Ants have been farming for far longer than humans have existed. They discovered fungus farming around fifty or sixty million years ago in the wet rainforests of South America, and have continued tending their underground fungus gardens through countless years as the planet changed and changed, and changed again. Much more recently — just a few years ago — I wrote about the fungus-farming ants (called “attine ants”), trying to imagine how they might view human agriculture. Our imaginary attine author closed with the hope that studying humans might help the attines understand their own history, “such as how the transition from primitive to advanced agriculture occured in our own ancestors”, and now a study by a group of humans has shed light on that very question.
Some species of attine ants are “primitive” farmers, cultivating fungi that haven’t been fully domesticated. The ants and the fungi both benefit from the relationship, but while the ants need the fungi to provide a crucial nutrient, the fungi are able to survive without the ants and can breed with their free-living relatives. The “advanced” attines, such as the famous leafcutters, grow fully domesticated fungi which can’t survive without their ant caretakers — the dependence is mutual and complete, just like our with our major crops.
To investigate how this happened, the researchers sequenced stretches of DNA from 119 ant species, 78 of which are fungus-farmers. Using this data and the geographic distribution of the ants, they built an evolutionary tree showing when and where particular traits (such as advanced agriculture) appeared. Their analysis revealed that advanced attine agriculture started around thirty million years ago, a time when glaciers spread across Antarctica and temperatures dropped around the world. As the world cooled, dry habitats like grasslands and deserts expanded through parts of the Americas.
Like us, ants excel at building and maintaining comfortable shelters, and some colonies managed to thrive in the drylands instead of the rainforest. That move proved crucial. In the drier habitats, the fungus crop needed the ants’ help to survive, needed the water they could provide and the shelter of their nests. Isolated from their kin, these fungi were set on an evolutionary course that entwined their fate with the ants: domestication.
This study resolved an evolutionary puzzle, but there’s also a broader message here. We tend to use mastery as a metaphor for our relationship with the world, casting it in terms of dominance and control, but like the attines, we are bound by ancient relationships and buffeted by greater forces. Domesticated crops may serve our needs, but only because we also serve theirs. And though our history may be shaped by social forces and steered by the decisions of individuals, our course is also pulled by other currents, shifts in climate and temperature that set wars and revolutions in motion. I’d love to learn more about the interaction between climate, geography, and human history, so if you know any good books (beyond Guns, Germs, and Steel), documentaries, or articles on the subject, please share them in the comments!
Branstetter, M., Ješovnik, A., Sosa-Calvo, J., Lloyd, M., Faircloth, B., Brady, S., & Schultz, T. (2017). Dry habitats were crucibles of domestication in the evolution of agriculture in ants Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284 (1852) DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0095
Leon Vlieger said:
Nice article Sedeer. Your final question for recommendations is one I can hardly refuse 😉 Having had a poke around our website, here’s some recommendationsm – there’s quite a bit written about it!
Easter Island is the first to come to mind, and has almost spawned a subgenre of its own
– Easter Island, Earth Island: The Enigmas of Rapa Nui (4th edition due September, Paul Bahn & John Flenley, Rowman & Littlefield – story of Easter Island seems like a logical choice)
– The Survival of Easter Island: Dwindling Resources and Cultural Resilience (Jan Boersema, Cambridge UP)
Brian Fagan has written several book on this topic
– The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (Basic Books)
– The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 (Basic Books)
– The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations (Bloomsbury)
And then there’s plenty of others. Somehow, Cambridge University Press seems highly represented amongst these books…
– Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Geoffrey Parker, Yale UP – has been awarded prizes)
– The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations (Eugene Linden, Simon & Schuster)
– The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072 (Ronnie Ellenblum, Cambridge UP)
– Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths (Guy Middleton, Cambridge UP)
– Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire (Patricia McAnany & Norman Yoffee, Cambridge UP)
– The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World (Bruce Campbell, Cambridge UP)
– World Without End?: Environmental Disaster and the Collapse of Empires (Ian Whyte. IB Tauris)
Awesome, thanks! Some of those sound interesting — I’ll have to add them to my list. 🙂
Erin W said:
I realize this may be more general than you want, but what about the Half-Earth Project of the “father of ants” E.O. Wilson? I want to read more of his books but never have. https://eowilsonfoundation.org/e-o-wilson-writes-article-for-sierra-club-magazine-on-why-we-need-the-half-earth-solution/
Thanks, that was interesting to read, but it’s not quite what I had in mind. That was looking forward, to the problems our current activities are creating, while I’m looking for books/articles that analyse human history from this perpsective.