That's not that long ago. To give you some idea, President John Tyler, who was born in 1790 and served as the tenth president of the United States, has two grandchildren alive today. You read that right, grandchildren, not great-great grandchildren. Or, if you believe this guy who might be 160 years old, within one human lifetime.
Not mentioned is the fact that agriculture probably increasingly became a "desperate measure" that we became dependent upon thanks to 1.) a changing climate 2.) the overexploitation of megafauna by big-game hunting leading to their gradual extinction, and 3.) rising population levels, meaning there was no way back. We know that groups practiced "part-time" agriculture in between a hunting and gathering lifestyle (certain Pygmy tribes, for example). Often they practiced this in "hard times" such as drought or animal scarcity, and went back to hunting and gathering when times got better, because it was much less work (why work when there are so many magongo nuts?). Eventually, however, the bad times never ended, and we became dependent upon the harder way of making a living thanks to our folly, leading to famine, war, slavery, and so on. And we keep repeating the same mistakes even in our own time, as we encourage a "grow at all costs" mentality.
Anyway, this is a terrifically written piece, well-worth reading in full. I've included some of the best parts below. If this is deleted from the final manuscript that's too bad, because more people need to hear this information. And kudos to an economics professor for a solid understanding of history and anthropology.
Stagnation and Poverty Outside the North Atlantic, 10000 BC-1870: A Deleted Scene from My "Slouching Towards Utopia?: The Economic History of the Twentieth Century"
Living standards were what we would regard as very low for the bulk of humanity throughout the long trek between the invention of agriculture around 8000 B.C. and 1870.
Take Peabody and Sherman's WABAC machine back further than 1870, back to ten thousand years ago, to the eve of the invention of agriculture, to when hunter-gatherers inhabited the world.
Biomedically our hunter-gatherer ancestors appear to have been about as healthy as we in the modern world are through early middle age—if they survived to early middle age, that is. Life expectancy at birth was twenty-five on a generous estimate. The average adult height of mesolithic—-i.e., the period that ended 10,000 years ago—-hunter-gatherers appears to have been about 5’8” for men and 5’5” for women, perhaps a hair less than average adult height in the rich postindustrial economies today. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were, plausibly, better-nourished than we are today: even in the richest countries today diets are tilted toward high-caloric density carbohydrates—-rice, wheat, corn, and potatoes—-relative to nutritional requirements.
As a hunter-gatherer you lived a well-nourished, physically-strenuous life that kept you fit, and was at least moderately interesting in the day-to-day puzzles that you had to solve. Hunter-gatherers avoided the mind-numbing boredom of doing the same thing over and over again to the next row of the same crop, what Karl Marx called the “idiocy of rural life.” But there was a downside. Hunter-gatherer nutritional standards were adequate and diets were varied in large part because population densities were low and foraging territories relatively large. Population densities were low because mortality was ferocious. You got to watch your friends die, your spouse die, your comrades die, worst of all a large fraction of your children die, and then you died at a relatively young age.
How ferocious was mortality? A pre-industrial nutritionally-unstressed human population with access to the technologies of settlement—building walls, roofs, and chimneys and weaving and sewing clothes—will roughly double in population every twenty-five years. That is what the British settlers in America did in the generations after they hit the coast from Georgia to Maine. But human hunter-gatherer populations before agriculture grew from perhaps a hundred thousand people fifty-thousand years ago to perhaps 5 million people ten-thousand years ago. That is a rate of increase of 0.01% per year: each generation sees not twice as many people as its parent generation, but rather only a quarter of a percent more—one extra person for each 400.
And even though life was not that of boring routinized repetitive labor, it was not what we would call comfortable: you spent a not-small part of your life hungry, cold (or too hot), or wet.
Now jump forward again to 1870. How did living standards in 1870 compare to those ten thousand years ago?
[...] The upper classes of 1870 were certainly more comfortable and probably led richer and more interesting lives than the Clan of the Cave Bear did. But the illiterate peasants of the world in 1870 probably did not do so...1870 saw no greater life expectancy than people in 8000 BC. Infant and adult mortality in agricultural and commercial societies is no lower than in hunter-gatherer ones. Mortality may well be higher for adults, because plagues and famines like dense human populations. Bacteria do not care (much) if their rapid growth kills their hosts as long as that happens only after they have found a new host to jump to. And denser populations terribly vulnerable to famine, either through blight or through weather—-too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry—-adverse to the growth of whatever the staple happens to be.
An agricultural cereal-heavy diet does not contain enough iron to avoid anemia. It does not contain enough calcium to avoid tooth loss and bone weakness. Rome’s legions were paid in bread and a little salt—that’s what “salary” means. Add to this whatever meat they could find and whatever greens and seasonings they could gather, and you had the diet of the legionaries, collectively at least the most powerful group of men of their age. They wear highly-skilled practitioners of violence. They were mean. They were also short. And they were, by what we would regard as early middle age, largely toothless.
Have we mentioned endemic hookworm, tapeworm, and other parasites yet? Or that agricultural and commercial labor likely involves heavy lifting-and-carrying labor that damages your spine? Or that the relatively high population densities create greater vulnerability to infectious diseases that debilitate even when they do not kill?
In 1870 agricultural and commercial societies people were short. Average adult male heights of 5’3” (and adult female heights averaging 4’11”) appear to have been the rule for humanity once we started to farm. This indicates extraordinary malnutrition by our standards. If my wife and I had fed our boy and girl a diet to produce adult heights of 5’3” and 4’11” respectively, Contra Costa Child and Protective Services would have long since came and taken my children away, and I would never have seen them again.
Comparing the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers ten thousand to that of illiterate peasant farmers a hundred and fifty years ago raises an obvious question: why would people ever become farmers?and
Jared Diamond claims that we should—-even in the United States, even today—-envy our hunter-gatherer ancestors. I don’t buy this: I do not, or at least I think we should not, envy them. (He does not either: Full Professors of Physiology at UCLA and of Economics at U.C. Berkeley have chosen a life far, far removed from that of our ancestors.) But there is an important kernel here: almost all of our agricultural and commercial-era ancestors between 8000 BC and 1870 or later did have good reason to envy our common pre-industrial ancestors. We understand why the transition from hunting and gathering to pre-industrial agriculture is good for those at the top of the pyramid. But why do those not at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid go along?
Most important, is that the first generation to farm—-or to adopt any of the many subsequent agricultural productivity-multiplying innovations—-does live the life of Reilly, off the fat of the land. If you can figure out how to do it, it is good for you and your children and your children’s children to farm. But a well-fed and well-nourished population multiplies. So farming population densities explode far beyond hunter-gatherer densities.
Some human populations did not pursue the agricultural road. Some settled into a halfway role as nomadic or transhumant herders following their flocks on land that was, for the time and given the available biotechnology, marginal for settled agriculture. Some remained hunter-gatherers for a while. But, eventually, somebody nearby had become farmers. And the population density of the farmers grew. Hunter-gatherers rarely exceed population densities of one per square mile. Farmers on land that is good for their particular version of agricultural technology can easily support many more than a thousand in the same space. The old “forty acres and a mule” for a family of six translates into a population density of roughly 100 per square mile. When those nearby who had become farmers decided that they wanted the hunter-gatherers’ or the herdsmen’s land, they took it: numbers of 100-to-1 or 1000-to-1 are not easy to argue with.
The upshot is that—-unless you were part of the rich, literate upper classes—-per capita standards of living were not that much higher in 1870 as they had been back in 8000 BC. Population, however, was much greater: 1.1 billion in people in 1870, compared to 5 million or so back in 8000 BC.
Now that we have established that technological progress was glacial before 1870, and especially before 1800, we can turn that around and figure out why income levels, living standards, and labor productivity levels worldwide were so stagnant from 8000 BC to 1870.and
On average in the pre-industrial post-hunter-gatherer world populations grew at 0.05% per year. That is five percent in a century: for an average generation, were 105 people for every 100 people who had lived in their great-great-grandmothers’ time. Yet normal human fertility with reasonable nutrition without artificial birth control will lead to roughly eight pregnancies per female. If each of their great-grandmothers had had four daughters, each of whom had four daughters, et cetera… then an average generation would not have 105 people but rather 25,600 people for every 100 alive in their great-great-grandmothers’ time. Even over a span as short as a century, in the agricultural age before 1870 99.59% of the people who could have been there simply weren’t. Farming population densities explode far beyond hunter-gatherer densities until something brings population growth to a halt.
What limited population growth so much in the pre-1870 agricultural world?
A number of things can restrain population growth. Perhaps celibacy and abstention from reproduction is thought of as pleasing to God. Your prospective father-in-law may tell you that you may not marry his daughter until you have a farm of your own, and he may be able to make that stick. Your older brother may tell you that you cannot bring a wife into the lineage house until the lineage has bought an extra piece of land on which to grow food.
But most often and to the greatest extent that “something” is poverty: children become too malnourished to fight off normal childhood diseases, women become too skinny to ovulate, and populations become so dense as to become giant culture dishes for endemic debilitating diseases or periodic epidemic mortal plagues, and so population growth ceases. Generation-to-generation the population jumps up and down as the spread of agricultural techniques produces an edge in food and more children survive, as plagues and wars devastate provinces, and as bounceback takes place in the aftermath of plagues and famines that have left provinces depopulated but the survivors with large and fertile farms.
The fact that over the long run between the invention of agriculture 10000 years ago and 1800 human populations grew very slowly indeed carries the implication that at most times in most places agricultural society life was nasty and brutish and short. Technological progress would produce a few generations of relative plenty, a growth in population density to shrink the average size of farms. And then you were back on the Malthusian treadmill. The only exceptions were improvements in technology and organization that did not affect the rate of reproduction—either because the benefits were confined to the (numerically small) upper classes or because the changes came accompanied by social changes that increased mortality. Of course, social changes that increase mortality are hardly improvements in quality of life, are they?
Before the invention of agriculture you can use your status to pick the best of things, but the amount of things you have is limited to what you can personally carry. And if your exactions become too onerous the people can simply leave for the hills. But once a population becomes agricultural, people cannot leave for the hills. Agriculture opens a new career path: that of a specialist in systematic violence directed against other humans who makes threats to induce them to give you a third of their crop—or else.I think that last part really makes an important point. This is why we hear such boosertism about the wonderful future delivered to us by science and technology mainly coming from people on the very apex of the social pyramid, people like Matt Ridley (a bailed-out banker), Peter Diamandis (who builds spaceships for the one percent), Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Sergei Brin, Kevin Kelly, Stuart Brand, and people like this. They identify with with the Jeffersons and Ciceros because they are on the top of the social hierarchy. People like me, on the other hand, and I suspect people like you, dear reader, probably identify more with the slaves because that's who we are - and there a lot more of us. I think that's the fundamental difference in perspective.
A parasitic caste or class existing by virtue of their organized ability to threaten violence and then take a substantial share of the agricultural (and craftwork) producers’ crops becomes the rule soon after the coming of agriculture. Such castes and classes live better albeit more dangerously than the peasants. (If they didn’t live better, after all, why accept the extra danger?) They live more dangerously because, after all, if they do not their numbers grow until they, once again, are at the Malthusian margin—-and what good is being a noble if you have to live like a peasant? Whatever social system they evolve will break down unless it (a) keeps their numbers low enough to maintain an edge in standard-of-living, (b) keeps their lifestyle focused enough that they maintain their edge in violence, (c) keeps their numbers high enough that with their edge in violence they can maintain control, (d) keeps their numbers and their skills high enough to avoid being conquered by neighboring similar groups of thugs-with-spears, and (e) keeps their exactions low enough that they are not destroyed by revolting peasants with nothing to lose anyway. Upper-class social systems that accomplish those five goals tend to be terrifyingly stable in human history since the invention of agriculture. And whenever such a system does collapse another replacement almost invariably soon grows up in its place.
We see the effects of technological progress over the millennia before 1870 in the numbers of humanity as a whole, but also in the standard of living of the upper classes. To be a slave of Marcus Tullius Cicero in 76 BC was probably a lot like being a slave of Thomas Jefferson in 1776. The heavy plow and the horse collar allowed Monticello to feed a greater population density than Tusculum. But Jefferson's life was not all that much like Cicero's. 1800 years of technological progress largely tuned to elite consumption made themselves felt: bigger and better horses, carriages with springs, more interesting intoxicants, superior furniture, better heating technologies, superior artificial lighting systems, et cetera. The only edge I can see is that Cicero had access to superior Roman bathing technologies that had been lost in the Dark Ages. And there are the two overwhelmingly important differences: printing (and the fact that Jefferson had an extra 1800 years' worth of people to read who had joined the human conversation), and coffee.
How important were these exceptions? How much should we value the fact that Thomas Jefferson lived better than Marcus Tullius Cicero given that their slaves lived about equally well? It probably depends—a lot—on whether you identify yourself with Jefferson and Cicero on the one hand or with their slaves on the other.
The question is, why are so many people listing to the Ferraris for all crowd? Well, I think less and less people are. It's hard to reconcile all the happy talk from billionaires and their media organs about artificial intelligence, spaceflight, unlimited lifespans and post-scarcity abundance when those of us in the real world of flyover country are literally seeing society fall apart and decay around us every single day.
P.S. there are a couple of good comments:
Not an expert, but my rough understanding is there's a rather serious argument the low rate of population growth among pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers was not due to as much as you suggest to high death rates, but rather in large part to low birth rates. The mechanism by which this works is the inhibiting effect breastfeeding has on female ovulation, so in an epoch when children breastfed until the age of 5 or 6 years, instead of 6 months, female pregnancy was a rarer thing and fertility rates would tend to lump around 2 and 3.***
In the post-agrarian world where milk comes not just from mothers but from cows and goats, the dynamic changes rather dramatically to the Malthusian condition. Add famine to the pestilence that comes with living in dense population centers alongside animals.
Also recall that, as well-nourished as our ancestors were, they were prone to bouts of daylong fasts when the hunt and gather didn't pan out (likely a reason occasional daylong fasts and diminished caloric intake are so beneficial to longterm health); not entirely sure what effect that would have on fertility, but it's rather plausible to predict it would be an inhibitor.
This is a fascinating piece, but I'd like to point something out.
"Rome’s legions were paid in bread and a little salt—that’s what “salary” means."
This is a misconception. Although the word appears to be derived from that used to describe a legionary's salt allotment, it doesn't necessarily follow that its understanding today would have been the same 2,000 years ago.
Roman soldiers were certainly taken care of with bread, salt, and other nutritional needs, but they were not "paid" with such basic necessities alone. There are plenty of references in Livy, Tacitus, and other contemporary writers, to legionaries being paid in the coin of the realm, generally silver sesterces and bronze asses.
Equally important, however, are retirement bonuses in cash or land, "donatives" by a new emperor, and the ever present prospect of the distribution of booty. The most casual reading of the history of the last hundred years of the Roman Republic were put across the absolute importance of providing land to discharged veterans.
(Combined 2 comments on that last one. Remember per David Graeber that the need to pay standing armies of professional soldiers was key in the invention of the currency as a medium of exchange)