The Agricultural Revolution

Why It Wasn't A Step Backwards From Hunter Gathering

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WAS AGRICULTURE REALLY A STEP BACKWARDS? There is a relatively recent theory that the human transition from a hunter gatherer (HG) lifestyle to agriculturalism (Ag) was a step backwards in the sense that it was less 'healthy'. I'm well aware that there are many scientists who take the opposite view from mine on this issue. The important point is to argue on the evidence and from logic rather than simply appeal to authority. Here I examine many of the arguments for that view and demonstrate that most are based on flawed assumptions or logic. My conclusion will be that the agricultural life style was an enormous advance over HG in terms of overall human health.

First it must be recognized this is a rather difficult problem since we have so little real evidence about ancient life relative to the number of people who actually lived it. There were enormous variations due to the vast range of climatic conditions and available foodstuffs over the huge time intervals involved. One must thus be extremely cautious in making generalizations. Nevertheless the overall conclusion is quite clear.

We also need to be clear what we are comparing here. It's important to note we are not comparing HG to modern western lifestyles. It is quite true that there are many chronic diseases that afflict modern western societies that were likely minimal or unknown in HG. But those are due primarily to poor lifestyle choices of the people afflicted. On the whole modern western health is much better than HG, but that is not the issue.

It is also important to emphasize the transition was not predicated on any assumed increase in intelligence. HGs were certainly resourceful and reasonably intelligent, not perhaps in the IQ test sense, but in solving real problems within their environment which is what real functional intelligence is. They obviously had to have been to have survived and for us to be here now. But that intelligence and resourcefulness is precisely why they were intelligent and resourceful enough to switch to Ag which greatly improved their survivability = overall health. True some new diseases and problems arose with the switch, but all and all it was an enormous improvement.

THE EVIDENCE OF HISTORY: By far the best evidence is that with few exceptions humans did in fact freely choose to make the transition from HG to Ag. By doing so it is the vast majority of humans who tell us that Ag was in fact much preferable to HG. The basic message then is that the switch from HG to Ag occurred precisely because it offered such vast improvements to human health and survivability. If it hadn't it just simply wouldn't have happened all over the world as it obviously did.

It is difficult to come up with good evidence of actual 'reasons' for the switch from ancient times, but the evidence of effects is overwhelming. The vast increase in human populations due to consistent food supplies. That populations didn't explode prior to Ag is very strong proof of very high relative mortality rates in HG. And of course the overwhelming adoption of Ag over HG by almost all peoples is pretty self evident proof it was judged much preferable by the peoples who actually made the decisions to transition. Thus the evidence is pretty overwhelming....

WHAT IS THE MEASURE OF HEALTH? The important thing to understand in this context is that the single best measure of health is life expectancy. That is the additive effect of all various diseases, life style risks, diets, medical treatments etc. Average HG life expectancies in ancient times were around 30 based on the sparse evidence. This seems to have been true both for HG and Ag but I believe the data don't tell the whole story here. Many of the pro HG proponents instead argue that Ag'ers may have lived longer but were less healthy. That assumes a highly skewed measure of health and there is no evidence that was true on average.

The life span data is entirely based on skeletal remains. It seems reasonable to believe that Ag skeletal remains represent a much more accurate cross section of the actual population at the time of death simply because the remains of all family members were much less likely to have been lost and thus subject to burial. In contrast the HG lifestyle was much less centered around home sites and we would expect a much less representative skeletal sample at any one site. There is also some evidence that high status adults were much more likely to be buried than infants. If so that would skew the samples towards a greater HG life expectancy than was actually the case.

I'm aware of the 'evidence' for a supposed decline in health with Ag. However this evidence is very weak. First the sample size is very very small relative to the number of people who lived in either category. Second the comparisons are in most cases widely separated in time so that they could well be from different ethnicities who had migrated into the area during the interim. Third body stature is NOT an accurate indication of overall health. It is primarily correlated with ethnicity, not health. In fact it is often inversely correlated with health. Eg. Japanese that switch from traditional Japanese to western diets gain in stature but also decline in health. The primary dietary correlation with increased stature ceteris equibus in any particular population seems to be primarily increased animal fat and protein intake rather than general health.

First there little if any evidence that disease was significantly greater in Ag than HG. Remember they are both in intimate contact with animals either wild or domestic. True if the population was greater in Ag settings more people would have been affected but that is only because their health before that was so much better they could reproduce more. Most likely just the types of diseases changed somewhat and the overall incidence was pretty much the same.

I do accept the point that dental carries would have increased due to addition of grains to the diet. As I've reduced my grains, esp. wheat I notice much less sticky residue on my teeth after eating. But hunting injuries and threat of starvation would have been considerably reduced by Ag and more than made up for that in terms of health impact.

ACTUAL VERSUS IDEAL PALEO DIETS AND LIFESTYLES: There seems be a prevalent myth that the HG lifestyle was easy, and the diet ideal. That the HG'ers regularly and reliably brought down big game with minimal risk and fruits and vegetables were just a matter of picking and gathering them from abundant reliable sources. While this was no doubt true at particular times in particular locations, on average nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact actual ancient HG diets were rarely ideal. They were actually boom or bust consisting of usually only a small variety of local foods in season so those actual ancient HG diets were very often far from the ideal that early humans would have been most healthy on. Eg. perhaps meat or scavenged carrion one week, tubers the next, fruit the third, insects the fourth, nothing the fifth. Not a healthy balanced daily diet by any means.

In contrast the great advantage of Ag was that it added a dependable long storing food source to the diet to tide over shortages in transient ones. That is THE single greatest advantage of Ag. Long storing grain which naturally stores over winter so as to reproduce in the spring. HG food storage would have been much less reliable. Obviously there are some foods that store for a shorter period for HGs, but think of those long ice age winters without fresh veggies or fruits. Hardly a health diet don't you agree?

Note also that the transition to Ag was at best partial. In all such communities farmed staples and livestock would have been regularly supplemented with wild foods in season. So Ag needs to be understood in adding something to the diet rather than abandoning much in the way of healthy available wild foods.

I agree that humans have evolved to do best on an IDEAL HG diet (with the addition of some grains that would have been gathered in season even by HGs). But contrary to what some believe, humans have in fact recently (prob. advent of Ag) evolved genetic changes to better digest the starches in grains, and to continue to drink animal milk after weaning. These manifest in the production of additional amylase for starch digestion and lactase in the case of milk. These genes are not nearly so prevalent in other primates such as chimps.

E.g. I actually try to eat pretty much the ideal HG diet with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits with a little meat and a little whole grain and very few processed foods. But I get plenty of variety every day, not week to week. And that is a very far cry from me going out in the woods in N. NJ where I live (or nearly anywhere) and trying to subsist on only wild game and plant materials. Anyone trying to do that (even with extensive training) would end up eating a much less healthy diet than the IDEAL HG diet I obtain at the local food stores thanks entirely to Ag!

As to NJ, I have the wild edible books and I regularly gather wild edibles, that's why I know it is so difficult to live that way. E.g. last year the acorn crop failed - there were no acorns period, so it would have been impossible for native americans to process and store acorns as food over the winter. That in itself would have been a serious blow to their survival.

ARE COMPARISONS WITH MODERN HG SOCIETIES MEANINGFUL? Some argue that some modern HG societies are quite successful in adapting to their niche environments today, but we need to understand that those that persisted and did not transition to Ag in ancient times were probably those in the minority that didn't have to do so so we would expect to see the ones that remain being among the more successful. So we really need to consider ancient HG as opposed to modern survivors if we are to compare to ancient Ag, which is the crux of my thesis.

The Kua Bushmen are often cited as examples of successful HG'ers who normally obtain sutainable nutrition with only moderate effort. But that would not have been typical, since the Bushman use poison arrows to minimize the risk of personal injury from contact with the large mammals they hunt but that is the exception. Temperate and Boreal HG'ers made no such use of toxins that I'm aware of. On any hunting trip for large animals injury or predation was always a constant danger. Again H. sapiens technology using atlatl may have minimized this compared to Neanderthal but it was still a significant risk over a lifetime of regular hunting. If you get within atlatl range of large wild animals you face considerable danger depending of course on the species. And if you have ever tried to herd deer or other wild animals you know they don't often go where you want them to in terms of 'over cliffs' or into cul de sacs. That may have been the preferred method but it was only infrequently achievable.

Let me point out that field experience is with one especially successful HG group - that's why it nearly alone of all HG groups has been able to survive to the present day. So one can't just assume it represents all HG over all times, all over the world, and over all climate changes. My comments are directed at the general HG situation and I believe they are an accurate portrayal of the general case in which clearly HG is less healthy and less successful than Ag all things considered. That after all is why HG has almost entirely died out and been superseded by Ag. The actual people who lived it decided themselves to make the transition precisely because it was much much better for them to have a reliable year round food supply than to always be vulnerable to starvation due to irregular food supplies.

In fact I was just watching interviews with some Inuit elders yesterday who were recounting how they 'were constantly starving' (their words not mine) and how hard times were before resettling in 'white mens houses' around 50 years or so ago. These Inuit elders were already living in white mans houses for years. They were speaking from that life and not seeking handouts to maintain a tenuous HG life style or did they seem to have any motive in trying to pull a fast one on the interviewers. They were speaking to anthropologists, not government agents anyway. They were stating their previous long gone HG life style was 'constantly starving' but they were fine now and had plenty to eat.

A big difference between balancing a diet every meal (ideal and best for health), every other day as you suggest, and being forced to eat what ever you happen to find from one day or week or season to the next. That is typical HG, and that is not healthy nor ideal. Again the Kua may well be the exception since they live in a warm climate all year round and use poison to obtain reliable meat, but that is not typical of the average HG situation over all times and climates.

And we need to make another thing clear here. Most of the very successful early Ag societies such as the pre-Columbian Amerindians were actually hybrid HG Ag societies. For example, the eastern tribes often lived in relatively stable Ag villages and grew squash and maize which they supplemented with HG wild foods. So they had already recognized the benefits of Ag and made a partial transition.

As an aside, I certainly believe that current surviving primitive cultures, either pure HG or Ag or whatever should be allowed to continue unmolested if they choose to do so, but that's not the question under discussion

FERTILITY RATES AND INFANT MORTALITY One of the best arguments for the success of Ag over HG is the explosion of human populations beginning with the transition. However some would have us believe that was due not to improved overall health but to an increase in fertility. There is no evidence for that and even if there was some small effect it is not sufficient to explain the population explosion.

There is little reason to think that fertility rates suddenly shot up with Ag. Why would they? One would expect people having sex at pretty much the same rates in HG as Ag. The much more likely cause is much greater HG infant mortality due to lack of stable food supplies and related problems.

But in any case the differences if any would be slight. The overwhelmingly most likely reason from a mathematical analysis is much higher infant mortality in HG. HG populations are thought to have remained quite small and relatively stable for tens of thousands of years, but with the advent of Ag there was an enormous worldwide population explosion. Improved infant mortality is the only way to explain that that I see. And that would have been the result of the great health benefits of Ag over HG.

What would have been the different time time periods and then do the math and see how much of a difference would be necessary to account for the Ag population explosion which took place over a relatively small number of generations. The math just doesn't work I think. But it certainly does for the infant mortality approach.

The limiting factor in reproduction is the health of the woman, the 9 mo. gestation period and how long she nurses since typically ovulation is suspended during lactation. It's not the amount of sex. I know of no evidence to think Ag's would nurse for shorter periods than HG's though it is possible.

Some argue that HG's had lower birth rate because longer breast feeding suppressed fertility. AG mothers had more options to start feeding earlier, including supplementation with animal milk. One has to consider the likelihoods of the two opposing explanations. As I stated it is possible that less breast feeding could have some influence but first there is no evidence that occurred and second I think the effect would have been small versus the likely large drop in infant mortality in Ag.

It is possible that feeding babies on domestic animal milk could have had some effect in hastening the return of ovulation and thus increase birth rates. But this can be interpreted the other way as well as HG mothers with poor nutrition could not have successfully breast fed babies that Ag's could have. Thus it should be seen as an aid to increasing the infant survival rate due to availability of more stable food supplies which is what I've been arguing all along. Also there were apparently genetic changes around the advent of agriculture that allowed adult humans to continue to produce the lactase necessary to digest dairy products in adulthood. Thus here again Ag provides another stable food source that contributes to human survival.

I doubt there was much in the way of 'family planning' to meet expected future food resources in either HG or Ag as others argue. More likely that children would have pretty much been produced continuously in both cases, but we cannot be sure as there is little evidence either way. And even if there was and Ag's decided to have more kids because more food was available that supports my argument that Ag populations exploded due to increased and more stable food supplies. It's actually an argument in favor of my thesis.

Some also argue that Ag populations exploded not due to better health and lower infant mortality but because of earlier age of menarche. First as to the data itself. There is considerable evidence that increased fat in young girls results in earlier menarche in many cases, e.g. in current western societies, however there are notable HG exceptions such as the pygmies in whom if I recall correctly it is often less than 10. For us to judge accurately we really need to know the actual details of the societies the data is drawn from. Nearly all 'farming populations' today have considerable contact with 'civilization' and access to additional store bought food which could easily be skewing the results.

But more importantly even if Ag's had earlier menarche that is no argument that HG is 'healthier' than Ag which was the original claim that I dispute. In fact it is one more argument for exactly the opposite, that Ag was in fact healthier as it provided a stable dependable diet that enabled young women to mature on nature's schedule rather than having menarche delayed due to insufficient sub optimal diets!

My argument has always been that Ag was intrinsically healthier and that is what allowed human populations to explode. I pointed out that lower infant mortality was one way that occurred. It is simply adding to my argument by pointing out another possible way that healthier Ag diets contributed to the Ag population explosion.

An important subsidiary point here is that the early menarche in western societies is unnatural not natural. It is the result of obesity from excess dietary fat, very little exercise, and the many estrogen mimicing food additives in the usual western diet. One needs to clearly distinguish between this excessive unhealthy modern situation and the healthy levels of fat occurring among hard working Ag girls with dependable diets versus the comparatively skinny builds of true HG's who were constantly looking for the next meal which might or might not be found, and if it were found, might just be enough to survive on. So three cases need to be carefully discriminated. Too fat (modern), more or less optimal with consistent food and plenty of exercise (ancient Ag), and suboptimal with non dependable diets so likely more skinny on average (ancient HG). Menarche age lowest in first case too young. Menarche more or less as nature intended in the Ag case. Menarche delayed past natural age due to less fat reserves in HG.

DID CLIMATE CHANGES CONTRIBUTE TO THE ADVENT OF AGRICULTURE? The evidence is quite clear that Ag was the cause not the effect of population explosion. Though the end of the ice age certainly had some effect it primarily affected only northern temperate areas and HG had plenty of chance to explode population if it could have prior to the start of the ice age in previous inter-glacial periods and in areas largely unaffected by glaciation but it did not. Add to that the nearly self evident evidence of the correlation between a massive increase in food production and the accompanying population increase it enables. After all an increase in HG population would not have 'caused' people to suddenly get the idea they could cultivate grains, but the opposite causal effect is quite clear.

AGRICULTURE WAS NOT EASY EITHER: In spite of its great advantages over HG it is a mistake to think that Ag was much easier. It wasn't, as can be seen still today in the many areas of subsistence farming. Primitive Ag without modern machinery is anything but sitting on your ass and waiting for harvest. It is very often constant daily backbreaking work from dawn to dusk. Of course there is a lot of variation from situation to situation, crop to crop, and climate to climate, but that is true as well of HG.

Of course HG children assisted in gathering and preparing just as much as they did with Ag chores. Why would you think otherwise? And young boys would also have been active in trapping and hunting small animals and insects as well. You need to review some of the nature films documenting pygmy and Amazonian cultures to see this in action. In both HG and Ag it was vital for very young children to do as much as they could as soon as they could for family survival. I was just watching one last week where 3-4 year old HG boys were busily collecting grasshoppers for the family larder.

Certainly none of this modern 'cult of the child' stuff where kids just twitter their lives away with no responsibilities and contribute almost nothing to the family..... Growing up without any meaningful responsibilities no wonder they have difficult times adjusting to adulthood when they get there.

I grew up in the midwest and all my relatives were Ag and ranchers including my grandmother who gardened, had an orchard and raised chickens where I spent my summers. So I remember quite well the near constant work beginning at daybreak necessary for successful Ag even with modern technology.

HYPOCRISY AND THE MYTH OF THE NOBLE SAVAGE: It is amusing to note that of the many who adulate the HG lifestyle, not a single one seems to be actually living it! If it is so great then why not? For awhile I had assumed such persons spent their days unwashed out in the woods hunting and gathering roots and insects but I see they too, as has 99.99% of humanity, have recognized the superiority of the Ag lifestyle and are happily living it themselves even while complaining about it! :-) They prove my point by their own chosen lifestyles ......

The quasi-religious fervor with which many of the pro HG camp defend their ideology indicates to me that this all seems to be a modern incarnations of the myth of a nobel savage living in an idyllic golden age of plenty where everything necessary for an optimal diet was just there for the picking and killing. It seems deeply Christian in its evocation of its before the fall existence in an ideal Garden of Eden. And it also manifests as a modern Tarzan myth wherein macho near omnipotent supermen repeatedly subdue savage beasts with little but their bare hands to the adulation of scantily clothed voluptuous Paleolithic maidens. Nothing could be further from the truth. HG was a horribly tenuous lifestyle in which people only lived 30 yrs. on average before succumbing to poor diets, frequent injury and disease. The transition to agriculture, with all its new problems, was one of the greatest of all developments of humanity.

FUTURE TRANSITIONS: The solution is certainly not a return to HG. Humans would be reduced back to a few 10's of millions worldwide and in a very precarious situation if that happened. The solution is reduction in human overpopulation, sustainable Ag, and smart technology geared towards sustainability rather than greater exploitation and depletion. That is the vision of the real golden age, not a return to 10,000 BC HG grubbing miserably for every morsel of food and watching your children die of malnutrition and starvation. Though the way things are going that is a real possibility....