Prior to agriculture, humans lived happier, healthier, freer and easier lives, claims one of the world’s top scientists and thinkers.
In an article published in Discover Magazine nearly 30 years ago, Pulitzer Prize winning anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond calls agriculture “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
Diamond claims the domestication of plants and animals – which began around 10 to 15 thousand years ago – led to the eventual domestication of humans and is ultimately responsible for the “the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence.”
For approximately 2 million years prior to the advent of agriculture, gatherer-hunters enjoyed excellent health, social and sexual equality, very light workloads, plenty of leisure time and freedom from any form of government.
How agriculture destroyed our health
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.
For example, he says gatherer-hunter skeletons from Greece and Turkey were half a foot taller than their agricultural descendants’ skeletons from 3000 BC.
Native American skeletons from the Ohio and Illinois river valleys demonstrate major health changes that occurred when the gatherer-hunter population there gave way to agriculture around 1150 AD – “a nearly 50 percent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia, a threefold 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 that pre-agricultural community was only about twenty-six years, but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years, said George Armelagos of the University of Massachusetts. (Some anthropologists argue that gatherer-hunter life-expectancy averages are thrown off by high infant mortality due to infanticide – which was one way of keeping population in balance with the food supply – but that the life-expectancy of those who made it past infancy was at least equal to ours, even without the benefit of modern medicine.)
Agriculture was bad move for human health for three main reasons:
1. Heavy dependence on grains and other starchy crops
The agricultural diet is based primarily on high-carbohydrate, low-nutrient-density crops like grains and potatoes, while the gatherer-hunter diet was comprised of a more varied mix of wild plants and animals, providing a better balance of nutrients.
The agricultural revolution provided “cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition,” Diamond said. Today just three starchy plants – wheat, rice, and corn – provide the vast majority of the calories consumed by the human species. All three are deficient in vitamins and amino acids essential to life.
2. Mono-cropping leads to crop failure and mass starvation
Dependent on a much smaller number of crops than gatherer-hunters, farmers ran the risk of starvation if even one crop failed.
“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,” Diamond said.
3. Higher population density encouraged epidemic disease
Agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, leading to the spread of parasites and infectious disease.
Some archaeologists think it was crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but Diamond calls this a “chicken-and-egg argument,” as crowding encourages agriculture and agriculture encourages crowding.
Epidemics couldn’t take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp, he said. “Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.”
How agriculture destroyed egalitarianism
“Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic infectious disease, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions,” Diamond said.
Because hunter-gatherers were nomadic they did not store food. They ate and shared whatever food they obtained each day. With no granaries or silos – or other concentrated food sources, like orchards or herds of sheep – there was nothing to guard, protect or fight over.
“Therefore, there could be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others,” Diamond said. “Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.”
Greek skeletons from 1500 BC indicate royals enjoyed a better quality diet than their subjects, as the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth – on average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth.
Chilean mummies from 1000 AD showed “the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.”
The nutritional inequality of agricultural societies still exists on a global scale today.
“To people in rich countries like the US, it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering,” Diamond said. “But Americans are an elite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be imported 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 encouraged inequality between the sexes, too. Under pressure to produce more farmhands, agricultural women had far more children than hunter-gatherer women, who used natural means of preventing or ending pregnancies (and in desperate cases infanticide) that occurred before their existing children were weaned and could walk long distances on their own. Birthing large numbers of children was inherently damaging to women’s bodies, as evidenced by more bone lesions from infectious disease than their male counterparts.
Additionally, the authors of the book Sex at Dawn explain how with agriculture came the concept of private property, and with that, the idea of women as property. In order to ensure a man was working to provide for his own children, and passing on his property to his own heirs, women’s wombs also became man’s property, locking them into monogamous marriage if they wanted to be able to feed themselves and their children.
“Thus with the advent of agriculture an elite became better off, but most people became worse off,” Diamond said.
How agriculture destroyed our freedom and “free-time”
In addition to better health and equality, hunter-gatherers had/have far less work and far more leisure time than farmers, industrial laborers and even white collar workers on Wall Street.
The Bushmen of South Africa spend an average of only 12 to 19 hours a week obtaining food – which is about all gatherer-hunters need to do other than build an occasional new grass-hut. It takes the Hadza of Tanzania less than 14 hours a week to feed themselves.
And the “work” of gatherer-hunters can hardly be considered work. In fact, most of them don’t have a word for “work” in their languages, and consider their “work” to be play. This is because their “work” is skill intensive, not labor intensive, does not take many hours, and is done with friends, when they feel like doing it, not when they are forced to do it.
When a Bushmen was asked why his tribe did not take up agriculture like neighboring tribes, he replied – “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” Wild nuts, berries, fruits and roots can be consumed immediately after they are plucked, with no tilling, planting, fertilizing, weeding, storing, preserving, cooking, etc. – saving countless hours of labor.
An animal killed by one hunter in a few hours, and cooked by a group of them in a few more, could feed the entire tribe – and perhaps a neighboring tribe – for days. When one person or tribe was not so lucky one day, he/they could count on another to feed him/them and vice versa. Without stored food to fight over, gatherer-hunters shared everything for mutual assurance of survival.
“The lives of at least the surviving hunter-gatherers aren’t nasty and brutish, even though farmers have pushed them into some of the world’s worst real estate,” Diamond said. So we can assume, the lives of prehistoric hunter-gatherers – before they had to compete with ever-expanding agriculturalists for land and resources – were not nasty and brutish either.
“Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history,” Diamond said. “Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”
Many of the gatherer-hunters who did choose to keep their populations in check to avoid the toil of agriculture, have been forced into the lifestyle over the last 10,000 years, because agriculture encourages population growth, which encourages expansion into new territories. So farmers out-bred gatherer-hunters and killed off those who wouldn’t convert, because, as Diamond said, “a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter.”
For at least 2 million years, the human species thrived without agriculture. The lifestyle of gather-hunters was so sustainable, it’s conceivable they could’ve gone on living in harmony and balance with all non-human life on the planet until the death of our nearest star, speculates Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael. But our 10,000-year-long experiment with agriculture has set us so far back into poor health, slavery and environmental degradation, it is unclear whether we can ever recover.