Let them eat corn

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Gensis 3: 17-19 (KJV)
Keep on sowing

So, a stark admission in the Hebrew scripture: we blew it, now we have to plough till we drop. Remarkably, a similar but independent gist recurs in the agricultural origin myths recorded by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Brazil:

…the existence of maize was revealed to them by a celestial woman, who had taken on the form of an opossum. The maize was like a tree in appearance, and grew wild in the forest. But men made the mistake of felling the tree and they then had to share out the seeds, clear the ground for cultivation and sow maize because the dead tree was not sufficient for their needs.

Lévi-Strauss, From Honey to Ashes – quoted by Richard Mabey, The Cabaret of Plants (Profile Books, 2015), p.134.

My source for this latter story, Richard Mabey in his excellent book The Cabaret of Plants, also records a Mayan myth about the origins of maize farming – here portrayed as a gift rather than a mistake:

…the origin myths were chiefly centred on Thipaak, a heroic figure who… was the first to cultivate corn. He stored it in a huge pillar supporting the sky… Long ago a bird drew attention to maize kernels being carried out of the pillar by leaf-cutter ants. The local rain god struck the pillar with a blast of lightning, opening it up and making maize available to the people.

Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants (Profile Books: London), p.133.

This ‘divine gift’ perspective puts me in mind of the Roman goddess Ceres. According to the poet Ovid (in the 1st century BC), a goddess so generous as to give humanity a break from the shooting sod surely wouldn’t want to stand in the way of true love:

Thee, Goddess, nations speak of as bounteous everywhere: and no one is less unfavourable to the blessings of mankind. In former times the uncouth peasants did not parch the corn; and the threshing floor was a name unknown on earth. But the oaks, the early oracles, used to bear acorns; these, and the grass of the shooting sod, were the food of men.

Ceres was the first to teach the seed to swell in the fields, and with the sickle did she cut her coloured locks; she first forced the bulls to place their necks beneath the yoke; and she with crooked tooth turned up the fallow ground…

Ovid, Amores – Elegy X (quoted from Project Gutenberg)

Like all good myths, these stories tell not only of how agriculture came about, but also of what the birth of farming means – especially in a moral sense.

Archaeology and anthropology give us an increasingly detailed, forensic perspective on how humanity came to farm, and to rely on agriculture. They also feed into a modern debate about what the birth of agriculture meant for human societies.

The verdict has been pretty bleak. An article from Discover magazine in 1987 provocatively called the first agricultural revolution “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”, citing the poorer health and greater inequalities of agrarian societies compared to hunter-gatherers.

Thirty years later, a more nuanced paper – with an impressive 18 authors – was published, digging deeper into the farming/inequality correlation and how this panned out in different parts of the prehistoric world:

Kohler, T.A., Smith, M.E., Bogaard, A. et al. (2017). “Greater post-Neolithic wealth disparities in Eurasia than in North America and Mesoamerica”, Nature 551, pp.619-622 – online here.

The authors use house-size as an archaeologically-identifiable proxy for wealth inequality. As the paper’s title succinctly describes, by this measure, early farming led to greater wealth inequality in Eurasia than in the Americas. The authors propose an explanation for this geographical disparity centred upon “the greater availability of large mammals [in Eurasia] that could be domesticated, because they allowed more profitable agricultural extensification, and also eventually led to the development of a mounted warrior elite able to expand polities” (p.619).

Very thought-provoking stuff, with attractive opportunities for further research. And one question that springs to my mind is this. In the Hebrew, Brazilian, Mayan and Roman myths mentioned above, the arrival of farming appears as either a bounteous blessing or a loathsome labouring curse. Are there any myths that tell of growing inequality? I’ll be looking out for any, and if you have ideas please feel free to post them as comments below.

2 Replies on “Let them eat corn

  1. In the Hebrew, Brazilian, Mayan and Roman myths mentioned above, the arrival of farming appears as either a bounteous blessing or a loathsome labouring curse. Are there any myths that tell of growing inequality?

    Certainly the Neo-Assyrian empire was not appreciated by anyone under the sway of this oppressive farming-supported system. Check out the interesting treatment, with lots of cross-cultural comparative angles, in Mario Liverani, Assyria: The Imperial Mission (Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, Indiana, 2017). Paul Collins over at the Ashmolean Museum would be an excellent guide to the Assyrians and other Mesopotamian groups.

  2. “Are there any myths that tell of growing inequality?”

    You could always look out for tales about the introduction of new crops e.g. the potato in Europe, maize in Africa, kumara in Polynesia, and so on.

    Pushing my luck rather: does anyone know anything factual about how the banana spread to and across Africa from South East Asia? Are there any myths about that?

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