Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

Jared Diamond takes a look at the transition of humans from hunter gatherers to farmers. He lays out a convincing argument that instead of asking why would anyone be a hunter gatherer when they could be a farmer, we should be asking why would anyone be a farmer when they could be a hunter gatherer.

Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania.

Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9" for men, 5’ 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3" for men, 5’ for women.

Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced bya bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold 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.

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.
I've argued before that "natural" for human beings is a hunter gatherer lifestyle not an agricultural based one. So talking about "natural" forms of agriculture is kind of odd, especially when all the major grains were vastly manipulated by humans to serve our needs. Instead we should be trying to create the healthiest food on the least amount of land in a sustainable fashion with the minimum impact on the rest of the environment, regardless of whether this is ogranic or "natural".

The whole article is good, I'd recommending reading the whole thing.

via Iowa State University

1 comment:

Jim Snder-Grant said...

Perhaps the malnutrition is not because of farming's failures, but because there wasn't enough to go around. Farming was an attempt at getting more per food out of an acre in response to increasing population.

For the groups of people that switched, there was no going back.

We are top-of-food-chain creatures constantly forestalling population crash by technical innovations. Farming was one of our earliest hacks. We did get better at it after a while - we kept trying. If agriculture was so much worse than hunting & gathering, why didn't more groups go back?

-Jim

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