Knowing all of this, I started to become convinced that agriculture really was the worst mistake in human history. Our genes have changed very little since Paleolithic times, obviously the agricultural diet was pure poison to the human as a species.
But that’s why my story has to once again veer back to a focus on Native Americans, who present a two-fold paradox, highlighted in Gary Nabhan’s book Why Some Like it Hot. First, for Native Americans, many modern foods are not just unhealthy like they are for Europeans, they are downright toxic. This highlights the fact that the “very little” gene change still matters. Second, most Native Americans had already adopted agriculture before contact with Europeans, yet few of these agricultural civilizations were teeming with the misery blamed on agriculture.
In fact, comparisons of Native Americans agriculturalist with their hunter-gatherer counterparts show that their indicators of health, from obesity levels to cardiovascular health, are remarkably similar. Overall, Native American agricultural diets deviate very little from the nutritional precepts of the Paleolithic diet. Growing crops for thousands of years allowed them to adjust the diet to be more nutritionally fulfilling, such as treating corn with lime to release B vitamins and pairing it with beans to provide complete amino acids.
Another striking point is that the pictures of healthy teeth in Weston Price’s study included Peruvian potato farmers and milk-drinking Masai. Neither do farmers have a monopoly on bad teeth: cavaties show up in Sonoran desert foragers with a taste for sweet cactus fruit and Papua New Guinans who live among plentiful beehives. Native peoples aren’t being poisoned by agriculture, they are being poisoned by our agriculture, specifically, modern industrialized agriculture.
In the Americas, several powerful agricultural civilizations rose to power and then abruptly died out. In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, he profiles the Maya of Central America and the Anasazi of Southwestern North America. In both cases, Diamond says the collapse was caused growing populations that had to rely on more and more intense agriculture, similar to modern intensive agriculture, which eventually led to the dooming resource degradation. Looking at the impressive ruins that these peoples left in their wake, we may be tempted to call them “great civilizations.” Perhaps they were great in some ways, but ultimately this greatness was short-lived. Contrast them with smaller agricultural societies that survived until colonization, and in some cases, still survive, and the failings of these “great civilizations” become apparent.
These successful agricultural civilizations were successful because while they embraced technology, they did not forget the land, with both its wealth and its limitations. Many of them continued to rely on wild foods, such as the Pima, who gleaned 60% of their food from agriculture in wet years, but only 20% in dry years. Others used a hybrid system, applying cultivation techniques to wild plants, such as the Karuk in California who used controlled burns to increase acorn yields and the Ojibwe in Minnesota who practiced intentional resowing of wild rice . Even cultivated fields were not divorced from the wild. In Mexican Tepehuan fields, Teosinte, wild corn, was welcomed because it often bred with cultivated varieties, producing offspring with “hybrid vigor.” Pima used wild peppers in a similar way and used other wild plants to shade their crops from the hot desert sun.
Indigenous agriculture also relied on more varieties that modern industrial agriculture does. Much of our modern diet relies on only a few different crops like corn and wheat. Within these crops, we commercially cultivate only a few out of the thousands of varieties that exist. Different varieties, despite being the same species, not only taste different, but often provide a different mixture of nutrients and secondary chemicals, mirroring the diversity of plants relied on in Paleolithic diets.