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Why did Agriculture Happen?, May 19, 2023
This is one of those very rare, very valuable books which (like the "Origin of Species") takes a broad worldwide view of prehistory and whilst maintaining the highest scholarly standards, seeks to draw general conclusions which will stand up to scientific scrutiny. As the author remarks in his preface "it is currently fashionable in our science to place heavy emphasis on the uniqueness of local events" whilst the broader view "tends to be frowned upon". Darwin would not have frowned and neither should we.
Cohen's book might have been called "The Origin of Agriculture". Ever since we all became aware that agriculture is a comparatively recent phenomenon in human history, those interested in the subject have puzzled their minds over why mankind abandoned the free and easy life of a hunter-gatherer for the laborious and monotonous existence of the peasant. And why did this change take place more or less simultaneously in several different parts of the world? Cohen's solution to this problem is immediately convincing and was a revelation to me. It happened because over-population caused a worldwide shortage of food. Every part of the habitable and accessible world had been colonised. There was no further room for mankind to expand into. There was an urgent need to devise some method by which a given area of land could support a greater number of people. And so, in Cohen's words "populations throughout the world... were forced to adjust to further increases in population by artificially increasing, not those resources which they preferred to eat, but those which responded well to human attention and could be made to produce the greatest number of edible calories per unit of land."
Why did the human population expand so fast when it did? Why was there such a sudden shortage of food? This book refers to the answer, but at first reading I missed the reference and didn't draw the significant conclusion. It was because human social organization and weapons technology had suddenly made man the master of nature. Within a comparatively short period of time, human hunters had caused the extinction of a large number of major mammal species throughout the world. Whilst the slaughter was going on, there had been plenty of food for everybody and populations had expanded. Once the process of extinction was more or less complete, food became very short indeed. Here Cohen relies on another scholar who also battled desperately to gain acceptance for a blindingly obvious general conclusion - Paul S. Martin. Martin's chapter on his "Quaternary Extinctions" tells the story.
Cohen's thesis is explored in painstaking detail, with evidence drawn from every continent and from many different sources. The book is not easy to read; the style is heavily academic; but it's worth the effort. First published in 1977, it should be reprinted and more widely known.