Illustrations by Elliott Danfield
To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught
us that our earth isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions
of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned that we weren’t specially
created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. Now archaeology
is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million
years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest
that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a
better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.
With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and
despotism, that curse our existence.
At first, the evidence against this revisionist interpretation will strike
twentieth century Americans as irrefutable. We’re better off in almost
every respect than people of the Middle Ages, who in turn had it easier than
cavemen, who in turn were better off than apes. Just count our advantages. We
enjoy the most abundant and varied foods, the best tools and material goods,
some of the longest and healthiest lives, in history. Most of us are safe from
starvation and predators. We get our energy from oil and machines, not from
our sweat. What neo-Luddite among us would trade his life for that of a medieval
peasant, a caveman, or an ape?
For most of our history we supported ourselves by hunting and gathering: we
hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants. It’s a life that philosophers
have traditionally regarded as nasty, brutish, and short. Since no food is grown
and little is stored, there is (in this view) no respite from the struggle that
starts anew each day to find wild foods and avoid starving. Our escape from
this misery was facilitated only 10,000 years ago, when in different parts of
the world people began to domesticate plants and animals. The agricultural revolution
spread until today it’s nearly universal and few tribes of hunter-gatherers
From the progressivist perspective on which I was brought up, to ask "Why
did almost all our hunter-gatherer ancestors adopt agriculture?" is silly.
Of course they adopted it because agriculture is an efficient way to get more
food for less work. Planted crops yield far more tons per acre than roots and
berries. Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or
chasing wild animals, suddenly grazing 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?
The progressivist party line sometimes even goes so far as to credit agriculture
with the remarkable flowering of art that has taken place over the past few
thousand years. Since crops can be stored, and since it takes less time to pick
food from a garden than to find it in the wild, agriculture gave us free time
that hunter-gatherers never had. Thus it was agriculture that enabled us to
build the Parthenon and compose the B-minor Mass.
While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it’s
hard to prove. How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got
better when they abandoned hunting and gathering for farming? Until recently,
archaeologists had to resort to indirect tests, whose results (surprisingly)
failed to support the progressivist view. Here’s one example of an indirect
test: Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers?
Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive
people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way.
It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal,
and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time
devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of
Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when
asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture,
replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"
While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes,
the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers
provides more protein and a bettter balance of other nutrients. In one
study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food
was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater
than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost
inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation
the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during
the potato famine of the 1840s.
So the lives of at least the surviving hunter-gatherers aren’t nasty
and brutish, even though farmes have pushed them into some of the world’s
worst real estate. But modern hunter-gatherer societies that have rubbed shoulders
with farming societies for thousands of years don’t tell us about conditions
before the agricultural revolution. The progressivist view is really making
a claim about the distant past: that the lives of primitive people improved
when they switched from gathering to farming. Archaeologists can date that switch
by distinguishing remains of wild plants and animals from those of domesticated
ones in prehistoric garbage dumps.
How can one deduce the health of the prehistoric garbage makers, and thereby
directly test the progressivist view? That question has become answerable only
in recent years, in part through the newly emerging techniques of paleopathology,
the study of signs of disease in the remains of ancient peoples.
In some lucky situations, the paleopathologist has almost as much material
to study as a pathologist today. For example, archaeologists in the Chilean
deserts found well preserved mummies whose medical conditions at time of death
could be determined by autopsy (Discover, October). And feces of long-dead Indians
who lived in dry caves in Nevada remain sufficiently well preserved to be examined
for hookworm and other parasites.
Usually the only human remains available for study are skeletons, but they
permit a surprising number of deductions. To begin with, a skeleton reveals
its owner’s sex, weight, and approximate age. In the few cases where there
are many skeletons, one can construct mortality tables like the ones life insurance
companies use to calculate expected life span and risk of death at any given
age. Paleopathologists can also calculate growth rates by measuring bones of
people of different ages, examine teeth for enamel defects (signs of childhood
malnutrition), and recognize scars left on bones by anemia, tuberculosis, leprosy,
and other diseases.
One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons
concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show
that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was
a generous 5’ 9" for men, 5’ 5" for women. With the adoption
of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only
5’ 3" for men, 5’ for women. By classical times heights were
very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained
the average height of their distant ancestors.
Another example of paleopathology at work is the study of Indian skeletons
from burial mounds in the Illinois and Ohio river valleys. At Dickson Mounds,
located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists
have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes
that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming
around A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the
University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their
new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded
them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative
of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced bya
bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions
reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions
of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. "Life
expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was bout twenty-six years,"
says Armelagos, "but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen
years. So these episodes of nutritional stress and infectious disease were seriously
affecting their ability to survive."
The evidence suggests that the Indians at Dickson Mounds, like many other primitive
peoples, took up farming not by choice but from necessity in order to feed their
constantly growing numbers. "I don’t think most hunger-gatherers
farmed until they had to, and when they switched to farming they traded quality
for quantity," says Mark Cohen of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh,
co-editor with Armelagos, of one of the seminal books in the field, Paleopathology
at the Origins of Agriculture. "When I first started making that argument
ten years ago, not many people agreed with me. Now it’s become a respectable,
albeit controversial, side of the debate."
There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture
was bad for health. First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied
diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy
crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (today
just three high-carbohydrate plants–wheat, rice, and corn–provide
the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient
in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second,
because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of
starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that
agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of
which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread
of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was the crowding,
rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg
argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics
couldn’t take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that
constantly shifted camp. Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the
rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearnce of large cities.
Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring
another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little
or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd
of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore,
there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized
from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite
set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae
c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since
the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on
the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies
from c. A. D. 1000, the élite were distinguished not only by ornaments
and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused
Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today.
To people in rich countries like the U. S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the
virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an élite, dependent
on oil and minerals that must often be iimproted from countries with poorer
health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in
Ethiopia or a bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be
the better choice?
Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from
the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure
to produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more
frequent pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer counterparts–with consequent
drains on their health. Among the Chilean mummies for example, more women than
men had bone lesions from infectious disease.
Women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden. In New
Guinea farming communities today I often see women staggering under loads of
vegetables and firewood while the men walk empty-handed. Once while on a field
trip there studying birds, I offered to pay some villagers to carry supplies
from an airstrip to my mountain camp. The heaviest item was a 110-pound bag
of rice, which I lashed to a pole and assigned to a team of four men to shoulder
together. When I eventually caught up with the villagers, the men were carrying
light loads, while one small woman weighing less than the bag of rice was bent
under it, supporting its weight by a cord across her temples.
As for the claim that agriculture encouraged the flowering of art by providing
us with leisure time, modern hunter-gatherers have at least as much free time
as do farmers. The whole emphasis on leisure time as a critical factor seems
to me misguided. Gorillas have had ample free time to build their own Parthenon,
had they wanted to. While post-agricultural technological advances did make
new art forms possible and preservation of art easier, great paintings and sculptures
were already being produced by hunter-gatherers 15,000 years ago, and were still
being produced as recently as the last century by such hunter-gatherers as some
Eskimos and the Indians of the Pacific Northwest.
Thus with the advent of agriculture and élite became better off, but
most people became worse off. Instead of swallowing the progressivist party
line that we chose agriculture because it was good for us, we must ask how we
got trapped by it despite its pitfalls.
One answer boils down to the adage "Might makes right." Farming could
support many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life.
(Population densities of hunter-gatherers are rarely over on eperson per ten
square miles, while farmers average 100 times that.) Partly, this is because
a field planted entirely in edible crops lets one feed far more mouths than
a forest with scattered edible plants. Partly, too, it’s because nomadic
hunter-gatherers have to keep their children spaced at four-year intervals by
infanticide and other means, since a mother must carry her toddler until it’s
old enough to keep up with the adults. Because farm women don’t have that
burden, they can and often do bear a child every two years.
As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice
ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps
toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the
former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the
transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased
food production. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that
chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can
still outfight one healthy hunter. It’s not that hunter-gatherers abandonded
their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced
out of all areas except the ones farmers didn’t want.
At this point it’s instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology
is a luxury, concerned with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the
present. Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial
stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose
between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose
the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.
Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and logest-lasting life
style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess
into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can
solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were
trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate
the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000
years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight,
then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers
for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset.
Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches,
will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all?
Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind
agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?