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BACKGROUND

I'm working on a medieval world in which homo sapiens domesticated several other species of intelligent hominids during their prehistory, at first enslaving them to take advantage of specific desirable adaptions, and then breeding them to further specialize them for a social role. This combination of natural selection and breeding has, over a suitably vast time scale, produced a society of related but physically and mentally distinct species - a biological caste system.*

QUESTION

I'd like one of these species to be ideal farmers. They would have probably evolved farming practices early in their evolutionary history, like certain real-world animals. Later, after inventing agriculture proper, they would have been conquered and bred into a herd of docile farmers and laborers for their human masters.

By the end of this, they would need to be highly adapted to growing staple crops, petty labor, taking orders, and really not much else. Aesthetically, it would be a plus if these adaptions also led naturally to interesting visual differences, but I can already work cosmetic changes in pretty easily so that isn't my first priority.

  • What physical and mental adaptions could an intelligent hominid evolve that would make more ideally suited to farming grain staples?

ADDED NOTES

A very random hodge-podge of example ideas might include adaptions that allow them to sense the weather, better fertilize plants, do tiring and repetitive labor, cooperate peacefully in groups, adapt their own actions and biological rhythms to seasons of growth, somehow encourage plant growth or prevent disease, etc. etc. There are probably other interesting adaptions that I'm unaware of to be found in nature, and of course, I welcome any plausible original idea.

As a final note, while I'd like to keep this hominid "human-ish", at least physically, site users should consider themselves welcome to push hard at the boundaries of that condition if it makes their answer more interesting. It's easier for me to scale an answer back than to scale it forward.

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    $\begingroup$ *As an aside, though I'm aware some readers might have objections to the background premise, this question is really intended to only be about the evolution of the ideal farmer. The background info is provided so people will know why I'm asking about this, and to what end. $\endgroup$ – Random Jan 2 '18 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ In medieval times this "herd of docile farmers and laborers" who did "tiring and repetitive labor", "cooperated peacefully in groups", and "adapted their own activity and biological rhythms to seasons of growth" were called serfs. They were hominids all rights, specifically Homo sapiens. In a country such as France, Poland or Russia, most people were serfs. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 2 '18 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ @John and the other close voters, I've edited the question to remove the hard word "ideal". I think "better", as an alternative, is pretty clearly defined within the question (docile, high endurance, categories of possible adaptions, the specific crops and social context involved, etc.). Any further definition and I think I'd be answering my own question. If you have further requests please address them specifically here. $\endgroup$ – Random Jan 2 '18 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ Why has this received so many close votes? Farming in the dark ages was primarily with a hoe and could easily be considered stoop labor. It's not hard at all to imagine imrovements in arm strength, back strength, near-sightedness, and other physiological differences that would make the labor simpler to perform. "primarily opinion-based" only applies if the question is not narrow enough to produce targetted answers. Exactly how has that not happened here? $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 2 '18 at 3:28
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    $\begingroup$ Reminder to close-voters: The problem cannot be fixed if the OP is not made aware of it. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 2 '18 at 4:39

11 Answers 11

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First and foremost you should breed for docility, this is a trait required for domestication.

My answer is basically looking at existing primarily non-food farm animals (like horses) and breed for those traits (they may also be eaten so more edible varieties are also likely to be bred).

  • Strength, endurance, and size; if you are breeding a hominid for farm labor it should be able to replace a horse or other animal in terms of pulling a plow, turning soil, pulling a tree stump, lifting loads, or otherwise performing farm labor, hominids could be more useful than horses or other domestic animals as their tools could also potentially be used by regular people, requiring less specialized equipment.

  • The ability to digest cellulose or other plant fibers not digestible to humans: You don't want a work animal that consumes exactly the same food as you, this would make them competition for food, better for them to eat things people cannot. The ability to digest grass is a big part of why we domesticated ruminants; if your hominids can also do it or otherwise survive on farm scraps (catching mice?), it makes them even more useful. Some early hominids likely did eat grass as a primary food source.

  • Non-upright postures; there's a reason farm work is called back breaking, it often requires bending over near to the ground, which is uncomfortable for our bipedal locomotion; an apes knuckle-dragging arm walk, may actually be a better posture for minding plants close to the ground. (this also makes them less human, reducing interspecies empathy)

  • Intelligence to a point. Nobody wants a dumb horse, but a smart one is just as likely to do what it wants instead of what you want it to. The ability to follow simple commands and perform repetitive tasks with minimal oversight are useful, but critical thinking leads to rebellion. You would only breed for intelligence to meet the minimum requirements, and this would likely not be the most important trait to breed for, and may actively be bred out of the species.

As a side note, these creatures would likely be used for things other than farm labor. War horses are very distinct from a plow horse, expect weaponized versions of these hominids to be bred for war with very different attributes selected.

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    $\begingroup$ And then they take over us, and suddenly Mr. Heston is cursing by a downed statue again. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Jan 3 '18 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ Or humanity would all die from the simian flu. We alread catch diseases from our close proximity to farm animals (swine flu, avian flu, cowpox), being more closely related would probably only make this disease vector worse. $\endgroup$ – Josh King Jan 3 '18 at 15:43
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Farmer traits:

  1. Fecundity. If you are a farmer you are more likely to have food than if you are a hunter/gatherer. If you have food it is less likely the kids will starve. If you have lots of kids who are not starving you have more people to help with the farm work.

  2. Patience and focus. There is a theory that attention deficit disorder is an old behavioral set which was useful to our ancestors which was suppressed in many people during the transition from hunter/gatherer to farmer. Farmers must be patient and not compelled to switch away from something boring.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter_vs._farmer_hypothesis

  3. Tolerance for high carbohydrate diet. Because that is where the calories are in staple crops. Supposedly our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors struggled to digest starch. That is the case for chimps. In circumstances where the main calories were from starch, better starch digesting powers gave a survival advantage. http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070903/full/news070903-21.html

  4. Lactose tolerance. All babies can drink milk. Northern Europeans retain the ability to digest milk into adulthood. That is useful if you have large domestic animals which supply milk. I thought that lactose tolerance was only in Europeans and did not understand why it was not also present in African people who have been keeping cattle for the past few thousand years. I was just ignorant - those people have evolved to be tolerant of lactose as adults also. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/africans-ability-digest-milk-came-livestock-agriculture-180950064/

  5. Endurance. Hunter gatherers get the credit for why humans can outlast almost any other animals. Supposedly long distance running is a good hunting strategy. I propose the phenomenal endurance of humans is also good for farming.

Ultimately, I think many groups of humans already bred themselves to be master farmers over the past 5000 years. Your ideal farmer might be looking at you in the mirror,

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    $\begingroup$ I appreciate that this is well-written (and I upvoted) but it also pretty clearly doesn't answer the question as intended; which was about creating an ideal farmer over and above humans. $\endgroup$ – Random Jan 2 '18 at 2:25
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    $\begingroup$ I think it answers the question: these are traits that we know are beneficial in a farming hominid. Take those up to 11 and you have a creature that's even better than that. $\endgroup$ – mattdm Jan 2 '18 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ @mattdm: That's the best takeaway and it was my first thought as well, but the problem with it is that the answer doesn't address how ramping it up might work. Many of the points can't be increased (4) might have big or unfortunate consequences if increased (1) or would probably involve a lot of other important physical changes if messed around with (3, 5). Though once again, it's not like I don't appreciate the answer as a good starting point. $\endgroup$ – Random Jan 2 '18 at 3:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Era In the middle ages most farmers were tied to the land and were effectively slaves. There is no need to engineer and enslave another race since normal humans work well enough. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Jan 2 '18 at 4:03
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    $\begingroup$ Endurance makes sense if the endurance was a draft-horse-like endurance rather than running endurance. Considering traits of historically useful farm animals could be good--feet adapted to fieldwork, a taste for pests rather than crops, a high tolerance for things beneficial to crops. $\endgroup$ – Dave X Jan 2 '18 at 16:18
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Some of the traits that come to mind:

microscopic vision - to find out what pathogens affect their crops

night vision - to detect insects even if they are active only by night

photographic memory - to remember the various stages of the hundreds of pests affecting basic crops: life cycle of bacteria, fungi and insects to ensure they apply the correct/proper treatment; this trait is a double-blade sword because the ability to easily categorize and remember might pose the risk of the slaves becoming aware of their critical role in their masters' well-being

enhanced perception of the green colour - to determine the level of chlorophyll and the nitrogen deficiency

heightened sense of smell or taste - to asses the level of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the soil, even better if it's extended to other elements like calcium, magnesium, iron, sulfur.

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    $\begingroup$ The sense of smell/taste here is of incredible importance. If you can taste/smell the difference in soils and then look at the difference in crop yields many of the modern day and industrial age improvements to farming can be achieved. $\endgroup$ – PCSgtL Jan 2 '18 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ @PCSgtL Now that's awfully interesting. Would you be willing to expand on that a bit, or give me some research leads? $\endgroup$ – Random Jan 2 '18 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Era This link talks about it in brief. Though its much more complicated then presented here. The U.W. Madision has entire course work on it. sswm.info/category/implementation-tools/water-use/hardware/… $\endgroup$ – PCSgtL Jan 2 '18 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Era maybe also google fertalizer types? $\endgroup$ – PCSgtL Jan 2 '18 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ @PCSgtL Sounds good, my first thought was crop rotation but I'm sure there's plenty to follow up on after that. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Random Jan 2 '18 at 17:08
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Stronger backs, knees and thighs for prolonged periods spent stooped or squatting (for planting, weeding, and harvesting) and a shorter stature in general would be advantageous. Farmers do not need bodies designed for running or endurance hunting, two things that had notable influence over our own development.

Higher melanin levels and thicker skin would make working prolonged hours in the sun and among brambles and biting insects easier to endure. Thicker eye brows and longer eye lashes might evolve to cope with brow sweat and insects, respectively. Hairlessness in general might be expected as well, particularly if the dominant species controls their breeding as hair would be unlikely as an indicator of ability/desirability/personal expression.

Stronger olfactory and taste reception would make detecting plant disease and soil fertility/composition easier.

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    $\begingroup$ Hair or fur is actually very good at regulating temperature and very nice to have when it rains (as long as it's resistant to water). I would expect our imaginary hominids to have well evolved fur, exactly because it allows them to work outside a lot longer and in a lot worse conditions, than what homo sapiens can. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Jan 2 '18 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Clearer That might be a regional difference, with furrier strains in temperate areas and hairless in the tropics. Thick fur at the equator is a recipe for overheating. $\endgroup$ – rek Jan 3 '18 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ I think plenty of species disagree. Gorillas have plenty of fur and live pretty much on the equator. There are very few species of mammals who do not have furs and most of them look pretty deformed to me. Humans are the exception to looking deformed, but I have to admit to being a bit biased. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Jan 4 '18 at 7:07
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I suppose that by "medieval" the question means "western European medieval"; the world is much larger than western Europe, and other cultures, such as the Indian, Chinese or Japanese cultures, had their own "medieval" periods; but few questions bother to specify what they mean by "medieval" world.

Now, in western Europe, the medieval period lasted for about one thousand years, from about the 5th to about the 15th centuries. It was a dynamic period, which saw massive changes in social structure, culture, and technology. Medieval does not mean static. The question asks for physical and mental adaptions of a species of domesticated apes, making them into better farmers than humans.

Which is a contradiction.

See, they are slave labor; that's what "domesticated" means. Slaves do what their masters tell them to do; they have no agency. So what could make this Anthropoides agricola better field slaves than human field slaves? Be more docile? Hardly. In the entire history of the Roman empire the number of rebellions initiated by field slaves can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and only two of them, the First and Second Servile War, got any traction. Be better at working the fields? Hardly. Agricultural productivity is essentially a function of the technological level of the society, not of individual skill at ploughing or weeding. (Hint: consider agricultural output per hectare in the U.S.A. or Europe; it's at all-time high, yet very few people work in agriculture.)

And then there is the problem that slaves are expensive and economically inefficient. Slavery in the Roman empire was abandoned without the need of a Roman Lincoln issuing an Emancipation Proclamation; by the beginning of the Medieval period there were very few slaves left, and they were mostly "luxury", urban slaves. During the Middle Ages slavery was theoretically still legal, but nobody had any slaves: because agriculture had been taken over by serfs, and domestic service by paid labor.

Serfs have agency. They are not domesticated. The deal is, the lord lets the serfs work his lands and in exchange, he gets a part of the crops; or the lords leases some part of his lands to the serfs, and in exchange, the serfs work the rest of the lord's lands for free. This arrangement is a fundamental aspect of the European Middle Ages; some even consider it to be the fundamental aspect of the European Middle Ages. You cannot have a "medieval" world without this arrangement. Yet this arrangement presupposes that the serfs have agency: they are a party to a social contract, they are not "domesticated" animals.

How could then the hypothetical Anthropoides agricola be a better serf than real human serfs? I don't see how. It's not as if agricultural output could have been made higher if only they had better serfs: the quality of labor was never a problem. The serfs worked as well as possible given the scientific and technological level of the society. The only way I can imagine would be to make them more subservient to the lords, but then serfs were very subservient anyway. Look up the list of peasant revolts on Wikipedia, and see how few uprisings happened in western Europe during the Middle Ages, and how limited they were. The few big peasants' uprisings during the Middle Ages were mostly due to changes in the society induced by its progress towards the modern world: the English Pesants' Revolt of the 14th century was caused mainly by the imposition of a poll tax and by the attempt of the lords to forbid the serfs to move into the economically booming cities; the terrible German Pesant War of the 16th century was a convulsion caused by the complex changes experienced by a society transitioning from a medieval world to an early modern world.

So the best agricultural ape is the one and only ape to have practiced agriculture. It's us.

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    $\begingroup$ Downvoted as this answer does little more than pick at the premise of the question. OP has asked for desirable qualities for a farming hominid, and implied that they'd like them to be different to humans. Your points about efficiency and docility are also both easily solved if you simply apply some creativity to them, which was kind of the point of this question. $\endgroup$ – Korthalion Jan 2 '18 at 9:53
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As Will said in his answer, we are pretty much the ideal farmers. It was because we mastered farming that we became sedentary and got out of the stone age.

The way to make humans even better farmers is not through intelligence - we have more than enough to do farming, even with medieval technologies. It is also not through the senses, we mastered the best times to sow and heap as we are (and without hearing aids nor lenses).

The way to go is physiological.

One way to go is to get this species guts to be more like that of herbivore mammals. Compared to cow manure, our feces are crap when it comes to enriching the soil with nutrients. So maybe a completely herbivorous hominid, naturally selected for its ability to farm, would be less dependent on having to raise other animals for their manure.

Another adaptation would be the ability to be obese without the health hazards attached to it. If a specied is better at farming than h. sapiens it's probably because they have specialized more to farm, which probably makes it more dependent on farming... And if you have to wait for crops to grow before you can eat, without the possibility to eat game between harvests, you better be good at storing energy. If this species lives in places where it snows, it will probably be able to hibernate. In extremely hot places, it may estivate (same as hibernating, but triggered by extreme heat instead of cold).

Finally, this species must be very good in combat. If fleeing from home will cause you to starve to death, then all defenses against invasions are fights to the death. These guys are fierce warriors.

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    $\begingroup$ Human feces have been used as agricultural fertilizer for millennia. Look up night soil. Nobody has ever raised animals for manure; manure is a byproduct, and a very cheap one. And you definitely don't want your agricultural work force to estivate -- summer is when most of the field work is to be done. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 2 '18 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I grew up in a farm and I was taught that untreated night soil is bad to the soil. Human manure takes more treatment and processing than cow or pig manure. I also believe that pigs have a higher output of manure by body weight than we do. As for estivation, it would be harmful on temperate climates, yes - but not in latitudes close to 0º, for example. In such places you don't have summer and winter, you have rainfalls and droughts. Estivation helps some creatures survive the droughts. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 2 '18 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ human feces makes poorer fertilizer because we eat higher quality food and digest it better than cattle, making human feces better fertilizer means making human biology less efficent which produces a catch 22, yeah they are slightly better farmers but now they need to eat more too. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 20 '18 at 17:01
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Assuming a hominid race that is physically superior to humans with regards to farming, you could consider the following:

  • Instead of keeping your conquered agricultural hominid race enslaved (agri-nids?), you could allow them to keep their own land and society, but change it so that it benefits the humans.

Make your agri-nids extremely superstitious/religious. This would help enormously with the initial domestication and subsequent control of the agri-nids. Humanity has plenty of examples of just how much you can get away with under the guise of religion/tradition

For example, the 'cultural tradition' of 'giving thanks to our protectors' by donating half their harvest every quarter-year could be instated. After a few generations, who is going to question this? Particularly when the humans are providing their tools, repelling invaders, and building their houses for them!

  • Create specialized roles inside the already specialized society

Most of the great thinkers and inventors of the medieval period were good at a lot of things - they were polymaths. Taking away education, and simply assigning groups of agri-nids to specialized roles should prevent these polymaths from emerging. It could also improve production of food, a la division of labour

Other physical traits that would be useful could include:

  • More efficient digestive system - agri-nids need to eat less as they can extract more nutrients from the same amount of food
  • Ability to determine the pH of soil. This doesn't have to be accurate, perhaps their fingertips have sensors in that give an approximation?
  • Internal barometer - the ability to predict weather would be extremely useful
  • Some sort of biological pest control. This could be interesting - do they sweat an excessive amount of natural bug/slug repellent?

Note: sorry this is a bit messy, if anyone can format it better for me feel free :)

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If these other hominid species were selectively bred by humans then it is likely they would have been bred for low mental capabilities. They might also have been selected (by humans) for a trait similar to Autism and encouraged to develop compulsive/repetitive/ritualistic behaviours for the tasks involved in farming.

If they could only function by routines then they would need a human supervisor to deal with unexpected occurrences. Which might not be a bad thing because it prevents them from taking initiative and wanting to have better lives.

I don't know if it would be possible but maybe they might have been able to breed a hominid species that hibernates during winter when there are no fields to farm, thus reducing their food requirement in times when it was traditional for mediaeval human farmers to be subjected to starvation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, in many animal species we domesticated, the first and foremost thing to select for was docility, to reduce aggressiveness against humans. $\endgroup$ – vsz Jan 2 '18 at 17:11
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Many answers correctly point out that, for the type of traditional farming employed in Middle age, humanity has already "evolved" through the ages to do it efficiently.

I believe you want the dominant species to be human-like, so the domesticated special should have some distinctive traits to tell them apart.

My suggestion is: change the concept of farms, and have something completely different instead. The domesticated species should occupy some niche that is not occupied by humans. For example:

  • make domesticated apes much smaller and more agile than humans, very good at climbing trees and jumping from one tree to the other. Introduce big fruit trees that are more easily, and less dangerously for humans, climbed by domesticated apes. Perhaps when these trees are 'adults' they have some poisonous spines or poisonous excrescences that are deadly for us but not for domesticated apes who evolved to be resilient thanks to breeding. The fruit needs not be a fruit in the traditional sense of it. The tree should provide enough yield along the year to justify the effort, or maybe provide something special that would be very difficult to obtain otherwise and that enhances the diet of whoever eats it. The domesticated apes should have something in return: a shelter/food in winter because they lost capability to hibernate, or maybe some other food they are very greedy for (i.e. Sugar based one).
  • make domesticated apes that are much smaller and leaner than humans, very good at swimming and spending a lot time under water without breathing. They grow some crops out of some algae, and they get shelters/protection/whatever in return. Humans can also create artificial ponds through elaborated irrigation systems which they would also use for growing regular crops.

Both domesticated apes should obviously taste good to eat, so make it more difficult for humans to empathise with them, i.e. their facial expressions should not reassemble ours too much. Also, you probably don't want your domesticated ape Bessy to die of depression because her pup was eaten at -insert festivity name here- day, so make them less affectionate than us and, most likely, our ancestors.

Humans would still take over regular medieval farms, as they "evolved" for it, and employ these domesticated apes to enrich their diet pretty much as they did with cows, bees, sheeps, chickens and so on. That way, the presence of domesticated apes will not disrupt the look&feel of what we traditionally call Middle-age too much.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nothing "de-evolves". You either evolve as a species, or you don't. You can't "go back". Otherwise, excellence suggestion. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Jan 2 '18 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Clearer if you have a suggestion for a replacement word that conveys the same meaning as the intended one, you're welcome to. $\endgroup$ – Patrick Trentin Jan 2 '18 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Clearer thank you, I made the suggested edit $\endgroup$ – Patrick Trentin Jan 2 '18 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ I like the different take on this, although I'm squicked out by the "make them good to eat" part. But horses and dogs do appear on menus in various parts of the world. $\endgroup$ – Jontia Jan 3 '18 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Jontia yes, and also several tribal groups practiced cannibalism until not long ago too. However, it was truly meant as a joke, though I admit it could be a unique plot line in a story. $\endgroup$ – Patrick Trentin Jan 3 '18 at 14:15
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As farmers they would be bred for endurance and tolerance to an outdoor life of hard work if they were slaves. It depends a lot on the environment and crops. If they were on a tropical island farming root crops for a few weeks a year, they would evolve a lot different physically than if they were growing grain beside a river in a desert which is a lot more labour intensive. If you then managed to make them full time in the fields every day they would be very fit, strong workers, but probably no more so than a warrior who trains every day and hunts etc,.

Mentally you would breed for docility and obedience and reinforce it with religion and military might. Over a long period of time this may change their psyche.

Culturally and technologically would be their biggest evolution. Their material technology would all be geared towards farming and one of their kids would have a greater indepth knowledge of practical farming than an academic. Their culture values and status's would all be associated with farming and their intellectual innovations would come from that as well.

But purely physically there is no reason for divergent evolution. We have had farming societies for the last 10,000+ years of all physical shapes and sizes. We have had slave societies with farm slaves for almost as long. I would say they are more shaped by their environs than their occupation.

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Perhaps the most important part of growing crops, and certainly the starting point of growing them, is the soil composition and health. Soils can be very different even if they are fairly close geographically. Some of the most important parts of soil composition and health are:

  • Soil pH level-Some crops do better in a more acidic or more basic environment. A small pH change can have large impacts on which nutrients are available to the plant
  • Soil porosity- Soils need to have plenty of room for water and air to travel between the granules, but those pores must also be small enough to hold some water. Soil that is too compact will not let any water or air in, and plant roots will be unable to grow. Too porous and all the water will run straight through.
  • Soil nutrient content- Parts of the soil like organic material and minerals like Nitrogen are how plants get their required nutrients. Low organic matter or Nitrogen levels can severely stunt growth.

To answer your question, in my mind one of the most useful adaptations a supspecies could grow would be fine finger like antennae, which could probe the soil up to a depth of say 6 inches. If we had an adaptation where we could sense things like nutrient content, soil porosity, pH, just by putting our hand in the dirt, it would be very beneficial. We could instantly tell where the best place for a plot of land is. Something as simple as planting on the right side of a hill can potentially double yield in row crops. It would also allow us to instantly tell when and where fertilizer was needed, meaning we could use less of it, and avoid lots of waste.

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