We’ve been in a co-dependent relationship with grasses for the last eleven thousand years.
As best as we can tell from archaeological evidence, we humans have been eating the seeds of different sorts of grass for at least 20,000 years. But it was only after the last Ice Age ended and the great glaciers retreated that humans seem to have practiced agriculture. And for the most part our agriculture has consisted of cultivating various kinds of grass.
As humans began to secure somewhat reliable supplies of food that could to some degree be stored for the future, we began to create the first towns and proto-cities. From modern-day Turkey and across the Middle East, starting around 11,500 year ago settlements arose wherever large-scale agriculture could be practiced. Towns of vast size, sometimes up to three or four thousand people big, appeared for the first time in history.
Einkorn wheat and barley were the first staples, while rice began to be cultivated in what is today China around 6,500 BCE. Humans also cultivated peas, lentils and flax but the bulk of the average person’s calories came from one grass or another.
With predictable food supplies came an unexpected trap: formerly family size was very modest because food came irregularly and therefore very small children often perished as hunger weakened their immune systems, made them less able to move away from danger, and sometimes resulted in their starvation. But with ample supplies of grass-based calories, more children survived, leading to more mouths to feed, leading to…. more cultivation.
Over the millennia we humans spread our favorite grasses across the planet. Today vast swathes of land are given over to rice and wheat, which collectively feed billions of people. Our ability to produce reliable supplies of food plus some surplus enabled individuals to specialize in pottery, metalwork, and weaving. Ultimately this led to greater trade, cross-cultural innovations, and after many thousands of years, the Industrial Revolution that utterly changed the way we live and think.
Yet all this was, from the point of view of grass, a mere by-product. From the perspective of the grass, we’ve been successfully co-opted to ensure its dominance. What other, wild, plants can possibly compete? By co-opting humans, grass has spread itself over the planet and ensured its survival regardless of climatic alteration, drought, fire, or frost.
While the relationship has clearly been very good for grass, it’s far less obvious that it’s been good for us. There’s plenty of evidence to show that after humans adopted fixed-location agriculture we became shorter and less healthy. Crammed together in large towns and ultimately in cities, diseases spread rapidly and often. As our diet became increasingly restricted we began to suffer various deficiency diseases. Whereas the typical hunter-gatherer spends about four hours per day working to secure their daily calories, farmers and town-dwellers typically work far more hours than this, day in and day out.
Today, suburbanites even worship grass, growing it for ornamentation around our houses and tending to its every need. We have internalized grass to such an extent that we work for its benefit even when it doesn’t feed us.
The price we paid for our ability to grow a predictable and storable supply of food was rather high. It could be argued that grass has exploited us rather well, and that we’ve been too dull-witted to realize that overall we’ve had the bad end of the bargain.
Now I’m certainly not going to suggest we get hysterical and abjure grasses from our diet. Nor am I going to write a book about how evil and unnatural it is for humans to eat rice, wheat, barley, or whatever. But as we typically imagine ourselves to be at the apex of evolution, it may be worthwhile to remember that for the last eleven thousand years we’ve been slaving to ensure the global success of an organism that doesn’t even possess a central nervous system.
That’s how smart and perspicacious we humans really are.