The Neolithic Revolution, mankind's greatest mistake?
The Neolithic Revolution:
From destroying ecosystems slowly over hundreds of years . . . .
. . . . to destroying them quickly with technology.
Updated - 02 Jan 21
What is Neolithic Agriculture and what did it change?
The bottom line. The Neolithic agricultural revolution has infamously been described as the worst mistake in human history. Regarding human health and the environment, this is undoubtedly true. The dawn of the Neolithic saw humans move away from their natural Paleolithic animal based staple foods, for which the human body is uniquely adapted, and adopt plant-based staples such as grains, pulses, tubers and other vegetables, which prior to the Neolithic were merely short-term survival foods and for which the human body is very poorly adapted. The result was the emergence of autoimmune disease, evidence of which is now used by anthropologists to differentiate Neolithic remains from Paleolithic remains.
The detail. The Neolithic Agricultural revolution was a major change in human societies, where hunter-gatherers who lived off the natural ecosystem were gradually replaced by sedentary populations who relied on domesticated plants and animals for nutrition. The cultivation of carbohydrate rich plants increased calorie availability, short circuiting the natural diet driven reproduction limiting mechanism of humans (and most carnivores) and, therefore, increased the rate of human reproduction, giving Neolithic societies a competitive population advantage over Paleolithic societies.
However, this advantage came with several costs. The increase in consumption of plant-based carbohydrates and associated plant toxins resulted in an increase in autoimmune disease. Evidence of arthritis in Neolithic remains is a quite common feature differentiating them from Paleolithic remains of the same era. Dental cavities, resulting from carbohydrate consumption, also differentiate Neolithic remains from Paleolithic remains.
The costs are not limited to autoimmune disease either. Since the beginning of the Neolithic, human brain size has fallen from a peak of around 1500cc average to the modern average of 1350cc. There is a direct link between the nutrient density of food and brain development and/or atrophy. Studies in modern populations have shown significant deleterious effects on brain development, or subsequent brain atrophy (shrinking) among populations that are obese or living on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
The human brain is an awfully expensive organ in terms of nutrient and calorie requirement. A deficit of essential nutrients or calories has a negative effect on brain size and health. In addition, the sustainable human metabolic rate is limited, roughly to a factor of the basal metabolic rate (the energy consumption required simply to stay alive at rest). If autoimmune function, locomotion/exercise or other factors cause energy consumption to approach the sustainable metabolic limit, other physiological functions must lose out, including brain function, growth or maintenance.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that degenerative neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Parkinson’s and others may often have an autoimmune trigger related to diet. One of the antibodies produced by those with gluten intolerance and celiac disease confuses proteins in neurological tissue with toxic prolamins (plant proteins like gluten whose function is to ward of insect predation). The result is the ‘brain fog’, fatigue, lethargy and depression common to gluten intolerance and celiac disease. The immune system is, quite literally, attacking the neurological system and causing brain damage.
To illustrate the gut/brain trade-off, we can look at the great apes. A gorilla has a much smaller brain than a human. Their food source has very low nutrient and calorie density and is energy intensive to digest. The lack of nutrient and calorie density in their diet means their physiology must prioritize the digestive system over the brain, so they have, proportionally, much larger guts and much smaller brains than humans. The same is true of all the great apes, who are predominantly herbivorous.
This Neolithic trend toward larger volumes of less nutrient dense foods has caused human brain sizes to reduce for the same reason. The brain atrophy found in obese and vegetarian/vegan people has the same root cause, nutrient deficiency resulting from food sources with a severe calorie:nutrient imbalance.