Hunter-gatherers to farmers: wrong move?

May 23, 2022

Painting ‘Primitive Man Hunting Animals’ at the Museum of Vietnamese History

Jacob Wood speculates whether a key moment in our evolution was a backwards step

Living through the pandemic and lockdown restrictions challenged us to go without many things we take for granted: restaurants and cinemas, festivals and parties. It therefore seems ridiculous to propose that the incredibly simple lifestyle of our distant ancestors could have been superior to ours.

When I used to imagine human life before farming, I tended to think of primitive cavemen. The term ‘hunter-gatherer’ refers to the culture of living off wild resources. This was how everyone lived until about 12,000 years ago, when the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ prompted the widespread domestication of animals and cultivation of crops. Although hunter-gatherers still thrived in some areas, only a few isolated communities exist today.

When farming communities began to form, the climate change caused by the end of the last Ice Age was creating huge global cataclysms. Hunter-gatherers – in possession of farming tools for over 10,000 years – only gave in to using them during this time of disaster. It seems agriculture was a last resort rather than a preferred option.

Having control over the amount of food grown gave certain people immense power

Ancient sites show that hunter-gatherers ate almost 60 different types of plants. Farming crops meant that people had a less varied diet, and if the crop failed everyone would starve. Having control over the amount of food grown gave certain people immense power over many others, allowing complex social hierarchy to form for the first time.

Since growing crops requires mass manual labour, it was preferable to capture people to do the work instead. This meant that war and slavery also came almost hand-in-hand with the Neolithic Revolution.

For the first time, thousands of people and their livestock were crammed together; diseases decimated entire settlements. It is undeniable that, at least in the early days of agriculture, quality of life decreased. Fossils of the time show that hunter-gatherers lived significantly longer than their agricultural counterparts, who were shorter and suffered from malnutrition.

Hungry hunter-gatherers would track a wild animal, thriving in its natural habitat (Matthias Böckel from Pixabay)

Perhaps it is no surprise that for subsequent millennia, many chose not to live in established agricultural communities. It has been estimated that even at the time the submarine was invented in 1620, more people still lived outside such communities.

The control over the majority that agriculture gave leaders enabled empires to form. It took 11,000 years from the birth of agriculture for 50% of the world’s population to adopt it, often through force. Colonisers almost wiped out the rest in a mere 400 years.

Since the Neolithic Revolution, a surplus has become central to our way of life. The vast majority spend most of our lives motivated by a desire to accumulate possessions and profit. We take comfort in the permanence of our homes. We love that we can have any meal delivered to our doorstep or browse supermarket shelves groaning with food. Suggesting that a culture perceived as so primitive could actually hold a superior way of living seems absurd.

For many workers in the West, the idea of fun or even ample family time is often more fantasy than reality

However, I feel as though the depth of difference between hunter-gatherers and ourselves shows how far we have strayed from our fundamental humanity.

In Australia, the Spinifex hunter-gatherers live so remotely that they could not be warned of nuclear weapons testing in their homeland. The San bushmen of Southern Africa, who have no system of writing or commerce, are often forced to work on farms that have encroached on their territory and their lack of understanding means that contracts can essentially enslave them.

A 1996 study on hunter-gatherers found that they spent an average of 6.5 hours a day ‘working’ – mostly collecting food, with significant amounts of time devoted to leisurely family and community activities. This is significantly less than the 8.8 hours the average American blue collar worker can expect per day. For many workers in the West, the idea of fun or even ample family time is often more fantasy than reality.

Many of us share the deeply ingrained belief that our worth comes from tangible things, such as architecture and technological gadgets

So, was the Neolithic Revolution a disaster for humanity? It comes down to our individual values. Scientists tend to agree that, no doubt initially, it was a disaster. But to contend that we are worse off today than hunter-gatherers is more controversial.

Many of us share the deeply ingrained belief that our worth comes from tangible things, such as architecture and technological gadgets.

We also like to think that wealth in society will equate to a better quality of life. Yet hunter-gatherers – despite all the challenges they face – work less, are equally well-fed, are less hierarchical, have a heightened sense of community and are more in tune with nature.

Thirsty hunter-gatherers would drink fresh water, flowing from a nearby stream (Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay)

They live closer to how humans are ‘supposed’ to live, only taking what they need. Their culture has not changed in many thousands of years. Almost all of their problems come from the outside ‘developed’ world; enslavement, disease, genocide.

It is far too easy to dismiss them as ‘primitive’ but, for me, the lack of material wealth is not enough to class hunter-gatherer culture as inferior.

I cannot imagine what oblivious members of the Australian Spinifex must have thought as the plumes of nuclear bombs exploded on their ancestral homeland. Probably that the world was ending – and are they so wrong?

We live in the peak of consumerism, with so many products available to us that they lose their value. Media coverage is making us slowly immune to the true cost of this lifestyle – suffering and global destruction. The Neolithic Revolution was, in a sense, the first step towards the impending doom humanity’s resultant greed will probably inflict on us.

Jacob is a college student from North London. In his free-time he likes reading, researching, going for walks and getting outside with friends.

Jacob is a college student from North London. In his free-time he likes reading, researching, going for walks and getting outside with friends.

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