Unnecessary Setup

In my story, a race of gods arrive in our solar system from the far flung colonies of a Type III civilization. When they arrive at Earth and see the rise of hominids, they split into groups and take bets on which ape will become the dominant species on earth.

As evolutionary history occurs and money changes hands, one small, ill intentioned faction opts to cheat in hopes of great reward. So, they descend to Earth and find a small, unsuccessful species of Homo, and tweak its "build" specifically to serve as a counter to Homo sapien - an up and coming hominid still kicking around at the spawn point Africa, and Homo neanderthalensis - a well established West-Eurasian Hominid that has much support and is gaining ground, much to the grief of Heidelbergensis and H. erectus backers.

They take odd mutations from H. sapiens and H. Heidelbergensis that would, on their own, be game breaking were it not for real world impracticalities, and combine them into one being. The result was one dream hominid endowed with all the gifts man often dreamed of. They hide their creation on the remote New Zealand island, lest it come into contact with other Hominids immediately and the wayward faction's cheating be found out.

To kickstart the rise of civilization, the faction gives their designer man the gift of the knowledge of the cultivation of bugs to make up for the lack of large river valleys, cereal grain, and domesticable animals on the island, which other hominids would have access to.

Question : Could a civilization arise around the cultivation of bugs in the same way that they historically have around the cultivation of grain?

Note: I'm asking more if the pull to permanent settlement would or could be as strong with the cultivation of land arthropods, mollusks, etc. as it is with traditional plant cultivation.

  • $\begingroup$ Insects aren't really analogues to grains, one is carbohydrate rich the other is protein rich, obviously they can be farmed but they're more plausible as a replacement for cattle & other large livestock than for grains. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 1 '19 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ Cows and other livestock are a tough act to follow. Can you milk them, use their hides for clothing, their bones for needles and their dung for fires and binding building materials? If they're to graze freely, rather than eat grain that you've cultivated to feed them, how to herd them? $\endgroup$ – Bitter dreggs. Feb 1 '19 at 22:27
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  • $\begingroup$ For those of us on the other side of the pond... "faff (plural faffs) (Britain, slang) An overcomplicated task, especially one perceived as a waste of time." 😉 $\endgroup$ – JBH Feb 1 '19 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ Homo sapiens -- note the s at the end. It is not a plural; it means "wise man". The plural would be homines sapientes. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 2 '19 at 0:26

Any cultivation of insects requires cultivation of plants.

Honeybees , for example, require cultivation of flowering plants. For specific flavors of honey, specific plans need to be cultivated.

Locusts and grass hoppers require cultivation of grasses (grains).

Some ants actually cultivate fungus to feed aphids, so we can see the principle is already visible in nature.

Cultivating insects would naturally lead to the cultivation of plants, including plants we cultivate today.

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    $\begingroup$ "Any cultivation of insects requires cultivation of plants" Really? then why's my offal recycling maggot farm doing so well, I've no plans for plant cultivation in the blueprints for my new sewage works & Dung Beetle farm either :) $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 2 '19 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ Well ... Sewage and dung beetles imply an alternate primary for source. Since entropy makes energy transfer a lossy game, what do you plan to eat to put into your dung beetle farm? Depending on the species of maggot, you either want plant trimmings or meat scraps. Both will lead to cultivation of plant crops for efficiency over time. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Feb 2 '19 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ "Depending on the species of maggot, you either want plant trimmings or meat scraps" "offal" $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 2 '19 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ Just like cultivating any animal you need to feed it something, Ideally that something is a primary producer (plant) other wise you are growing plants to feed the thing you feed to your insects which is massively inefficient, You are loosing an order of magnitude of energy with each step. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 2 '19 at 15:07

New answer

If you can cultivate insects and replace grain in your diet, then a culture can arise based on insects rather than grain. However, there are differences that will affect the civilization:

  • Kept dry, wheat (and many other grains) will store for years. I'm not convinced insects (most likely cooked & dried) can store that long. Consequently, your civilization would be more susceptible to food shortages.

  • When drought dries up the crops, it dries up the insects, too. Now, there are more edible insects than their are grains — but the nature of cultivation is to focus on low-count/high-bulk (meaning you crow an awful lot of a few things, not low amounts of many things). Consequently, when drought hits, the food supply will wither just as grains would. However...

  • I frankly have no experience cultivating insects, but I suspect that when disease strikes insects, it will be much harder to eradicate than it would for crops, making food shortages with cultivated insects more likely than with cultivated grain. However, that could lead to a civilization that preserved meats earlier and to a greater degree rather than grains. The problem, of course, is that you can make a lot of grain with little effort, but you can't make a lot of meat with little effort.

  • There are likely other issues, but perhaps the most important (really!) is the tendency toward rampant sobriety. Though Cheech and Chong tried valiantly to convince us otherwise, insects might not have the same kick as fermentable grain. The resulting civilization may have a high number of well behaved adults and children, unusually high degree of responsibility, and a confusingly low number of knock-knock jokes. It's possible that they would be attacked on sight for making too many common-sense decisions and having the ability to consistently walk a straight line, making them somewhat less likely to survive.

While I still think such a civilization is plausible (certainly enough for suspension-of-disbelief), I think there are enough weaknesses involved with supplanting insects for grain to make it a long shot in reality.

Here is the original answer, before the question was modified

Insects are rich in protein, minerals, vitamins, amino acids and fats. They are surprisingly comparable to beef and fish in the amounts of these nutrients. (Source)

What this tells me is that they would not be a 1:1 replacement for grains. They would be a 1:1 replacement for any kind of meat.

However, even communities that eat insects regularly [eat] other foods too. For example, in parts of Africa where insects are eaten frequently people still get about 90 per cent of their protein from other sources, suggesting insects can’t satisfy all our dietary needs. (Source)

You can replace vegetables with a protein-based source (Insects) just as you can replace protein with an all-vegetable source (beans and rice). However, I suspect that if you put a group of dieticians and vegetarians in a room, the argument as to whether or not it makes sense to make these substitutions would raise the roof. My gut (hah!) tells me that the reason there's an issue is because it's inefficient to replace one with the other.

Conclusion: Yes, insects could replace grain, especially if other vegetables are available as they are in a grain-based diet.

Possible Consequence: It is particularly difficult to replace vegetables with meats (which is what insects are). Perhaps the primary problem would be the fats. Your natives would have a higher incident of heart disease (cholesterol) compared to other societies. But then, if they worked with it for thousands of years... their bodies may adapt to the high fat diet. Indeed, they may culturally be a more active people to compensate for the higher fat diet.

  • $\begingroup$ "Perhaps the primary problem would be the fats. Your natives would be overweight compared to societies with a balanced diet and would likely have a higher incident of heart disease" : I understand one of the the most oft quoted benefits of insects over meat animals is how little fat they have so I suspect this might be one of the smallest issues if an issue at all. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 1 '19 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore, one of the benefits of insects over meat is low fat - but to therefore conclude that insects have the low fats of vegetables is fallacious. Perhaps someone can prove my assertion right or wrong, but until someone does, I must assume that insects have greater fat than vegetables. And since we're replacing grain (very low fat) as a staple, they represent a considerable increase in dietary fats. $\endgroup$ – JBH Feb 1 '19 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ Well we'll just have to disagree on that point for the moment then because I can't be bothered to go look up the respective fat content of grain, insects & beef : Howsoever, there's also the issue of fat not being what makes you fat, that would be an excess of calories, which can be had as easily from fat free food. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 1 '19 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ OK, I've bothered now, comparing cricket, beef & wholegrain wheat flour, there's very roughly twice as much fat in the crickets as in the wheat & twice as much in the beef as the crickets (for 100 g each, the wheat 2.5 g of fat, cricket 5.5 g beef 11.8 g), so there you go, not that it matters (as eating fat still won't make you fat, eating too many calories will). $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 1 '19 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore, :-) Your effort is appreciated, and I'll update my answer to remove obesity, but it still results in high cholesterol and heart disease. Cheers! $\endgroup$ – JBH Feb 1 '19 at 23:53

No for two reasons.

  1. Efficiency, Insects are secondary or tertiary consumers which means you can't raise the directly for long without a primary food source. Worse you can't free range insects like you can cattle or sheep, if you release a cloud of locusts you can't collect all or even most of them again. That means you have to keep them in closed containers, which is time consuming and energy intensive to make and maintain. That also means you have to provide for and feed them, which means you are doing all the work and have to be raising plants to feed them. So you are doing all the work of agriculture and only getting 1/10th the caloric content at best (secondary consumers remember). Likely even less, small animals are less efficient calorically.

The only way this even comes close to viable is if you are raising some high efficiency grain for to feed them,(even then its iffy) but at that point just eat the grain. The only insects humans have been able to domesticate for food prior to the industrial revolution are bees, which herd themselves, even then bees were never a major source of calories because harvesting a hive often killed it, (Yay for Mr Langstroth). And again the calories in for the calories out is crap.

  1. Nutrition, humans need carbohydrates, a carbohydrate free diet is toxic to lethal, Even the most animal centric human diets still use things like milk, cheese and forage or crops for carbohydrates.

    Low fat is not a good thing in preindustrial societies, it means the food is low in calories, the quality of a staple diet can partially be broken down to how many calories it takes to raise vs how many it provides, insects are high input low output, fine in a society with industrial surpluses but massively limiting without it, even if they somehow manged to survive off it they are never getting large population sizes and the advanced technology it allows for.

  • $\begingroup$ Chitin is a carbohydrate. It's not normally digestible by hominids, but some we're starting out with the intervention of gods, that can be handwavium. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Feb 2 '19 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy by that logic just let them eat wood. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 3 '19 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ Point 1 - All of this assumes that normal agriculture is possible. The OP suggested that Knowledge Of Insects was given as compensation for the unsuitability of NZ for normal agriculture. Depending on secondary consumers is no bar to survival - it just means that human population density will be lower. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Feb 3 '19 at 4:34
  • $\begingroup$ If normal agriculture is impossible surviving on insects is also impossible, larger livestock have some distinct advantages for surviving on marginal lands, mainly that they are low input, you as a human have to do very little to grow a cow, it can mostly take care of itself and then you can harvest it when you want. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 3 '19 at 4:49
  • $\begingroup$ Low population ensity prevents more specialized labor form developing, we don't know what cut off the OP wants for "civilization" but I am assuming something in the city state size. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 3 '19 at 4:52

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