Agriculture: Jared Diamond’s Worst Mistake

Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

Jared Diamond’s breakthrough 1987 article, “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” claims agriculture did not deliver the splendors of civilization but was instead a highway to hell. This section examines the traditional progressivist perspective on agriculture and the sources for Diamond’s revisionism, including passages that seem plagiarized from earlier anthropological work.

This section is part of a series of pages on Archaeology and History. These pages detail an anthropological investigation of domestication, hunting-and-gathering, agriculture, and the rise of state government. It is impossible to consider these issues without tackling the writings of Jared Diamond, whose works on agriculture and its implications for modern life are very widely read, even influencing attitudes toward Gun Control.

Diamond’s initial article “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” would enable him to become an authority on archaeology and world history, culminating in the writing of Guns, Germs, and Steel. (For an evaluation of Diamond’s most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, see The Yanomami Ax Fight: Science, Violence, Empirical Data, and the Facts.)

Could the 'Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race' be... Agriculture?!Click To Tweet

Agriculture, Traditional View: Progressivist Watershed Moment

By around 15,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had spread to every major habitable landmass, as a single, inter-breeding species. There were no other significant populations of bipedal hominid species like Neandertals or Denisovans. People were in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

People lived from gathering and hunting. Around 15,000 years ago, in some parts of the world, this would change, as people began more intensively cultivating plants and herding animals. These processes are known as domestication or the transition to agriculture, conceived as a watershed moment in human history, the time when human history begins. Note the similar root words behind culture, agriculture, and cultivation.

According to dominant mythology, prior to cultivation, humans lived in a “wild man” state, not very different from the non-human animals they hunted. With domestication, humans tame and control these wild animals, and in the process begin to tame and control themselves.

Again, in the traditional view, agriculture makes possible craft-specialization, urban life, writing, and the state. Agriculture is the watershed moment when humans began taming themselves and controlling their environment, eventually leading to the splendor of civilization.

The traditional view reinforces some pretty vile feelings about fellow human beings. Although Charles Darwin sympathetically understood the continuum of humans with the natural world, he had some pretty nasty stuff to say about some of the people he met in Tierra del Fuego during his 1831-1836 Voyage of the Beagle:

The language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate. . . . We have no reason to believe that they perform any sort of religious worship. . . . The different tribes have no government or chief. . . . They cannot know the feeling of having a home, and still less that of domestic affection. . . . Their skill in some respects may be compared to the instinct of animals, for it is not improved by experience. (2001:183,191-2)

No religion, no government, no home, no domesticity, not even language or skills. For Darwin, and many others, the savage-primitive is closer to non-human animal than to civilized humans. As Tim Ingold comments:

Biologically, Darwin seems to be saying, these people are certainly human beings, they are of the same species as ourselves, yet in terms of their level of civilization they are so far from being human that their existence may justifiably be set on a par with that of the animals. (Ingold 2000:65)

Not everyone agreed with Darwin, and there was a counter-tradition of celebrating the noble savage (see section on Anthropology and Human Nature and for a June 2013 update, see Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature). However, for the most part this evil-versus-noble debate shared the premises that agriculture led to free time and civilization.

A new perspective, a revisionist approach, emerged in the 1960s, questioning the benefits of agriculture. In “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond rhetorically overstated the case, pushing the revisionist line past its limits. First published in 1987 in Discover, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” remains famous and is still a staple for anthropology readers: although it disappears from the 2012 edition of the four-field Applying Anthropology it curiously still appears in the 2013 edition of Applying Cultural Anthropology.

Writing with characteristic verve, Diamond’s “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” summarizes an impressive amount of material in just three pages. At the top of the second and third pages, he headlines the main point: “The adoption of agriculture, supposedly the decisive step to a better life, was in fact catastrophic. With agriculture came the curses of social and sexual inequality, disease, and despotism” (1987:65-66).

Diamond drew on several sources for this revisionism:

a) Anthropologists re-evaluated gathering and hunting

Many anthropologists have worked with gatherers and hunters, but Richard Borshay Lee’s work with !Kung San in the Kalahari most challenged prevailing paradigms. Lee did not just live with the !Kung to learn their wisdom: he was an expert at weighing game, counting calories, and calculating work hours. Lee’s seminal article was What Hunters Do for a Living, or, How to Make Out on Scarce Resources (1968), which has been re-titled for some anthropology readers as The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari. The titles are misleading. Lee actually changed ideas of these groups as exclusively hunters, empirically demonstrating the importance of gathering: “the basis of Bushman diet is derived from sources other than meat. . . . plant foods comprise over 60 per cent of the actual diet” (1968:43). Lee also fought against the idea of scarce resources: “Life in the state of nature is not necessarily nasty, brutish, and short. The Dobe-area Bushmen live well today on wild plants and meat, in spite of the fact that they are confined to the least productive portion of the range in which Bushman peoples were formerly found” (1968:43).

Diamond uses Lee for his very first piece of contrarian evidence:

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. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Diamond 1987:65)

The quote about mongongo nuts is directly from Lee’s article, but Diamond does not cite or mention Lee. As the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” continues to circulate, people now associate the quote more with Diamond than with Lee. However, it is a direct reference to Lee’s work. (See for example the 2009 BBC blog-post by Tom Feilden Do hunter-gatherers have it right? which mentions “one Kalahari Bushman quoted by Jared Diamond.”)

Much of “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” appears in Diamond’s book The Third Chimpanzee (1991). Here, Diamond again uses the quote about mongongo nuts, and again does not cite Lee. Diamond mentions Lee’s work one time, at the end, in a suggestion for “further readings.” Although such lack of citation might be somewhat excused in his shorter magazine article, it seems to border on unethical plagiarism in a longer book. As I point out below, Diamond borrows more from Lee and DeVore’s Man the Hunter than he acknowledges: he lifts some passages in Man the Hunter for “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”

Another prominent source exploring the implications of Lee’s work was “The Original Affluent Society” by Marshall Sahlins. This began as a conference comment on Lee’s work, later published as a more complete essay in Stone Age Economics (1972), a book that would be required reading for a generation of anthropologists. Sahlins placed anthropological research in a wider economic context, arguing hunters were affluent, not because of how much they had, but because of how little they needed: “There is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate” (1972:2). [See Marshall Sahlins and Napoleon Chagnon for more about Sahlins in 2013. Also see Affluence Without Abundance for a 2017 in-depth ethnographic update.]

Lee and Sahlins, as later popularized but unacknowledged by Diamond, were fundamental for re-evaluating the idea of gatherers and hunters as barely scratching out an existence. Agriculture increased necessary work time and drudgery, although it did make possible specialization, so that not everyone had to be directly involved in procuring food. Some people could then specialize in other pursuits. But agriculture did not directly increase free time or leisure.




b) Historians document deprivation and management

Another angle for the revisionist perspective was the historical documentation of how much conditions had changed for gatherers and hunters. The people who were gathering and hunting when observed by anthropologists, or even by Charles Darwin, were often those pushed off their original lands, decimated by introduced diseases, forced into labor, or recruited to provide commodities, like for the fur trade.

Anthropologists like Lee and Sahlins already knew this, and said as much. Sahlins writes, “I must raise the possibility that the ethnography of hunters and gatherers is largely a record of incomplete cultures. Fragile cycles of ritual and exchange may have disappeared without trace, lost in the earliest stages of colonialism, when the intergroup relations they mediated were attacked and confounded” (1972:38-39). Diamond also makes reference to the deprivation gatherers and hunters experienced, noting their lives “aren’t nasty and brutish, even though farmers have pushed them into some of the world’s worst real estate” (1987:65), again condensing Lee’s wording.

Lee and Sahlins aimed to disprove stereotypes and capture what might have been. Anthropologist Eric Wolf was the one who really put the pieces together, exploring the history of encounter, interaction and mutual creation between what are called “tribes” and the emerging Western colonial powers. Wolf’s truly great work Europe and the People Without History (1982) drew the connection between anthropological case studies and historical process. The title is ironic: Wolf was bringing a sense of history to the people anthropologists study: “Europeans and Americans would never have encountered these supposed bearers of a pristine past if they had not encountered one another, in bloody fact, as Europe reached out to seize the resources and populations of the other continents” (1982:18).

Wolf’s book was republished in paperback in 2010. It remains important, especially since Wolf was writing world history long before the idea of “globalization” became fashionable. The 2010 edition includes a new foreword by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, the author of Engaging Anthropology. For more, see Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires.

In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005), Charles Mann pushes this approach. Mann opens with a chapter on “Holmberg’s Mistake” in reference to anthropologist Allan Holmberg’s 1940s studies of the Sirionó in South America:

The wandering people Holmberg traveled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving. (2005:10)

Mann’s work emphasizes how Native Americans were skilled managers of their ecosystems. Mann draws on historical studies that show how what European explorers saw as a natural “Garden of Eden” was actually a managed landscape. In North America, much of the management resulted from large-scale burning: “Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both” (2005:282).

In the South American Amazon, we do not know exactly how people transformed the landscape, but it was not an untouched tropical forest. About the Amazon, Mann goes further: “For a long time clever people who knew tricks that we have yet to learn used big chunks of Amazonia nondestructively. Faced with an ecological problem, the Indians fixed it. Rather than adapt to Nature, they created it. They were in the midst of terra-forming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything” (2005:349).

As Europeans displaced Native Americans, their landscapes degenerated, and non-human animal populations becoming dangerously unbalanced. The “Garden of Eden” was not that way because of untouched natural processes, but because of the unnoticed gardening skills of the native inhabitants. [See also Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire for a reconsideration of these processes.]

c) Archaeologists did paleopathology

As Diamond’s “Worst Mistake” notes, archaeological techniques became more sophisticated, leading to studies in paleopathology. Diamond announces an astonishing result:

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. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors. (1987:66)

Since height can often be used as a proxy for health, it would appear adopting agriculture had a deleterious effect.

Diamond uses the Greece and Turkey skeletons, but again gives no reference. I have also seen this study used in anthropology textbooks, including my preferred introductory anthropology textbook, but I have been unable to track it down, even as my students point out the lack of references for both Diamond and anthropology textbooks.

Update: See the comment below from Ivor Goodbody, who may have finally solved this mystery, and a link to Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: evidence from the bioarchaeological record (2011), which seems to confirm a general (although not universal) stature decline.

Diamond says the same result can be found in the Mississippi Mound burials, which offer literal layers of evidence for bodies before and after agriculture. Diamond here cites work by George Armelagos and colleagues showing a drastic decline in health and life expectancy on adopting maize-based agriculture. The title of the study, Death and Disease at Dr. Dickson’s Mounds (Goodman and Armelagos 1985) seems to say it all. Like “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” the “Death and Disease” article is a staple of introductory anthropology readers, including the 2012 edition of Applying Anthropology

d) The Third World could not be ignored

Linked to the historical documentation of tribal deprivation was the growing realization that it was impossible to write the history of development and industry in Europe and the United States without considering the exploitative relationships of colonialism and resource extraction.

The idea of economic development promoted in the 1950s was that each country was on its own path to development and only needed encouragement. W.W. Rostow’s influential book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto includes a chart which places Britain at the top and India at the bottom, each with its own arrow of development (1960). That India was a colony of Britain for several hundred years, that Britain used Indian textile techniques and copied designs to fuel its industrialism–apparently unimportant.

The idea of each country’s independent path to development was in desperate need of revision. André Gunder Frank’s Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America explicitly argued that many of these so-called backward regions were very much part of an extractive capitalist system (1967). Rather than bringing advancement and development, capitalism had made them backward. This idea became known as dependency theory and part of a critique of capitalist-style development:

There is the notable quip of Mahatma Gandhi, who, when asked, “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?” responded, “It would be a good idea”
–Immanuel Wallerstein, The End of the World as We Know It, 1999:174

Diamond knew any consideration of the benefits of agriculture had to consider the world as a whole, not just certain parts:

To people in rich countries like the U.S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an élite, 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? (1987:66)

e) Feminists focused on untold inequalities

In the early 1970s, anthropology graduate student Gayle Rubin wrote The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex. Rubin’s article would for many years be one of the most cited articles in anthropology, and has been reprinted many times. The brilliance of Rubin’s argument was how she took existing anthropological accounts and simply exposed the injustices. When world-renowned anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss portrayed the “exchange of women” as a source of “affective richness,” Rubin counters: “Why is he not, at this point, denouncing what kinship systems do to women, instead of presenting one of the greatest rip-offs of all time as the root of romance?” (1975:201).

Rubin drew on an already-existing critique that agriculture was a source for sexual inequality, most clearly seen in Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Rubin’s injunction remains unfinished:

Eventually, someone will have to write a new version of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, recognizing the mutual interdependence of sexuality, economics, and politics without underestimating the full significance of each in human society. (Rubin 1975:210)

Diamond likewise makes the connection, stating how “farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes” and how “women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden,” then launching into anecdotes from his bird-studying trips to New Guinea (1987:66). Regardless of the political agenda of feminists like Rubin, such analysis made it less possible to describe social life without considering the implications for women and as Rubin put it, the “sex/gender system.”

Archaeology, traditionally a male-dominated profession, began to take issues of gender much more seriously. Heather Pringle’s article New Women of the Ice Age (1998), also featured in anthropology readers, provides an excellent example of how more sophisticated archaeological techniques, ethnographic analogy to new facts about the importance of gatherers, and a feminist orientation, have led to reinterpreting the famous “Venus figurines.”

f) People became nervous about a human future

Revisionists were perplexed and concerned about the possibility of human self-destruction. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis pushing the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Pollution and environmental damage were literally choking urban areas. Population growth seemed unstoppable and unsustainable. The 1973 film Soylent Green expresses the dystopian pessimism of the time.

People like Richard Borshay Lee linked the issue of the destructive present to gathering and hunting sustainability. From the 1968 book Man the Hunter (obviously titled before the feminist critique!), Lee and Irven DeVore explicitly view their work through this lens. It is interesting here to compare Lee and DeVore’s introduction with Diamond’s conclusion:

Lee and DeVore in Man the Hunter (1968:3)

To date, the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved. Nor does this evaluation exclude the present precarious existence under the threat of nuclear annihilation and the population explosion. It is still an open question whether man will be able to survive the exceedingly complex and unstable ecological conditions he has created for himself. If he fails in this task, interplanetary archaeologists of the future will classify our planet as one in which a very long and stable period of small-scale hunting and gathering was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society leading rapidly to extinction. On the other hand, if we succeed in establishing a sane and workable world order, the long evolution of man as a hunter in the past and the (hopefully) much longer era of technical civilization in the future will bracket an incredibly brief transitional phase of human history–a phase which included the rise of agriculture, animal domestication, tribes, states, cities, empires, nations, and the industrial revolution.

Diamond’s “Wost Mistake in the History of the Human Race” (1987:66)

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?

Lee & DeVore should have sued Jared Diamond for plagiarism. Or at least called him out on this borrowing.Click To Tweet
Lee and DeVore should have sued Diamond for plagiarism. And, as discussed in Guns Germs and Steel: Against History, the fact that Diamond was not called on this borrowing allowed his work to supplant other versions of history. Nevertheless, Diamond puts the alternatives bluntly. Agriculture delivers the Splendors of Civilization. Or agriculture set us on the Highway to Hell.

But these are inaccurate alternatives. The next section on Many Ways of Gathering and Hunting discusses what really happened.

Next: 2.2 – Many Ways of Gathering and Hunting
Previous: 1.13 – Human Biologies and the Biocultural Naturenurtural

For more on Jared Diamond check the Diamond Tag. Also watch my interview on Diamond with Cosmoetica (posted 9 July 2017).


To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2011. “Agriculture as ‘Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race’?” Living Anthropologically website, first posted 1 June 2011. https://www.livinganthropologically.com/archaeology/agriculture-worst-mistake/. Last updated 6 October 2017.


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  • Kathleen Fuller, PhD

    I believe this article in Scientific American is the source for the reduction in stature with the development of agriculture:
    http://www.plantsciences.ucdavis.edu/gepts/pb143/LEC04/bhsa.gif

    I also found almost the same quote on height that appears in the SciAm article in a chapter of Sustaining Life on Earth by Robert Kates published in 1994.
    http://nideffer.net/proj/Hawking/early_proto/kates.html

    • Hi Kathleen, thank you for the reference. Do you have a date of publication for your first reference? The second one from 1994 is obviously post-Diamond’s “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” and so could have drawn from that. The first is more intriguing, but where does it come from? Is it really that Diamond (and others) are drawing on just this brief Scientific American graphic, or was there an underlying research article? Any peer-review archaeology?

      Thanks!

  • Dale

    I think the Noble Savage argument is obviously correct. In fact, it’s naive not to believe that it’s true. Now that statement usually causes a few eyebrow raises —but hear me out! (I am an evolutionary psychologist, btw —so I know a little something about this stuff, I guess).

    First, the Noble Savage has to be updated, to “The Optimal Original Forager”. Now here’s my take: Every animal finds its optimal expression in the natural habitat that shaped it. Each animal was designed by that evolutionary niche just like the stripes on the zebra were designed for camouflage within that environment. Each animal is thus a perfect fit for it’s wild environment —all its needs are optimally satisfied, and all its capacities are optimally expressed there. An artificial zoo environment can be made more “user friendly” to the animal by naturalistic enrichment of its enclosure from aspects of the wild; but the zoo environment can never match it. I sometimes ask people, if you wanted to show a video of a giraffe to someone who had never seen a giraffe, would you choose a video of a giraffe in the wild, or one with it walking around a zoo enclosure? Everyone says the former, of course. That’s the most vibrant and vital form of a giraffe “being all it can be”. Well —-we’re animals, too of course. So to claim we are so very different from all other animals that we don’t follow this basic zoological principle that every other animal follows —-well, that smacks of anthropocentrism —-and that, of course, is a wholly naive and unscientific perspective. Ergo —it’s naive NOT to believe in the Noble Savage/Optimal Forager. I rest my case!

    • Hi Dale, thank you for the comment. Great to see inside the evolutionary psychology mind. In the follow-up page (which I hope to update soon) Many ways of gathering and hunting, I go through the many different ways hunting and gathering occurred, such that an “optimal original forager” is not a single entity. Might also look at The Foraging Spectrum.

      I also wrote a bit on some of these evolutionary psychology constructions–see Darwin in Mind.

    • Paulus Magus

      I think that humans may be psychologically ill-adapted to sedentary life (some more so than others), but the question of whether it is ‘worth it’ is entirely subjective. Personally, I prefer cities to most of the people that inhabit them, so Yay agriculture.

  • RE: DECLINING SKELETAL HEIGHTS

    I may be teaching granny to suck eggs here, but the figures Diamond uses seem to correspond very closely to those cited by Angel in “Health as a crucial factor in changes from hunting to developed farming in the Eastern Mediterranean”, pp51-74 of “Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture”, ed Cohen and Armelagos 1984.

    According to tables in this link (p208, ref 32)

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SXpGhERTtOEC&pg=PA226&lpg=PA226&dq=Health+as+a+crucial+factor+in+the+changes+from+hunting+to+developed+farming+in+the+eastern+Mediterranean&source=bl&ots=e7JDX34mqr&sig=5L9XVPRx9e-f70fPTr9UFZXH5ac&hl=en&sa=X&ei=nxOeUdiiIO3V4QTM-4GwBA&ved=0CFgQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=Health%20as%20a%20crucial%20factor%20in%20the%20changes%20from%20hunting%20to%20developed%20farming%20in%20the%20eastern%20Mediterranean&f=false

    the declines in stature from Paleo to Neolithic in skeletons from the Mediterranean/Levant were 177->169cm (m) and 166->156cm (f). Those are equivalent to the STARTING heights Diamond cites.

    If we allow that he may not be referring to skeletons from the very same area, but switching niftily to those from Western Europe referred to in Meiklejohn et al “Socioeconomic changes and patterns of pathology and variation in the Mesolithic and Neolithic of Western Europe” (ALSO in Cohen/Armelagos, pp75-100), then we get LOWS of 164cm (m) and 153cm (w).

    We still come up a bit short (ahem) on the male side, since 164cm = 5’4″, not Diamond’s 5’3″. But 153cm does match his female low of 5′.

    Seems to me he’s probably taken the liberty of using the highs and lows from those two articles he found between the same covers – in a book published just 2 or 3 years before his article – then done some imperial rounding.

    Regardless of such speculations, a much more recent paper co-authored by Armelagos reviews more recent studies and concludes: “The trend towards a decrease in adult height and a general reduction of overall health during times of subsistence change remains valid, with the majority of studies finding stature to decline as the reliance on agriculture increased.”

    Study link here:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21507735

    Please forgive me if I’ve merely told you what was tediously familiar!

    Wishing you enduring health

    Ivor Goodbody

    • Thanks so much! This mystery may be finally resolved. I’ve updated the text above.

  • rob

    i really liked this article even though i am a conservative christian. i just wish you had included some evidence from the bible which has always been historically correct. genesis and exodus could provide some insight

    • Hi Rob, glad you liked the article. How do you think the biblical account might contribute to these ideas about transitions between hunter-gatherers and agriculture?

      • Michael

        Rob why bring religion into this

  • Helga Vierich

    It is indeed a tough proposition to accept. (I had to go and delete my original second post here just now, since I did not realize that I had posted it twice. It was my one of first times posting on Jason’s blog and I thought the comment did not go through the first time. )

    Since the earliest civilizations and city states developed, philosophers have been creating rationalizations for why their own culture and economy and political life was better than that of the “wild” humans who lived as foragers, or tribal horticultural or pastoral people, outside of the control of these early states.

    You all recall, that there is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of human beings. Beginning with Plato, people have sought to justify political authority and social stratification by means of ideas about human nature. Remember Plato’s “philosopher kings” (who had to be over fifty years old!) in The Republic? Remember Aristotle, who defined humans political animals, thought the state (polis) the highest form of community, and emphasized virtue and justice? ( see The Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics.)

    Machiavelli, and later, Thomas Hobbes appeared to have rejected this view. Hobbes saw humans as basically self-centred and is famous for the description of man in a “state of nature” (without political authority to control human behaviour) as “nasty, brutish and short”. This, essentially, justifies the role of political authority – especially the nation state – it improves human lives, presumably making them less nasty, less brutish and considerably longer. I see Hobbes formulation as a sneaky attempt to reject Plato and Aristotle while still finding a reason to justify the political state, hardly departing at all from the main project of most philosophy: to bend the evidence in support of the firm hand of state control. The fact that most state systems involve curtailing individual freedom, and subjugating the vast majority of citizens to the authority of a small elite, troubled Hobbes no more than it did Aristotle or Plato. Hobbes merely thought it was for their own good, a point of view much in keeping with some recent works on the benefits of state systems: notably Steven Pinker, although there are some who beg to differ in detail.

    Consider the context out of which these ideas emerged. Information on human beings “in a state of nature” was based on travellers tales of remote peoples, most of them tribal pastoralists or slash and burn horticulturalists, throughout Eurasia and Africa. Humans in the circum-Mediterannean area had been pastoralists and horticulturalists during the early Neolithic. By the time of Plato and Aristotle, population densities had grown to the point where fallow periods were very short, necessitating a shift to manuring, crop rotation, and use of the plough to grow cereals, the invention of the wheel, and so on. Many of the forests of the region had been cleared, and erosion was becoming a problem.

    War had increased in scale. As is documented in Lawrence Keeley’s “War before Civilization” there had already been raids, skirmishes, and occasional massacres during the Mesolithic period as sedentary populations began to defend rights to key economic resources like access to hunting grounds, the best fishing spots, and rich stands of wild cereals.

    As population densities continued to rise, such resources were increasingly contested. As is the case today, this contest often escalated, from a war of words, to explosive use of force and violence. Under these conditions, there is more strength in numbers than in eloquence: might is right, and justice is what the victors say it is. What began with alliances between related villages for mutual aid in such conflicts, led eventually to the consolidation of kingdoms and the development of city states. There was increasing socio-economic stratification, and emergence of permanent leadership positions paved the way to the institutionalization of a ruling class. At the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy there were now people whose access to resources, was, by definition, extremely inadequate. Poverty and slavery were institutionalized as part of a system of socio-economic stratification. As is the case today, health, life expectancy, cognitive function, and stature were all more or less scaled from along these emerging gradients of class.

    Systems of ideology developed to rationalize these adaptations to increased population density. As is often the case, ideas about the superiority of one’s own society prevailed, and the ideas that people “thought with” rationalized the behaviours and activities of an individual member born or otherwise recruited into it. While acknowledging that there was some injustice to socio-economic class structures, the notion that position in social hierarchy was justified by one’s merit brought some comfort (at least to those on top). Added to this was the idea that even the poor in one’s own nation were better off than the poor blighters who had the misfortune to be born in less advance cultures. Indeed, disparagement, even outright slander, of people who lived in very different economies, and often experienced mainly through second hand accounts, was commonplace.

    The arrival of relatively small, and often rather sickly European sailors and soldiers in the New World was a bit of a shock to them, for the people who greeted them when they arrived were often taller and healthier than themselves. This began with the experience of Christopher Columbus, was true also of Joseph Cabot’s first encounter with the Mik’ maq, and continued as the British encountered the large federations of tribes along the eastern seaboard of North America. The accounts written by early explorers about these early contacts inspired Jean-Jacques Rousseau to overturn Hobbes’ doctrines with ideas about “noble savages”.

    Within a short time, of course, the “savages” had been devastated by epidemics of disease brought by the Europeans, and overcome by military force in many cases, and so ideas about European superiority, especially the happy idea that the nation state (especially if well governed) was a superior form of society, and an vast improvement on man “in a state of nature”, were in the ascendent again.
    So it is hardly surprising that John Locke. (Second Treatise on Government) returned to this comfortable view (don’t get me wrong, I am not trashing Locke also wrote some well-intentioned other stuff about how to improve on tyrannical tendencies in state systems).

    In light of all this, it is hardly surprising that Steven Pinker’s book has met with very favourable reviews and that, by contrast, there has already been a blazing trail of attempts to debunk the analysis offered in Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty and of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson, and Kate E. Pickett.

    In the past fifty years or sixty years, there has been some serious ethnographic study of modern tribal people, as well, significantly, of the mobile hunter-gatherers remaining in the 19 and 20th centuries. The studies of hunter-gatherers were, within anthropology, a revelation. Richard Lee’s fieldwork among foragers in the Northwestern Kalahari, in which he measured the caloric value of the food hunted and gathered, and recorded patterns of activity – work as well as leisure, indicated that not only were these people not starving, but they had a relatively short work week (24- 28 hours) and hence more leisure time than people in other economic systems. Demographic work by Nancy Howell indicated that the population had long birth spacing, a very low rate of population increase, and that proportions of older and even elderly were comparable to those in industrial populations. George Silberbauer’s findings, from earlier research among the G/wi (another forager group in the Central Kalahari, were convergent. My own research among the Kua of the Southeastern Kalahari, confirmed the same pattern. Kua who lived predominantly by hunting and gathering were highly mobile, very fit, and often lived long past their 60th year. I interviewed one old woman who, based on event calendars and genealogical evidence, must have been well over ninety.

    These Khoisan groups in southern Africa are not alone: studies of over 60 foraging groups, living in every kind of climate and terrestrial ecosystem around the globe, indicate that this way of life can NOT be characterized as “brutish and short” and far from “nasty”. Such societies tend to be egalitarian and had strong stigma attached to interpersonal violence… probably because an angry human armed with knives, lances, poisoned arrows and all the other technology, that can kill a large animal, is potentially lethal in a heated argument.

    Murder is known and the subject of a highly ambiguous blend of fascination and horror in ALL human cultures. Hunter-gatherers are certainly no exception: they are, if anything, the original and most graphic example of how just how ferocious the operation of social controls like mockery, gossip, and outright shunning can be, even when acting without formalized institutional authority. Among the foragers too, the ultimate social control is execution. Murderers tend to get killed by armed and resolute men, passionately inspired, not with animalistic urges, but with an exasperated determination to show that murderous rage can never be condoned as a substitute for self-disciplined prudence, compassion, and reason. Is the modern state any different? Well, perhaps death row for thirty years is preferable in a society which considers itself above murder, but the foragers, generally, cannot afford that luxury.

    All of this information was, literally, academic, compared to the influence of popular books characterizing the Kalahari foragers, and by implication, others like them around the world, as the “harmless people”. Lorna Marshall, and her children Elizabeth Marshall-Thomas and John Marshall, wrote some of the first popular accounts of the lives of Kalahari hunter-gatherers. A misunderstanding has developed about foragers. Upon learning that they generally do not engage in organized warfare or plundering raids on “outsiders”, many people, unfamiliar with the rest of the ethnographic literature, have assumed these societies are pacifist, or “noble savages”, like hippy flower children of the 1960’s, whose idealistic attempts at communes, and other departures from participation in the state regulated market economy, have generally ended in tears – or worse.

    I can understand this misapprehension. I even understand the reasons why most people scoff at the idea that “man in a state of nature” had anything resembling a pleasant, interesting, or intellectually challenging life. Thus, Napoleon Chagnon’s depiction of the Brazilian horticulturalists as The Fierce People resonates with the soul of western philosophical tradition, whereas the reality of daily life among many contemporary mobile foragers, smack that tradition in the chops, and results in furious and scornful academic duels.

    If one were to characterize these ethnographic works within a philosophical tradition, one would have to say that they had more in common with Rousseau than with the more established and older paradigm presented by Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. I might add, parenthetically, that some of the ideas developed by Steven Pinker fall squarely within this established philosophical tradition, as does the work of Lawrence Keeley (War before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage) and the book by Malcolm Potts (Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World ). No wonder E.O.Wilson was comfortable with Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox’s The Imperial Animal and Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson’s Demonic Males, and ignores the ethnographic and archaeological evidence suggesting organized warfare is a cultural rather than a biological phenomenon, and no wonder there are feuds in Anthropology over the issue of human violence, and its relation to intergroup warfare, as fierce as anything Napoleon Chagnon describes.

    How much of the data offered by these authors is representative of mobile foragers, or take recent ethnographic studies of mobile foragers into account? I have read them, and I found very little. In fact most of the data Keeley offers (and which Pinker relies on for his own arguments about the benefits of state civilization in reducing violence), is from sedentary peoples, including some Mesolithic hunter-gathers, but also including lots of horticultural tribal groups like the Yanomami. And I find this rather startling in works that purport to examine the essential evolutionary forces that shape human “nature”. After all, it was the life of highly mobile hunting and gathering which would have been the evolutionary environment of adaptation for Homo sapiens sapiens for 99% of it’s known history!

    At what point does all this philosophical musing become a way of articulating, again and again, the rationalization inherent in a system of fundamental socio-economic inequality? Just how influential are these ideas? Do they resemble the kind of paradigms that scientists “think with” when they do normal science? Are they so embedded in “civilized” cultures that they inform the collective unconscious; the sort of assumptions that people hardly ever question? The kind of assumptions that, if contradictory data are presented, led to sufficiently strong discomfort, that the first instinct people have is outright denial, followed by an attack on the validity of the data itself? The kind of assumptions that are so deeply embedded as to be impervious to voluntary change? The kind of assumptions that, if they are to change, require the functional equivalent of a conversion experience?

    I suspect that they are. Few people in modern industrial states are at all comfortable with the view that state systems are perhaps creative of pathology in human behaviour, let alone the idea that in fact, from the point of view of individual freedom within a social collective, one might even be justified in saying that those of us living in a mobile foraging economy are the last free people on the planet. Not a welcome idea for your average academic, let alone the fellow enjoying a beer and watching the World Cup games, from the comfort of his armchair, in an air conditioned house, in North Carolina, Brasília, London, or Berlin.

    The odd thing about Post-modernism is that it comes from another philosophical tradition entirely, and yet intersects the sciences and social sciences with its own brand of rhetoric to invalidate the whole enterprise of seeking after empirical data and evidence. It does this by insisting that there is no such thing as “objectivity” and hence, no objective “truth”.

    But this misses the point that both science and philosophy are not actually about coming up with some absolute and final truth. They are about understanding; they are about systems of explanation. Since, at least in science, we all know that there will always be new data, more refined instruments for perceiving the material universe, any formulations we have are always and necessarily provisional… mere “working hypotheses”. That we strive for objectivity is the reason for the scientific method. Especially when we look to find explanations for our own nature, we find ourselves traversing perilous intellectual ground.

    The post-modernists don’t have to tell warn us of the dangers of subjectivity, we already know.

    So some might agree with the proposition that, since subjectivity exists, there is no point in even attempting to combat bias and error. I don’t. On the contrary, that is all the more reason to support the kind of evidence acquired by using the scientific method. Much as we might benefit from a scientific shakedown of philosophy, we need philosophy as well as science. Finally, I venture the opinion, for the record, that an attachment to empirical evidence is not the exclusive preserve or invention of what we are pleased to call “science”. It is a fundamental aspect of the human brain learning about the world. And philosophy is how humans think “with” what we learn.

  • Helga Vierich

    Recent research has shown that there has been an accelerating trend towards smaller bodies and brains occurring as a general trend for AT LEAST 40,000 years now, is more of a valid starting point for understanding the direction of continued selection pressures in humans. (see http://www.pnas.org/content/104/52/20753.abstract)

    The hunter-gatherers I knew in the Kalahari, and most of the others, such as the Hadza and the Cuiva, are physically smaller than most of the early AMH in the archaeological record. When the idea was still prevalent that this was due to the nutritional deficiencies thought to be part of the hand -to- mouth “struggle for existence” of foragers, this was taken for granted as the cause of their smaller size.

    NOT so. We discovered since the 1960s that their diets were pretty good, both in calories and in protein and other aspects, and starvation hardly ever was a major issue. If people from 48 thousand years ago in Europe, for instance, were much larger than these contemporary foragers, people have been assuming this was because they MUST have been living in a “richer” environment more “typical” of the EEA. But is is true that those environments were all that much richer? I was in Botswana during the worst drought of the last century. The foragers I was with barely noticed this, while the cattle herds lost 30% of their animals and need food aid from the UN to survive. The Kalahari, while I was there, had one of the highest wildlife biomass numbers in the world.

    So not all the trends in body size and skeletal reduction seen in the last 40,000 years can be attributed to insufficiencies in nutrition. I suggest that some of it – at least in the last, say even as long as 60,000 years, comes from hunting SMARTER. Severe injury – especially to the joints or to the head – that occurs to a person has some lifelong consequences. I suspect this is one of the reasons why human beings developed more and more nuanced methods of hunting game. Over the course of human evolution, the tools and techniques got more and more refined, to the point where, by hunting with traps, snares, and poisoned arrows, physical engagement with the animals -especially big frightened beasts like wild cattle, deer, and horses – was minimized.

    Hunting SMART rather than by brute force kept you from getting hurt. It permitted you to live longer and remain functional well into old age – both of which contributed to the survival of your kids and grandkids. And this reduced the need for sheer physical size and strength. Relaxed selection pressure permitted smaller people to survive and in fact to thrive and reproduce more successfully than their larger contemporaries

    So these long term trends toward smaller body and brain size in our species, appears to me to have followed the invention of bows and arrows, spear-throwers, use of poison, nets, and snares… these permitted more slender bone structure, associated with smaller body mass, to be more successful as it was calorically less expensive to grow out such a person… if you were a woman, being smaller meant you did not need to gather masses of vegetables, and could be more picky to select the most nutritious and tasty ones, AND you could devote more calories to a growing infant… if you were a man, you did not need to be very large or muscular to do the hunting. The technologies and the trends in body size, appear earliest in the archaeological record in southern Africa.

    Arrow heads have been found from sites dating as far back as 60,000 years in southern Africa. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11086110 From this article, I quote: “The researchers wrote in their paper: “Hunting with a bow and arrow requires intricate multi-staged planning, material collection and tool preparation and implies a range of innovative social and communication skills.” Dr Lombard explained that her ultimate aim was to answer the “big question”: When did we start to think in the same way that we do now? “We can now start being more and more confident that 60-70,000 years ago, in Southern Africa, people were behaving, on a cognitive level, very similarly to us,” she told BBC News. Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London said the work added to the view that modern humans in Africa 60,000 years ago had begun to hunt in a “new way”.”

    Even before this, there is evidence of the use of heat from camp fires to alter the properties of stone tools, making them sharper and easier to work into very sharp and strong points. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8195664.stm

    And, indeed, there is evidence that fire was being used as a tool of environmental management. Todays foragers set fires to small patches of dry grassland just before the rainy season to cause a flush of green growth, attracting game. They also use fire to induce fire subclimaxes, which are rich in the kind of secondary growth plant species that produce berries and nuts that are forager staple foods. This creates a complex ecological mosaic and actually increases the species diversity and total biomass in the region.

    (see for example: Rebecca Bliege Bird, Nyalangka Tayor, Brian F. Codding, and Douglas W. Bird “Niche construction and Dreaming logic: aboriginal patch mosaic burning and varanid lizards (Varanus gouldii) in Australia”
    Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2013; 280 (1772): 20132297 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2297 (published 23 October 2013))

    Already, as Richard Wrangham has suggested, the use of fire to cook food reduced the need for huge grinding teeth and a heavy jaw, permitting selection for flatter faces and reducing the brow ridges that were so typical of earlier archaic Homo sp. The invention of less physically dangerous methods of foraging – perhaps because of increases in foresight and safety consciousness.

    I note, aside from these main points, that most post-Neolithic populations would have accelerated that trend, The archaeological record DID show a decrease in body size in those populations that went through the Neolithic. That WAS apparently connected to more frequent malnutrition, even starvation, and more evidence of infectious epidemics. Since the industrial period began, we saw evidence of a rapid increase in body size, and reduced age of puberty, which is known as secular trend.

    • Thanks Helga! Very helpful to locate this in the longer trend which was happening in many gathering and hunting, which makes a lot of sense.

  • Paulus Magus

    “curses of social and sexual inequality,”
    OH NO, NOT INEQUALITY! I love how liberals confuse moralizing for science. See: Hitchens,

    • Well, the “curses of social and sexual inequality” is a Jared Diamond phrasing, so go after him. However, the evidence that inequality can actually be empirically harmful to social well-being is becoming more established. See also: Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism.

    • Rachel Marie

      Well there IS in fact a sexual inequality however you want to look at it and it is a problem. I don’t know what you’re angry about.

  • Rachel Marie

    I hadn’t really considered the concept that agriculture could be in fact detrimental to the human race. I’ll have to think about this some more.

    • Thank you, it’s definitely one of those “big questions” that don’t usually get asked.

  • Noelani Browne

    The transition between gathering & farming had a large impact on Niche construction. When farming was invented, communities became more stationary. This style of living did not call for the hunting & gathering positions. This gave way to different positions such as pottery and jewelry making. However, sedentary life gave rise to new “selection pressures”. It left them exposed to “… threats from agricultural pests and thieves, as well as disease organisms that breed and spread more successfully among settled people than they do among nomads.” (Lavenda & Schultz: 198)

  • Martha Catherine

    I never thought of agriculture could potentially be a problem. Found this very interesting.

    • Hi Martha, the revisionist perspective on agriculture was indeed–and still is–quite different from what most people know.

  • Brittany Mackey

    After reading this chapter, I found it very intreging that human beings were able to find ways to survive during the retreat of the last glacier marked at the end of the Pleistocene age dating back approximately 10,000 years ago (LS:194). This dramatic change in the earths climate completely changed the way that humans made their livings. The colder climate change influenced the supply of their everyday essentials including plants and animals. While this was occurring, the ecological settings of where they settled were also completely changed because that specific environment was not adjusted to the weather difference. The frigid climate difference forced humans to develop new techniques to adapt to the new environment habitat and constucted new niches to adjust to. The new niches that were constucted is an good example of how niche constuction is formed in the natural world and is similar to survival of the fittest.

    -Brittany Mackey

    • Hi Brittany, good observation, and this is reminding me that eventually I want to update the subsequent sections on the many origins of agriculture. In this case, it seems like there were multiple factors involved, and I would be cautious about equating niche construction with “survival of the fittest.”

  • Abby

    After going through the readings for class the thing I found most interesting, funny, and devious was that gossiping was one of, if not the, most used form of aggression within the Hadza people group. People within this group would use their gossip (especially popular among women) to spread rumors and even rip apart marriages (Butovskaya:279). This kind of struck me as funny only because it reminded me so much of shows that are popular today like House Wives of New Jersey (or any variation). This section stayed stuck in my head for a while mainly because of the flashing images of these shows.

    • Hi Abby, thank you for the comment. There are indeed some interesting parallels regarding the use of gossip. However, I’d have some caution on this one, as the use of gossip in our own society may be quite different from those of gathering and hunting peoples.

  • This post made me wonder whether the human race is better off without agriculture. Without an agricultural revolution, we would not have had an industrial revolution. Without an industrial revolution, the ecosystem would be balanced and maybe we would have more resources for the world’s hungriest people over more generations. Perhaps all this progress that has led to better standards for those of us who live in comfort is a set of benefit outweighed by the problems created by interfering with the ecology, even before you factor in the animal suffering created by habitat destruction and just look at how the human race is faring over generations.

    • Hi Jacqueline, thank you for the commentary. Certainly the revisionist perspective makes us ask these “big” questions, although in some ways it re-routes them–that is to say, cultivation and agriculture did indeed precede later developments, but not all areas that adopted agriculture had the same outcome. For that, we need to look more to the specifics, as I try to do in Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires

    • Robert Kolker

      Without agriculture you would not be doing your pondering on an inter-continental computer network.

      • JuHoansi

        So? That would be a good thing.

  • Jacky Gonzalez

    can somebody give me 9 sentences or more about this article about describing and explaining jared diamond’s p.o.v. on agriculture

  • Ivan_K

    “There is the notable quip of Mahatma Gandhi, who, when asked, “Mr.
    Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?” responded, “It would
    be a good idea” –Immanuel Wallerstein, 1999:174”

    The said quip is spurious and better to be passed over in silence: See https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mahatma_Gandhi#Disputed

    By the way, I came upon your blog a couple of months ago, it is delightful.

  • Its a very old article !!

  • R

    Are you for or against agriculture?

  • Robert Kolker

    Without agriculture Jared Diamond would not have had paper, pen and eyeglasses to write his nonsense. The life of humans would be short if not nasty and brutish.

    Agriculture made our intellectual development possible.

    • JuHoansi

      Without agriculture, Diamond wouldn’t have needed to write it.

  • So called civilization, cities, states, laws, governments and societies were built by Anunnaki like we build zoos and safari parks for animals. These are all about control and making us work for our masters. These took away all of our freedoms because a very significant proportion of our productivity now goes to taxes and compliance. Hunter gatherers were a very equal society and men and women had equal freedom, choice and authority. The whole idea of society was based on working for the whole instead of yourself and your kids, and this whole includes paying for lavish lifestyle of our masters also known as government. Hunter gatherers did not labor for elite and used these savings for their own leisure and enjoyment.

  • Women were not men’s property until the idea of reproducing to grow your religion, society, culture, race, state and armies came along. Added to this was the liability to pay taxes and comply with laws and regulations. Before this men and women had sex at their own leisure, convenience and choice.

  • Idea of property became essential when a group of hunters and gatherers made significant effort and spent significant time in hunting and gathering and then did not want it to be stolen by lazy people.

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