Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Hello learned and astonishingly attractive pupils; my name is John Green, and I want to to welcome you to Crash Course: World History. Over the next 40 weeks, together we will learn how in a mere 15,000 years, humans went— MR. GREEN, MR GREEN! WILL THIS BE ON THE TEST? Sigh. Right, about the test. Listen closely: The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will be administered in bars and offices and dorm rooms and places of worship and hospitals and yes, even schools. You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football, while scrolling through your twitter feed. The test will judge your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty rhetoric, and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context. The test will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of millions of decisions which, taken together, will make your life yours. And everything—everything—will be on it. Oh. Crap. I know, right? So listen up: In just 15,000 years, humans went from hunting and gathering to create such improbabilities as the airplane, the Internet, and the 99 cent double cheeseburger. It’s an extraordinary journey, one that I will now symbolize by embarking upon a journey of my own—over to camera 2. Hi, there Camera 2. It’s me, John Green. Let’s start with that double cheeseburger, which contains 490 calories. To get that cheeseburger, you have to feed raise and slaughter cows, then grind their meat, then freeze it and ship it to its destination. You also have to grow some wheat and then process the living hell out of it until it tastes like unsweetened marshmallow, milk some cows and turn their milk into cheese, which isn’t even to mention the growing and pickling of cucumbers or the sweeting of tomatoes or grinding of mustard seeds, etc. How in the sweet name of everything holy did we ever come to live in a world where such a thing can even be created? And how is it possible that those 490 calories can be served to me for—assuming I make the federal minimum wage here in the United States— And most importantly, should I be delighted or alarmed to live in this strange world of relative abundance? Well, this may not strictly be history, since we don’t have much of a written record, but thanks to archaeology and paleobiology, we do have some idea of the prehistoric world. let’s go to the thought bubble. 15,000 years ago, humans were foragers and hunters. Foraging meant gathering fruits, nuts, and also wild grains and grasses. Hunting allowed for a protein-rich diet, so long as you could find something with meat to kill. By far the best hunting gig in the prehistoric world was fishing, which is one of the reasons that, if you look at the history of people populating the planet, we tended to run for the coasts and stay there. Marine life was A. abundant, and B. relatively unlikely to eat you. While we tend to think that the lives of foragers (hunter/gatherers) was pretty bad, fossil evidence suggests that they actually had it pretty good. Their bones and teeth are healthier than those of agriculturalists, and anthropologists who have studied the remaining forager peoples have noted that they actually work a lot fewer hours than the rest of us, and spend more time on art, music, storytelling—and if you believe the classic of anthropology Nisa, they also have more time for skoodilypooping. What? I call it skoodilypooping. Is that so wrong? It’s important to note that cultivation of crops seems to have arisen independently over the course of millennia in a number of places, from Africa to China to the Americas. Using crops that naturally grew nearby—rice in Southeast Asia, maize in Mexico, potatoes in the Andes, wheat in the fertile crescent, yams in West Africa —people around the world began to abandon their foraging for agriculture. Since so many communities made this choice independently, it must have been a good choice, right, even though it meant less music and skoodilypooping? Thanks, Thought Bubble. Okay, to answer that question, let’s first take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of agrictulture. Advantage: Controllable food supply. You might have droughts or floods but if you’re growing the crops and breeding them to be healthier and heartier, you get a bit more say in whether you starve. Disadvantage: In order to keep feeding people as population grows, you have to radically change the landscape of the planet. Advantage: You can create a food surplus, especially if you grow grain, which makes cities possible. As long as you’re hunting and gathering food that will quickly become inedible, it’s impossible to create large population centers. But if you have a surplus, agriculture can support people not directly involved in the production of food, like, say, tradesmen who can devote their lives to creating better farming equipment, which in turns makes it possible for you to produce more food more efficiently, which in turn eventually makes it possible for a corporation to turn a profit on a 99 cent double cheeseburger. Disadvantage: Some would argue the whole complexity of large and complex agricultural communities that can support cities and eventually inexpensive meat sandwiches is not actually beneficial to the planet or even necessarily its human inhabitants, although that is a tough argument to make coming to you, as I am, as a series of 1s and 0s. Advantage: Agriculture can be practiced in many places all over the world, although in lots of places it requires extensive manipulation of the environment; e.g., irrigation or controlled flooding or terracing. Disadvantage: Farming is hard work—so hard that one is tempted to for instance claim ownership over other humans and then force them to till the land on your behalf—which is the kind of non-ideal social order that has tended to emerge again and again in agriculturalist communities. So why did agriculture happen when it—wait, I haven’t talked about herders. HERDERS, man, always getting the short end of the stick. Herding is a very good and interesting alternative to foraging: Domesticate some animals, and then take them on the road with you. The upsides of herding are obvious: You get to be a cowboy, and animals are not only steady sources of meat and milk, they also help out with shelter by providing wool and leather. On the downside, you have to move around a lot because your herds always need new grass to eat, and it’s hard to build cities when you’re constantly moving, unless you are the Mongols. By the way, over the next 40 weeks, you will frequently hear generalizations followed by the caveat “Unless you are the Mongols.” But one of the main reasons herding only caught on in certain parts of the world is that there aren’t that many animals that really lend themselves to domestication: Like, you have sheep goats cattle pigs horses camels donkeys reindeer water buffalo yaks all of which have something in common: They aren’t native to the Americas. Llamas are the only halfway useful herding animals native to the Americas, and lots of animals just don’t work for domestication. Hippos are large and provide lots of meat, and they mostly eat plants, but they also like to kill us, which makes them bad for herding. Zebras are too ornery; grizzlies’s wild hearts can’t be broken; elephants are too slow to breed. Which reminds me…it’s time for the open letter. An Open Letter to Elephants: Hey, Elephants. You’re so cute and smart and awesome; why you gotta be pregnant for 22 months? That’s crazy! And then you only have one kid! If you were more like cows, you might have taken us over by now. Like, here is the graph of cow population and here is the graph of cow population. Elephants, if you’d just inserted yourself into human life the way cows did, you could have used your intelligence and power to form secret societies conspiring against the humans and then you could have risen up and destroyed us and made an awesome elephant world with elephant cars and elephant planes, but nooooo you’ve gotta have 22-month pregnancies with one offspring and tusks that people want to kill you for. It’s so depressing. Best wishes, John Right so but back to why the Agricultural Revolution occurred. We don’t have records, but historians love to make guesses: Maybe population pressure necessitated agriculture even though it was more work, or abundance gave people leisure time to experiment with domestication or planting originated as a fertility right or—as some historians have argued—people needed to domesticate grains in order to produce more alcohol. Darwin, like most 19th century scientists, believed agriculture was an accident, saying: “a wild and unusually good variety of native plant might attract the attention of some wise old savage.” Off-topic, but you will come to note that the definition of ‘savage’ tends to be ‘not me.’ Maybe the best theory is that there wasn’t really an agricultural revolution at all but that it was part of an evolutionary desire to produce more to eat. After all, hunter gatherers know that seeds germinate when planted and some groups will plant crops if the weather and climate permit, while otherwise preferring to forage (since it’s less work, after all). When you find something that’s edible, you try to get more of it. So early farmers would take the most easily accessible seeds of einkorn and emmer wheat plants and plant those, hoping that the results would become strains wheat that were easier to eat. Like, for instance: We have evidence that as early as 13000 years ago humans in southern Greece were domesticating snails for food. In a cave at Frankthi is a huge pile of snail shells. Most of them are larger than current snails, suggesting that the people who ate them were selectively breeding them to be bigger and more nutritious. Snails, btw, make excellent domesticated food sources because A. they are nutritious, and B. they’re easy to carry, since they come with their own suitcases, and C. you can imprison them just be scratching a small ditch around their living quarters. That’s not exactly a revolution. That’s just people wanting to increase the number of their available calories. But one non-revolution needs to another, and pretty soon you have this as far as the eye can see. No doubt that the impact of the discovery and adoption of agriculture is probably the most momentous “event” in human and the planet’s history. I’m cold; let’s go inside. Without agriculture we couldn’t have large groups of people in the same place (they’d starve) and therefore no complex societies, cities, religions, writing, metalworking, all that good stuff. It’s also true that without agriculture we wouldn’t have all the bad things that come with complex civilizations, like inequality, patriarchy, war, and unfortunately, famine. And as far as the planet is concerned, agriculture has been a big loser – without it humans would never have changed the environment so much, clearing forests, moving rivers, building dams to create and prevent floods, drilling wells for agriculture, and in the 20th and 21st century drilling for oil to process into fertilizer. Many people made these choices independently from each other, but does that mean it was the right choice? Maybe so, but it’s impossible to unmake that choice today, which is one of the reasons I think history is worth our attention: It reminds us that revolutions are not events so much as processes, that for tens of thousands of years people have been making decisions that irrevocably shaped our world, just as today we’re making subtle, irrevocable decisions that the people of the future will remember as revolutions.