May 6th, 2016

The potato and societal development

Some people eat potatoes on a daily basis. They feel that a meal without a potato is like a day without sunshine

I’m not one of them, although I like potatoes and eat them about once a week. I especially like a mideastern potato salad I sometimes make, with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, and dried mint instead of the conventional mayo. And I particularly enjoy those small potatoes coated in a little olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper and a smidge of oregano, and roasted in the oven to just the right degree of brown and crispy.

But all of that is just an introduction to this article about how potato cultivation—and grain vs. root cultivation in general—has affected societies, and been affected by them as well.

16 Responses to “The potato and societal development”

  1. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    The author has one serious obstacle in that he regards Jared Diamond’s theories as all that helpful. There’s a lot of “wouldn’t it be cool if this were true” in Diamond’s work. Worse, he does not respond to challenges his work well, drawing him farther and farther from reality.

    Fun writer. Not so solid.

  2. Richard Aubrey Says:

    There’s an immense underground complex in Turkey, carved from rock, called Gobekli Tepe.
    By some accounts, it predates the Neolithic, which is to say agriculture.
    If it does, how do you support an immense amount of non-food effort on hunting and gathering? Who feeds these guys and who feeds the people they’d have been providing for?
    The same question can be asked of the Mound Builders who came late to agriculture–and even the bow–while spending millions of calories, billions–of work hauling dirt around.
    Who fed these guys and who fed the people they’d have been providing for?
    One conclusion is that hunting and gathering can be far more productive than we think of it now when the only practitioners have been pushed to the desert or the arctic. And if there were a predictable surplus, hierarchies can develop before agriculture of any kind.
    Lastly, while invading armies can feed their horses and other animals on your standing grain as well as that from your storehouses, you won’t do very well trying to pasture your horses in a potato patch. That may well affect the plans of the armies. Go where the grain is.

  3. Steve D Says:

    The part of the potato we eat is the stem (stem tuber) not the root.

  4. DNW Says:

    I agree with the archeologists. It’s good to see Diamond receiving the public skepticism he deserves, but the economists have not provided a solution either.

    As Aubrey points out the entire Agriculture to City to Temple template sequence has been overthrown by archeological discoveries in Anatolia and the Levant.

    The article itself has problems:

    Article: “Anthropologists also point out that to the best of our knowledge, tubers were domesticated thousands of years after cereals, so societies that grew grains had a head start.”

    By what? By maybe a couple thousand years out of 12?


  5. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” seemed to me to be a list of special pleadings to excuse differences in material and political progress between races and cultures. Some involved the planted axiom technique.
    Not impressed, or not in a positive sense, anyway.

  6. expat Says:

    It was the grain stores that led to the domestication of cats (or so I’ve read). Maybe cats are the key to successful civilzations. Mine certainly thinks she has done a good job of civilizing me.

  7. blert Says:

    Blog refuses to accept a post.

    What’s up ?

  8. blert Says:

    That map is ALL messed up.

    The pre-Columbian ‘old south’ was a NATION — that was built around corn // maize.

    The Spanish explorers were STUNNED as to the vast scale of that nation — far larger than Spain.


    I’m afraid the ‘experts’ completely missed the trigger for complex societies: the STARS — the heavens.

    In the tropics it’s not at all obvious that the world is round.

    In the tropics it’s IMPOSSIBLE to store food. Forget about your neighbors. Think about the landlord: yes the %%%%roach.

    I have no idea how ‘experts’ can be so DENSE.

    BTW, root cellars are an AFRICAN invention that was adopted by Americans from their slaves.

    Root cellars were unknown in Europe.


    The reason that the stars are so important: they trigger the CALENDAR.

    GeT it ?

    Calendars REQUIRE a calendar caste of star experts — upon whom the ENTIRE society depends.

    The extreme example of this: mighty pharaoh !

    Star gazing — largely impossible in the tropics — in northern latitudes is ENTIRELY the basis for religion.

    The Egyptians believed that upon death pharaoh went through twelve gates ( stations of the cross ? ) on his way towards the Pole star,(Polaris) the most elite of all stars , as every other star danced around it. It is for this reason that the Giza pyramids are oriented, ‘just so.’

    Yes, the ancients thought of the pyramids as metaphorical teletransporters for the pharaoh. Once up in the heavens, the new ‘god’ was to orchestrate the Nile — and much else.


    In sum:

    CALENDARS dictated the complexity of societies.

    Only ONE calendar could exist in any society. The fellow in charge of it became the Big Man… Yes migthy pharaoh WAS in charge of the calendar. His back up job was to notify the farmers when the flood was coming. That’s no small deal, as without proper warning — fatalities are EPIC.

    So, pharaoh not only controlled the calendar — he was the ‘god’ of river hydraulics.

    ( The actual ritual of the pharaohs involved mas#$%bating into a ‘sacred pool’ that then bleed back into the Nile.

    ( For inspiration, an extremely comely nubile babe ( virgin, what else ) was in the rite. The hand-work was performed by budding priests ( teen boys ) who were shaved entirely hairless.

    { The beginning of skin-heads.

    ( This faith resulted in no end of phallic statuary — with the offending organs routinely snapped off by 19tn Century European prudes and ‘collectors.’

    ( 3,000 year old d#$@s ?


    Complex societies arose because someone had to be the time master.

    Which, you might note, is THE management job — unto this day.

    In Islamic societies the imams ‘control’ time.

    In Judaism — classic — the key Rabbis dictate the Sabbath.

    In Christianity, the clergy lay out the liturgical calendar.

    Amazingly, it corresponds to the planting and harvesting cycle.

    Who would’ve thunk that ?

  9. blert Says:


    I hugely resent the prudery of the digital proctor.

    Look at my post.

  10. snopercod Says:

    The societies which raised grains made beer out of it, and thus prospered. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…

  11. J.J. Says:

    What about the theory that living between 30 degrees North and South Latitudes (The Equatorial Zone) is much easier than in colder climates. In the equatorial Zone it is easy to wrest a living from nature. There is always another coconut , banana, or other fruit on the tree and fish in the stream, river, or ocean. Add in tubers (manioc, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, taro, etc.) and you can survive quite nicely without storing food. Also, people in the Equatorial Zone mostly did not build elaborate housing because they knew that the sun, rain, insects, and typhoons would destroy anything they built fairly quickly. So, they built simple structures that provided shade from sun and rain. They didn’t need complex societies for survival.

    A notable exception to that would be the pre-Incan societies of Peru. They built complex cities and temples of adobe bricks on the coast of present day Peru. They farmed potatoes, (Peru is where the original potatoes imported to Europe came from) gourds, beans, and cotton. But their big protein source was fish from the ocean. They did not have to deal with seasonal changes, but there is good evidence that there was an elite class of priests who ran the show. Like blert said, they probably had control of the calendar because of study of the movement of the moon and stars.

    Polynesian culture was not complex, but they did have high priests who studied the movements of the stars, moon, and tides; which knowledge they used to plan feasts and sacrifices.

    On the maps I notice that the tubers were mostly available to peoples in the Equatorial Zone, where complex societies were rare because there was little need of storage for food or planning ahead for seasonal changes.

    I’m sure that the idea that people mostly did only what was needed to adapt to their climate would be attacked by professors as too simple a theory.

    Potatoes is very high in potassium. A good thing unless you have chronic kidney disease, as I do. I have to limit myself to one small serving of potatoes a week.

  12. Arnaud Amalric Says:

    Grain and Starch Agriculture: Great for developing civilizations. Terrible for modern health. YMMV, but right here and now it’s keto-adaptation FTW.

  13. Arnaud Amalric Says:

    And Jared Diamond belongs to the self-hating class. I have nothing but contempt for nostalgie de la boue.

  14. Arnaud Amalric Says:

    As a poster alluded to above, most people who don’t live inside the tropics don’t get that for a good part of the year you can’t see the full night sky for #$@% — it’s at least partly occluded by clouds or haze.

    And yes, it’s really too easy to grow or hunt food in some areas: the island of Papua would be a good example. Not much civilization has arisen there, although it has doubtless produced millions whom Jared Diamond would prefer to his own kind.

    Obviously too, water management requirements for agriculture: whether it be Egyptian grain or Khmer Empire rice require large priestly bureaucracies and highly stratified societies. The legacy of this is still readily apparently in the Hindu-Buddhist Dharmaraja (God King) worlds of Thailand, Cambodia, etc.

    Fascinating stuff. But for anyone with the means to subsist off high quality animal proteins and fats, I’d say go for it. Leave carbs to the commoners. GIYF.

  15. Steve D Says:

    Jared Diamond says intelligence has nothing to do with the development of technology. Then he provides evidence that less technologically developed cultures have higher intelligence which if true would completely negate his theory (but in reverse).

    And he doesn’t even realize he did that.

    Could those cultures who developed advanced technology be compensating for something?

  16. Ymarsakar Says:

    “Could those cultures who developed advanced technology be compensating for something?”

    They’re compensating against Islamic slave raids for the last 1400 years. Just like China built a Great Wall to stop horse archer raiders. They would have gotten even better at it had there been a military stalemate for 1400 years.

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