Hunter-gather life

Jared Diamond called the adoption of agriculture “the worst mistake in human history,” a claim that is, among historians of the era, not very controversial.

Here’re some takeaway ideas from a New Yorker article making a case against civilization.

Most modern people are generally living in a cage of accumulation and coping with a constant low-grade stress.

Before farming, we couldn’t accumulate much more than we could carry and we likely had mainly brief episodes of coping with intense stress.

The fossil record shows that life for early agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers.

So why did our ancestors switch from the hunter-gatherers’ complex web of food to the concentrated cultivation of single crops? We don’t know, but two things are clear.

The bones of early farmers show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Plus living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases crossing the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities.

The other conclusion is that there’s a crucial, direct link between  cultivating grains and state formation.

Grains encouraged the formation of states. History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit or sweet potato states.

What’s so special about grains? Grains, unlike other crops, are easy to tax. Some crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava) grow underground and so can be hidden from the tax collector. And other crops ripen at different intervals, or yield harvests throughout a growing season.

Only grains are visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’  So grain became the main food starch, the unit of taxation in kind, and the basis for an agrarian calendar.

The ability to tax and to extract a surplus from grains led to the formation of the state, and creating complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an élite presiding over them.

Because states required huge amounts of manual work to irrigate the crops, they needed forms of forced labor, including slavery.  The easiest way to find slaves was capturing them, so the states had a drive to wage war. Some of the earliest images in human history are of slaves being marched along in neck shackles.

War, slavery, and rule by elites were made easier by numerical record keeping – writing. It was a long and traumatic journey from the invention of writing to your book club. For 500 years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used only for bookkeeping. Early tablets consist of lists, and the subjects are, in order of frequency, barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, and slaves.

If most of us weren’t miserable most of the time as hunter-gatherers, the arrival of civilization is a more ambiguous event. The question of what life was like for a hunter-gatherer is important for assessing human history.

It turns out that hunting and gathering can be a good way to live.

A 1966 study found that, on average, it took Bushmen only about 17 hours a week to find enough food; another 19 hours were spent on domestic activities and chores. The average caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers was 2,300 a day, close to the recommended amount. In 1966, a comparable week in the United States involved 40 hours of work and 36 of domestic labor. Bushmen don’t accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, and then stop, exhibiting confidence that their environment will provide for their needs.

In one column of the ledger, we would have the development of a complex material culture permitting the glories of modern science and medicine and the accumulated wonders of art. In the other column, we would have the less good stuff, such as plague, war, slavery, social stratification, and rule by mercilessly appropriating elites.

Robin Hanson’s take on civilization include these thoughts.

Farmer lives had new dangers of war and disease, and more threatening neighboring groups. There was more support in the farmer’s world for spouses and material goods as property. Farmer law relied less on general discussion within the group.

More reliable food meant redistribution amongst the group was less important. Farmers worked more and had less time for play. Together, these tended to reduce the scope of previous hunter-gatherer group dynamics, moving society in a rightward direction relative to foragers.

It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when we became richer we could afford to revert to more natural-feeling hunter-gatherer ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace hierarchies are required to generate industry-level wealth.

A lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways. Older hunter-gatherer ways have been slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution.