Disadvantages of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution

Close-up of cave drawings.
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The Neolithic Revolution was the period 9500 B.C., when wild-growing plants were first sown and harvested, according to National Geographic's “The Genographic Project.” This caused a shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to permanent settlements, based on the stable food supply that farming produced. The common perception is that human standards of living have seen continued improvement since hunter-gatherers. Jared Diamond, however, a scientist and author, argued otherwise in his 1987 ground-breaking article, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" published in Discover magazine. Diamond presented a revisionist view, debunking the perception of continual progress, by providing what he considered to be evidence to the contrary.

1 Skeletons Before and After the Agricultural Revolution

Paleopathologists found evidence that the skeletons of hunter-gatherers were larger than those of farmers, had less evidence of disease, and greater indications that hunter-gatherers enjoyed better nutrition, such as less loss of tooth enamel. Diamond offers three explanations for this. First, hunter-gatherers had a more varied diet, including fats, proteins and vitamins. Second, the simpler farmer diet was less diverse, and farmers were at greater risk of crop failure. Third, agriculture encouraged people to live in closer proximity to each other, increasing the likelihood of contracting communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy, which thrive in close environments.

2 The Formation of Social Hierarchies

Diamond argued that farming enabled societies to produce food surpluses -- meaning that elite groups were able to form and live off the labor of others. This led to power structures and inequality. For example, skeletons of royals found in Greek Mycenaean tombs around 1500 B.C., showed that the royals were two or three inches taller, had fewer cavities and fewer missing teeth than their peasant counterparts. Diamond also notes that Chilean mummies of the elite of 1000 A.D., had a four-fold lower rate of bone loss than the commoners, because the elite had fewer diseases than commoners.

3 Gender Inequality

Freed from the need to carry their young in a nomadic existence and under pressure to produce more hands for the farm, women in the agricultural age began to birth more babies. Bearing children within 18 months of a prior pregnancy can cause complications during pregnancy, affecting the health of both mother and fetus, according to Mayo Clinic.org. Skeletons of women from this era show that many women suffered worse health than did men, which scientists ascertained by looking at the number of bone lesions. The results showed that women had more bone lesions than men. The Economist article "Hunter-Gatherers; Noble or Savage?" states that hunter-gatherer men would kill large prey that contributed to nutrition but during the agricultural age, women often had to do more of the hard work.

4 Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers

Evidence of contemporary hunter-gatherers -- such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in present-day Namibia, as well as parts of Botswana and South Africa -- suggest that Bushmen lifestyles compare favorably to those of present-day farmers in those countries. Even though the Bushmen are often pushed onto marginal land, they continue to live healthy, simple lives and have more leisure time than do contemporary farmers of the region. Diamond states that one study noted that the present-day Bushman's daily intake of calories and protein was considerably greater than the recommended daily amount for people of their size. The Bushman also eats an average of 75 wild plants.

Jan Gerards has won several awards for his writing, including a creative writing scholarship from the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in land economy from the University of Cambridge.