Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Rise of Agriculture, The Fall of Hunting & Gathering & Humanity's Uncertain Future by Louis Evan Palmer

Rather than repeat the various claims as to agriculture's superiority over hunting & gathering, perhaps we can illustrate the situation better by exploring relevant facts & claims regarding hunting & gathering as a way of life and see how they measure up versus agriculture.

Let's begin with an interesting observation made by Timothy Earle in "How Chiefs Come to Power" - the population in north Denmark went down after they took up agriculture! This is not an isolated observation but contrasts with the often cited ability of agriculture to support a larger population with fewer producers; a fact given as one of the key reasons why agriculture supplanted hunting & gathering. Yes but maybe not right away.

However, it is difficult to properly compare the two societies because hunting & gathering societies existed for some two million years for homo erectus, and some one million years for homo sapiens, while an agriculture-based lifestyle has been with us not much more than ten thousand years. If the current agriculture-based approach falters because it is not sustainable then being able to support a huge population increase for a relatively short time will be irrelevant.

Hunting & Gathering provided a wide variety of natural seasonal foods. This resulted in better nutrition which resulted in men and women being taller in hunter-gatherer societies. A critical marker in assessing societies, particularly pre-historic ones, is average height. In this regard, hunter-gatherer was a better way to go.

Another plus for hunter-gatherer societies was that they were more egalatarian. Because they were mobile, hunter-gatherers were less subject to attack than sedantary agricultural communities. Of critical importance, hunter-gatherer groups were far less subject to disease. Major epidemic diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis are almost exclusively nurtured and confined to agriculture-based societies.

A hunter-gatherer life is often portrayed as precarious and difficult but, in fact, in good environments, it was a surprisingly leisurely life, 3 or 4 hours and you were done for the day. Much is made of the inability to store food but that also is not accurate: dried strips of meat & fish were stored and carried and a staple during hunting forays, or the winter months in colder climates; dried fruits, nuts & honey would also keep and were easily transported.

Some early cities unearthed in the Middle East were based on hunting & gathering and reached sizes of several thousand. They had some artisans and other non-food-producing members.

Distinction in a hunter-gatherer society was based more on personal attributes than on possessions - someone was a good speaker or storyteller, a good hunter, a good forager, very strong or brave or fast. The kind of things that we still value when we can think about it for long enough in the midst of the rat race we've created for ourselves.

Time will tell if people can truly make the transition to a sustainable post-agricultural society. In the meantime, it may be worth comtemplating two striking charteristics of hunter-gatherer societies: their satisfaction with less and their faith in the ability and willingness of their enviroments to sustain them. With the way our world is going, we may be back to that worldview and life sooner than we realize.

The Rise of Agriculture, The Fall of Hunting & Gathering & Humanity's Uncertain Future, Louis Evan Palmer, The Way It Can Be,

Copyright 2007 Louis Evan Palmer lives in Ontario Canada. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications.