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The Lost Golden Age

Ten reasons why everything was better before farming


Summary

Hunter gatherers (HGs) only worked three hours a day. If you can call it work: it's the stuff we do in games: 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 70,000 humans in a planet of pristine forests and beaches. 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). Pretty much everything was better before farming ruined it. This page gives the details.

1:
Our brains are adapted for hunter-gatherer lives.

Reasoning:
Evolution is slow. Ten thousand years since the invention of farming is nothing: we still have hunter-gatherer (HG) brains. And it could be that HG brains are objectively better: they survived for millions of years. Their lifestyle was stable. Farming has only survived for ten thousand years and is highly unstable.

Evidence:
The fact that we have HG brains is well established. For example, our brains are hard wired for social groups of 100 or so, not billions of people; we crave sugar and fat; we are bad at the kind of mathematics needed for city life, etc.

So we were happier as hunter-gatherers (HGs)
Reasoning:
Our brains were adapted for that lifestyle, so it is more likely to feel right.

Evidence:
Researchers who spend time with HGs tend to love and admire them (though I admit this might be selection bias). Whenever I have seen HGs on TV or described in books, they seem to laugh and smile more than non-HGs. 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 HGs
Reasoning:
HGs 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.

Evidence:
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 HGs are not in isolated areas out of choice, and in a less crowded world would have even better lives.

2:
HGs only need to work three hours per day

Reasoning:
HGs 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.

Evidence:
See "notes from anthropologists" below

The invention of farming was for status, not calories
Reasoning:
Since the HG 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.

Evidence:
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 HGs by sheer weight of numbers. It was the real life Zombie Apocalypse and we are the zombies.

3:
HGs had fewer wars

Reasoning:
Wars hurt you! With no armour, where even the leader has to fight, wars mean pain. So why have war? HGs 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.

Evidence:
The famous examples of HG 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 HGs 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 HGs killing each other. Violence is always greater in smaller groups, whether HG or not: being HG 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.

4:
HGs had fewer communicable diseases (and better nutrition, healthier bodies, etc)

Reasoning:
Communicable diseases rely on people living close together. HGs 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)

HGs lived long and happy lives
Reasoning:
HGs 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 HGs 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 HG societies have fewer worries and more time. So a childhood in a HG society would be the best life possible: surrounded by your extended family, playing all day. Life is about quality, not length.

Evidence:
If HGs 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.

5:
HGs had higher general intelligence

Reasoning:
Hunting requires quicker wits than farming. And gathering in the wild requires more mental flexibility than gathering in a farm.

Evidence: The HG lifestyle is vastly more sustainable than the modern lifestyle. That is, their lifestyle was not self destructive. The modern life is unsustainable: we might think we are smart for our ability to destroy the environment, but stupid is as stupid does.

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. HGs 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.

6:
HGs were less worried about death

Reasoning:
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 HG society would stress the continued presence of ancestors after death. hence the death of an individual was not the end of his personality.

Evidence:
The presence of ancestors after their death seems to be extremely common among HG communities. So they would not see individual death as final, in the way that individualistic westerners tend to. This HG 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.

7:
HGs have no class system

Reasoning:
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.

Evidence:
As far as I can tell from the research, the whole concept of a class system seems alien to the HG life.

8:
HG life was better for women

Reasoning:
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.

Evidence:
The reality is even better than I expected. Take !Kung people for example. They were studied when in the process of moving from HG life to a farming life, so the contrast was clear. Apart from greater equality, HGs had fewer children. Why? Because HGs 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

9:
Farming was even worse for other species, and for the planet

Reasoning:
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.

Evidence:
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?

10:
Humans have fallen from a lost golden age

Reasoning:
Given all this evidence, we should expect most ancient societies to have myths of a lost golden age.

Evidence:
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 HGs were enticed into cities. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. But it resulted in misery.

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Notes from anthropologists

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A summary of Marshall Sahlins' work:

Population control

In farming based populations, humans breed in large numbers. This puts women at a great disadvantage to men (a women with many children cannot easily escape an abusive man), and of course puts an enormous strain on the planet. But HGs are nomadic, so HG women typically have just one child per four years, and babies are smaller for easier carrying. We evolved to be nomadic, so culture (e.g. restrictions on sex) and biology (e.g. natural fertility) make this the natural way. We didn't start multiplying like crazy until farming made us sedentary. It is common to assume that HGs are like us: surely they must have lots of babies, so surely they must kill them? After all, plenty of farming based societies kill babies. but farming based societies do a lot of nasty stuff, and that does not mean HGs do it. The evidence suggests that infanticide may have been practised on around one percent of births, by mothers who judged that this child would otherwise have a miserable life (eg. due to congenital sickness).

"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)

Idyllic childhoods

Peter Gray on children in HG 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."

 

 

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