Whats Agriculture Got to Do With It?

Posted on June 16, 2011


This morning I saw this article in which the first sentence was,

“When populations around the globe started turning to agriculture around 10,000 years ago, regardless of their locations and type of crops, a similar trend occurred: The height and health of the people declined.”

It talked about the results of this paper, by Mummert A. , Esche E., Robinson J. & Armelagos G.J., which was itself an examination of other papers, from the last 20-25 years, on human health. The idea, that human health declined with the adoption of agriculture, was first put forth by M.N. Cohen and most famously argued for in his 1984 book, co-authored with Armelagoes, “Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture”.

The problem with this is that if you have actually ever read Cohen’s book you would realize that the data does not support the results. It seems that the vast majority of archaeologists have glossed over what was written, even Cohen’s own comments that the data doesn’t fit well in some cases. In the 1984 book most of the supposed negative consequences, in most cases loss of height, does not occur till well after the adoption of agriculture by people, in the case of Europe in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

This new paper basically reiterates that same data, there is not a universal decline in health with the adoption of agriculture. There is some good analysis and suggestions about what is occurring when but the end of the paper fails in that the conclusion it says,

We found that the pattern of reduced stature at agricultural transitions originally observed by Cohen and Armelagos(1984) in Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture still holds true, in the main, more than 25 years later.

This is probably due to the fact that one of the authors is also one of the first authors to put forth this idea. Archaeologists are known to not want to change their views even in the face of mounting evidence and tend to cheery pick their information.

For example, in this paper they use Classic Maya as an example of declining health with the adoption of agriculture. First, agriculture was around before the Classic Maya Period and second there is a profound environment problems, explosion of population, and massive levels of warfare occurring throughout that period. If one was to look at Mayan cities being sacked and decreasing health they would find a correlation, one that is stronger than the adaptation of agriculture.

This basically encompasses the whole problem with this line of thinking:

1. Most of the data is not actually from when agriculture is adopted but hundreds if not thousands of years afterwards = not a correlation

2. It ignores the complex social-political events that are occurring at the time of the declines, like war or overcrowding, which surely influence people’s health.

3. It simplifies agriculture into a simple concept when in fact agriculture is complex and its uses differed across multiple locations and cultures (props to the paper as they recognize  that in some cases, such as coastal areas, agriculture differs).

Till studies can link declining health within the actual time period of the adoption of agriculture this is a false correlation, and people need to stop repeating it as fact.

Posted in: Wildcard