Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers
First, we have to assume that when people practise agriculture, even as a hobby, their population rises above the level that would otherwise be possible. The reason is fundamental. Hunters and gatherers take from their environment only what their environment happens to produce: and if they take too much, the desirable prey species collapse. Their food supply is limited by circumstances beyond their control, and their population ultimately depends upon their food supply.
But the whole point of agriculture is to manipulate the environment so as to increase the amount of food that it will provide. If you fertilize the soil then you increase the total biomass. But even if you do not officiously fertilize, you can increase the output of desirable plants and animals by reducing competition from the less desirable ones-in other words by crop food supply, you can increase your own population.
But then, of course, the farmers find themselves in a vicious spiral. The more they farm, the more their population rises and the more they are obliged to farm, because only by fanning can they feed the extra mouths.
But in practice the spiral is even more vicious than is immediately obvious. Hunting results in rapidly diminishing returns-it is a risky, arduous and time-consuming business. This is reflected in the fact that predatory animals tend to be spectacularly lazy. Lions, for example, sleep or doze for at least twenty hours a day, and spend another two hours growling and grooming. They hunt for only about two hours a day. Kalahari bushmen have similarly been shown to hunt for only about six hours a week. 'Laziness' is a way of life for the big predator.
But farming changes the rules of the game. Farming manipulates the environment with the express purpose of overcoming its natural restraints. The more you manipulate, the more food you can produce. The harder the farmers work the more food they can produce. Laziness emphatically is not favoured. A hunter who works twice as hard as average may get twice as much food in the short term, but will soon come unstuck as his prey disappears. But the farmer who works ten times as hard as his neighbour will indeed produce ten times as much food-and in favourable circumstances can sustain this tenfold increase indefinitely. Ten times more food means an even greater opportunity for population growth.
Hence the vicious spiral is doubly vicious. The more people farm, the more the population rises and so the more they need to farm. But also, in farming-in sharp contrast to hunting-increased effort does bring increased rewards, with the result that the whole process is accelerated.
However unpleasant agriculture may be, once it becomes large-scale there is no turning back. I have suggested that for many thousands of years people farmed as hobbyists, perhaps taking up fanning for a few years in a particular place, and then dropping it, and picking up again elsewhere. I have also suggested that hobby-farmers can be more effective hunters than those who rely entirely upon hunting, because their numbers are no longer controlled so tightly by the prey base. But people cannot go on farming, and increasing their population, and attacking the wild creatures around them, without having a huge impact. Indeed I have suggested that the Pleistocene overkill may have come about at least in part because the killers were also farmers-and that this in the end is why the Neanderthals lost out.
But, of course, once the wild fauna has collapsed-leaving only the creatures that for one reason or another are able to co-exist with hunting-farming people-living by hunting becomes even less of an option. What little there is left to hunt is especially elusive-like the wandering moose of North America. Farming again becomes less of a hobby and more of a necessity. The loss of fallow deer and gazelle in the Middle East was, perhaps, the equivalent of the North American overkill-except that the Middle Eastern species merely moved elsewhere rather than going extinct.
So we have seen that, once begun, farming obliges people to farm even more, as their populations rise and the wild creatures suffer, eventually to collapse to a new and greatly impoverished level. The farmers do not increase their efforts because they enjoy it, or because it is necessarily easier than hunting and gathering. They are simply the victims of their own success.
Given this build-up, the adoption of large-scale agriculture might seem to have been inevitable. But we can also ask what particular local conditions prompted agriculture to become conspicuous and prevalent in place after place, in a wave of Neolithic revolutions. What those local conditions were, in each case, we can only guess. But the fertile Middle East, where the first of the Neolithic revolutions took place, also provides some of the most fertile ground for speculation.