Romanticising hunter-gatherers

In: Uncategorized

31 Dec 2007

The current Economist (19 December) has an article savaging those who romanticise hunter-gatherer societies. It argues against the view put forward by the likes of Jared Diamond that the development of agriculture was the worst mistake in human history.

Evidently in the 1970s some experts began to argue that the advent of agriculture led to a decline in human health – as people were short of protein and caught diseases from domestic animals – and the emergence of significant social inequalities. However, it now seems that hunter-gatherer societies were exceedingly violent:

“Several archaeologists and anthropologists now argue that violence was much more pervasive in hunter-gatherer society than in more recent eras. From the !Kung in the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic and the aborigines in Australia, two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at least once a year. War is a big word for dawn raids, skirmishes and lots of posturing, but death rates are high—usually around 25-30% of adult males die from homicide. The warfare death rate of 0.5% of the population per year that Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois calculates as typical of hunter-gatherer societies would equate to 2 billion people dying during the 20th century.” (For another reference to Keeley’s work see post of 30 July 2006. On living conditions before the Industrial Revolution see 14 August 2006 and 7 April 2007 posts).

The Economist also makes an interesting parallel with the Industrial Revolution:

“When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birth.”