Anthropologists learn that life was easier and bones were stronger when people were hunter-gatherers


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We humans like to think that our civilization is advancing, but the ancient record doesn’t necessarily agree. For all our modern technology, longer lifespans, and bigger brains, there seem to be some drawbacks compared to the early hunter-gatherer societies. Leaving behind a foraging hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a sedentary agriculture-based life around 11,000 years ago had at least two drawbacks: We got wimpier and we have considerably less leisure time.

The switch to agriculture took off in the Neolithic revolution, spreading from the Middle East to Europe. Then people who had been nomads started staying in one place more and working in the fields to provide food.

Studies from 2014 indicate that: “When humans quite hunting and gathering, their bones got wimpy.” Biological anthropologists studied bones of early humans and primates and compared them to the bones of modern people. Our bones are much less dense and far lighter.

The researchers thought that perhaps our bones evolved that way when Homo erectus, an early proto-human, left Africa. That was around two million years ago. They thought that lighter bones might have helped the archaic humans as they began new adventures. Being lighter, they could travel longer distances with relative ease.

Biological anthropologist Habiba Chirchir from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History was surprised that this isn’t what the fossil record showed at all.

From NPR:

“The lightweight bones don’t appear until about 12,000 years ago. That’s right when humans were becoming less physically active because they were leaving their nomadic hunter-gatherer life behind and settling down to pursue agriculture.”

Shifting their focus to people living more recently around 1,000 years ago, the researchers found that people who live in farming villages have bones that aren’t as strong or dense as earlier people who lived as foragers. The relatively sedentary agricultural communities weren’t getting as much physical activity or moving around as much, so their bones developed differently.

“Hunter-gatherer to the office” via Flickr by (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Now new studies from Cambridge University show that not only did farming life result in “wimpier” bones, but abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle meant a harder way of life as farmers.

Cambridge anthropologists lived with the Agta people of the Philippines, modern indigenous tribes of hunter-gather semi-nomads whose culture is being lost as corporations move in and the economy changes. Their ancient culture is being forced to make the transition towards agriculture.

Although the Agta face extreme challenges, the Cambridge researchers found that those who still hunted and foraged for their living worked ten hours less per week than those who were farming. In total, the Agta hunters could expect to work 20 hours a week, but those who had made the switch to farming could expect to work for 30 hours per week to survive.

The study abstract states that the loss of leisure time mostly fell on the women in the tribe. Women had half as much leisure time after they started farming.

“We find that individuals in camps engaging more in non-foraging work spend more time involved in out-of-camp work and have substantially less leisure time. This difference is largely driven by changes in the time allocation of women, who spend substantially more time engaged in out-of-camp work in more agricultural camps.”

One of the researchers who lived with the Agta, Dr. Mark Dyble, noted that the finding contradicts the idea that a move to agriculture was an escape from a harder way of life.

“For a long time, the transition from foraging to farming was assumed to represent progress, allowing people to escape an arduous and precarious way of life,” said Dr. Dyble.

“But as soon as anthropologists started working with hunter-gatherers they began questioning this narrative, finding that foragers actually enjoy quite a lot of leisure time. Our data provides some of the clearest support for this idea yet.”

All of this begs the question: Why did the first farmers do it if it was so much more work? Some experts suggest that it became necessary to support ever-larger communities. Once they started farming and became more sedentary, larger societies would find it difficult or impossible to return to their prior way of life. Meanwhile, hunter-gatherers had more time to share critical skills, customs, and culture with their friends and family.

One might get the idea that hunter-gatherers have all the fun. However, in the case of the Agta, their way of life is severely threatened today as they face a host of medical issues, such as tuberculosis, leprosy, pneumonia, and alcoholism. As nomadic people, they have no claim on the land they need for hunting and it is fast disappearing. Their language and culture are becoming extinct as they struggle to find support from the community and the government.

See more about the Agta, or Aeta people below:


Featured image: Hunter via Pixabay


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