Ten reasons why everything was better before farming
Hunter-gatherers only worked three hours a day. If you can call it work: it's what we call sports and leisure: racing, hunting, collecting stuff, or chatting with friends while you make food. Before farming came along they had the whole world to live in: just a million or so humans in a planet of pristine forests and beaches. So everybody could live in the best paradise, where food was abundant. There were no schools, no class system, you were healthier and stronger and smarter, and spent all your time with family and friends (unless you didn't want to). They did not have our modern mania for avoiding death at all costs: they had freedom, so children took risks, and that explains the shorter, more action packed lives. They chose quality of life over quantity. Pretty much everything was better before farming ruined it. This page gives the details.
Evolution is slow. Ten thousand years since the invention of farming is nothing: we still have hunter-gatherer brains. And it could be that hunter-gatherer brains are objectively better: they survived for millions of years. Their lifestyle was stable. Farming has only survived for ten thousand years and is destroying the environment.
The fact that we have hunter-gatherer brains is well established. For example, our brains are hard wired for social groups of a hundred people or so, not billions of people; we crave sugar and fat; we are bad at the kind of mathematics needed for city life, and so on.
So we were happier as hunter-gatherers (hunter-gatherers)
Our brains were adapted for that lifestyle, so it is more likely to feel right.
Researchers who spend time with hunter-gatherers tend to love and admire them (though I admit this might be selection bias). Whenever I have seen hunter-gatherers on TV or described in books, they seem to laugh and smile more than non-hunter-gatherers. They also exhibit other signs I associate with happiness: they have plenty of time to relax, they dance and sing, they seem very proud of their abilities, etc.
And even happier than modern hunter-gatherers
hunter-gatherers rely on the land. Modern hunter-gatherers are pushed onto the worst land. Even those who might be argued to have good land (e.g. those living deep in the rain forest) are highly restricted in the land they can choose: if they move far they soon meet logging companies, or other tribes who are squashed in by their being closer to modern people, etc. So they will have worse land, and more conflict.
I don't know of any specific research on this topic, as it might require a time machine. But there is plenty of evidence that modern isolated groups were not that way in the past. For example, south American forest dwellers whose ancestors were farmers before the Europeans arrived. Or the evidence that the Kalahari people used to range more freely. That is, modern hunter-gatherers are not in isolated areas out of choice, and in a less crowded world would have even better lives.
hunter-gatherers must survived through the winter. The most they can gather and hunt in winter is 10 hours per day. So 10 hours with extremely poor land is all they need. So in non-winter times they would need far less. This became obvious to me when I moved to a house in the forest. I keep a very well stocked bird table, and it is almost never emptied, even in winter. And in summer there are days when all this free food is barely touched. Yet the birds have plenty of time to sit in the trees and sing, to spend many hours in courtship., to build nests, stay in the nests with the young, and so on. I see very little evidence of hunger or stress. It is the same for other local animals: the badgers who visit my garden each night were fat and healthy looking, even before I began feeding them, and there are plenty of mice around. If there is no famine and it is not deep winter, nature is generous with food.
See "notes from anthropologists" below
The invention of farming was for status, not calories
Since the hunter-gatherer lifestyle required less effort, using more effort to grow unnecessary crops must have had some other reason. We get a hint by seeing when farming developed: It appeared, apparently independently, in six or so different places, at the time the ice sheets retreated. Retreating ice revealed new lands, and a warming planet meant plants grew faster. This would have led to new confidence. This would have led to showing off.
Brian Hayden has gathered plenty of evidence that farming grew due to "competitive feasting": tribes showed their superior status by how much food they could produce. Hayden amassed this evidence before the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, which is the clearest example yet: a temple that dates from 9,000 BC, the dawn of farming. It was not built as a result of a settled community, but by a nomadic community that wanted to boast of its strength.
The Zombie Apocalypse
Once farming was established, far more people could be supported per square mile. These people were sicklier and less happy, but they could easily defeat the hunter-gatherers by sheer weight of numbers. It was the real life Zombie Apocalypse and we are the zombies.
Wars hurt you! With no armour, where even the leader has to fight, wars mean pain. So why have war? hunter-gatherers did not own land and property. So there could be no wars over ownership. And with a world population of around 100,000 there was no need to compete over territory, you could just go elsewhere. Now obviously wars could still happen, but they would be far less common.
The famous examples of hunter-gatherer war graves are all from the time when farming was introduced. Millions of years with no war graves! None! Zilch! But as soon as people claim ownership of land, it's wars, wars and more wars. Douglas Fry and Patrick Soderberg have examined all the available evidence, and concluded that, while hunter-gatherers probably did go to war (so in theory we might one day find a war grave), they did so a lot less than modern man.
Look closer at the examples of modern hunter-gatherers killing each other. Violence is always greater in smaller groups, whether hunter-gatherer or not: being hunter-gatherer makes no difference. What does make a difference is access to modern steel weapons, and being forced into small areas where different groups must compete for the same scarce resources. (Before farming there was plenty of land for everyone.) Take for example the murder rate among today's bushmen of Namibia. The rate is cited as being high, yet is about the same as in the neighbouring "civilised" nations. But those "civilised" nations previously committed genocide against the bushmen: so however many people the bushmen kill, it is still less than the "civilised" people did to them.
Communicable diseases rely on people living close together. hunter-gatherers did not live close together, so communicable diseases could not spread. If a disease arose it would die out quickly when either the tribe developed immunity or they all died. In contrast, modern diseases can spread and evolve forever. As for general health, is anyone arguing that our sedentary, obese carboydrate based lifestyle is better for general health than our ancestors' frequent exercise and more varied diet?
Evidence: A study of the evidence showed that the move to agriculture led to "declines in oral health, increased spread of pathogens, infectious disease, and zoonoses, as well as a variety of ailments which have been linked to nutritional deficiencies and increased physical stress on the human body" (source)
Hunter-gatherers lived long and happy lives
hunter-gatherers had much healthier lives, so if they can get past any initial challenges, they are likely to live almost as long. I say "almost" because highly active life is more likely to have a fatal injury: extreme sportsmen have more costly life insurance for the same reason. But extreme sportsmen say it's worth it.
And what of those "initial challenges"? Those with weaker bodies or weaker immune systems will die as children. But hunter-gatherers are less worried about death, remember? A short life or a long life is not what matters: a GOOD life is what matters. All societies look after their children, but hunter-gatherer societies have fewer worries and more time. So a childhood in a hunter-gatherer society would be the best life possible: surrounded by your extended family, playing all day. Life is about quality, not length.
If hunter-gatherers survive to the age of 15 they are very likely to live to their 60s or 70s, just like us. And hunter-gatherer childhood is much better than ours: just do what you want, all day, for 15-17 years: hang around with your extended family, explore, copy, get better and better at everything, and be loved. Like I said, life is about quality, not length. See "notes from anthropologists" for details.
Hunting requires quicker wits than farming. And gathering in the wild requires more mental flexibility than gathering in a farm.
IQs measure specialisation
The IQ test measures abstract reasoning, and other skills useful for slotting into intellectual city life. But that is a narrow brain specialism. To illustrate, try dropping Einstein into the Australian outback and see how well he survives. Or place him into the middle of a fight. Or in a public debate, or leading a family, or any other real world situation with life or death consequences. IQ is a specialism, like memorisation, or socialisation skills, or knowing the best way to use tools. hunter-gatherers tend to score around 70% of a city dweller's IQ score. Whereas a city dweller would be very lucky to score 70% on a "how to survive in the outback" test. In this case, western education makes a person more stupid. As Canassatego (an Onandaga leader) noted in 1744:
"Several of our young people were formerly brought up in the colleges of the northern province. They were instructed in all your sciences. But when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, and therefore were neither fit for hunters, warriors, nor councillors. They were totally good for nothing."
Our brains are shrinking
Cro Magnons (our direct ancestors) had significantly larger brains than us. So did neanderthals (our part ancestors). While brain size is not a direct measure of general intelligence, it is a good indicator when other factors stay the same.
While we cannot be sure why the rest of the Neanderthals died out, the usual assumption is that homo sapiens were better at working in groups. This fits the zombie apocalypse scenario: Neanderthals had stronger bodies and larger brains, but were defeated by sheer weight of numbers.
Incidentally, calling ourselves "homo sapiens" ("wise men") or even sometimes "homo sapiens sapiens" ("wisest of the wise men") is proof of our stupidity. Only dumb teenagers go round shouting "I am clever and everyone else is dumb!" It is a sure sign of ignorance. Genuinely intelligent people are acutely aware of how little they know. It would not surprise me at all if we create artificial intelligence that is smarter than us and decides it does not need us. It's the kind of brainless thing we do, like destroying our own environment, or working ten hours a day for someone else while saying we are free.
A stable society is more likely to see connections between generations: you have your father's attitudes, your grandmother's talents, etc. And it would encourage these connections, because your survival depends on fitting into the tribe, not being an individualistic rebel. So hunter-gatherer society would stress the continued presence of ancestors after death. hence the death of an individual was not the end of his personality.
The presence of ancestors after their death seems to be extremely common among hunter-gatherer communities. So they would not see individual death as final, in the way that individualistic westerners tend to. This hunter-gatherer view is more scientific (than the individualistic view), because our identity is in our genes and our memes. Both of these, according to science, continue to spread and to have influence after the death of any individual body.
With no land ownership, very little property, and groups that are simply extended families, there is very little opportunity for one class of people to dominate another. If the men dominate the women for example, the women can easily withhold sex, or the food that they gather, and what can the men do? or if one group consistently dominates another the victim group can simply leave, start foraging miles away instead, and create a new tribe.
As far as I can tell from the research, the whole concept of a class system seems alien to the hunter-gatherer life.
With no class system, and no property men lose any advantage over women. True, males are physically stronger, but if needed two females can share one male. So any male who is a aggressive to women find he gets no sex, and is beaten up by the smarter males who have learned that being nice gets them plenty of sex.
The reality is even better than I expected. Take !Kung people for example. They were studied when in the process of moving from hunter-gatherer life to a farming life, so the contrast was clear. Apart from greater equality, hunter-gatherers had fewer children. Why? Because hunter-gatherers are nomadic, so young children have to carried. So women only have one child every four years. In contrast, once women settle down they become baby making machines and are almost always pregnant. Having numerous dependent children gives men power over women: ask any battered wife who is unable to leave for fear of losing her children. But if you just have one easy-to-carry baby then you are always free. For how numbers were reduced, see "notes from anthropology" below
Farming takes land needed by other creatures, so those other creatures will die. It is also the thin end of the wedge: allowing humans to create cities, drill for oil, and consume more and more and more. Leaving less and less for any other forms of life - unless those life forms are enslaved for our benefit.
We are causing a mass extinction. No matter how bad life is for humans, it is worse for the food animals we squash into cages, and for the tens of thousands of species we drive to extinction. The damage to the planet can now be seen from space: global warming has melted the ice caps, the land is covered in scars (roads and cities), and the one percent of humans who enjoy it tell us that the solution is even more technology. Really?
Given all this evidence, we should expect most ancient societies to have myths of a lost golden age.
Until recently, pretty much every religion and culture told stories of how life was far better in the distant past. (Indeed, the term "golden age" comes from the Greek creation story). For example, Adam and Eve once lived in paradise. The Adam and Eve story is based in part on the Gilgamesh epic, about Enkidu and Shamhat. Enkidu was wild man who lived in "the eden" (the open plains) but was enticed to come live in a city, and serve "the lord" of the land instead.
Enkidu (Adam) was persuaded to give up his old life because civilisation promised more friends, more sex, more food, more knowledge, and more fun! He and his lord (Gilgamesh) now had dominion over the world. They cut down the trees! They defied the other gods! But in the end it did not make them happy. Enkidu died miserable, cursing his lost freedom, wishing he had never left his old life. Even Gilgamesh, the lord of the land, was miserable and lonely at the end. The Gilgamesh Epic was the most popular book in the world for three thousand years of writing. Why? Because it reflected mankind's wide experience. Over those three thousand years many hunter-gatherers were enticed into cities. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. But it resulted in misery.
These objections are from "Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer" by William Buckner.
Old data"It's not often that you see a 50-year-old paper repeatedly referenced in mainstream publications, but you can find mentions of [anthropologist Richard B.] Lee's work pretty much everywhere today."This hints that a 50-year old paper might not be as good as a more recent paper. But that 50-year old paper was a better guide to our ancestors. Because in the past 50 years, hunter gatherers have changed. Take the often studied Hadza for example: they can no longer live as they did in the 1960s:"[S]ince the 1960s, according to experts the forest accessible to the Hadzabe [Hadza] has shrunk by 90 percent, threatening the traditional lifestyle of the 1,000 to 1,500 remaining members." (source)"Among a total population of around 1 200, less than half of the Hadza still adhere to the hunter-gatherer way of life. The population has grown steadily since the 1960s, along with population density, as they now inhabit a smaller area." (source)Or the also much-studied Baka pygmies:"In the early 1960s, the French colonial administration began establishing road side camps for the Baka Pygmies around Bantu villages as part of efforts to move them onto permanent settlements [...] Through this policy of civilization and development for the ''backward'' peoples, the Pygmies were obliged to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and to participate in the modern state system (Kenrick, 2005, Knight, 2003)." (source)Even the Baka who try to live in the remaining forests find their patterns fo life are changed. They have to obtain more food from a smaller area, they are forced into less desirable disease ridden parts of the forest (greatly increasing their rates of sickness), and technology canges what they can do and who can do it:"An elderly Baka individual, aged about 60 years, commented that people had formerly constructed snares with plant material, but steel wires became available for use in the snares during his childhood in the 1960s." (source)Or what about the Dani people of Indonesia?"[T]he Dani live in West Papua, an area invaded and brutally suppressed by Indonesia since the 1960s. Since then, far more Dani have died as a result of Indonesian oppression than have in tribal wars (Corry, 2013)." (source)Or the Ache of Paraguay?"The Ache of Paraguay used to live as nomadic hunter-gatherers in the forest; since the 1960s they have been settled on reservations after years of persecutions and deforestation." (source)Or the Agta people of the Philippines?"[Scholars have recorded] the Agta's struggles as they have attempted to adjust to the thousands of colonists who have migrated into their area since the 1960s. They discuss here the degradation of the rainforest by logging and mining corporations, expanding agriculture, game decline, and new diseases. Only long-term research allowed the Headlands to understand Agta culture change, to realize that the Agta population was declining and why, and to document first-hand the surprising ways these foragers lives were changed as they struggled to survive the onslaughts of '"modernization.'" [...] Logging and mining companies entered the area in the 1960s; today bulldozers and logging trucks have honeycombed the whole region, virtually all of the primary old-growth forest has been cut down, new diseases have been introduced, and the Agta's primary fish and game resources have declined drastically(source)Changes since the 1960s are the end point of a 200,000 year history. By the 1960s the original humans were already forced into the least desirable margins of desert and forest. But since then the city dweller population has more than doubled (3.4 billion versus 7.8 billion). So the remains of the ancient cultures are all dying out:"[T]he opportunity to study humans as foragers has been disappearing at an extremely rapid rate in the last 100 vears. Because of worldwide economic trends, the transition from foraging to other forms of subsistence may be irreversible. Thus, we are likely to be the last generation to witness our fellow humans living in a way that was typical of most of human history." (source)Many of the groups studied in 1966 simply do not exist now."The hunting [for the Lepcha people of Australia] has stopped, for it is now illegal and a road is planned to service the construction of a hydro-electric project in Dzongu. These former hunters, who hold the memories of their ancestors and of their own experience, are the last generation who will have their own hunting stories to tell." (source)"The UN estimates that there are about 370 million indigenous people living what’s considered a “traditional” lifestyle today, and almost all of them are undergoing the same shocks the Lamalerans [hunter gatherers] are. In the last generation or two, outside forces have started to transform their lives - whether that’s culturally, through Hollywood movies or Western pop songs, or physically, through changes in climate that have turned oceans more acidic or disrupted the monsoon rains they depend on." (source)"All children in Botswana, including the Bushmen, are now legally obliged to go to school; many Bushmen wear Western clothes. As well as telling me about the land, the younger Ju’/hoansi also talked to me about Lady Gaga and whether Wayne Rooney will move to Chelsea. Some of the tribe believe traditional Bushmen will disappear within 50 years. 'It might be the last generation,' said Kgamxoo." (source)"We are three brothers, who were among the last generation of the Bukakwe clan of Bushmen to live the nomadic life of hunter-gatherers. Our people moved seasonally through the landscape, migrating as needed to access food and water. Our last generation was born in areas that are now the domain of famous safari camps." source)"The Nyae Nyae Conservancy where we were, is the last area in the whole of the Kalahari where indigenous San hunter-gatherers can still legally hunt with the traditional bow-and-arrow. In 2019 only 15 hunters were still actively hunting, a 90% decline in the last generation" (source)If you think you can find a hunter gatherer group that has not changed since 1966, look closer."[I]t would be a mistake to categorize modern hunter-gatherers as doing nothing but provisioning themselves with forest resources. As Bird-David (1992:22; cf. 1983) points out, modern hunter-gatherers combine hinting and gathering with various other productive strategies, including wage labor, trade, agricultural cultivation, stock-keeping, and even government office work and welfare benefits." (From a study of how hunter gatherers have had to change in order to continue to exist at all: Jana Fortier, "Sharing, Hoarding, and Theft: Exchange and Resistance in Forager-Farmer Relations", Ethnology Vol. 40, No. 3, Summer, 2001)Even groups that still live by hunting often do so to sell their furs, and this changes the relationship between males (who can now get money) and females (who can't):"while among the Naskapi [of northern Canada] the men still hunt and the women still gather, the men are hunting for furs to sell on the market, as they have now for hundreds of years, and the fact that men can earn this income may well have changed Naskapi attitudes to gender. [...] some Mehinaku [of Amazonian central Brazil] have radios and some speak Portuguese" (Source)Even the Sentinelese, the famously "uncontacted" people of north Sentinel island, have been visited many times. At first the Sentinelese simply ran away, but now they attack with arrows. Our visits, the modern gifts we leave behind, and their sighting of ships, must have profoundly changed how they see the world: they now know that the outside world exists, and has advanced technology that they do not have. How could that not change their beliefs, and thus behaviour? So the "50-year-old paper" is better than the modern papers. Modern papers rely on bad data: data collected among modern "hunter gatherers" who can no longer live, or think, like their ancestors.
Hours working"original estimate of 12-19 hours worked per week did not include food processing, tool making, or general housework"Even when those hours are added, the total is still better than for city dwellers. And is it even work? The things they called work are the things we call play - hunting, walking among nature, knitting with friends, sleeping whenever they felt like it, etc.
Productive land"1964 [a famous study of the !Kung, showing plenty of food] may have been an unusually productive year for bush food"Why are they even in the bush to begin with? Because modern people have stolen all the best land. Let them have their ancient choice of land, and they don't need to stay in the desert in bad years.
Mortality"a high infant mortality rate"Quality of life is more important than quantity. Modern man forces children to go to school, then forces adults to work long hours for other people. And we say it is a better life because the misery lasts for so long! That is madness. A genuinely happy person is too busy enjoying life to care about tomorrow. Only unhappy people worry about how long they live.
Sharing"hunters tend to keep more of their kill for themselves and their families than they share with others. While there is undeniably a great deal of sharing across hunter-gatherer societies, common notions of generalized equality are greatly overstated."Which is better than modern society. They share a lot, but also out their families first. Sounds like the perfect balance.
Sex"some males end up having lots of children with different women, while a significant number of males end up having none at all."Economically this is better for everyone: children go to those best able to support them, and those least able do not have the burden. What about the single men? Enforced celibacy cannot, in itself, be a net harm, because such harm is entirely depends on the culture, not the sexual activity itself:"in the last few decades, there has been a revolution in the study of sexuality. Sex is today understood as fundamentally social." As contrasted with the old view that "viewed sexuality as natural" and "believed that sex was built into the body, into human genetics, hormones, into the very physiology of individuals". (From the editors of "Introducing the New Sexuality Studies: 2nd Edition"I have direct experience of this truth. I was raised in a very religious household, and I believed it all. As long as I was surrounded by this culture, sexual desire was not a problem (or at least, a very minor one, like the problem of not being a millionaire, or not being able to fly). The problem only appeared when surrounded by a different culture where sex was presented as available, but not for me. That created painful cognitive dissonance!! So the research is correct. As long as your whole society is consistent, and egalitarian, whatever sexual rules apply, you adapt. It is the same with any other human need: sex, food, shelter, friendship, etc. Frustration only occurs if your society is highly unequal, so does not adapt to you, or if the society combines conflicting cultures. Modern societies have both problems. Hunter gatherer societies, being very small and far more equal, would have far fewer problems.
Equality"Mardu men [hunter-gatherers of Australia] accord themselves greater ritual responsibility, higher status, more power, and more rights than women."This is a great example of how the modern world makes inequality worse. Thanks to the modern world, Mardu "women and children hunt and gather on foot with digging sticks (wana), while men often utilize vehicles and small-gauge rifles". Even if the anthropologists can find groups without such obvious technology, the wider world has changed how the Mardu live, so this is not a guide to how things were originally. For example, the Mardu are now prevented from selective burning as they used to, the men and women always burned the bush differently. Thanks to this new rule, the modern bush has fewer but much larger fires, so it has fewer species and less to eat. This lack of choice will of course benefit those with more power, making the unfairness worse. The same principle - bigger size makes inequality worse - is seen in modern nations: men make the rules, so the rules benefit men. The general principle is that scale always exaggerates inequality, because those with a small advantage at a small scale (e.g. the men) can use that power to gain the lion's share of the new power (the land, the machines, the top positions, etc.). The Mardu men are a great example of this.
Homicide"From 1920-1955 the !Kung had a homicide rate of 42/100,000 (about 8 times that of the US rate in 2016), however Kelly mentions that, "murders ceased after 1955 due to the presence of an outside police force.'"Yes, a police force can reduce the number of 42/100,000. But at what cost? They put over 2000/100,000 people in jail (if you are a race they do not like). They enforce inequality, so that 90,000/100,000 must worry about bills and work long hours doing work they don't like. So 42 people get a longer life so that 90,000 people get no life at all. Is that is a good deal? Recall that a typical hunter gatherer tribe has fewer than 100 people. So a rate of 42/100,000, or 0.042 per year, means you would wait more than a generation (over 20 years) to see a single murdered. And since murders usually involve angry young men, these are people who chose a life of violence. Often the person killed will be a bad neighbour and you are secretly not too upset. The actual harm - like the time when an innocent woman is killed - might be once every hundred years. And to stop that, you need a system that effectively enslaves everybody. Plus, this allows the local bully to escape, making everybody's life a misery. I ask again, is that a good deal?
Medicine, institutions, infrastructureThere is a tendency to downplay the benefits of modern medicine, institutions, and infrastructure - as well as the very real costs of not having access to them - in these discussions.For most people, the benefits are far less than the costs. Let us look at each in turn. Medicine: Hunter gatherers have medicine: the average gatherer is an expert in all kinds of plants, and there are no rules forbidding you from using cannabis. More importantly, the average hunter gatherer is far fitter and less stressed than the average city dweller. That is real health: not obesity and stress. Of course, modern drugs and surgery can perform miracles, but it costs money. They are billions - the majority of mankind - who do not have access to most of this. Institutions: Hunter gatherers have institutions: the tribal meeting, marriage, etc. But these are human scaled, where every human has roughly equal power to access them. And if you don't like your tribe's institutions, you can easily leave: who can stop you? You can even set up your own society: nobody owns the land. What is so great about institutions that only benefit the rich and crush everybody else? Infrastructure: Why do we need roads made of concrete and tar? Do you really prefer traffic jams to a walk through a forest? And why do we need high speed online gaming, when you can have real adventures in real life? And why do you need bills for water when a stream is free? Why do you need sewage, why look around for a toilet (and then have to clean it!) when your tribe is so small and the climate so favourable (because of a small world population that fits into the best land) that you can duck behind any convenient bush? Why make life difficult?
Bias"what explains the popularity of this notion of an 'original affluent society'?"You mean, apart from logic and evidence? We could just as easily ask "what explains the popularity of this notion of progress?" We are destroying the lifestyle that has protected our species for the past 200,000 years. How can that be progress? We have destroyed countless species. How can that be progress? We have acidified the oceans and created global warming. How can that be progress? We have created a world designed for the needs of corporations, not individual humans. How can that be progress? Those corporations are racing to replace human minds with machines. How can that be progress? If you think that corporations will need inferior human minds to buy their goods, then I have a bridge to sell you. It is easy to explain the belief in progress: cognitive dissonance. We cannot face the horror of what we have done, so we live in denial.
A summary of Marshall Sahlins' work:
Our body fat strongly determines our fertility. Because otherwise animals would have too many children in lean times, and nobody would survive to pass on their genes. Hence the super lean and fit tend to be less fertile.
"Runners, ballet dancers, gymnasts, and swimmers usually starve themselves and end up with low body fat. Our body needs 22% body fat to ovulate and become pregnant. Around 50% of ballet dancers don't get their periods as per international studies." (source)
The 22% number is not a hard cut off, but only where people first noticed the effect: many women with much less body fat do get pregnant. But fat produces oestrogen, so all else being equal (e.g. no oestrogen tablets!), less fat means less fertility. Women need 10-13% body fat to be otherwise very healthy (men need less, and anything over 33% is obese.) Most athletes do not need super low body fat, so their fertility is fine. (Hunter gatherers also tend to breast feed for longer, and this also delays the next child.) Many hunter gatherer groups seem to be aware of the link between body fat and fertility, especially in delaying the first pregnancy: many groups deliberately keep body fat low, apparently for this purpose:
"In many hunter gatherer societies, food taboos dictate the diets of females. These taboos often happen during their most critical reproductive times in their life, e.g., pregnancy. Among some subarctic Athapaskan societies, females at menarche cannot eat fresh meat. They, like other hunter gatherer societies, also restrict fresh meat consumption for menstruating women. Young women of the Aranda society in Australia cannot eat protein rich foods, e.g., lizards, until they have a child. [...] maternal nutritional health influences birth spacing significantly. [...] food taboos do have the ability to influence population size. " (from a review of the scientific literature by Spielmann.)
A famous 1972 study ("Systemic Population Control in the Middle & Upper Paleolithic") noted that hunter gatherers tend to have more boys than girls. So the authors assumed that they must kill some girls at birth, and further assumed that this was due to lack of food. However, close study shows that infanticide is very rare and only when the baby has severe problems that would give it a miserable life:
"It has been suggested recently that systematic infanticide was necessary and widespread among Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. Although there is ethnographic evidence which supports that position, a sizable body of relevant negative evidence has received little attention. When all the evidence currently available is examined, it suggests strongly that systematic infanticide was atypical among Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, just as its practice among modern Eskimos and Aboriginal Australians is atypical of present-day human populations." (Denham, "Population Structure, Infant Transport, and Infanticide among Pleistocene and Modern Hunter-Gatherers," Journal of Anthropological Research)
"Among the !Kung, for example, it was reported in about 1 percent of births (Nancy Howell 1979), with the stated goal of enhancing the quality of care and survival of existing children and to avoid caring for seriously defective children, almost certain to fail." (Konner, Hunter-Gatherer Infancy and Childhood)
So how do we explain the larger number of boys? There is another group who also has far more boys than girls: confident people, especially billionaires. It appears that when life is really good, evolution gives you more boys for some reason.
"women with more dominant personalities, a diet rich in high calorie foods (such as breakfast cereal), or married to U.S. Presidents tend to give birth to more sons. For billionaire fathers, the odds of having a boy are 65%." (From the BBC, citing "Male-Biased Sex Ratios among Billionaires" by Cameron and Dalerum
So instead of being evidence for hardship, the male ratio is evidence of life being very good indeed. So we can put the low fertility down to fitness, not hunger.
Peter Gray on children in hunter-gatherer societies:
"What I learned from my reading and our questionnaire was startling for its consistency from culture. ... Although hunter-gatherer children must learn an enormous amount, hunter-gatherers have nothing like school. Adults do not establish a curriculum, or attempt to motivate children to learn, or give lessons, or monitor children's progress. When asked how children learn what they need to know, hunter-gatherer adults invariably answer with words that mean essentially: "They teach themselves through their observations, play, and exploration." Occasionally an adult might offer a word of advice or demonstrate how to do something better, such as how to shape an arrowhead, but such help is given only when the child clearly desires it. Adults to not initiate, direct, or interfere with children's activities. Adults do not show any evidence of worry about their children's education; millennia of experience have proven to them that children are experts at educating themselves."