Hunter-Gatherers & the Dawn of Agriculture

12 minute read

Hunter-gatherer societies are as their name suggests: cultures in which sustenance is obtained through hunting, gathering, fishing, and scavenging. As we dive into this discussion, it is important to realize the variety of hunter-gatherer societies through time and space. While they are oft portrayed monolithically, hunter-gatherer cultures occupied nearly every corner of the planet, developing unique lifestyles suited to their environment.

Also of fundamental importance is to note that these ways of life are profoundly the norm in human history. Though modern humans evolved around 300,000 years ago, the practice of agriculture did not emerge until 12,000 years ago, or around 5% of human history. In this incredible length of time there is a huge amount of difference between groups. Despite these variations, many shared a cosmology of themselves that was integrated with the world around them. This way of being is defined by anthropologists as animism. In this context, many of these groups did not view themselves as separate from the world around them, creating a reciprocal relationship with the Earth. 

To say anything meaningful about humans and the dawn of agriculture, we must also remember that hunter-gatherer societies are extant and not a prehistoric relic. Estimates suggest around 5 million people worldwide still subsist through foraging. Pervasive narratives in modern culture impose a hierarchy where hunter-gatherers are seen as “backward” or less culturally evolved when compared to “sophisticated” agriculturalists. This is a colonial myth, and has been used for millennia as justification for tribal land theft and the decimation of indigenous populations.  

Today, hunter-gatherers persist in small pockets all across the world, from the Inuit who hunt for walrus on the frozen ice of the Arctic, to the Awá of Amazonia’s rainforests, and the Ayoreo armadillo hunters of the dry South American Chaco. These communities are threatened, though not by the declining usefulness of their lifestyle, but rather by external oppressive forces. Understanding these forces and how modern food systems work requires examining the beginnings of what is referred to as the Agricultural Revolution.

Hunter-gatherer societies have been around since the Pleistocene, the Paleolithic Age beginning 2.6 million years ago when the first Homo genus roamed the Earth. Over this vast time period, technological innovations such as stone tools and the control of fire led to dietary changes such as greater consumption of meat relative to plants. Physical changes include diminished teeth size with the aid of cooking to soften food. Furthermore, hunting large game necessitated large degrees of cooperation, indicating the emergence of social cohesion. 

A recent archaeological discovery of peoples living at Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov, Israel ~780,000 years ago reveals a stunning array of 55 kinds of food plants in the people’s diets. Photo: Yaakov Langsam. 

In addition to sophisticated tools, the harnessing of fire was a catalyst for social complexity. Fire not only provided cooking utility, warmth and protection, but also light. This allowed activities to extend beyond sundown, increasing critical time for social bonding, especially in larger groups. Modern humans are awake for nearly twice as long in comparison to their primate cousins

Hunter-gatherer lifestyles were fiercely egalitarian. Shared living spaces and acquisition of food suggests intensely cooperative social networks to ensure survival, with connections stretching to family members but also to non-kin. With the advent of language, more complex relationships were forged. The ability to share hunting techniques with a neighboring group or describe a newly discovered fruit tree likely added to human interdependence.

Historical accounts often paint hunter-gatherer societies as subject to “feast and famine” periods similar to “boom and bust” economic cycles, but these renderings simply aren’t true. Although they were at the whim of nature, hunter-gatherers harnessed egalitarianism as a sustainable defense. The egalitarian model is marked by extensive sharing of resources in addition to two other phenomena: 1) people worked less hours, and 2) renewable resource conservation was achieved through slow transformation of the physical environment, with prolonged, steady expansion of populations and work output. 

Unifying these dynamics was the concept of egalitarian sharing rules. Sharing served as an implicit tax on renewable resources where proceeds are equally distributed among all. Basically as a hunter, the bigger the game, the bigger the obligation to share. There really is no incentive then to hoard or overharvest, leaving ecosystems intact and avoiding inequality amongst community members. Individual excess would have been a serious transgression of social norms. At a low consumption rate, the tax sets a hunter-gatherer economy on a long-run steady-state equilibrium. 

The Yanomami people use ~500 plants species daily for food, clothing, housing, and more. Picture © Fiona Watson/Survival International

“The environment is not separate from ourselves; we are inside it, and it is inside us; we make it and it makes us.”

Davi Kopenawa

This deep interdependence with each other and the living world cultivated a conservationist attitude and encyclopedic knowledge amongst hunter-gatherers. Talking with indigenous folks today, these sentiments still hold true. Whether it is only harvesting honey twice a year based on bee pollination habits, or rotating the types of fish harvested, tribal people are some of the last defenders of biodiversity on Earth. As a Yanomami tribal member says, “The environment is not separate from ourselves; we are inside it, and it is inside us; we make it and it makes us.” 

Agriculture disrupted this relationship. 

Human transition to agriculture coincides with the start of the Holocene, the current geological period marking the end of the last ice age roughly 12,000 years ago. Diets consisting of foraging and some agriculture persisted, with societies that primarily acquired food via agriculture not occurring for perhaps another 6,000 years. At this time, agriculture started to independently evolve in several places around the world including northern China, Central America, and the Fertile Crescent in the present-day Middle East. 

Division of labor was key to scaling food production

It is unclear why agriculture was adopted in early human societies. The energy input required to cultivate and defend the fruits of one’s labor was higher per calorie than that of foraging. A study on contemporary hunter-gatherers in the Philippines revealed that they spent 10 hours less per week dedicated to food production than their farming counterparts. Furthermore, nomadic lifestyles would have made claims to resources difficult to demarcate. In a system based on wild plants and animals, it is nearly impossible to have a monopoly over anything. Leading theories propose that climatic stability during the Holocene created favorable conditions for agriculture. With consistent climate and growing seasons, grass seeds may have posed as easier prey than chasing down an animal. 

While the roots of agricultural development may never be known, the profound cultural impacts that resulted from this shift are still some of the core elements of our society. 

One cultural theory links agriculture’s proliferation to a new system of property rights. Farming and private property rights would not be viable by themselves, but through coevolution, a mutually dependent relationship provides conditions for success. There are two premises that uphold this: 

  1. Farming required private property: to protect against free riding and collection of food by others, possession would have to be recognized. Once a claim to land is respected, the need to share what is “found” amongst hunter-gatherers would be overridden, allowing farmers to enjoy what they produced and exclude others. 
  1. Private property required farming: as mentioned, it is difficult to demarcate diffuse resources in nomadic lifestyles. However, farming concentrates patches of highly productive resources, reducing the effort needed to demarcate resources, and creating valuable land that was worth defending. 

In short, the farming/private property relationship could be upheld if 1) people accept the exclusion of others from one’s possessions as legitimate and 2) things one valued could be made into possessions, meaning able to be unambiguously demarcated and then defended to limit challenges to claims. This is unlike the hunter-gatherer/common property convention, where certain norms are upheld and then persist for millennia. 

Agricultural surplus powered the rise of early city-states

Enforced property rights are arguably a large contributor to the rise of agriculture, in addition to our social tendencies to cooperate once norms are established. With food surplus, economies and city-state civilizations subsequently rose in order to protect and maintain this new capital. To fund this defense and maintenance, a greater human population was needed. This was afforded by a more sedentary lifestyle, and absorption and displacement of nomadic peoples as agriculturalists expanded the reach of their exploitation. Furthermore, the population had to become specialized in their labor so as to increase food production efficiency. There was a greater array of roles in this new society, but the roles were narrower in scope and fairly monotonous. As roles became more rigid through division of labor, a different strain of interconnection emerged wherein social dynamics were no longer about egalitarian cooperation but rather hierarchical coordination.

As roles became more rigid through division of labor, a different strain of interconnection emerged wherein social dynamics were no longer about egalitarian cooperation but rather hierarchical coordination. 

Most of us in developed nations don’t think much about farming, which is a recent phenomena due to the incredible amount of substitution of human labor in agriculture with fossil energy. For most of farming history, human organization consisted of a relatively small elite, often religious, profiting from the monotonous and difficult labor of the masses

This positive feedback loop of production, expansion, and exploitation is often dubbed the Agricultural Revolution. Yet this so-called “revolution” poses many ecological and social challenges, covered here and here

The path towards increasing complexity, usually touted as the hallmark of progress, has in fact eroded quality of life. It is well documented that agriculture shifted diets towards grain dependence, boosting caloric returns but decreasing micronutrients, lowering food quality. This then introduced a host of nutritional maladies atop a more sedentary lifestyle. Supplementing heavy grain reliance was animal domestication. Animal domestication, though providing great assistance in labour and transportation, had profound effects. Living in proximity to mammals and birds introduced humans to thousands of new pathogens, species of flu, and viruses. Clearing land for cultivation and grazing created pools of standing water, an ideal habitat for mosquitos and other vectors carrying insect-borne illness. 

Biology aside, perhaps the greatest change was our morals. Housing animals as pets and beasts of burden creates unequal relationships. By harnessing our living kin as servants, we have relegated them as below us, as opposed to equals. Even in the most loving families, animals have co-evolved into diminished versions of their ancestral species. In foraging societies, many people do not view hunting as an act of violence so much as a willing sacrifice on the animal’s part. Thus, domestication is not about taming wild animals—it is about replacing a bond founded upon trust with one based on domination. 

Mounting evidence on the health, social, and ecological implications of modern agriculture is starting to reverse the narrative of human progress. Arguments of “we can’t go back!” are true, but perhaps are indicative of the lack of creativity in envisioning a more sustainable future, considering that nearly all of human history occurred during our hunter-gatherer days. While foraging lifestyles are still being practiced today (albeit threatened), it is not suited to a globalized world of 8 billion humans. Despite this, we have much to learn from the way indigenous cultures found a balance with their local environments. 

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