18 December 1998

Lifting the mists of time

CLAIMS that settled farming practice suddenly happened about 10,000 years ago, are debunked in a highly readable and learned booklet on the origins of agriculture.

Author Colin Tudge argues that 40,000 and maybe even 100,000 years ago, mankind was modifying its environment and driving many species of wildlife into extinction in the process.

Methods included the highly effective use of fire and selective pastoral farming which protected species amenable to domestication at the expense of their predators. That came long before the advent of crude arable farming practice.

In the more fertile and kinder parts of the world, like the now flooded Persian Gulf – a probable site for the Garden of Eden – life for the early hunter-gatherers must have bordered on the idyllic. But it didnt last, for the climate changed, sea levels rose and the wildlife on which mankind preyed became scarcer and scarcer.

As animal numbers declined and human populations exploded, mankind was obliged to buy itself a food insurance policy by managing the environment to an increasing extent. But its a fair bet that the prospect of settled farming was not appealing, particularly in the days of primitive hand tools and before bullocks were harnessed to the first crude ploughs, argues Colin Tudge.

In a telling section on "the sheer awfulness of farming" he cites the Old Testament, much of it about early arable farming. "It can be read like a bumper edition of FARMERS WEEKLY and the stories it tells are horrendous: of famines, of slave labour and of unremitting toil."

The author who, incidentally, once worked briefly for FW back in the 1960s, or maybe 70s, writes like a dream. Now research fellow of the Centre for Philosophy, London School of Economics, he has the enviable ability to write erudite, highly readable and humorous copy. That gift is not given to many and this booklet, one of the Darwinism Today series, is a first-class read. HPH

*Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers – How Agriculture Really Began, by Colin Tudge, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, The Orion Publishing Group, Orion House, 5 Upper Saint Martins Lane, London WC2H 9EA (£4.99).