6

votes

How did great civilizations flourish on grains?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created March 20, 2010 at 4:32 PM

How did most of the greatest civilizations/armies of the world manage to grow up on rice, maize and other grains?

I understand the logistics behind it; crops feed more people and allow them to live in greater concentrations and this in turn allows division of labor, job diversity, leisure time, the arts and wars to develop. But how come humans have done 'so well' on these staples (if they are so bad for us)?

776bb678d88f7194b0fa0e5146df14f0

(1069)

on May 25, 2011
at 03:50 PM

A little late, but I wanted to add "The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia" by James C. Scott. He talks at length about "mountain people" like the Hmong in what is now Laos, Thailand, Vietnam etc and how they have resisted state building projects involving conscripted labor to build rice paddies and fight wars. Unsurprisingly, they eat tubers and hunt/forage for most of their meals... a big part of why they eat tubers rather than rice is that it is much easier to hide from states that would want to steal it. It's a great book!

154bf5c84f7bd9f52b361b45d05dbc3a

(1215)

on September 24, 2010
at 03:10 PM

I've had similar 'out there' ideas about aspergers and autism. Note men are much more likely to suffer from this extreme 'logical' way of thinking / lack of emotional intelligence.

Dc6407193ba441d1438f6f0c06af872b

(4400)

on April 05, 2010
at 08:56 PM

Guns, Germs and Steel. Jerod Diamond discusses why Europe took the developmental lead. Fascinating. He well knows that grains are not particularly nutritious, but has huge other advantages.

Bdcb2101fd3f1853cfd645094d8ad086

on March 25, 2010
at 01:08 AM

Even better... think of the Cain and Abel story as allegory. Cain brings an offering of agricultural products, which is rejected by God. Abel brings an animal offering, which is accepted by God. Cain gets jealous, and kills Abel. He goes on to found a lineage of city builders and technology makers. Agricultural civilization kills pastoral civilization. For this idea I gotta give props to Daniel Quinn, "Ishmael," which has a chapter dealing with this way of reading Genesis.

89e238284ccb95b439edcff9e123671e

(10299)

on March 22, 2010
at 08:53 PM

Allan, not sure natural selection is concerned with the species. The genes (and not the individual or the species) are a much better unit of selection. So, what is good for the genes, does not have to be good for the individual

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 22, 2010
at 09:51 AM

Ah, now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Hunter Gather peoples have all this 'flourishing' and more - they know how to stay in total balance with their surroundings, something modern man fails to have been able to do....even though we think our 'achievements' have far surpassed that of 'primitive people'...a great point Patrik.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 22, 2010
at 09:50 AM

I think Patrik is setting up a booklist on this site soon....

93f44e8673d3ea2294cce085ebc96e13

(10502)

on March 21, 2010
at 07:50 PM

If that is how you define flourish, then that has nothing to do with whether or not they ate grains.

5740abb0fa033403978dd988b0609dfd

(2633)

on March 21, 2010
at 07:27 PM

I've read 1491. I really liked it.

Eae21abfabb19c4617b2630386994fd9

on March 21, 2010
at 06:17 PM

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis or Revolutionary Change.

127116e41acceee9f2f000076f8b788d

(477)

on March 21, 2010
at 03:07 PM

@Ed, you are right, they are multifactoral, but one of the core factors is energy, which in the days gone by was food. The massive armies and populations once gained were hard to maintain, and it basically required the civilizations to continuously expand, gobbling up farmland and slaves, and in the end, every single one had a similar collapse, where the vast empires were unable to manage, food shortages were common, and the farmland was severely degraded. You are also right in that it is a simplistic synopsis, and each civilization had different approaches, but the issues are constant.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 21, 2010
at 12:00 PM

and it seems itself.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 21, 2010
at 12:00 PM

and it seems, itself.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 21, 2010
at 11:59 AM

So the the species as a whole has flourished, but is ultimately doomed; like we have adapted to eating grains somewhat, but grains cannot, in the end, sustain us.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 21, 2010
at 11:54 AM

Well,'flourished' means reaching heights in medicine, technology, human achievement, philosophy, the arts etc. the things that define a great civilization i.e. the Mayans, Romans, Chinese Dynasties, Modern Europeans, etc. The agricultural revolution is seen to coincide with this 'flourishing'. But I also define the 'flourishing' of one species as an eventual destruction of all others.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 21, 2010
at 11:47 AM

Ah, it is slightly different with bees; the queen produces a substance that the drones lick from her body which 'program' them not to nurture any more queens. When the colony gets too big however, not all the drones can lick the queen, so a new queen is born who leaves the hive and takes some workers with her to form another colony. Somehow this makes me think of grains (and the whole agricultural culture) producing 'slaves' as Matt describes, and a meat eating Spartacus.

93f44e8673d3ea2294cce085ebc96e13

(10502)

on March 21, 2010
at 02:43 AM

@Louisa -- Define "flourished"

6426d61a13689f8f651164b10f121d64

(11488)

on March 20, 2010
at 09:35 PM

@Abe, your point of view contains a "grain" of truth, but strikes me as over-simplified and politicized. For example, if you filter history through a different point of view, say Austrian economics, things look quite different. I'm no history expert, but the collapse of civilizations is usually multifactorial.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 06:34 PM

no not the planet, I have changed it to make it clearer.....

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 06:34 PM

great answer Matt, thanks

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 05:50 PM

no, not the planet - I mean human civilisation.....will change that....

0637289bb4a0ab314d80fa4de627d395

(1015)

on March 20, 2010
at 05:46 PM

I don't know if it is a matter of knowing better or not. We are in a unique position in history. For most of the western world, food is in an abundance. Whole industries have arisen around the growth and propagation of certain food products. People are going to do and say whatever they can to protect their livelihood. The beauty is that you have freedom and choice to make your own decisions.

6426d61a13689f8f651164b10f121d64

(11488)

on March 20, 2010
at 05:28 PM

Reproductive success does not equal quality of life. Most "diseases of civilization" kick in later in life.

5841391284e7af8c495c54bd90d3a795

(2764)

on March 20, 2010
at 05:03 PM

By "the planet" I assume you mean human civilization, not the *literal* planet.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 05:01 PM

and because we do not know any better we think that to be like we are today (i.e. SAD) is the norm?

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 04:59 PM

and because we do not know any better, we think to be 'like this' i.e. SAD - is the norm?

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 04:54 PM

That sounds like a great book, thanks.

Ef228708abd5f082f633b1cd1d64eee1

(892)

on March 20, 2010
at 04:42 PM

I'm partway through "Guns, Germs, and Steel", I'll let you know once I finish it. ;)

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13 Answers

best answer

17
Bdcb2101fd3f1853cfd645094d8ad086

on March 20, 2010
at 06:19 PM

The answer is as follows: these "great" civilizations were built on slave labor and assembled through warfare. The harvesting and storage of grain enable both of these practices. It is wrong to imagine and equate the thriving of a civilization with the thriving of individual residents of that political/social order. What grain lets you do is assemble and feed the laborers and troops. Which allows you to do amazing things.

The story of Joseph as vizier of Egypt under an unnamed Pharaoh, found in the book of Genesis in the Bible, symbolically illustrates this well, since he "invents" the storage of grain for lean times. In the next book (Exodus), we find his people, the Israelites, working as slaves in Egypt, building their great border cities Pithom and Rameses.

In the Mesopotamian civilizations, grain was a central commodity in a highly organized market that was shaped by warfare among competing city states and by the emergent technology of irrigation via canal... a feature which shows up in myth, for example, in the Atrahasis Epic, which relates the creation of humanity. Humanity is created to relieve the burdens of the lesser Gods, who are being compelled as slaves to serve the greater Gods by digging the irrigation canals. The entire political hierarchy, intertwined as it was with an astronomically oriented religion that was basically a cycle of festivals tied to the agricultural year, existed to defend and maintain its own power on the basis of raising grain.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 06:34 PM

great answer Matt, thanks

6
Eae21abfabb19c4617b2630386994fd9

on March 21, 2010
at 06:17 PM

Generally grains were processed in better ways in times past. An example would be longer fermentation of grains because they didn't have quick-rise bread. So it is important to keep in mind that the average grain you come across today is worse that what people ate in times past. In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Weston Price studies two groups of healthy (perfect teeth) remote Europeans that eat grains as a staple of their diet. So grains are not necessarily as bad as you would believe from hanging out on forums like these. It as a combination of grains being poorly prepared, eating 100 pounds of sugar a year, large amounts of vegetable oil, and other processed junk that are truly devastating to our health today.

4
Ab153bf62e1f51eea3243acdd2f7bfb9

on March 21, 2010
at 06:07 PM

It looks like there have been some great answers. I thought I'd chime in with some pertinent books if anyone wanted to do some reading on the subject.

Against the Grain: How Agriculture has hijacked Civilization by Richard Manning

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

A Green History of the World by Clive Ponting

Anyone have any other suggestions? I'm always looking for new books.

5740abb0fa033403978dd988b0609dfd

(2633)

on March 21, 2010
at 07:27 PM

I've read 1491. I really liked it.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 22, 2010
at 09:50 AM

I think Patrik is setting up a booklist on this site soon....

Eae21abfabb19c4617b2630386994fd9

on March 21, 2010
at 06:17 PM

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis or Revolutionary Change.

Dc6407193ba441d1438f6f0c06af872b

(4400)

on April 05, 2010
at 08:56 PM

Guns, Germs and Steel. Jerod Diamond discusses why Europe took the developmental lead. Fascinating. He well knows that grains are not particularly nutritious, but has huge other advantages.

776bb678d88f7194b0fa0e5146df14f0

(1069)

on May 25, 2011
at 03:50 PM

A little late, but I wanted to add "The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia" by James C. Scott. He talks at length about "mountain people" like the Hmong in what is now Laos, Thailand, Vietnam etc and how they have resisted state building projects involving conscripted labor to build rice paddies and fight wars. Unsurprisingly, they eat tubers and hunt/forage for most of their meals... a big part of why they eat tubers rather than rice is that it is much easier to hide from states that would want to steal it. It's a great book!

3
2b0c9ae6f1da9716451e7c86bc87230b

on March 24, 2010
at 02:23 PM

Short answer:

Grain is storable. A society can horde it and feed laborers/slaves/warriors. It can also store it for times of less productivity.

3
5740abb0fa033403978dd988b0609dfd

on March 20, 2010
at 10:54 PM

I had a similar thought when first exposed to Paleo nutrition. Then I remembered, Natural Selection is ONLY concerned with the species. That which is good for the species does NOT have to be good for the individual.

So we may have learned techniques to process grain, and adapted some genes, perhaps ever so slightly, to digest grain. But that doesn't mean any of it has been good for us as individuals.

An interesting (to me ;-) example of this in the natural world is with ants. Once the queen in a colony dies the entire colony is ultimately doomed. And yet the colony continues to function, complete with a battle to the death among the surviving soldier-queens to be the new queen. But a soldier-queen can never be a real queen. A soldier-queen can only reproduce drones. So, Natural Selection has rewarded the colonies that continue to function even just a little bit longer making drones in spite of the fact the colony itself has absolutely no future. A great anthropomorphic story on this is at: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/01/25/100125fi_fiction_wilson?printable=true

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 21, 2010
at 11:59 AM

So the the species as a whole has flourished, but is ultimately doomed; like we have adapted to eating grains somewhat, but grains cannot, in the end, sustain us.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 21, 2010
at 11:47 AM

Ah, it is slightly different with bees; the queen produces a substance that the drones lick from her body which 'program' them not to nurture any more queens. When the colony gets too big however, not all the drones can lick the queen, so a new queen is born who leaves the hive and takes some workers with her to form another colony. Somehow this makes me think of grains (and the whole agricultural culture) producing 'slaves' as Matt describes, and a meat eating Spartacus.

89e238284ccb95b439edcff9e123671e

(10299)

on March 22, 2010
at 08:53 PM

Allan, not sure natural selection is concerned with the species. The genes (and not the individual or the species) are a much better unit of selection. So, what is good for the genes, does not have to be good for the individual

3
0637289bb4a0ab314d80fa4de627d395

(1015)

on March 20, 2010
at 04:56 PM

I think DeVany addresses this question in his lecture series. Briefly, it has to do with the quality of your life. I think he calls it physiological overhead. Using wild animals as an example. DeVany demonstrated how wild animals do NOT see the decline in physical capability that you see in domestic animals. They tend to live at near peak performance and then enter a short window of fatigue and diminished capacity and then they die. Contrast that to domestic animals that exhibit a bell curve model of performance and longevity. They reach a peak and then start a slow decent into a further and further decrease in performance. His argument is that you can see the same traits in people.

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 04:59 PM

and because we do not know any better, we think to be 'like this' i.e. SAD - is the norm?

33b6c516904a967ef8ecb30f1dbd8cf2

(7073)

on March 20, 2010
at 05:01 PM

and because we do not know any better we think that to be like we are today (i.e. SAD) is the norm?

0637289bb4a0ab314d80fa4de627d395

(1015)

on March 20, 2010
at 05:46 PM

I don't know if it is a matter of knowing better or not. We are in a unique position in history. For most of the western world, food is in an abundance. Whole industries have arisen around the growth and propagation of certain food products. People are going to do and say whatever they can to protect their livelihood. The beauty is that you have freedom and choice to make your own decisions.

2
Bc9cea24cf72c4703aec3e6b566b2c47

on March 23, 2010
at 06:15 AM

Think of the Garden of Eden as an allegory and grain as the forbidden fruit. As grain production flourished, so the concept of surplus wealth thrived. Grain allowed us to exponentially populate the earth in bondage to the soil and its landowners.
It happened around 10K years ago, and as the Bible says, we can never go back to the garden. As grain production occurred so did the afflictions of man, cancer, diabetes , arthritis and other maladies, only problem is early humans died at such an early age, grain consumption was never attributed to disease.

Bdcb2101fd3f1853cfd645094d8ad086

on March 25, 2010
at 01:08 AM

Even better... think of the Cain and Abel story as allegory. Cain brings an offering of agricultural products, which is rejected by God. Abel brings an animal offering, which is accepted by God. Cain gets jealous, and kills Abel. He goes on to found a lineage of city builders and technology makers. Agricultural civilization kills pastoral civilization. For this idea I gotta give props to Daniel Quinn, "Ishmael," which has a chapter dealing with this way of reading Genesis.

1
A3bb2c70384b0664a933b45739bac32c

on April 05, 2010
at 08:37 PM

I think there were a number of things happening. First, the grain we have now, like many other post agricultural products, has been altered. Second, grains can be dried and stockpiled, as can legumes. Third, the stockpiled grains were fed to the lower class in differing forms.

Generic, all-purpose flour is bleached and treated so that it loses it's nutrients an has to be "enriched". Other flours used for bread are grown for their gluten content. Gluten is after all what gives bread it's texture. You can even buy special flour made for bread machines that is higher in gluten than other flours. Today when we think of grain, the first ones that come to mind are wheat, oats and corn, wheat was only a portion of the grain consumed. Other grains, like millet and sorghum, are easier to digest.

Others have stated that grains can be stockpiled. Legumes were also stockpiled. In this way, when times are thin for agricultural societies, there is still sustenance. Legums provided protien while the grains filled the tummy. Bread was also a portable food. Grains, bread and beans could also be carried into battle and on ships for long voyages.

Most of the grain was consumed by slaves and the lower classes. Although bread and some grain was consumed, the upper classes had greater access to high quality meat, especially in the middle ages. The lower class was sustained on gruel, vegetables and the tougher cuts that were thrown away by the upper class. Poor storage methods led to fermentation and the long, slow cooking further diminished the toxins.

1
127116e41acceee9f2f000076f8b788d

(477)

on March 20, 2010
at 07:53 PM

These great civilizations collapsed, most due to the over-extension of their grain supply. Massive deserts followed these civilizations, and environmental destruction was a way of life.

So, in fact, they didn't do that well, they perished because their practices were not sustainable. That should be a BIG hint to us modern humans who rely so much on limited resources and grains.

6426d61a13689f8f651164b10f121d64

(11488)

on March 20, 2010
at 09:35 PM

@Abe, your point of view contains a "grain" of truth, but strikes me as over-simplified and politicized. For example, if you filter history through a different point of view, say Austrian economics, things look quite different. I'm no history expert, but the collapse of civilizations is usually multifactorial.

127116e41acceee9f2f000076f8b788d

(477)

on March 21, 2010
at 03:07 PM

@Ed, you are right, they are multifactoral, but one of the core factors is energy, which in the days gone by was food. The massive armies and populations once gained were hard to maintain, and it basically required the civilizations to continuously expand, gobbling up farmland and slaves, and in the end, every single one had a similar collapse, where the vast empires were unable to manage, food shortages were common, and the farmland was severely degraded. You are also right in that it is a simplistic synopsis, and each civilization had different approaches, but the issues are constant.

0
8ce2e69af79dcb1488f776efc1c54052

on November 09, 2010
at 04:03 PM

With the dawn of agriculture we lost the need to follow our food. We built settlements and domesticated animals. This seems to be progress in most peoples eyes. I mean, if you think of a tribe running around is the wild vs living in a city...well, I can see that. However if you look closer you will see that disease and cavities rose dramatically. Bone density decreased and the average height became shorter. Sound like flourishing? Perhaps the settlements flourished but the people did not.

0
Fab01b4dbedb2252688eb552d0071306

(216)

on November 09, 2010
at 01:29 PM

They drank all their grains through beer, they didn't eat it.

http://www.livescience.com/culture/beer-helped-rise-of-civilization-101104.html

0
94401dfe2f2229a8da7037fe76fe61d3

on April 06, 2010
at 11:10 PM

Jared Diamond has some interesting insight to this question. I think the answer is because with grains you can have a higher population density and that allows people to specialize.

His article The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race gives some interesting insight. Also his newish book, "Collapse" sort of goes into the fragility of agricultural societies (versus hunter gatherer).

0
A480640a53eb5dc8966f49141942f705

on March 22, 2010
at 04:14 PM

I've got a crazy theory that autism is a disease of civilization, but uniquely among the DoCs it encourages technological progress and yet better agriculture. Who do you think invented irrigation? Some bread-eating nerd with allergies, bad teeth, and a weak jawline, that's who.

East Asian cultures are more adapted to wheat with a lower prevalence of celiac, etc; and East Asian cultures are more aspie than Western.

154bf5c84f7bd9f52b361b45d05dbc3a

(1215)

on September 24, 2010
at 03:10 PM

I've had similar 'out there' ideas about aspergers and autism. Note men are much more likely to suffer from this extreme 'logical' way of thinking / lack of emotional intelligence.

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