Why European Agriculture Developed Faster than South America’s (Pt. 2)

Jagmeet Khabra

Beginning of Agriculture and Domestication

People started domesticating plants and animals roughly 10,000 years ago as an attempt to sustain the fast growing population. Domestication is the process by which human beings adapt wild plants and animals for their own use. A plant or animal is domesticated when its natural characteristics are altered such that it cannot grow and/or reproduce without human intervention. Once these plants and animals were domesticated, they relied on human beings to raise and care for them. Ultimately, the domestication of plants was one of the first steps for human beings to move towards an efficient agricultural economy. European farmers began to understand that domesticating plants and animals was an important development for many reasons.  Domesticated animals and plants yielded more calories of food per acre than habitats, in which most species were inedible for humans. Domesticated animals also revolutionized systems of land transport. In addition, Europeans were able to settle permanently in certain areas, leading to populations that were a hundred times denser than hunter – gatherer settlements.

Specifically, using domestic animals allowed one farmer to plough and manure much more land than he could without them. As Europe transitioned away from the transient structure of hunting and gathering, it also transformed from a mostly egalitarian society to a more politically centralized one. Hunter-gatherers never had food surplus and had to keep moving in order to feed themselves, meaning that there was no way for political organization to arise. However, as the agricultural sector blossomed, European farmers had a food surplus and needed places to store it. The food surplus also meant that not everybody had to farm for their own food, so some people were able to dedicate their time to inventing technology that would further help increase productivity in agriculture. These craftspeople soon expanded into non-farming pursuits like metallurgy, writing, and beyond. Modern society began to develop because of food surpluses that allowed human beings to stay in one place and build larger, permanent cities.

The ongoing changes in human activity led to many of the hallmarks of modern society, including complex technology, social stratification and other important developments.  Without everyone having to engage in farming, some human beings even started to develop a sedentary lifestyle, meaning that they engaged in little or no physical activity.

These growing, stable populations also meant that certain groups of people were able to build infrastructure and become more powerful than others. Therefore, the development of agriculture was important in determining the amount of power an empire could amass. Once societies found a way to shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, empires had the capacity to become more powerful. In addition, Metal proved to be an important discovery that aided the technological advances in agriculture. Human beings used metals to create tools that would enhance their agricultural practices.

Jared Diamond, however, believes that plant domestication remains human beings’ worst mistake. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond estimates that at one point, there were roughly 200,000 wild plant species on the Earth. Ancient people believed a region with an abundance of wild plants naturally be able to produce many agricultural goods. However, this was not the case because only a few thousand of these plants were edible and only a few hundred could be cultivated. This disparity handicapped many people who were trying to develop a sustainable system of agriculture, because only a few societies could build up a regular stockpile of food.

This 5 part essay was submitted by Jagmeet Khabra, a fourth year political science student and current Vice President Internal of UBC’s Okanagan campus.

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