Carl Sauer On Agricultural Origins

Many years ago I used to get ideas for interesting books to read from the Whole Earth Catalog, and later from Coevolution Quarterly. Many of the books reviewed I would never have heard about without these publications, as I have never been in an academic environment or associated with the type of person who would read such books. Yeah, I’m one of those autodidacts you hear about, pale readers who flutter around the fringes of the academic and scientific worlds, hummingbird-like learners who take their prose nectar where they can. Naturally, aside from being the mother-lode of porn for those so inclined, the internet is a paradise for autodidacts, albeit it’s a paradise infested with the dragons of fallacy and illogical obsession.

One book reviewed and recommended in the Whole Earth Catalog impressed me, and still does to this day.

That book is a compilation of Carl Sauer’s talks and essays concerning the origins of the plants and animals we (and people of other cultures) eat every day, with any luck.

Sauer was a geographer, a specialty which sounds somewhat antiquated these days. Not a narrowly focused scholar, a geographer like Sauer ranged freely through a variety of disciplines, such as anthropology, botany, archaeology, and sociology. You might call him a synthesist and a student of speculative agricultural history. Another of Sauer’s interests was the effect of human occupation upon landscapes. He grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and was well aware of what dire changes had been wrought upon that landscape during his lifetime.

Why speculative? The source material is fragmented and scanty; during the thousands of years during which food plants and animals were developed humanity was pre-literate. All scientists have to go by are the still-existing cultivated plants and domesticated animals, along with the archaeological records, which include seeds and bones found in ancient middens. Botanists and zoologists try to identify still-surviving ancestors of our food plants and animals, populations which haven’t been subject to thousands of years of selective breeding.

The book bears the title Seeds, Spades, Hearths, and Herds; the title of an earlier edition was Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. Though the compilation was published in the early 1950s, from what I can gather from current sources Sauer’s conclusions and analyses have held up well.

One question Sauer ponders is: Why did Amerindian proto-cultivators use mostly vegetative plant propagation south of a zone roughly demarcated by the southern border of Mexico, while ancient plant-breeders north of that line used seed propagation and selection?

Another conundrum he deals with is the lack of domestication and improvement of North American plant species by the ancient first inhabitants of that continent. Blueberries, Jerusalem artichoke (a species of sunflower), perhaps the Paw Paw, the cranberry — really that’s about it. All other food crops grown in North America, both by the first inhabitants and by modern Americans, came from Mexico, Central America, the Andean region, and of course the Old World.

Here’s a quote; you should be aware that Sauer uses the word “hearth” to refer to a region where a particular plant or animal was first domesticated:

The hearth indicated [the interior of the Andean region] provided also, by means of fishing and hunting, aquatic and riparian, the possibility of living in sedentary communities before agriculture was known. Such precondition I hold necessary. The initiators of domestication required a comfortable and dependable margin above mere survival, permanent homes, and a living in communities in which they could share observations and have the leisure to begin the long range experimentation that led to domestication. The business of plant growing and selection did not proceed from “prelogical minds” by hocus-pocus or chance. It required ease, continuity, and peace. It was carried out by acutely observing individuals, primitive systematists and geneticists we may assert, who taught others to identify and select, by lore and skill handed from generation to generation. The plants fashioned by man are artifacts of skilled craftsmen; plant breeders anywhere are still few and exceptional individuals. I have difficulty in visualizing the spontaneous and independent origins of agricultural living and arts by reaching an unelucidated “stage” or “level” of cultural advance, or by assuming that people turned to producing food because they were getting hungrier. Distressed folk were least likely to have the capital reserves for investment in deferred returns. Such progress I should look for as originating in a most favored area, with a society amenable to new ways and recognizing original talent in its individuals. Were such congenial physical and cultural situations present as well anywhere else in the New World?

I admit that Sauer’s prose is a bit convoluted and dated, and lacking in humor. Nonetheless he gets his points across, sometimes eloquently, and he packs many ideas and speculations into a small space. Pithy is the applicable word, I think.

The book is out of print, but a quick look at reveals that used copies are available for as little as four dollars. I highly recommend the book; it’s always salutary to pay attention to the foods which sustain our civilization and their possible origins.



1 Comment

Filed under Books, Food, Natural History, Science

One response to “Carl Sauer On Agricultural Origins

  1. Joan

    “Distressed folk were least likely to have the capital reserves for investment in deferred returns .” Boy! That one statement there covers a multitude of sociological, ecological and just practical food problems today.
    Yes.. I’m on a tangent here. You didn’t really think I knew anything about South American agricultural practices did you?
    The person who can’t afford an expensive ecologically sound twisty florescent bulb is not going to worry about the planet. He’s going to worry about getting light ASAP. and get the 4 for a dollar brands at the dollar store.
    The person who is on food stamps, who is working two jobs and has young kids will not have either the time nor the money n to shop for ‘organic’ and or healthy fresh produce and do real cooking.
    In some distressed communities, people will band together and do a communal vegetable garden, or plan a co-op. But even these opportunities may be few and far between. It takes knowledge passed down..or knowledge gained from books or net and maybe even a mentor to plant a garden. I think at my first crop failure, I might go back to Cheetos instead of trying for heads of corn.
    BTW This is very simplistic, but now look who it’s coming from. But in reference to the north VS far far south’s growing methods could it just be the climate thing. In a temperate climate you could grow by propagation all year long.. In a colder climate.. save your seeds and pray for spring.

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