Human societies are defined by their food.

Human societies are defined by their food. 

Yehudi Cohen’s 1974 Man in Adaptation is the kind of classic that made its case so well, no one ever reads it. Most introductory anthropology textbooks will devote an entire chapter to Cohen’s framework–a framework that modern anthropology simply takes for granted. Cohen divided the world’s cultures into any one of five “adaptive strategies”: foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, agriculture, and industrialism. Cohen noted the strong correlations these strategies had with the rest of their culture; so strong that, simply given a society’s mode of subsistence, accurate predictions could often be made about their level of political complexity, their kinship patterns, their population size and density, their modes of warfare, and even their religious beliefs. The underlying fact that makes Cohen’s typology so useful–and these correlations so strong–is that human society is, first and foremost, a strategy for acquiring food, and the manner in which that food is acquired defines the shape, scale, and kind of that society.

That may come as a shocking statement to the layman, but it is quite intuitive if we assume that the development of culture has a place in human evolution. All evolution is ultimately geared towards genetic reproduction, but to achieve that end, evolution works on two broad goals: the reproduction of life, and the maintenance of life (at least until reproduction has been achieved). These can be reduced with little violence to the truth to the essential drives for food, and sex. Most of the necessities humans require could be served by any social group. Any mixing of males and females will invariably lead to sexual relationships and the successful rearing of children. Protection from the elements is gained easily through any number of methods. That leaves food as the factor which society must spend most of its effort procuring. Not only is food a requirement which is needed on a much more regular basis than sex or protection from the elements, it is also a much riskier prospect than the others. Minimally, only a single sexual liason may result in offspring, and a single shelter can protect several individuals from the elements for an extended period of time–but most people must eat several times a day. In any social group with both males and females, sexual relationships will form, and protection from the elements can be easily attained in any environment–but famines often afflict whole bioregions for lengthy periods of time, and hunger and starvation can even become endemic to an entire population. Any form of society would suffice for our other basic needs. Culture develops primarily as a means of procuring food, and everything in a given culture serves that end.

Until very recently, all humans were foragers, or hunter-gatherers. The vast majority of cultural diversity in humans is accounted for by foragers. Inuit, Plains Indians, Ju/’Hoansi and Kwakiutl are all examples of foragers–totem poles, potlatching, “the Dreamtime,” “counting coups,” igloos, the cave art of Lascaux, and the n/um dance are all artifacts of forager cultures. There are foragers that rely primarily on nuts and honey, but most rely primarily on meat.1 Others rely on fishing. There have been equestrian foragers, pedestrian foragers, aquatic foragers–even sedentary, complex forager chiefdoms. Yet there are still some discernable and important features that correlate very strongly with foraging. For instance, egalitarianism is almost universal among foragers. Most exist at a band level. There is no exclusive occupational specialization, though there is often differences of emphasis. Everyone is at least familiar with how to do everything, though some individuals may devote more time to medicine, tool-making, or the arts than others. Everyone is involved in the procurement of food–even the most respected shaman is still expected to hunt. Most foragers are nomadic, usually traveling in wide circles and returning on a semi-annual basis to the same areas. Their populations tend to be low and sparse.

Foragers are almost invariably shamanistic animists. Their religion posits a world that is sacred and bursting with life. Details vary widely, but there is almost always a deep appreciation for non-human life, even sometimes on par with human life, as well as a conviction that humans are intimately bound into the natural world. Humans often enjoy a pride of place, even in forager mythology, but the divide between human and non-human life that is so prominent in agricultural mythology is almost always absent. This can easily be seen as a consequence of the forager lifestyle, of course. Tracking, hunting, gathering fishing and all other forms of foraging require not only an intimate knowledge of the food species being sought, but its relations with all other species. This kind of appreciation for other organisms as part of a complex “web of life” cannot help but be reflected in the forager’s own ruminations on humanity’s place in the world. By the same token, any forager who takes on the more prominent ideas among agriculturalists concerning humanity’s separation from the natural world and position as ruler, or in the best case “steward,” of the world would be very prone to over-exploiting her resources. Such a forager culture would be at a distinct disadvantage to a more animistic forager culture. Thus, natural selection favors shamanistic and animistic beliefs among foragers, and selects strongly against the memes found in civilizations.

There are two important exceptions to all of this that are worthy of note: the North American Kwakiutl along the northwest coast in what is now British Columbia, and the foragers discovered by archaeologists at Sungir. In both cases, regular, predictable abundance created a situation that allowed for the control of a surplus. These societies then became much more complex; in the case of the Kwakiutl, even developing a rigidly ranked chiefdom, with a sedentary society dependent on regular salmon runs and potlatching. It seems reasonable to think there might have been something similar at Sungir. These examples highlight that it is not foraging itself that guarantees the kind of simple, egalitarian, free society that humans are best adapted to, but the lack of a controllable surplus that foraging usually creates.

Though possessing an abundant surplus, neither of these forager groups were expansionistic–because the nature of their surplus precluded expansion. Sungir’s abundance relied on the regular bison migration patterns through the area; they could not expand into areas where the bison did not so migrate. The Kwakiutl depended on regular salmon runs; they could not expand into areas where the salmon did not so run. This highlights another important point: where foragers do develop the odd abberation of a surplus, it is always geographically limited–which makes complex forager societies incapable of expansion and conquest. This allows pockets of complexity, without wiping out all possibility for simplicity in the process.

This limitation was broken with the innovation of food production some 10 to 15 millennia ago. Cohen breaks food production out into four subtypes: horticulture, agriculture, pastoralism, and industrialism. This does not translate into greater cultural diversity, though. All food producing cultures exist within a tight range of possibilities. While horticultural cultures have some amount of diversity (though nothing approaching that found among foragers), pastoralism is a relatively rare strategy, agriculture is incredibly restrictive with incredibly little diversity, and industrialism is very nearly incapable of allowing for any diversity whatsoever. Indeed, we can see at least these last three as differing aspects of the same phenomenon. This suggests that Cohen’s typology may be slightly ethnocentrically flawed: in breaking out more types within our own adaptive strategy, the traditional typology tends to give pride of place to our own culture that may not be entirely deserved.

Horticulture was the first type of food production practiced. At its simplest, it is nothing more than basic techniques to favor the regrowth of preferred plants. Very low-intensity work can allow significant returns, as the beginning of the marginal return curve allows for significant ERoEI. This is what makes horticulture the most efficient adaptive strategy available.2 Horticulturalists tend to organize at the tribe level with a larger, denser population. The tribe is still egalitarian, but it involves a more complex organization, often involving groups like clans, clubs, guilds and secret societies that cut across tribal boundaries and provide multiple dimensions of power and influence to stabilize a larger egalitarian society. The size of the horticultural village tends to fix more around Dunbar’s number of 150 (see thesis #7).

Horticulturalists occupy an ambiguous area, where they are held in place by the tension between the forager and agricultural modes of existence. Horticulturalists do not produce all of their food; they still rely on foraging to supplement their diet. This means that the maintenance of ample wilderness remains an important issue for them. At the same time, shifting cultivation–especially slash-and-burn or swidden agriculture–often entails a very delicate balance of population and resources that can easily shift out of hand, resulting in massive ecological devastation. Much of the deforestation currently threatening the Amazon is the result of horticultural practices under severe population pressure.3

It is difficult to solidly differentiate horticulture and agriculture; the best criteria that most anthropologists find is that horticulture always involves a fallowing period. This has led to the idea since Cohen of a “cultivation continuum” ranging from horticulture to agriculture, depending on the intensification of any of the four main inputs: land, labor, capital and machinery. This suggests, to me, that there actually is a solid differentiation between horticulture and agriculture: the point of diminishing returns.

The concept of diminishing returns was first developed in the context of agriculture. After a certain point, simply applying more labor yielded less and less benefit. Even in agrarian societies, it takes more calories of work to farm a field, than is returned in calories of product. Among simpler agrarian societies, this shortfall is made up with the use of tools and animals. The plow uses the fundamental physics of a lever to lessen the workload. Animals can leverage energy sources humans cannot–by grazing in lands too rocky or infertile to be cultivated. In modern petroculture, fossil fuels make up the shortfall. Petroleum doesn’t just power tractors, it also forms the basic ingredients for everything from fertilizer to packaging, and the fuel for transportation. We now burn between 4 and 10 calories–mostly in fossil fuels–for every 1 calorie of agricultural product we produce.

The slope becomes sharper as more labor is applied–the process becomes increasingly inefficient–but the absolute number of calories yielded always goes up by some amount per unit of labor. So, production can still be increased even past the point of diminishing returns by applying more labor. It just becomes increasingly inefficient to do so.

Forager populations are very dispersed, because their food is very dispersed. Foragers gather food from the wild, whether by hunting, fishing, gathering, or simple scavenging. These resources are not collected in any one space, so every forager band requires a significant range of territory. This makes forager society very sparsely populated. This also means that the maintenance of wilderness is essential to their survival. Foragers do not seek to maintain wilderness only for religious conviction, but also for practical necessity.

By comparison, cultivation converts a specific area of biomass into human food, raising the edible ratio of that area to 100%. In swidden (a.k.a., “slash-and-burn”) horticulture, for example, an area of rain forest is cut down and burned, and a garden is planted in the ashes. This is the only way to practice cultivation in the rain forest, as the ground is about as fertile as cement–all of the nutrients are locked in the trees. This very clearly illustrates the conversion from biomass into human food, as the biodiversity of some area of rain forest becomes fertilizer to grow a horticultural garden. This is the essence of all cultivation.

For agriculturalists, who depend entirely on their crops for food, the wilderness is no longer a resource, but a nuisance. Not only is it land “going to waste” (and very often put into just such explicit terms), it also harbors all manner of pests and vermin who threaten the agricultural way of life. Living beyond the point of diminishing returns is difficult and dangerous. It implies a constant threat of starvation. Any loss of crops to wild animals represents a direct threat to the agriculturalist’s survival. This is why agriculturalists have innovated techniques of protecting their food from wild animals in a “program” that led Daniel Quinn to invent the term “totalitarian agriculture” for this adaptive strategy. Everything from scarecrows to fences, to the domestication of cats to hunt rats in grain silos, to modern pesticides fit under this rubric.

Agriculturalists are also inherently expansionistic. Agriculturalists must maintain very high birth rates to offset their high mortality rates from disease and starvation. Moreover, their intense cultivation drains the land’s ability to support their practices further. The Fertile Crescent was not always a cruel joke–once upon a time, it was truly fertile. The blasted wasteland we see today is the result of 10,000 years of agriculture. It took only a few centuries to turn the American Great Plains into a dust bowl that is now supported almost solely by petrochemicals. While the rare technological innovation may allow agriculturalists to find new land to replace those they have made infertile–to say nothing of their need to feed their growing population in the “Food Race”–these innovations are few and far between, proving that innovations do not always occur simply because we need them. More often, this requires an expansion of the land under cultivation. This can often mean military conquest of one’s neighbors–the conquests of Rome often listed the need for more agricultural land as the primary motivation quite explicitly–or, it can mean the destruction of wilderness. The destruction of wilderness is especially tempting, because not only does it bring more land under cultivation, it also destroys the habitat of those animals that threaten the agriculturalist’s survival.

This is why agriculturalist belief systems so often posit some theme of “man vs. nature,” or more often, divine permission to use nature as man sees fit. This relationship is necessary to allow for the actions agriculture requires. Agriculture requires the exercise of force against the natural world, and so, agriculturalist religion must find some way to justify that. The adoption of more forager-like religious beliefs about humanity’s place in nature can only be held on any significant scale by those specialists that agricultural production allows to be far-removed from the day-to-day realities of subsistence.

Pastoralism is a very rare adaptive strategy, that always occurs alongside agriculture. I tend to think of it as a special case of agriculture, but little more, as it seems incapable of appearing independently.

Finally, industrialism is our own adaptive strategy. Many see the Industrial Revolution as the source of all our current woes, but in fact, industrialism merely represents an exponential increase in agriculture’s scale–such that previously ignorable problems become very noticeable. Industrialism allows for the modern city, worldwide populations measured in the billions, and the kind of ecological devastation it takes to create the worst mass extinction in history. At the same time, industrialism allows the vast majority of the population to become specialists. These specialists are then able to dabble in things maladapted to their subsistence strategy, such as believing themselves to be part of the natural world, as foragers do. Interestingly, at this extreme, two forager correlates–the nuclear family, and the Inuit kinship system–return to the fore. The complexity of industrialism reduces the ROI of child-bearing while also lowering the death rate and extending the expected lifespan to very near forager levels. Europeans only reached the stature of their Mesolithic ancestors once again in about 1950, for example, thanks to “affluent malnutrition”–the state of nutrition that Steve Brill characterized as “overfed and malnourished.” This results in a significantly lower birthrate for industrialized counties.

Unfortunately, like pastoralism, industrialism is also incapable of existing on its own. This extreme level of complexity is very costly, and can only be maintained by externalizing costs. This generally requires a less complex area–an agricultural region–that can serve to pay those costs. Despotic regimes in the Middle East (like the House of Sa’ud) maintain low energy prices for industrial society. Industrial consumer goods are manufactured in sweatshops. Industrial lifestyles–the size of our ecological footprint, and our concomittant low birth rate–rely on the poverty of agricultural areas (i.e., their small ecological footprint) and their concomittant high birth rate. During the Cold War, the face-off of two industrialized societies created the “First” and “Second” Worlds. The “Third World” was the un-industrialized rest of the world. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. has left only the First and Third Worlds. The Third World is where the First World externalizes its costs. Foreign aid and military support to various Third World dictatorships have maintained them in situations where they would otherwise have fallen to popular revolt. The Third World debt crisis is “a symptom of an international economic system that tolerates growing and abysmal poverty as a normal condition.” Through the World Bank, the IMF, and outright military support, we have shown that we will go to great lengths to keep things as they are in the Third World, because these conditions maintain First World prosperity. We maintain conditions where sweatshops are the best alternative available, and where it’s better to grow cash crops for First World consumption than food for your starving family.

In The Historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan provided a brilliant sociological analysis of the early Roman Empire. In it, he shows that the Pax Romana was peaceful and prosperous only for the heart of the empire. Its peripheries suffered constant war and poverty. This was, in fact, by design. The overall level of turmoil could not be lessened, but Italy could enjoy such a Pax Romana by exporting its ills to the provinces.

So, if the Third World does succeed in becoming like us, who will grow the cotton we clothe ourselves with? Who will grow the coffee beans? If democracy comes to power in the Arabian Penninsula, what happens if they decide their national interests are best served by charging us the actual cost of their oil, rather than externalizing our costs in the form of oppression and terrorism?

Thus, we see that industrialism cannot exist on its own. It can only exist on top of an agricultural system, by exploiting the lesser complexity of that system to offset its own costs. The First World needs the Third World–and so, industrialism can never succeed in replacing or eliminating agriculturalism. Industrialism and greater complexity are no solution to the current crisis of the diminishing returns on complexity.


  1. Cordain, et al, 2000. “Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer Diets,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2000. [ PDF ][ Back ]
  2. Marvin Harris, Cultural Anthropology, Allyn & Bacon, 2002. [ Back ]
  3. It is worth noting that this balance of population and resources, as delicate as it is, was successfully maintained by Amazonian horticulturalists until very recently. Western charities, deploring the plight of such “primitives,” provided them with medicine and food that allowed their population to grow exponentially as never before. With a significantly larger population, more fields and larger fields were required. This allowed less time for fallowing, so that when the planting cycle returned to a previously used patch of forest, it had not yet regenerated. Instead, the cycle moved outwards, inhibiting the ability of the forest to regenerate. Due to the population growth caused by good-intentioned Western charities, the delicate balance of Amazonian “slash-and-burn” agriculture was shattered, and an otherwise sustainable practice has become a significant threat to the earth’s most active ecosystem, and the source of some 80% of the planet’s oxygen supply. [ Back ]

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