The Ascent of Man episode 2 – The Harvest of the Seasons

The Ascent of Man episode 2 - The Harvest of the Seasons

The Ascent of Man episode 2 – The Harvest of the Seasons – Dr. Jacob Bronowski’s seminal work dives deep into the intricate tapestry of the social and intellectual progression of humanity. Over countless millennia, we, as a species, have evolved and transformed in myriad ways. His account sheds light on one of the most pivotal shifts in this journey: the transition from a nomadic way of life, where open pastures were our transient homes, to a settled agricultural society, deeply rooted in the land.



In his exploration, Bronowski details the magnitude and significance of the domestication of the horse. This monumental step not only revolutionized transportation and communication but also established powerful cultural and social bonds within communities. The horse became an integral part of human progress, aiding in the expansion of territories, facilitating trade, and playing a pivotal role in the very foundation of various civilizations.



Similarly, Bronowski delves into the cultivation of wheat, which heralded a profound change in human diets, lifestyles, and societal structures. The move from foraging to farming meant that for the first time in human history, communities could establish permanent settlements, giving birth to cities and civilizations. The cultivation of wheat, in particular, was the linchpin for this transformation. As societies grew around these agricultural hubs, they became cradles of culture, art, science, and politics.



In essence, Dr. Jacob Bronowski’s account is more than just a historical chronicle; it’s an insightful reflection on the myriad ways in which our ancestors’ choices have shaped the trajectory of our species, laying the foundations for the world we inhabit today.


The Ascent of Man episode 2 – The Harvest of the Seasons


Humanity’s journey has been one of constant transformation. Over the millennia, we have evolved biologically while also progressing culturally and intellectually. This profound metamorphosis is charted in Dr. Jacob Bronowski’s seminal work – The Ascent of Man. In the second episode of this documentary series, titled The Harvest of the Seasons, Bronowski delves into one of the most pivotal shifts in our species’ trajectory – the transition from nomadism to settled agriculture.


The domestication of the horse – A giant leap for mankind

Around 4,000 years ago, our ancestors in Central Asia made a discovery that would forever change the course of human civilization – the horse could be tamed and ridden. This monumental breakthrough revolutionized transportation and communication in unprecedented ways. Horses gave humans the ability to traverse great distances with speed and efficiency. Messengers could now rapidly deliver information over vast terrain. Trade routes were established, connecting disparate communities. New alliances were forged between far-flung tribes.

For the very first time, the horizons of the known world expanded dramatically. Explorers ventured into uncharted lands, transforming abstract spaces on maps into tangible places. With the mobility of the horse, nomadic tribes like the Mongols established powerful empires spanning continents. The domestication of the horse lit the fire that fueled the great machinery of human progress.


The cultivation of wheat – Laying down roots

In the Middle East, roughly 10,000 years ago, another pivotal development quietly unfolded – the cultivation of wheat. While not as conspicuous as the thundering hooves of horses, this innocuous grass nevertheless heralded a tectonic shift in the human condition. For over 99% of our existence as a species, we had subsisted by hunting and foraging. But the farming of wheat introduced, for the very first time, the revolutionary concept of producing food rather than merely gathering it.

Settled agricultural communities began to appear, no longer dependent on following migrating herds. For the first time in our history, permanent shelters could be constructed without fear of exhaustion of resources. Settlements evolved into towns, then cities, finally growing into great civilizations cradled by the abundance of cultivated wheat. This tidal change also transformed social structures. With the storage of surplus grain, roles became specialized – farmers, builders, potters, and toolmakers.

Rules to govern communal resources like land and water were established. Barter evolved into trade with common currencies. Secular governance bodies like city councils were constituted. The organized chaos of wheat agriculture was the fertile soil in which the first shoots of human civilization sprouted.


The biological leap – Shaping evolution’s course

Both the horse and wheat share a common thread – their integration into human society was no accident but the outcome of deliberate efforts by our ancestors. Horses were singled out from the myriad fauna and painstakingly bred and trained over generations. Wild wheat was identified, cultivated, and selectively propagated to increase yields. Our forebears shaped the evolutionary course of these species to benefit our own.

In doing so, humanity also evolved culturally – from nomadic tribes following herds to settlements anchored by agriculture. By intervening in the biological evolution of the horse and wheat, our ancestors set our species on a trajectory toward civilization-building. Their actions echo through the ages, underlying the modern world we inhabit.


From wild horses to a civilization’s wings

Imagine an unfamiliar sound, barely audible but growing steadily louder – the faint rumbling of a distant storm. Then suddenly, bursting forth from the horizon, thundering hooves. For civilizations unaccustomed to horses, the Scythian warriors of Central Asia, mounted on their steeds, would have evoked raw terror. To the ancient Greeks, these archers astride galloping horses seemed like mythical centaurs.

But mastering this powerful beast also bore fruit. Societies that adopted horses saw profound gains in agriculture, trade, and warfare. Empires arose on the sinews of horses – the Romans with their mounted legions, the Mongols with their cavalry. The modern world inherited these horses that our ancestors chose to domesticate and integrate into human destiny.


From modest grass to a global staple

A diminutive Middle Eastern grass seed transformed human nutrition forever. Before the cultivation of wheat, our diet consisted of meat from hunted animals and gathered nuts, berries, and honey. However the domestication of wild wheat enabled the farming of vast grain surpluses to support permanent settlements. Wheat struck down hunger and freed communities from constant migration in search of food.

Bread sustained ancient cities and armies on long campaigns. As cultivation spread from the Fertile Crescent, trade routes ferried wheat worldwide. The bounty of wheat became synonymous with prosperity – the Roman goddess of agriculture was Ceres, the root for ‘cereal’. Today, wheat remains a staple for nearly half of humanity. That humble grass seed changed what it meant to be human.


Permanent shelters in majestic cities

For over 200,000 years, our ancestors wandered the land, erecting temporary shelters that left no trace. But wheat agriculture yielded consistent surpluses, allowing permanent dwellings. Mud huts led to brick houses, then grand monuments. Settlements grew into cities, finally evolving into empires.

Urbanization fostered commerce, administration, and rapid cultural evolution. Splendid cities arose, cradles of art, philosophy, and governance – Uruk, Babylon, Athens, Rome. Wheat and barley cultivated the conditions for all the hallmarks of civilization – specialization, politics, architecture, and commerce. Cities remain the defining feature and pinnacle of human cultural advancement.


New ways of life

Settled agriculture wrought a plethora of cascading transformations in everyday human life. Stored grain allowed food surpluses to support non-farming roles. Springs and wells made possible year-round residence instead of seasonal migration. Inheritance of land and property created social stratification. Barter led to formal trade and money. Secular governance and military forces enabled large societies.

Wheat and horses are integrated into all aspects of community existence. Daily rituals from meals to clothing to festivals centered around wheat agriculture. Horses became part of transportation, sport, status, and warfare. These domesticated species reshaped human lifestyles and societal identities as profoundly as our ancestors reshaped their biology.


The crucibles of civilization

The horse and wheat brought humankind to the threshold of civilization – transforming nomadic cultures into settlement-based societies. They precipitated sweeping changes that touched every facet of life. But above all, they facilitated the concentration of large, organized populations in fledgling cities.

Urbanization was the definitive difference between nomadic tribes and civilizations. In cities lay the scale, diversity, and stability for monumental architecture, institutionalized learning, specialized arts, and governance. The bounties of wheat agriculture and horse-enabled trade fostered cities. And cities became the crucibles that ultimately forged full-fledged civilizations.



The domestication of the horse and wheat cultivation marked a radical departure from hundreds of millennia of nomadic hunter-gatherer existence. These innovations wrought a cascading sequence of intellectual and cultural transformations that formed the bedrock of human civilization. Their integration into human life set our species on an uncharted trajectory toward increasing complexity, productivity, and intellectual progress.

By shaping the biological evolution of plants and animals that they then harnessed for nutritional and competitive advantage, our ancestors made choices that echo through the centuries, underlying the modern world we inhabit. The horse and wheat journeyed alongside humankind from roving tribes to megacities and continue to shape our existence today. Their story illuminates the profound impact that the vision and ingenuity of our forebears had in sculpting what it means to be human.


Frequently Asked Questions – The Ascent of Man episode 2 – The Harvest of the Seasons


What is the significance of the domestication of the horse?

The domestication of the horse was one of the most transformative events in human history, revolutionizing transportation, communication, trade, and warfare. It enabled the rapid movement of people, goods, and ideas over vast distances, facilitating the expansion of empires. The mobility provided by horses also fostered interactions between disparate cultures.

How did wheat cultivation change human societies?

The cultivation of wheat enabled the farming of large grain surpluses that could support settled populations. This paved the way for permanent dwellings, division of labor, trade economies, population growth, and urbanization – laying the foundations for human civilization.

What is the main message of The Harvest of the Seasons episode?

This episode highlights how the domestication of the horse and the cultivation of wheat catalyzed humankind’s transition from nomadic societies to settled agricultural communities, setting the stage for the rise of cities, trade empires, social stratification, and governance systems.

How did the horse and wheat shape human evolution?

By intervening in the biological evolution of the horse and wheat, our ancestors shaped the future trajectory of human cultural, social, and intellectual development. The integration of these domesticated species into human lifestyles profoundly impacted every facet of society.

What were some long-term impacts of agriculture?

Some major long-term impacts of agriculture include surplus food production, population growth, permanent settlements, land ownership, social classes, division of labor, trade, and expansion of knowledge and technology.

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