The Story of Civilization: Economic Elements – From Hunting to Tillage

“The moment man begins to take thought of the morrow he passes out of the Garden of Eden into the vale of anxiety…”
Will Durant, “Our Oriental Heritage”, page 6.
(Ju/’hoansi “bushmen” in Namibia: hunter-gatherers that, until today, live the moment and survive with fifteen weekly hours of work.)

SUMMARY: The discovery of agriculture by women frees man from hunting by providing a dependable supply of food, while the domestication of animals improves his life — man learns the concept of time and, with it, meets anxiety and begins to be human.

We have seen that the main economic condition of civilization is a regular supply of food and water. But multiple meals a day is a very recent luxury. For the primitive man, the norm has always been “feast or famine”. They were lucky, in a sense, though: they lived the present. For, the moment man begins to think about tomorrow, anxiety sets in, concern is upon him, greed sharpens, property begins, and the quiet joy of not thinking unless forced disappears.

Hunting for most of us today is little more than a game, the pleasure of which seems to be based on bygone days when, for both the hunter and the hunted, it was a matter of life and death. Because hunting was not just a search for food, but a war for security and domination, a war against which all the other wars recorded in history are mere noise. In the jungle, there is not always food for everyone.

Today, we delegate almost all our hunting, since we have no stomach for the “honest killing in the fields”; but our memories of hunting remain in our lively pursuit of anything weak, and even in childish play. Ultimately, civilization is based on food supply. “The cathedral and the capitol, the museum and the concert chamber, the library and the university are the façade – in the rear are the shambles.”

But hunting was not something original; if man had confined himself to it he would have been just another carnivore. He began to be human when he came out of the uncertainty of hunting and developed greater security and continuity in pastoral life. For this involved advantages of great importance: the domestication of animals, the raising of cattle, and the use of milk.

There is no way to know how domestication began, but at some point certain animals brought to slaughter were not slaughtered at once. They would still be eaten, but not so soon. They began to be used for cargo and ended up being accepted almost democratically in the society of man; they became his partners, and formed with him a community of work and residence. The miracle of reproduction was controlled, and two captives multiplied to form a herd. Animal milk freed women from prolonged breastfeeding, decreased infant mortality, and provided a new and dependable food source. The population grew, life became more stable and orderly, and the dominance of that new actor on Earth — man — became more assured.

Meanwhile, women were making the greatest economic breakthrough of all – the reward of the soil. The use of the soil went through phases of increasing complexity: first, the spontaneous use of what grew naturally in the soil, then came the hoe, and finally, the plow. At the end of this process, nature had taught man the art of sustenance, the virtue of providence, and the concept of time. “With that realization man took one of the three steps that led from the beast to civilization – speech, agriculture, and writing.”

  1. What were the advantages of agriculture in relation to hunting?
  2. What benefits did the domestication of animals bring to man?
  3. What were the three steps that “led from the beast to civilization?


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