Episode 86: Rethinking the Agricultural “Revolution”

Host: Christopher Rose, Department of History
Guest: Rachel Laudan, independent scholar

Thousands of years before recorded human history, anthropologists have traced the evolution of human society from a nomadic hunter-gatherer phase to the rise of agricultural practices, which allowed people to stay settled in one place, form complex societies, and ultimately early civilizations. This transition, it is said, was so momentous that it has become known as the Agricultural Revolution. A few decades ago, however, a scholar posited that humans lost leisure time in the process, becoming virtual slaves to their new agricultural lifestyles that required hours of maintenance daily. This counterargument declared that the Agricultural Revolution was nothing less than the greatest disaster to ever befall mankind.

Not so fast, says our guest this week. Rachel Laudan, a renowned food historian and author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, argues that this thesis, which has found a champion in Jared Diamond’s best-selling Guns, Germs & Steel, fails to take food preparation into account. Our interview offers a different perspective and raises some new questions about the social impact of the beginnings of agriculture.

Download podcast (mp3—right click to download)

Transcript coming soon. In the meantime, check out these photos of mongongo nuts!

Neolithic grind stone with ancient grain seeds. Photo: José-Manuel Benito

Neolithic grind stone with ancient grain seeds. Photo: José-Manuel Benito

 

Mongongo nut seed pod and seeds, with US penny for size comparison. (photo: NoodleToo).

Mongongo nut seed pod and seeds, with US penny for size comparison. (photo: NoodleToo).

 


More Resources

Rachel Laudan’s web site

Was the Agricultural Revolution a Terrible Mistake? Not If You Take Food Processing into Account.”—the post on Rachel’s blog that inspired this episode (lots of photos and links — we won’t steal them; you should go read for yourself!)

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” 1987 article in Discover Magazine by Jared Diamond presenting the argument later laid out in Guns, Germs & Steel.

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