Why We Farm—The History of the Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

From the lecture series: Anthropology and the Study of Humanity

By Scott M. Lacy, Ph.D., Fairfield University

When we enjoy a traditional holiday meal on a day like Thanksgiving, we might easily imagine that humans have always eaten classics like potatoes, gravy, and sweet corn… but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Even if we reduce the scope of our family tree to only modern humans, we’ve been hunter-gatherers for about 190,000 of the past 200,000 years. Farming—in the grand scheme of things—is about as “modern” as space travel and the internet.

Ploughing with a yoke of horned cattle in Ancient Egypt. Painting from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, c. 1200 BC.
Image: By Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA/Public domain)

The Hunter-Gatherer Life

Paleoanthropologists and archaeologists analyze the fossil record to reveal the myriad ways humans have cooperated to produce food across the millennia. And that fossil record definitively tells us that our human ancestors were hunter-gatherers, of one variation or another, for 99.98% of our 7-million-year history.

Learn more about the agricultural roots of civilization

So before we trace the origins of agriculture, let’s first go deeper into the past in order to consider how humans produced food before farming came along.

The Hadza live around Lake Eyasi in Northern Tanzania. On the whole they live a traditional hunter-gatherer existence
The Hadza live around Lake Eyasi in Northern Tanzania. On the whole they live a traditional hunter-gatherer existence (Image: Woodlouse/Public domain)

Now, at first thought, the idea of living a migratory, hunter-gatherer lifestyle might sound like a horrifying alternative to those of us who rely on modern ubiquities like smartphones and grocery stores.

However, as renowned anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explains, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle had surprising advantages beyond free rent and no bills. In fact, Sahlins is famously cited for describing pre-agricultural humans as the original affluent societies.

Advantages of Our Ancestors

We’ve been hunter-gatherers for about 190,000 of the past 200,000 years. Farming—in the grand scheme of things—is about as “modern” as space travel and the internet.

These societies—which consisted of small, close-knit “bands” of fewer than 100 people—lived prosperously, they had diverse and better-balanced diets, and they even had longer and healthier lifespans than early farmers. Apart from avoiding decades of delivery food and Netflix binges, foragers also avoided the high-starch, highly processed foods that most of us consume on a daily basis. Even our early farming ancestors, when they transitioned to agriculture, they suffered numerous negative, nutritional outcomes… anemia and shortened life expectancy for one.

Beyond their variable and balanced diet, what other advantages allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to live longer lives than their early farming counterparts?

This is a transcript from the video series Anthropology and the Study of Humanity. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Well, for one, the small size of their bands made their communities adaptive and manageable.  These small societies were decentralized and actually rather egalitarian with respect to leadership, work, and social class. Think of it this way, if private property is restricted to only that which you can carry, none of us will have much more than anyone else.

Second of all, these small communities were migratory… and this allowed them to go where the food was.

And yet, despite the upside of the hunter-gatherer life, the fact remains that humans did eventually switch to agriculture.

Neolithic Revolution

Let’s start by placing the origins of plant and animal domestication both chronologically and geographically.

The archaeological record shows us that humans first started farming approximately 12 thousand years ago. In textbooks, we often see the phrase Neolithic Revolution applied to the origins of agriculture. And the name is apt because this dramatic change in food production altered absolutely everything about our lives.

Learn more about archaeology and human tools

So, why, after 99.98% of our 7-million-year history, did humans switch food strategies? Why bother? Why didn’t we stick with the good ol’ foraging days? We worked fewer hours, we had a more balanced diet, our population was in-check, and best of all, none of us were poor or hungry—that is, unless all of us were poor and hungry.

Maybe we’re romanticizing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which was otherwise an exceptionally challenging and demanding mode of food production, but, the question remains:  why did our human ancestors recently switch food strategies after millions of years? Why such a historic food revolution?

Put simply, the agricultural transformation was a widespread human response to the changing ecological, technological, biological and cultural lives of humans.

That’s a pretty broad statement, so let’s unpack it by taking a closer look at a few specific reasons why humans turned to agriculture starting around 10 to 12,000 years ago.

The Role of Evolution

First and foremost, we evolved. Hunter-gatherers in the Middle to Late Stone Age were remarkably different from our earliest ancestors. The Middle Stone Age brain, for example, evolved to be four times larger than the brains of Sahelanthropus—the earliest hominin ancestor that dates back 6-7 million years.

Human Evolution Illustration. Man Evolution. Progress Growth Development. Monkey, Neanderthal, Homo Sapiens, Primate With Weapon
Hunter-gatherers in the Middle to Late Stone Age were different from our earliest ancestors (Image: Usagi-P/Shutterstock)

Essentially, our muscles, skeletons, nervous system, and locomotion were finely tuned over millions of years for hunter-gatherer success. Now, this doesn’t in and of itself explain why successful, big-brained humans switched to farming. But before we get to agriculture, what about culture?  Agri-culture?

The Role of Culture

Culture…  our ability to communicate, to cooperate, and to share, not to mention our inclination to give and receive a little help from time to time—these are foundations of humanity’s survival.

To get a clearer picture, let’s imagine living in a small band of hunter-gatherers some 20,000 years ago. With our brains clicking and our bodies primed, humans like us have become more efficient as foragers and more skilled as hunters. Even our food processing techniques and technology had vastly improved.

Neolithic grindstone or quern for processing grain
The food processing techniques and technology of hunter-gatherers vastly improved (Image: By José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/Public domain)

In fact, because we now know where to camp along the annual migratory passage of antelope, we can cooperate and acquire far more meat than all of us could ever eat in one session. And for that matter, we also get far more hides and useful bones than we could possibly carry. Moreover, our foraging innovation now has us collecting much more wild millet than we could ever could eat or take with us.

Learn more about apocalyptic anthropology

Put simply, after millions of years, we’ve become hunting and foraging machines!

Now, if you stuck with our thought experiment, and you’re still thinking like a 20,000-year-old ace forager, you’ll feel an irresistible compulsion to…

  • build some granaries for our surplus… granaries we can return to as part of migratory hunter-gatherer life.

Or…

  • we could start building permanent or semi-permanent settlements wherever we find our most productive hunting and foraging sites.

Our pre-agricultural ancestors did both. And THAT is how bigger brains and human culture contributed to the rise of farming.

Common Questions about the Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

Q: Who was the hunter and who was the gatherer?

In hunter-gatherer societies, males, females, and children did the gathering equally while hunting was almost entirely done by the males and not very often as it was energy-intensive and dangerous.

Q: What did humans do first—hunt or gather?

Humans were almost certainly scavengers and gatherers first before Homo Erectus developed with a much larger brain and started hunting as well as traveling further.

Q: What all did hunter-gatherers eat?

Hunter-gatherers mostly ate berries, nuts, fruit, and fruiting vegetables with some tubers and roots. Depending on where they lived, they would hunt smaller game such as rabbits, goats, deer, and fish.

Q: Are there any hunter-gatherers left today?

Yes. Some examples of hunter-gatherer societies still with us today are the Ayoreo in South America, the Arctic Inuit, and the Awa of the Amazon.

This article was updated on 7/16/2019

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