starch is low on protein, and also the sago can’t be stored for a long time,” said Diamond.

These gathering tasks must be shared. It’s just too labor intensive for a few. All must help.

But in the Middle East there were different plants to gather.

“Growing wild between the trees were two cereal grasses, barley and wheat,” the narrator said. “Far more plentiful and nutritious than sago. These simple grasses would have a profound impact, setting humanity on the course towards modern civilization.”

People started to put down roots in one place. They began to grow, collect and store food. When a catastrophic drought hit, people moved out of the Middle East, looking for new lands. They took their new skills to Europe. They began to select individual plants that would be most desirable, and the beneficial domestication of crops began. The best seeds were planted. People began to understand their influence on the quality of what was grown and how to repeat the cycles in larger quantities.

This meant that farmers could provide food for others who focused on tasks other than filling their stomachs. They could work on developing tools. They could build.

This was the beginning of the world of specialized tasks, which is fundamental to the rise of technology and the modern world.

Consider, too, that people around the world who had access to the most productive crops became the most productive farmers. This certainly influenced the rise of civilizations in some places and the lack of development in others, like Papua New Guinea.

No, there’s no iPhone without the ancient farming paving that path, freeing up Steve Jobs and many others to think big on a full stomach.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.

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