Stone Age Affluence

Agriculture brought many challenges for health and happiness.

Posted Feb 06, 2019

Agriculture increased food production. Yet the food produced was of low quality and the supply was unreliable. Agriculture also introduced social inequality, warfare, and epidemic diseases.

Scholars generally paint a positive picture of the Agricultural Revolution and of the economic development that followed that increased global trade and boosted wealth. Agriculture itself did not improve the quality of life.

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins introduced the notion of Stone Age affluence (1). He concluded that hunter-gatherers had very modest needs but that these were easily satisfied. In his terms, they followed the Zen road to happiness.

One way in which our forager ancestors were “affluent“ was in terms of good nutrition.

Nutrition and Work

Without venturing into the finer points of hunter-gatherer diets, it is clear that they enjoyed great dietary diversity compared to their agricultural descendants who relied upon a few staple foods and were at risk of dietary deficiency diseases.

In addition to being more diverse, the hunter-gatherer diet was probably of better quality in terms of being well balanced between carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and of having a high fiber content. Given that different populations had very different diets, there was no monolithic forager diet as diet enthusiasts sometimes claim. Yet, it is likely that their varied diets promoted good health.

These points are not really controversial. What is controversial is the notion that hunter-gatherers were perpetually on the brink of starvation, an assumption that underlies the thrifty-gene hypothesis.

Research on preindustrial societies finds that those living by agriculture were much more likely to experience starvation than hunter-gatherers (2). Agriculture brought a decline in stature that is indicative of a general decline in health and they were more vulnerable to infections and dental diseases.

They were also more likely to suffer from arthritis and their skeletons revealed other signs of bodies wracked by repetitive-stress-related work injuries. Hunter-gatherers had a more leisured lifestyle with work taking up about five hours per day for men and a bit longer for women (3)

Clearly, foragers had better food security in addition to dining well and leading a more leisured lifestyle. Another kind of security they enjoyed was absence of the threat of organized warfare.

Warfare and Violence

If warfare occurred at all in ancestral hunter-gatherer societies, it was rare. Anthropologists are divided on this question because most of the societies contacted in their field work had frequent warfare and high mortality from warfare.

Yet, that evidence tells us little about what their lives were like in the remote past. For that, it is best to study the archaeological record. When this was done carefully, there was little reliable evidence of any warfare among hunter gatherers.

Indeed, there is only one reliable piece of evidence of hunter gatherers dying in warfare – a recent report of mass killing on the shores of lake Turkana (4). Even in that single case of hunter-gatherer warfare, we do not know who the attackers were. They are assumed to be other hunter-gatherers but they could also have been herders.

There is little doubt about why they were killed. The lake was valuable both as a source of fish and an ambush site for game animals coming down to drink.

In other words, it was worth defending. Foragers generally occupy large home ranges that are neither worth defending, or easily defensible. which is why they have little warfare although homicide rates are otherwise high.

Given that they had little property, hunter gatherers had no status differences based on inherited wealth and were the most egalitarian societies in existence. Even gender differences in stratus were minimized. This means that they were free of much of the conflict over economic resources that divides developed countries and is a major source of stress and illness (5).

Epidemics and Metabolic Syndrome

Despite the many risks of physical injury to which foragers were exposed, from violence to predators and poisonous insects, they enjoy relatively good overall health. The epidemic diseases that characterize modern societies, such as measles, tuberculosis, influenza and HIV/AIDS, were mostly absent because the population was too dispersed to form a reservoir of infection. Most were very physically fit and had excellent cardiovascular health.

Indeed, they were free of the metabolic illnesses that plague modern societies – diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, hypertension, and obesity. These diseases expend most of the health dollars for us.

That this advantage is due to a healthy lifestyle was illustrated by the return of urban Aborigines - who were overweight and diabetic - to their ancestral way of life (6). Their health was dramatically restored.

Conclusion

Foragers led a healthier lifestyle in terms of diet and physical activity but were exposed to greater threats of injury. They were free of many of the characteristic sources of anxiety that plague modern societies from inequality and economic insecurity to difficult work experiences, to warfare and status striving.

Judged in these terms, the Agricultural Revolution was not the huge leap forward in human well being that one might have imagined.

References

1 Sahlins, M. (1968). Notes on the original affluent society. In R.B. Lee and I. deVore (Eds.) Man the hunter (pp.85-89). New York: Aldine.

2 Mummert, A., Esche, E., Robinson J., and Armelagos, G. (2011). Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition. Economics and human Biology, 9, 284-301.

3 Johnson, A. W., and Earle, T. (2000). The evolution of human societies, 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

4 Mirazon Lahr, M., Rivera, F., Power, R. K., Mounier, A., Copsey. M. B., Crivellaro, F., et al. (2016). Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of west Turkana, Kenya. Nature, 529, 394-398.

5 Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

6 O'Dea, K. (1984). Marked improvement in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in diabetic Australian Aborgines after temporary reversion to traditional lifestyle. Diabetes, 33, 596-603.