Chapter 5: Food Security Accomplished

Nearly everything we eat today is a domestic variety of some plant or animal. We have manipulated our environments so much that the original version of most things we eat no longer exists. We have plentiful amounts of food in the world today thanks to our domesticated food sources. Because of this, food is no longer just about eating. It has become a culture and a lifestyle. 

A Crucible

The Natufians, people in Levant (eastern Mediterranean), made one of the first shifts from hunter-gathers to village-living domesticators 13,000-12,000 years ago. They were not agriculturalists, but they selectively took crops and thereby modified the plants around them. They were a community of 300-500, which surpasses Dunbar’s proposed limit of 250 people as the maximum group size for humans. They built houses, and buried people with material items, including tools and weapons, bowls, and remains of animals they collected. 

15,000-20,000 years ago, trading began across hundreds of thousands of miles. Innovations and diversification allowed this trading network to be successful. Some Homo took deer, gazelle, and wild cattle as pets around this time, and other settlements attracted animals such as pigs, dogs, and birds. Around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, the effects of domestication began to set in- plants and animals around humans were changing both behaviorally and physically. Wheat and rice seeds became bigger and did not drop off their stalks. Goats and cows developed to be smaller and tamer, lived in human settlements, listened to humans, grew fast, and provided meat, milk, bones, and horns. Dogs and humans seemed to domesticate each other… this was one of the few examples were domestication occurred without quest for food!

Reshaping Animals

There are three paths of domestication, according to Greger Larson and Dorian Fuller. These include commensal, prey, and directed domestication. 

      • Commensal: No intentional human action at the start of this pathway. Other species begin to hang around humans because of something humans are doing, such as leaving trash or making fires. 25,000-30,000 years ago, gray wolves and humans were both excelling in the Northern Hemisphere, but humans had the edge because of their opposable thumbs and big brains. Wolves took the second seat to humans and were forced to follow them around and scavenge from them. Eventually, the wolves and humans stopped fighting, and humans took in the wolves for protection and help with hunting. We have found evidence from 15,000-20,000 years ago that these wolves evolved to become dogs- smaller bones, less angular, and closer association with humans. 
      • Prey: Around 10,000-12,000 years ago, humans began to take preference for the game they hunt. They killed mainly young males, and left the females alone. They learned that if they killed too many females, they would disrupt the reproductive patterns and decrease the number of offspring produced. The communities that spared the females saw that the cattle were much more tolerate to their presence. Eventually, Homo began to take in the young cattle and domesticated them.
      • Directed: Humans lived in villages 6,000-10,000 years ago and traded with neighboring villages. They discovered that animals provided a great way to transport materials as well as resources they could trade, so they took in animals for particular services. Donkeys and horses were used as pack animals, bees were used to make honey, and buffalo and sheep were utilized for their wool.

When is the Forest a Garden?

Homo began manipulating forests 10,000-15,000 years ago. They favored certain nuts and fruits, they pulled the bark off of particular trees, and pulled out specific saplings. Around 10,000 years ago, squashes were domesticated and evolved to be much bigger as a result. In present day Mexico, Homo manipulated teosinte by selective gathering and dispersal, which eventually led to easier-to-open corn with more kernels (what we call maize today!). It took 4,000 years for teosinte to be transformed into maize. Another example of plant domestication is Oryza sativa, or rice. 8,000-12,000 years ago, rice grains would fall off the grass stalk and were unable to be eaten. However, there were some plants with a Sh4 mutation that strengthened the connective tissue between the grain and the stalk so the grains didn’t drop off. Homo favored the plants with the mutation and eventually transformed all rice plants to have this mutation. 

Domesticating Ourselves

After the initial transition to agriculture, human health diminished. Cavities were first seen with the development of agriculture because bacterial fermentation is caused primarily by carbs, which are higher in domesticated plants than wild ones. Furthermore, the shift to agriculture resulted in a reduction in animal protein consumption, reduction in diversity of plants consumed, decrease in the perfect macro and micro nutrient ratio among individuals, decreased height, bone disorders, vitamin and iron deficiencies, and an increase in infectious diseases. Social inequalities and war also arose. Although there were many problems associated with agriculture, humans continued to farm because it provided stability of food sources, increased populations, and permanent land ownership. 

Eventually, the advantages of agriculture began to pay off. Homo learned how to eat the right foods and maintain a nutritional balance. Additionally, Homo digestive systems adapted to the new processes of food preparation, resulting in positive relationships with gut bacteria. This is what enabled us to ferment and modify foods such as yogurt and cheese! Humans also bioengineered themselves to be able to drink milk by developing a mutation for keeping lactase into adulthood.