After nearly 300 posts exclusively on Buddhism, I have an urge to write about something only tangentially related. It’s my blog, so I guess that’s ok.
Most people don’t really understand the nature of the foundation of civilization. First it’s important to understand the transition from hunter gatherer culture to agriculture. It is the most monumental change to humanity, and it was essentially a complete disaster. Humanity was primarily hunter/gatherer for 95% of our existence. The change to agriculture only began around 10,000 BCE. Most people imagine this as being an altogether good thing, when people figured out how to plant things so they didn’t have to just look around for it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, h/g’s domesticated essentially every animal and plant species used in agriculture. Among the very few exceptions was Salmon in the last few decades. But h/g’s didn’t cultivate crops by settling down. Instead they would burn some land, scatter some seeds, and go on their way. Then, they would come back in a few months and collect the bounty. Because of this, h/g’s were much healthier and long lived than their agriculturist descendants. They had a much more varied diet, had far fewer cavities, were much taller, and worked something like half as much. In short, adopting agriculture was a disaster for anyone that took it on. Read more about the topic here in Jared Diamond’s The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.
It was once assumed that people finally adopted agriculture because they had to. The h/g lifestyle requires a lot of space, and there were just too many people. This turns out not to be true. In fact, the population exploded after the adoption of agriculture, not before. Apparently, h/g’s didn’t have the need to have large families to work the land, so they didn’t.
So why would people switch to agriculture when it was so obviously a disaster for their health and well-being? It wasn’t because the h/g wasn’t good. They had great art and philosophy and culture, arguably even greater than the pastoralists that came after. Remember the cave paintings in France? All h/g’s.
The answer lies partly with one particular set of crops that had special properties: cereal grains. The biggest early empires were all founded on grains: wheat in Egypt, rice in China, and corn in mesoAmerica. What makes these crops special? 1.) They grow above ground. 2.) They are relatively easy to store and transport. 3.) They are calorie dense, and 4.) They can be grown in huge quantities. These properties make grains the food of empire.
Since they can be grown in huge quantities, are calorie dense and can be transported, they can feed large armies. Since they are easy to store and are grown above ground in river valleys, they are easy to tax and/or confiscate.
So here’s how this fits together. Nobody would adopt the agriculturist lifestyle on their own. They would only do so by force. H/g’s fought and raided each other since the beginning of time, but it was only when certain groups realized that instead of attacking and killing they could enslave that culture really got going. But it was no good to enslave h/g’s because they are always on the move. They had to be forced to grow something that could be taxed and/or confiscated to feed the armies of the oppressors. Armies couldn’t be fed on fruit or nuts or even meat. It had to be grains. And the only people that could be forced to do that work were slaves.
Classical Athens, home of the great philosophers, had about 20,000 citizens. But it had 200,000 slaves, mostly working in agriculture. When we imagine slaves, there is often the popular image of the house slave. But in all times and places, most slaves work the fields.
There were always people who opted out, usually Hill People who eschewed writing, and culture, and grain. The walls of the world: Hadrians wall, the great wall of China, etc., were only partly built to keep out invaders. They were also built to help keep the populace enslaved. Fleeing to the hills was an attractive option for many slaves/peasants.
When the Buddha arrived on the scene, agriculture had long supplanted the h/g life in India. The conflict at the time was primarily agriculture versus pastoralists, but a remnant of the free life in the forest was still there. And the Buddha at least partially stood for the the free man outside of society, living in nature.