Posts Tagged ‘hunter-gatherers’

Jared Diamond on our species’ worst mistake

October 23, 2010

That’s right: agriculture.

From a 1987 Discover magazine article:

The progressivist view [that history is a march of progress] is really making a claim about the distant past: that the lives of primitive people improved when they switched from gathering to farming. Archaeologists can date that switch by distinguishing remains of wild plants and animals from those of domesticated ones in prehistoric garbage dumps. How can one deduce the health of the prehistoric garbage makers, and thereby directly test the progressivist view? That question has become answerable only in recent years, in part through the newly emerging techniques of paleopathology, the study of signs of disease in the remains of ancient peoples.

One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. 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. Read the rest of this entry »


The affluence of the !Kung San has been greatly exaggerated

October 12, 2010



Kalahari Desert CC: Elmar Thiel

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re trying to establish what kind of life prehistoric hunter-gatherers may have lived. Because we don’t have any prehistoric hunter-gatherers on hand, we’re first going to see what we can learn from the modern version. Specifically, let’s take a look at the !Kung San Bushmen (Bushfolk?) of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa.

The !Kung are hunter gatherers, adapting to their semi-arid environment by gathering roots, berries, fruits, and nuts that they gather from the desert, and from the meat provided by the hunters. … !Kung men are responsible for providing the meat, although women might occasionally kill small mammals. Game is not plentiful and the hunters sometimes must travel great distances. Meat is usually sparse and is shared fairly among the group when a hunter is successful. Every part of the animal is used; hides are tanned for blankets and bones are cracked for the marrow. Typical game sought in the hunt includes wildebeest, gemsbok, and giraffe; they also kill various reptiles and birds, and collect honey when it is available. The men provide household tools and maintain a supply of poison tipped arrows and spears for hunting. Read the rest of this entry »

Why hunter-gatherers matter

October 5, 2010

Last time around we noted that Steven Pinker had not constructed an airtight argument that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were more likely to die in war than people living today. In subsequent posts we’ll take up the question of what that prehistoric hunting and foraging life may have been like, with considerable help from the authors of Sex at Dawn. But first a digression on why any of this matters.

A year or two ago I had occasion to speak to an anthropology PhD student about prehistoric hunter-gatherers. We’re talking here about humans who lived before the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago and after the birth of anatomically modern humans some 200,000 years ago. Anyway, she made the simple statement that these prehistoric people had lived long, healthy lives. Now, my immediate reaction was not, “hmm, this person is an expert in her chosen field whereas I am not, and I should therefore defer to her and perhaps ask her to tell me more”; no, it was, “pff, that can’t possibly be correct.”

Let’s unpack that “pff,” shall we? Read the rest of this entry »

Hunter-gatherers recast as group sex fiends

August 11, 2010

Um, why didn’t anybody tell me about the book Sex at Dawn? Was everybody Twittering it last month and I failed to notice?

Here’s Gizmodo‘s synopsis of the argument:

• Before humans settled down into civilization, we were small bands of hunter-gatherers who had no notion of sexual monogamy. Within our relatively small tribes, most humans had multiple partners, primarily from within the tribal group, although occasionally we’d have a dalliance with a stranger to keep the DNA pool zesty. Children had multiple social “fathers”, jealousy was nearly nonexistent, and relatively easy access to calories kept us fit, happy, and satisfied well into our 70s and 80s—provided we managed to get past the perils of high mortality rates expected from a wild environment and primitive medicine. Read the rest of this entry »