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 the same diet… but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Even if we only consider 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. That fossil record definitively tells us that our human ancestors were hunter-gatherers, of one variation or another, for 99.98 percent of our 7-million-year history.

Learn more about the agricultural roots of civilization

Before we trace the origins of agriculture, we need to go deeper into the past to consider how humans produced food before farming developed.

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)

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. 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, had diverse and better-balanced diets, and 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 foods that most of us consume daily. Even our early farming ancestors, when they transitioned to agriculture, suffered numerous negative, nutritional outcomes, including anemia and a shortened life expectancy.

Beyond their variable and balanced diet, 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.

The small size of their bands made their communities adaptive and manageable. These small societies were decentralized and rather egalitarian concerning leadership, work, and social class. In a sense, if private property is restricted to only that which you can carry, none of us will have much more than anyone else.

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

Yet, despite the upside of the hunter-gatherer life, the fact remains that humans eventually switched to agriculture.

Neolithic Revolution

The archaeological record shows us that humans first started farming approximately 12,000 years ago. In textbooks, we often see the phrase Neolithic Revolution applied to the origins of agriculture. The name is apt because this dramatic change in food production altered absolutely everything about our lives.

 But why, after 99.98 percent of our 7-million-year history, did humans switch food strategies? Why didn’t we stick with foraging? 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.

Learn more about archaeology and human tools

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 switch food strategies after millions of years?

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

Let’s unpack that broad statement by taking a closer look at a few specific reasons why humans turned to agriculture starting around 10,000 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 to 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. 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 is 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 became more efficient as foragers and 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)

Because they knew where to camp along the annual migratory passage of antelope, they could cooperate and acquire far more meat than all of the members could ever eat in one session. For that matter, they also acquired far more hides and useful bones than they could possibly carry. Moreover, their foraging innovation had them collecting much more wild millet than they could ever could eat or take with them.

Learn more about apocalyptic anthropology

Put simply, after millions of years, they became hunting and foraging machines.

It may seem tempting, with our thought experiment, as you think like a 20,000-year-old ace forager, to…

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

Or…

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

Our pre-agricultural ancestors did both. The increase in the size of our brains and the development of human culture allowed farming to become more widespread as the hunter-gatherer lifestyle declined, eventually leading us to the modern lifestyle we enjoy today.

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. 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 April 22, 2020

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