If someone asked you today whether you would be willing to go back and live the life of a hunter-gatherer, when there was no computers, cell phones, vehicles, or even homes, you’d probably answer them no. The reason is that we all have grown up as progressivists in a capitalistic world. We have always been told that development is good and that it is the future. But while we so blatantly reject the fruits of the hunter-gatherer period, many anthropologists including Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari feel that we made a big mistake back then.
Strong arguments have been made ever since Jared’s 1987 article in the Discovery magazine touting agriculture as ‘the worst mistake in the history of the human race’. Resonating his views, even Harari calls agriculture as history’s biggest fraud in his popular book Sapiens- A Brief History of Humankind. When looked at the arguments posed against Agriculture, a lot of things do make sense.
We are domesticated and it is never the reverse. We all take pride in the fact that we are the most intelligent living beings on the planet. The story of our global dominance seems undisputed when we look at the number of organisms directly in our influence. It was with the agricultural revolution that we first started growing particular species of plants in a defined area when we started keeping animals with us to fulfil our meat and labour requirements.
However, anthropologists argue that it was us who got domesticated instead. How? Think of it in this way: Wheat before the agricultural revolution was just a wild grass, confined to a small range in the Middle East. But as the agricultural revolution began, men started to sow seeds, water plants, pluck weeds from the ground and lead sheep to prime pastures. We all started doing everything to ensure that wheat thrived and succeeded. From an evolutionary perspective, we ensured two of the most basic tenets of existence to the wheat- survival, and reproduction.
The good thing that agriculture does is that it provides us with a lot of food in one place. But what does this food contain? The staple diet of farm food includes wheat, potatoes or rice, which are all rich in carbohydrates but lacking in some of the essential vitamins, minerals and other nutritional materials. On the other hand, the daily diet of hunter-gatherers was quite varied. He may have eaten berries and mushrooms for breakfast; fruits, snails and turtle for lunch; and rabbit steak with wild onions for dinner. Interestingly, the menu for the next day could have been completely different. This provided them with a far more variety of nutrients and a balanced diet. The farmer, however, narrowed his choices for the sake of living a more comfortable life.
Leisure is an important part of a happy life. In order to save time hunting and gathering, we perhaps created so much of additional work for us that was completely unnecessary if we had continued the life of hunter-gatherers. Diamond states that 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. Compare that to the 60 hour work week many of us indulge in today’s time and you’d realise how terribly we beat ourselves up to work compared to our ancestors. In the hunter-gatherer era, only the best of the best could survive nature and the inherent competition amidst members of the tribes.
Yes, homicide was a significant factor in ensuring the survival of the fittest but it was normal in those days. In fact, the percentage of deaths due to fights during the hunter-gatherer era is quite similar to today’s wild chimpanzees. Today, after the agricultural boom and the development of social systems, even the dumbest, frail and disadvantaged person finds a chance of survival and passing on the genes. Jared rightly pointed out that the skeletons from Greece and Turkey were half a foot taller than their agricultural descendants’ skeletons from 3000 BC. Research has shown that pre-agricultural humans were taller, stronger, and healthier than farming peoples, as evidenced by their bones and teeth, which showed virtually no signs of disease.
The skull remains show that even our brain size has diminished. In order to survive, ancient hunter-gatherers had to remember the shapes, qualities and behaviour patterns of thousands of plant and animal species. Today, we do not have to do any of that. Just a simple Google search will do. In fact, we have dramatically shifted from a wide-spanning area of knowledge to a narrow and deep form of knowledge zone.
As we started living together in huge numbers, the number of diseases went up drastically. Tuberculosis and even diarrhoea only came into being after the agricultural revolution. Diseases like plague certainly spread in Asia and Europe due to high population concentration but rendered immunity to the surviving populations that indigenous Americans did not have. This has become further proof for the theory that diseases have a direct correlation with population density.
Humans for the majority of the existence were hunter-gatherers. Agriculture came around just ten to twelve thousand years ago. And this is just 5% of the period of existence of Homo Sapiens. For 95% of the time, we hunted and gathered. Looking at the current trend, most of the research going on around the world is focusing on sustainability. Scientists are worried that with the way we are living, the planet will soon become uninhabitable. Efforts for creating a civilisation on Mars point in the same direction. Looking at the numbers, we have to agree that the system of hunting and gathering was far more sustainable not only for us but also for the planet. Just 5% of time invested after the agricultural revolution has endangered an ecosystem that took billions of years to form. The question that looms now is whether all of it was worth it.
Picture Courtesy- History Crunch