How your bowl of cereal shaped the world

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 85-1113, 131-156.

Cereal is one of the most common breakfast foods there is in North America, but I bet you never thought about it’s role in human history. No, this isn’t about how sugary cereals are making you fat. This is about how cereals, one of the first cultivated crops, changed the course of human history. I’ll even argue that cereal was the final step that pushed us out of the animal kingdom and into civilizations. Who knew that bowl of Cheerios was so important.

Our quest to find out how cereal changed the world starts in the Mediterranean some time around 8500 B.C. in what is dubbed the Fertile Crescent. Now, before this time humans around the world were relatively successful. These people were what we would call hunter-gatherers. The rest of the animal kingdom probably thought of them as weird looking-pyromaniac chimps with an odd obsession for sticks and stones but we’ll just call them hunter-gatherers for our purposes. Anyways, this time in the Fertile Crescent was a particularly special time. The Mediterranean climate leads to mild winters and hot, dry summers. This type of climate favours annuals. Typically, annuals spend less time on the production of woody tissues because they won’t be around to reap it’s benefits so it’s a waste of time for them. Instead, the annuals spend their energy on seed production. This made the area hugely productive which in turn lead the way to a large diversity of wild mammals including the success of us humans (p. 136). This large productivity made an easy transition from hunting and gathering into domestication. The annuals were so productive little changes had to be made to begin cultivation and the mammals were easily domesticated. This allowed for a sufficient food production package. This package contained three cereals, four pulses and four domestic animals (p. 142). With such a strong package, agriculture could be competitive with the hunter gatherer lifestyle.¬†Agriculture was developed independently in many other places with a less successful package. Sometimes agriculture only became a supplemental food source when hunting was not successful.

So why were cereals and pulses so important? This is because they have such a high protein content. New Guinea highlanders suffer from protein deficiencies because their staple crops are only 1 % protein while the cereals and pulses are much more protein.

Once agriculture is developed, human populations can expand quite rapidly. Agriculture is favoured in these rising populations because it produces more food per acre than hunting/ gathering (p. 88). The farming lifestyle also allows more children to be born. A farmer who is settled can have as many kids as they can feed. Conversely, a nomadic hunter-gatherer can only have as much as she could carry, so having many toddlers would be impossible (p.89).

The food surplus also opened the door for an opportunity unavailable in hunter-gatherer societies, specialization. In these hunter-gatherer societies people were forced to spend a majority of their time collecting food (p. 90). With a food surplus, professional soldiers can be paid allowing for conquests as seen in Britain’s attacks on the Maori population of New Zealand (p. 90). Specialization is not reserved for soldiers though. Food storage can also allow for priests, artists and scribes, all important parts of our modern societies (p. 90). Without agriculture our technology would likely be far less advanced. Agriculture separated us from the animals. Now we weren’t just another species fighting for survival. We were thriving. And we had the time to think about it.

Who knew your morning bowl of cereal did so much.







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