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Do hunter-gatherers have it right?

Tom Feilden | 11:54 UK time, Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Listening to Tom Standage talking about his new book, An Edible History of Humanity this morning I was reminded of a paper written by the anthropologist and author Jared Diamond in the late 1980's.

A field of wheat

Diamond described agriculture as, "the worst mistake in the history of the human race".

Farming was, he argued, a catastrophe from which we have never quite recovered. With agriculture came "the social and sexual inequality, disease and despotism, that curse our existence".

It's a revisionist interpretation of history that, at first glance, seems hard to square with reality. Walk into any supermarket today and the sheer abundance and variety on display takes your breath away. When it comes to food we're better off in almost every respect than the people of the middle ages, who in turn had it easier than cavemen.

And it's not just food. Agriculture has freed us from the daily grind of subsistence, allowing art - and intellect - to flourish. Without agriculture there would have been no pyramids, no industrial revolution, no internet, and certainly no "One small step...". Life would still be nasty, brutish and short.

So what are Diamond, and now Standage, on about?

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In the first place the view from the food court of your local supermarket is a somewhat idiosyncratic, western, perspective. For the average subsistence farmer - the vast majority of the world's population - life is still pretty nasty, brutish and short.

Bushmen walk on the dunes in the Kalahari Secondly, while the evidence for the 'progressivist' point of view seems overwhelming, it's surprisingly hard to prove. Studies of the few remaining hunter gatherer societies show these people work less hard than their farming neighbours, and enjoy a much healthier and more varied diet.

When asked why he hadn't adopted agriculture, one Kalahari Bushman quoted by Jared Diamond replied, "why should I, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"

The evidence from archaeology supports the idea that hunter gatherer societies were surprisingly healthy. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that average height at the end of the last ice age was around 5'9". With the adoption of agriculture the figure crashed, and by 3000 BC had reached a low of 5'3".

Similar comparative studies of tooth decay, and from the scars left on bones by diseases like tuberculosis, point to a similar conclusion.

So why did hunter gather societies adopt agriculture? In a sense of course the answer is obvious. As Jared Diamond concedes,

"Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly gazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep. How many milliseconds do you think it would take them to appreciate the advantages of agriculture?"

His point, now echoed by Tom Standage, is that farming is not without its down side.


  • Comment number 1.

    Since agriculture can sustain far greater numbers of individuals than hunter gathering, and so it is clearly better for the survival of the species. It also sustains far greater numbers in the relative ease that we enjoy in the developed world. Even people who are struggling would prefer that struggle to their non-existence if humans depended on hunter gathering.

  • Comment number 2.

    Agriculture, like most technological advances, solves some problems while creating others. I wonder what it is about human behaviour that makes us keep doing this over and over?

  • Comment number 3.

    If Professor Dawkins is right (and echoed by David Attenborough in "Life of plants") we humans had no choice in the matter of turning to farming. Wheat has made itself one of the dominant species in the world (to say nothing of turkeys.) Standage and Diamond are merely pointing out that their domination has been at our expence

  • Comment number 4.

    "Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly gazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep. How many milliseconds do you think it would take them to appreciate the advantages of agriculture?"

    Diamond seems to assume an automatic spread of agriculture through diffusion in the past. This is unlikely in reality, however, as shown by numerous ethnological examples. Hunter-gatherers do not effortlessly change their way of living, even if they are in close contact with farmers. Huge social and ideological gaps between the two systems often prevent a successful longterm adaption of agriculture.

  • Comment number 5.

    Good start with mis-spelling of "shear abundance"; the lateral stress force, de-nuding of sheep or 'sheer' as in obvious? Good work fella; BBC-quality science! Nice unreferenced plagiarism of Hobbes' Leviathan (or perhaps Jacquetta Hawkes) in 'nasty, brutish and short'. Aside from that, a light introduction to vague anthropogology.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's just evolution.

    Farming was a surprising innovation our large brains dreamed up that kept more people alive (barely) to reproduce than hunter-gathering.

    Intersting (tho v. local) research on body weight. Numbers can be made to prove anything, but, if the Greece/Turkey skeleton theory IS right, possibly hunter-gathering did a better job of keep certain people (hunters/their families) very well fed and growing tall, while unadept hunters and their families starved.

    Farming, on the other hand, created societies, which tend to spread resources, altho thinly, to all members. Thus barely surviving individuals of very short height.

  • Comment number 7.

    The Agricultural Revolution at the dawn of civilization was the second of four transformations that have defined humanity as a species. The first was the use of tools and fire in prehistory; the third was the Industrial Revolution, and the fourth is the present-day Information Revolution.
    To deny any of these is to deny who we are. We have evolved, and will continue to transform as a species, because of these four revolutions. We can no more reject tools, agriculture, industry, or technology than a leopard can disown its spots. These are what makes us human.

  • Comment number 8.

    great to read your posts on science.
    Just a nit pick on a typo that leapt out of the page at me, 4th paragraph:
    ". . . and the shear abundance . . ."
    needs to be "sheer" unless you are trimming the abundance!

  • Comment number 9.

    Well spotted Benurmston and PeterOzzieJones. No excuse, and it should be corrected by now.

    I didn't think the reference to "nasty, brutish and short" really needed attribution. Hobbes rather than Hawkes...I'll have to check that one out.

    I'll bear it in mind for next time.

  • Comment number 10.

    Perhaps the difference in health is due to the way they die. Both populations will breed to the limit their environments support. The farmers have much more control - their lifestyle allows defence and food security, so death is from prolonged starvation and the disiease weakness causes. The hunter/gatherers will die from acute starvation or accidents, so they will be well-fed most of the time.

  • Comment number 11.

    Surely the reason agriculture spread is because agricultural societies can support an army.

  • Comment number 12.

    Before the agricultural revolution the carrying capacity of the earth would have been much less and so numbers of humans and other species of animals would have been limited. What agriculture did was to increase the carrying capacity and so allow greater numbers of humans to exist within a shortened space of each other. Mans lifestyle before agriculture was quite a nomadic one, moving from place to place wherever food was available, after agriculture man became more sedentry, not needing to roam around as much. With the domestication of animals and livestock, the need to wonder far and wide became even less of a burden. Without agriculture, would there be any cities?

  • Comment number 13.

    Sadly, the modern agricultural reliance we have has the ability to prove catastrophic in the hands of nature...

    One really bad winter of horrendously wet summer and we will all be in dire straights. See what our so called "Civilisation" turns to when the chips are down and people are given the choice of starving of fighting!

    Humans are a virus, one day Earth will find the cure!

  • Comment number 14.

    This piece ignores - or is unaware of - the great mystery that lies behind the whole switch from hunter-gathering to agriculture, i.e., how did such crops as wheat, (barley, corn, rice, maize, etc.), arise in the first place?

    Wheat, for instance, arose from a type of grass barely fit as a source of human nutrition, (especially compared to the other options - look at the anatomical features dairy cows had to develop to handle grass), yet someone, somewhere, not only had the profound insight that grasses could be evolved, but that they could be evolved into something fit for human consumption.

    Yet they also must've spent an enormous amount of time, (literally hundreds of human generations), selectively breeding and rebreeding descendants of this grass until they hit the right combination of characteristics to produce something that could pass for wheat.

    So, far from being obvious, whoever proposed the breeding programs that led to domestic crops, cattle, poultry, etc, must've been not only scientific geniuses, but so charismatically influential as to be considered gods, g.g. the culture bringing cereal benefactor Demeter.

  • Comment number 15.

    You only have to look at how most of our supermarket food is produced to realise that a lot of people still lead lives that are 'nasty and brutish' even if they are no longer quite as short. I for one would not like to spend my days working in a tuna cannery for example. Nor picking or preparing vegetables for a living.

  • Comment number 16.

    Don't blame the producers, farming is no more guilty than technology, weapons science, or medical science in our population problems. The problems and all the guilt lie with our instinctive need to reproduce and conquer every square inch of territory.
    From an evolutionary perspective war has in the past been an essential component of human society, and through most of our history it has been one of the major forces stabilizing our population growth. Ironically nuclear weapons and humanism together have largely brought an end to war - and now we find ourselves hugely overpopulated, approaching the planets carrying capacity. What we all need to do is to understand the maths of population, humans ARE intelligent animals. -
    When groups of people have statistically larger numbers of children than the rest of us their numbers will grow until they become more and more dominant. If they still demand the right to larger families this becomes exponential. Small families only work if everyone complies, if someone is having larger families then everyone must - or accept the eventual extinction of their own culture society or genetic group. (I am aware how close that is sailing to 'fascism' but in the end genetics is very close to fascism because its all about who's genetic code gets to make the future.)

    I am a futurist and utopian and believe that all we really need to do is throw away some of the trivia that so dominates us today and we can solve all these problems easily. In a real survival situation society can throw away all the trivia of its belongings and just work together - I just wish we'd stop waiting for the disaster to come to us and start acting now.

  • Comment number 17.

    When will these race is going to end, there are almost 7 billion people trashing and contaminating the Earth.

  • Comment number 18.

    And I think our move to over use oil, natural gas, and coal is an even bigger mistake.


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