A summary of Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris, chapter 2

Cannibals and Kings is an anthropology book by Marvin Harris aimed at a popular audience. Since I’m trying to read this for education rather than entertainment, I’m not reviewing it in the usual way, but instead I’m trying to understand what it is arguing for. Hopefully, this will be part of a series of posts where I summarise each chapter; I’m starting with chapter 2 because the first one is a general overview. I wrote a brief introduction to Marvin Harris and Cannibals and Kings in this post on Tumblr.

Somebody not familiar with the topic might be inclined to think of agriculture as an invention, like the steam engine or the light bulb. The question of the origin of agriculture would not seem well-posed to such a person. They would say that until the first farmer societies appeared 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, the idea of agriculture had simply never occured to anybody, and for this reason every society was a forager society. But once the first person had the idea (who happened to be in the Middle East, 12,000 years ago), people saw that the farmer lifestyle would be better for them, and therefore they adopted it. Neighbouring societies came into contact with the first farmer societies, came to the same realisation, and became agricultural themselves. Other societies came up with the idea independently too (but later than those Middle-Eastern pioneers), and passed the idea on to their own neighbours. In this way most of the societies in the world became agricultural, except for a few in places like Siberia where the environment made agriculture impractical, and in places like Australia where the societies were too isolated to be sufficiently exposed to the idea and happened not to come up with it themselves.

There are a lot of problems with this explanation. One of them is the assumption that the idea of agriculture was sufficiently unlikely to occur to people in forager societies that the first farmer societies only appeared 12,000 years ago. Humans are thought to have reached behavioral modernity around 40,000 years ago, so that’s 28,000 years where the idea of agriculture, if it occured to anybody, occured only to people who were unable to get it across to others, or to people in those places like Siberia where agriculture was impractical. Was the idea of agriculture really so inaccessible? Anthropologists have found that people in modern forager societies often have extensive knowledge of the natural world in which they live. Presumably, prehistoric foragers were the same. In particular, the mechanics of plant growth would probably not have been a mystery to them. And if they knew how plants grew, it doesn’t seem like a massive leap for them to have the idea of planting seeds and encouraging their growth in order to eat the plant once it was fully grown.

But the most fundamental problem with this explanation is the idea that the farmer lifestyle would be attractive to foragers. This is far from obvious. In fact, it appears that, at least in its primitive stages, farmer societies were in many respects less conducive to general well-being than forager societies. There are lots of points that could be made here, so let’s just focus on one metric by which forager societies have an advantage over farmer societies (at least the primitive ones): the amount of leisure time available, as opposed to time spent obtaining food. The modern San foragers of the Kalahari desert spend about three hours per adult per day hunting and gathering and have a diet rich in animal and plant protein. Modern Javanese peasants (as of 1977), on the other hand, spend about six hours a day working their farms and get much less protein for their efforts. Even modern workers still spend about four and a half hours a day earning the wages they need to obtain their food (assuming a 40-hour week), although they have access to an enormous range of different kinds of food, so the comparison is less straightforward. And, let’s not forget, the Bushmen live on the edge of the Kalahari desert, not one of the most hospitable environments in the world. Most prehistoric foragers would have lived in environments where food was easier to access.

That’s the empirical side of the argument. It is also possible to explain why it makes sense that the early farmer societies would have had a worse standard of living than forager societies. The reason is that there is a crucial difference in the nature of the means of production in forager and farmer societies. Foragers depend on the amount of resources present in the surrounding environment. It is impossible for them to increase the amount of food produced per unit area, because the more they hunt and gather, the more scarce the animals and plants that they sought become. On the other hand, farmers can increase the amount of food produced per unit area by planting more crops per unit area; there are limits on the amount of crops that can be grown per unit area too, but the limits are sufficiently high that the maximum amount of food that can be produced per unit area in a farmer society is much higher, and the early farmers would not have needed to reach it. Harris refers to increase in the amount of food produced per unit area as “intensification of production” (it’s a concept that re-occurs and is important throughout the book). The difference between forager and farmer societies can therefore be briefly summarised as this: foragers cannot intensify production, but farmers can.

Since foragers cannot intensify production, forager societies are motivated to maintain a constant population density. If the amount of foragers within a given area increases, the foragers in the area have to eat less on average. However, if the amount of farmers within a given area increases, the farmers in the area don’t have to eat less on average, because they have the option of increasing the amount of food produced in the area and thereby cancelling out the effect of the increased population density. As a result, farmers are not motivated to maintain a constant population density, and, in general, the population density in a farmer society tends to increase over time. But the intensification of production that farmers must carry out in order to accomodate the increase in population density necessitates an increase in workload.

One last question remains. How do forager societies maintain their constant population density? In the second chapter of the book, which is called “Murders in Eden”, Harris talks about some of the methods that they probably used. As the name of the chapter suggests, some of these might turn you off from the somewhat idyllic picture of forager life that has been painted so far.

Foragers had no access to effective methods of contraception. They had access to methods of abortion, and some of them were probably quite effective, but they tended to also be very effective at killing or seriously injuring the mother, so abortion was not an attractive option. But there was another way of getting rid of unwanted children which carried zero risk of harm to the mother: infanticide. Infanticide is, of course, morally objectionable to most people in my society, and probably yours as well, if you’re reading this. But other societies, both historical and modern, it is not; in these societies infants are considered to be non-persons, just as many people in my society consider foetuses to be non-persons. I think Harris would agree that a society’s nature generally determines its moral system, not the other way round. The necessity of infanticide in forager societies would cause these societies to define infants as non-persons. There would, therefore, be no reason for foragers to refrain from carrying out infanticide for moral reasons. The only reason infanticide would be disfavoured to some degree would be so that the effort of pregnancy, and, especially, the extra food that the mother would need to eat, would not be wasted. But the benefits of keeping the population constant would have outweighed these costs.

Another, less morally questionable method that was used was late weaning. After birth, women ovulate only after their body has built up enough fat reserves to allow the next baby to get enough food, at least according to Harris (I don’t know if this is an accepted fact or not). If they breastfeed, they expend a significant amount of calories feeding the baby, so that their fat reserves build up more slowly, and ovulation is delayed. (The same mechanics are behind the fact that menarche occurs earlier among more well-nourished populations.) In farmer societies, people usually consume enough carbohydrates that it is impossible to delay ovulation for more than a year or two, even if the baby is not weaned for the whole of this time. But foragers’ diets are much less carbohydrate-rich, so they can delay ovulation for much longer. And as long as ovulation has not occurred, impregnation is impossible. Studies of Bushmen women have found that, by putting off weaning, they often avoid getting pregnant for four years or more. That means that, within in the approximately 26-year-long span in which they are fertile (between the ages of 16 and 42, or close to those ages), there is only time for five or six pregnancies. Accounting for the effects of miscarriage and infant mortality, this might result in only three or four children who survive puberty on average, given no infanticide. In order to maintain constant population this number needs to be cut down to two, and this would have to be done via infanticide, but the average woman would only need to kill one or two babies during her lifetime. It still probably doesn’t sound like an ideal way to live to anybody reading this, but it’s not quite as bad as you might have thought. Again, though, it is important to understand that while this would be a moral cost for us, it would not have been a moral cost for foragers in which infanticide was an accepted practice.

Now that we have established that the naïve description of the origin of agriculture given above is incorrect, the next question to answer is this. In general, farming was not an attractive option for foragers. What were the particular circumstances in the Fertile Crescent 12,000 years ago, and in the other areas where agriculture originated independently, that made farming an attractive option in these particular times and places? This is the subject of the next chapter, “The Origin of Agriculture”, which I’ll write about in the next post.

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One response to “A summary of Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris, chapter 2

  1. The whole “systematic infanticide” theory is clearly not true. Anthropologists are acting s though the population maintenance problem only has two solutions: abstinence or infanticide, both of which are hard to believe. But the third option is far more realistic. There are… Dozens of ways in which a couple can pleasure each other without resulting in conception. I think that these original hunter gatherer societies were very kinky, more so than any farming society, and only had standard intercourse when they wanted children. When the alternative is wasted pregnancies and dead babies, this responsibility would have been stressed within these cultures, being of paramount importance.
    Pregnancy is a long, expensive and dangerous process, so I don’t buy it that they had regular wasted pregnancies.
    If infanticide were natural to us, why is every culture in history rather repulsed by the concept? Why is our natural urge to protect and nurture babies so strong, and infanticide so traumatising? Clearly this shows we haven’t evolved under such conditions.
    Humans are easily the most sexually creative species. I think this is an evolutionary response in order to minimise wasted pregnancies, as soon as our lineage became intelligent enough to be able to plan our populations.
    What do you think of this theory? To me it’s an obvious winner.

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