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 Hunter-gatherers : Noble or savage?

The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden
that some suggest

Dec 19th 2007 |

HUMAN beings have spent most of their time on the planet as
hunter-gatherers. From at least 85,000 years ago to the birth of
agriculture around 73,000 years later, they combined hunted meat with
gathered veg. Some people, such as those on North Sentinel Island in the
Andaman Sea, still do. The Sentinelese are the only hunter-gatherers who
still resist contact with the outside world. Fine-looking specimens—strong,
slim, fit, black and stark naked except for a small plant-fibre belt round
the waist—they are the very model of the noble savage. Genetics suggests
that indigenous Andaman islanders have been isolated since the very first
expansion out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago.

About 12,000 years ago people embarked on an experiment called agriculture
and some say that they, and their planet, have never recovered. Farming
brought a population explosion, protein and vitamin deficiency, new
diseases and deforestation. Human height actually shrank by nearly six
inches after the first adoption of crops in the Near East. So was
agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”, as Jared
Diamond, evolutionary biologist and professor of geography at the
University of California, Los Angeles, once called it?

Take a snapshot of the old world 15,000 years ago. Except for bits of
Siberia, it was full of a new and clever kind of people who had originated
in Africa and had colonised first their own continent, then Asia, Australia
and Europe, and were on the brink of populating the Americas. They had
spear throwers, boats, needles, adzes, nets. They painted pictures,
decorated their bodies and believed in spirits. They traded foods, shells,
raw materials and ideas. They sang songs, told stories and prepared herbal

They were “hunter-gatherers”. On the whole the men hunted and the women
gathered: a sexual division of labour is still universal among non-farming
people and was probably not shared by their *Homo erectus *predecessors.
This enabled them to eat both meat and veg, a clever trick because it
combines quality with reliability.

Why change? In the late 1970s Mark Cohen, an archaeologist, first suggested
that agriculture was born of desperation, rather than inspiration. Evidence
from the Fertile Crescent seems to support him. Rising human population
density, combined perhaps with a cooling, drying climate, left the Natufian
hunter-gatherers of the region short of acorns, gazelles and wild grass
seeds. Somebody started trying to preserve and enhance a field of chickpeas
or wheat-grass and soon planting, weeding, reaping and threshing were born.

Quite independently, people took the same step in at least six other parts
of the world over the next few thousand years: the Yangzi valley, the
central valley of New Guinea, Mexico, the Andes, West Africa and the Amazon
basin. And it seems that Eden came to an end. Not only had hunter-gatherers
enjoyed plenty of protein, not much fat and ample vitamins in their diet,
but it also seems they did not have to work very hard. The Hadza of
Tanzania “work” about 14 hours a week, the !Kung of Botswana not much more.

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