I have recently come across a fascinating book (written in Hebrew; no English translation so far) by an Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, that looked at human history through the lens of four “revolutions”: the language revolution, the agricultural revolution, the cultural revolution, and the scientific revolution.

To me, one of the most fascinating periods in human history was the transition from 240,000 years of hunting-gathering to the relatively recent (10,000 years ago) of agriculture. When we think of hunter-gatherers, we think “primitive.” The harsh life of constantly searching for food, malnutrition and starvation, diseases, and short life span. All of which is untrue.

 

But was it really that bad?

Archaeology can tell us quite a bit about the economics of the denizens of the stone age. After all, we share the same anatomy, the same physiology, the same nutritional requirements. So the caloric requirements can be calculated, and from that, we can calculate the amount of grains, nuts, and fruits needed to provide the required calories, the amount that can be collected from a square kilometer, and the time required to collect a certain amount of food.

The results of such studies are astonishing. The nutrition of the gatherers, going all the way back to the dawn of the human species 250,000 years ago, was far superior to the diet of the early farmers of 10,000 years ago, or even modern farmers of 100 years ago, in most of the world.

Farmers of 19th century France, Britain, China and India suffered from frequent famines, diseases of vitamin deficiencies, frequent infections, and short life expectancy. On the other hand, skeletal and dental examinations revealed that gatherers suffered from malnutrition or starvation far less than agriculturalists. Life expectancy was only 30-40 years, but this is only because of high infant mortality. Children who survived the first few years of life could live to age 60 or 70, and even 80.

 

Variety and small bands

Their secret? Variety! Their diet consisted of a wide variety of foods: wild grains, wild vegetables, fruits, and the occasional meat and bone marrow obtained from hunting and scavenging.

The mainstay of the farmer’s diet came from a single plant, be it wheat, potato or rice, which constituted a woefully deficient diet. The gatherers, on the other hand, had continuous access to dozens of various foods that contained all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and micro-nutrients. The rich variety protected them from the vicissitudes of the changing climate and the plant diseases that may affect one species or another.

In an agricultural society, a disease of wheat, or potato caused mass starvation and death in short order. We don’t have to reach back to the distant past for an illustration. During the Irish famine of 1845-1852, approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by ~20%-25%. The cause was a fungal disease, potato blight, that decimated the potato crop.

Early humans lived in small bands, and therefore suffered less from epidemic infections. Most of the infectious diseases we are familiar with, such as TB, measles, German measles, influenza, originated from domesticated animals, which the early humans did not have, with the exception of dogs. The agricultural revolution brought with it villages and towns with their crowded quarters and low hygienic conditions. Animals lived side by side with their owners. Even today, Chinese farmers live with their geese and pigs—and gift us with annual flu epidemics.

 

The hunter-gather was learned and capable

As a society, we are at the pinnacle of human accomplishment. But what about the personal level? Consider for a minute: What does Industrial Man need to know in order to survive? Very little. We blindly depend on experts in their respective fields to provide us with the tools to survive. When did you last bake your bread? Or prepare a tool to skin an animal? Or made your own clothes?

The gatherer, on the other hand, was probably the most learned and capable in human history. The average gatherer could probably get a Ph.D. in Botany, Zoology, Ethology (the study of animal behavior), Geology, Ecology, Geography, and maybe Medicine and Engineering. Indeed, there is evidence that the average size of the human brain decreased a bit since the agricultural revolution.

Our anatomy, physiology, and behavior were shaped during eons of hunting-gathering. The more recent period of transition to agriculture is simply too short to have any lasting, genetically-based effect. So here we are, having a body adapted to exercise and a largely vegetarian diet, but living in a world where exercise is hardly necessary to obtain our food, where most of our diet is processed, and where epidemics sweep the planet in a matter of days. And we call this progress?


Featured photo credit: “Hadazbe returning from hunt” | by Andreas Lederer | CC BY 2.0 | via ويكيميديا كومنز

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Dov for a very interesting thought. I can look back in my short life and be confused by what we consider progress. Growing up in the 1950’s we were on our bikes playing if we weren’t in school or home with our parents. There was NO obesity in my school. Also there was no fast food at this point in our history. Food was respected and taken in small amounts. In my family there were no second helpings and dessert was a special treat every so often.

    My brother and I were expected to take various roles in the family – gardener, cleaner, mechanic, jack of all trades. We weren’t SPECIAL, we were just kids expected to help in the family. Thus I grew up with a number of different skills that I still enjoy today. Most of these skills are low tech, but I can grow my own food. There is nothing more basic that that.
    Jim

  2. Hi,
    It is interesting to also discuss Yuval Noah Harari ideas relating to the end of our species.
    He claims that the new science of replacing” parts of us” will generate new more efficent “creatures” that will rull the earth and this will happwns whithin 50-150 years.
    e.g. The Latest Artificial Heart: Part Cow, Part Machine
    http://www.technologyreview.com/news/515021/the-latest-artificial-heart-part-cow-part-machine/?utm_campaign=newsletters&utm_source=newsletter-daily-all&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20130530

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.