Nutritional Anthropology 3/3: Agriculture and Longevity

In this third and final post of the series, I examine how humans moved from hunter-gathering to agriculture and then from agriculture to pastoralism.  Although some communities have given up on agriculture to a very great extent, trade relations with neighbouring cities and communities continues to provide pastoralists with certain food commodities, notably tea.  Along the way, however, I note the Daoist advice to avoid the five grains if one is to achieve the lifespan of an immortal.  This post, then, functions as a counterpoint to the idea that all post-agricultural societies are doomed to chronic disease.

Evenki Reindeer Herder.  Photo by Chris Linder of Seattle, WA.


Once populations undertook agriculture, there was no going back, and we suffer the consequences to the present day. Discuss.

Although Cordain’s assertion that, “We have wandered down a path toward absolute dependence upon cereal grains, a path for which there is no return,” may seem overwrought, the development of agriculture has set the structures of society and culture in the civilised world for the past several thousand years.  Agricultural practices have altered human biology and health, human behaviour, and the material culture and social networks which stem from those behaviours.  In order to prove that once agricultural practices were adopted a return to previous modes of subsistence was not possible, I will look at three groups who seem to have made the shift away from a reliance on agriculture.  First, reliance on cereal grains was early recognised in China and advised against by Daoist hermits.  Such reliance was partially broken by nomadic pastoralists throughout Eurasia;  my second example therefore looks at pastoralists in the high plateau of Tibet and the third, perhaps most successful example, is provided by the reindeer herders of Siberia.  Despite the success of individual Daoists and small groups of pastoralists, elimination of cereal reliance was rarely if ever complete on societal levels.  The set point established by cereal agriculture, therefore, seems open to manipulation so that reliance on cereal grains ceases to a primary source of subsistence, but their cultivation is unlikely to be eliminated entirely.  Such manipulation, however, would likely not only be in response to environmental pressures, but also involve new and additional shifts in human behaviour, material culture, and social networks.

Agriculture can be distinguished from unadulterated gathering and from small-scale horticulture by agriculturalists’ reliance on the raising of domestic plants as the primary source of food.  (Harris 2004 [1996]:4).  The term ‘agricultural practices’ rather than ‘agriculture’ is meant to emphasise the shift in individual behavioural and societal patterns resulting from a reliance on crop production.    Bar-Yosef (1998), examined the emergence of the Levantine Natufian culture, one of the first groups to employ agricultural practices, and argues that the adoption of crop production was ‘the optimal strategy for semi-sedentary and sedentary hunter gatherers’ given the particular environmental changes during the late Pleistocene.  “The emergence of farming communities is seen as a response to the effects of the Younger Dryas on the Late Natufian culture in the Levantine Corridor. The beginning of intentional widespread cultivation was the only solution for a population for whom cereals had become a staple food. Domestication of a suite of founder crops came as the unintentional, unconscious result of this process.”  (Bar-Yosef 1998:174) When the younger Dryas period ended around 10,000 BP, cultivation of crops continued in larger villages, within which, Bar-Yosef writes, “the need for social cohesion motivated the maintenance of public ceremonies in addition to domestic rituals, the building of shrines, and the keeping of space for public activities.”  (Bar-Yosef 1998:174)  As these groups succeeded, they moved into other neighbouring areas, and Bar-Yosef cites the ‘multiplier effect’ which subsequently drove technological innovations and set the recorded history of the Fertile Crescent into motion.

The extent to which agriculturalists colonised surrounding areas, or to which neighbouring hunter-gatherer groups adopted agricultural practices is unknown. The former case represents simply the natural selection of a structure which ensures the greatest viability for a particular population given a certain set of environmental conditions.  Agricultural groups are simply more successful at large-scale population distribution and survival. The question of whether agricultural groups can make a subsequent shift therefore also comes with the implication of maintaining those levels of population distribution, density, and survival.

Societal changes were not the only result of agricultural practices.  Comparative analysis of skeletal remains has demonstrated several biological changes resulting from the adoption of agricultural practices.  A decrease in facial with concomitant crowding of the teeth, and a corresponding trend towards smaller tooth size are two morphological changes still present.  (Larsen 1995:196 – 197)  Other morphological changes are due to practices, rather than diet per se, and include lower bone resilience, but also lower rates of osteoarthritis among agricultural populations as compared to hunter gatherers.  (Larsen 1995:200)  Genetic change as a result of agriculture has occurred in the Middle East, with respect to an ability to digest wheat; however, this genetic change decreases in frequency the further from the Levant a population is located.  (Cordain 1999:50)  Overall, despite an increase in fertility and population density, health seems to have decreased with the adoption of agricultural practices.

To prove there was no going back after the adoption of agriculture, groups or individuals who have decried patterns of urbanisation and poor health, or who have opted out of sedentism, perhaps by moving into new climatic zones, should be examined.  Among those groups were medieval Daoists, who prescribed various practices to increase longevity and tranquillity.  Agriculture not only caused shifts in societal organisation, it also altered ideological concepts relating to these domains.  Daoism countered these ideologies with its own set of ‘naturalistic’ emphases.  Daoists are  often portrayed as taking an anti-societal view and legends abound about Immortals and hermits who sought to leave society behind in the cultivation of virtue.  The opening chapter of the Zhuangzi relates,

“In the mountains of far-off Ku-yi there lives a daemonic [shen; spirit] man, whose skin and flesh are like ice and snow, who is gentle as a virgin.  He does not eat the five grains but sucks in the wind and drinks the dew; he rides the vapour of the clouds, yokes flying dragons to his chariot, and roams beyond the four seas…”  (Englehardt 2000:110)

As Englehardt notes, this is the classic description of an immortal, “a being with a purified body, who uses a special diet without grains and has the ability to fly, to roam afar, and to heal.”  (ibid.)

Avoidance of the five grains wasn’t only advocated in legends.  Among the medical manuscripts found in the MaWangDui tombs and dated before 168 BCE is the Quegu shiqi (The Rejection of Grains and Absorption of Qi).  “It deals mainly with techniques of eliminating grains and ordinary foodstuffs from the diet and replacing them with medicinal herbs and qi through special breathing exercises.”  (Englehardt 2000:86; see also 102)  The implication is that these techniques were actually practiced in the Han dynasty, if only on a small scale, or only by the elite.  (Csikszentmihalyi 2000:65; Penny 2000:126).  Such dietary recommendations persisted into the Tang dynasty (Kohn and Kirkland 2000:353), and are even repeated in Daoist works today (Shipper 1993: 167)  Although abstention from grain was thought to weaken the three worms which ate one’s life, “it also is related to the immortals’ rejection of a settled agricultural life and its interrelations and various social duties in favour of an eremitic, mountain-dwelling, more floating existence.”  (Penny 2000:126)

Despite the manuscript evidence from China, Daoist grain avoidance practices never seem to have led to a full scale societal departure from crop-raising.  Pastoralism, however, provides insight into how a group can move away from agricultural practices while maintaining a larger social network than the Daoist hermits and immortals evinced.

Pastoralism seems to have emerged subsequent to the development of plant cultivation.  Like agriculture, Harris (2004 [1996]:4) describes a spectrum of pastoral behaviours ranging from predation (i.e. hunting) through protection (taming and ‘free range management’ of herds) to domestication.  Domsestication includes both animal husbandry by agriculturalists (who grow crops also to feed their animals) and transhumance or nomadic pastoralism.   Harris theorises that caprine pastoralism may have initially served as a buffer in case of crop failure. (Harris 2004 [1996]:556) Although the adoption of nomadic pastoralism allowed the exploitation of environments previously closed to agriculturalists, nomadic pastoralists, at least in Eurasia, never seem to have quite left behind their reliance on cereals produced by settled communities.

Goldstein’s research on the Tibetan plateau emphasised that pastoralists there have remained in their indigenous homeland, and have never been pushed to more marginal areas by agriculturalists.  (Goldstein 2002)  Yet even these groups trade for barley and tea.  Although their herds of yak, goats, sheep, and horses provide these pastoralists with both meat and milk, “roughly 50% of the nomads’ dietary calories derive from grains they secure from farming areas located 15 – 20 days’ walk to the southeast.”  (Goldstein 2002:133)  Thus, they remain tied to agricultural communities for their survival.

One group which has nearly left behind agriculture altogether are the Evenki and other reindeer herders in Siberia.  Classifying these groups as pastoralists or hunter-gatherers who manage animals is open to debate, since domesticated reindeer can easily return to the wild.  For Ingold, the difference between hunters and pastoralists is how the notion of property is applied to animals:  for pastoralists, living animals constitute their wealth; for hunters, dead ones. (Ingold 1986:5, 6)  Reindeer are both sources of labour and provide economic resources for the family in the form of milk for domestic consumption and antlers traded as medicine to Koreans and Chinese.  The Soviet Union even briefly considered setting up a reindeer dairy industry.  (Fondahl 1989)

Ingold (1986), in summarising his earlier work, advances the theory that reindeer herding resulted when pastoralists already familiar with the domestication of animals moved into southern Siberia.  This theory is supported by Uerman (2004 [1996]), who hypothesises that sheep and goats were domesticated first, and other animals were domesticated by those familiar with the concept of domesticating animals.  The movement, then, is from agriculture to pastoralism, to an even more extreme pastoralism.

If Evenki are accepted as pastoralists, their diet should be examined for evidence of agricultural reliance.  In his examination of contemporary Evenki growth patterns, Leonard et al (1994) indicate that while their stature and weight is low compared to US populations, this does not seem due to limited food availability.  However, their herds provide about 30% of total energy, and “the diet is supplemented with nonlocal foods (e.g. flour, noodles, sugar, tea) that are brought in by helicopter from regional centers.”  (Leonard et al 1994:346.)  Previous to this time, Evenki traded venison with coastal people to supply additional food substances, mostly marine mammal meat and fats.  (Kozlov et al 2007: chapter 5).  Traditionally, the Nenets, another reindeer herding people of the Russian north, “lived mainly by using what they could produce from their own herds:  venison, fat and edible intestines.  In addition, they added to their diet foods from hunting, river or lake fishing, gathering and sometimes, marine mammal hunting.”  (Kozlov et al 2007: chapter 5)  Because of their mobility, nomadic reindeer herders did not store food; thus the primary benefit conferred by grains – their ability to be stored up for times of need – would have functioned as a drawback.

In the sixteenth century, contacts with Slavic Russians led to the importation of flour, sugar, tea, and alchohol, but these were voluntary adoptions.  During the Soviet period, however, an agriculturally based ‘Soviet diet’ was imposed fairly uniformly throughout Siberia.  Traditional ways of preparing food were condemned, and the Soviet reliance on grains, poultry, and cattle products were praised and highly valued.  (Kozlov et al 2007: chapter 5)  Following the collapse of the Soviet system, and the consequent difficulty of importing foods from regional centres, previous culinary – and property – traditions have subsequently resurfaced.  (Leonard et al 2002:232)  Thus, reindeer herders seem to have been able to shift back to a hunting and exclusively pastoralist lifestyle.

The experience of the Evenki illustrates the second shift which occurred in food production during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  This shift involved the commodification, mechanisation, and mass production of foods (and the consequent demise of the artisan, local, and found or foraged food practices); the emergence of inner cities, suburbs, and migrant slums; and the restriction of autonomous responsibility and local knowledge of survival from the land.  The Soviet diet introduced to reindeer herders in the twentieth century is a good example of this new, ‘industrialised’ diet, while policies which Beijing is imposing on the TAR with regard to land use is an example of restricting autonomous responsibility for land use and provisioning.  (Goldstein 2002)  The global trade of food and agriculturalist concerns over food security (derived in part from the concept of precious resources to be exploited, traded, or taken) support the continued existence of industrialised food  However, as the Evenki have demonstrated, so long as a people still maintains a knowledge of how to survive locally, a reverse shift away from agro-industrial dependence is possible if such networks begin to fail, as they did for the Evenki after fall of Soviet Union.


Agricultural practices seem to have been adopted in response to climate stress and a pre-existing semi-sedentary lifestyle.  The adoption of agricultural processes caused lasting shifts not only in population health, but also in the ways those societies organised themselves.  These changes may have allowed certain groups of agriculturalists to colonise and successfully supplant previous groups of hunter-gatherers.  Thus agricultural practices represent a successful survival strategy, although biological resistance to grains persisted in many populations which subsequently adopted the cultivation of cereals.  Yet because the origins of agriculture appear tied to climatic change, subsequent severe climate change may force yet another shift in how humans provide for their nutritional and caloric needs.

In medieval China, certain Daoist-oriented groups developed a social and medical ideology which discouraged the consumption of grain, and advocated a near government-less, spontaneous existence.  These groups supported a return to pre-agricultural organisational and societal patterns.   Legends developed around several individuals who left society and lived in the wild, having returned to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, neither keeping animals nor cultivating plants.  Some of these individuals are still revered as Immortals in Daoist folk religion today.

Larger groups also were able to lessen their reliance on agricultural practices.  Subsequent to the ‘invention’ of agriculture, various animals were domesticated, perhaps as a buffer food source in the advent of crop failure.  The herding and taming of animals allowed some groups to detach themselves from a sedentary lifestyle and once again experience the benefits of increased mobility.  This mobility allowed the exploitation of habitats unsuitable to agriculture, such as the high plateau of Tibet and the forests of Siberia.  However, pastoralism only decreased, though did not eliminate, a reliance on agricultural food products.  Before the Soviet period, the reindeer herders of Siberia were perhaps most successful among the Eurasians on eliminating a reliance on cereal crops, supplementing their diets instead with marine products brought through trade with coastal peoples.  Although the dietary regimes and societal organisation of both Tibet and Siberia were affected by government policies during their respective communist eras, the reindeer herders seem to have been able to successfully return to their more locally subsistent patterns of living after government influence declined.

Therefore, while agriculture has broadly supported civilisation as we know it through cities and settled life, it does seem possible for individuals and small groups to move away from an exclusive reliance on cereal products for survival.  Such a shift seems more likely to occur in combination with other factors such as climate change and internal forces resulting not only from political decisions, but also from medical and market forces aware of consumers’ biological intolerance to certain grain products.


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Cordain, L (1999).  “Cereal grains:  humanity’s double edged sword” in Evolutionary Aspects of Nutrition and Health:  Diet, Exercise, genetics and Chronic Disease.  Simopoulos, A.P.  World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics vol 84.

Csikszentmihalyi, M (2000).  “Han Cosmology and Mantic Practises” in Kohn, L (ed).  Daoism Handbook.  Leiden:  Brill, 2000:53.

Englehardt, U (2000).  “Longevity Techniques and Chinese Medicine” in Kohn, L (ed).  Daoism Handbook.  Leiden:  Brill, 2000:74.

Fondahl , G (1989).  “Reindeer dairying in the Soviet Union.”  Polar Record 25 (155):285 –294.

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Kohn, L and Kirkland R (2000).  “Daoism in the Tang (618 – 907) in Kohn, L (ed).  Daoism Handbook.  Leiden:  Brill, 2000:339

Kozlov, A; Vershubsky, G; Kozlova, M (2007).  “Indigenous Peoples of Northern Russia:  Anthropology and Health.”  International Association of Circumpolary Health, 2007. Vol 66, no 5:462.

Larsen, C S (1995).  “Biological changes in human populations with agriculture.”  Annual Review of Anthropology 24:185 – 213.

Leonard, W; Galloway, V; Ivakine, E; Osipova, L; Kazakovtseva, M (2002).  “Ecology, health and lifestyle change among the Evenki herders of Siberia” in Leonard, W and Crawford, M.  Human Biology of Pastoral Populations.  Cambridge Uni Press, 2002:206

Leonard, W; Katzmarzyk, P; Comuzzie, A; Crawford, M; Sukernik, R (1994).  “Evenki Growth Patterns.”  American Journal of Human Biology 6:339 – 350.

Minnegal M, and Dwyer PD (2007).  “Foragers, farmers and fishers:  responses to environmental perturbation.”  Journal of Political Ecology 14:34-57.

Penny, B (2000).  “Immortality and Transcendence” in Kohn, L (ed).  Daoism Handbook.  Leiden:  Brill, 2000:109.

Rosegrant, MW; Leach, N; Gerpacio, RV (1999).  “Alternative futures for world cereal and meat consumption.”  Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58:219 – 234.

Shipper, Kristopher (1993).  The Taoist Body.  University of California Press.

Uerpmann, HP (1996).  “Animal domestication – accident or intention?”  in Harris, D.  The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia.  UCL Press, 2004 [1996]:227.


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