The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Health of farmers and hunter-gatherers

Kalahari bushmenDespite the innovations that sprang out of agricultural societies, Jared Diamond and Richard Manning both argue that the first farmers were actually less healthy than their ancestors.  We can look at this question from a lot of different angles, by comparing the skeletons of the first farmers with the skeletons of contemporaneous hunter-gatherers or by looking at modern hunter-gatherers.  In both cases, average height is a basic indication of nutrition, and hunter-gatherers come out literally on top nearly every time.  Did you know that only in the last century in the richest parts of the world have the statures of agriculturalists regained the heights of ancient hunter-gatherers?

Other indications of ill health abounded among the first farmers.  Tooth decay became Hunterprominent along with high infant mortality, iron deficiencies, and an increase in disease.  Farmers also had a significantly shorter life span than contemporaneous hunter-gatherers. 

The bad health of early farmers was partly due to human populations expanding faster than the farmers' ability to grow food for themselves, as well as to famines when crop failures or fires destroyed hoarded grain.  But information from early agricultural societies in the Americas show that it also took us a while to figure out how to nourish our bodies adequately while eating huge amounts of just a few foods rather than bits and pieces of this and that --- for example, we had to learn to nixtamalize corn to unlock niacin and to combine that corn in the right proportions with beans to create a well-rounded diet.  Mineral deficiencies were also more likely in a farming society since nearly every soil is deficient in one more more micronutrient, a deficiency that farmed crops pass on to their farmers.

Even in the seventeenth century, the lifespan of an average European was around 40 years, while transplants to Massachusetts (where colonists by necessity had a partly hunter-gatherer diet) lived to the average age of 71.8 years.  Part of the increased life span Native Americans and colonistsof the colonists can be attributed to the lower population in North America at the time, which carried with it a lower risk of parasities and disease, but nutrition was a key factor as well.  (As a side note --- yes, the Native Americans were taller than the first European settlers.)

But we're better off now, right?  Actually, Jared Diamond notes in Guns, Germs, and Steel that even in the modern world, only those of us fed by agribusinesses are really better off than our hunter-gatherer neighbors.  Most modern peasant farmers and herders spend more hours working than those in hunter-gatherer societies and live less healthy lives.  True, our lifespans are now longer due to advances in modern medicine, but I have to wonder if we would have needed those medical advances if we hadn't weakened our bodies by changing over to a grain-based diet.

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This post is part of our History of Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Interesting thoughts. I remember reading that the !Kung people of Africa (hunter/gatherers... but mainly gatherers) only spend about 3 hours a day in seeking and preparing food. The rest of their time is spent socializing and their lifestyle is somewhat sedentary, especially compared to what we might imagine.

I've spoken with people who seem to think that all humans except for the modern, post-industrial human, have miserable lives filled with endless toil. I don't doubt that this narrow impression comes from the tough experience of Europe as an agrarian society.

Comment by Sara Mon Oct 25 23:41:09 2010
Those are precise issues I've been pondering a lot lately. Many people seem to have extreme knee-jerk reactions when I tell them that factoid, and it often comes down to the fact that they'd rather work 40 hours per week and have their plasma screen TV than work 5 hours a week and a live in a hut. If you've come across any interesting reading matter on the subject, I'd love for you to pass it on!
Comment by anna Tue Oct 26 08:26:09 2010
I've read Jared Diamond and other sources where this issue is discussed. It seems there is enough proof to show that agriculture was a mixed blessing in terms its benefits to your lifestyle, but I'm not sure about some of the specific claims. For instance, the claim that life expectancy was lower for farmers. I can see the quality of life for farmers being lower in terms of overwork and malnutrition, but it doesn't follow that they must have lived shorter lives. Agriculture not only increased one's food security but also reduced the need to hunt, which reduced the injuries from those hunts that were often minor by modern standards but could be fatal for hunter-gatherers. The estimated life expectancy of prehistoric hunter-gatherers varies, but on the low end it stands at 18 years. We know that preindustrial (~1700) farmers in Europe lived to be 35-40, which of course doesn't prove anything about the first farmers. But the averages for ancient Egypt and Rome are only slightly under that at about 33-37 years. That suggests that life expectancy for farmers has remained so stable, we could expect the life spans of the earliest farmers to have been in the neighborhood of these figures.
Comment by Maire Wed Jun 15 22:42:07 2011

I'm not an archeologist, so I can't say anything definitive --- take this with a grain of salt. However, the more I delve into the primary literature, the more it seems to be accepted that (at least in North America, which is what I've mostly been reading about), life spans decreased substantially and people got much less healthy when agriculture came on the scene. Although, to be honest, it's more specifically when corn arrived --- our region had the eastern agricultural complex previously, and that didn't seem to decrease our health in the same way.

Your point about the dangers of hunting make sense, but you have to understand that in recent prehistory, we'd already killed off most of the big game (or climate change had done that for us --- people argue that point). "Hunting" often meant snaring rabbits or digging mussels out of the river, tasks that are no more dangerous than pulling up briars in your garden.

Your life expectancy figures for hunter-gatherers don't actually match the literature I've read. But I haven't delved as deeply into this part, so I hesitate to say more there. :-)

Comment by anna Thu Jun 16 08:08:30 2011

I need your assistance. I am creating a film of my lecture, "No More War: the Human Potential for Peace" and a promotional video for the film and a Keynote lecture on the same topic. To illustrate one point concerning male use of aggression and hunting, I want to use the photo of Bushmen hunting that I found online at this site: The intended purpose is educational, but I may decide to charge a small fee for downloads or ask for a small honorarium in order to recover the costs of production. I am a retired academic and am paying for this project out of my own pocket, so I would greatly appreciate being able to use the drawing for free. My work, and project, can be found at I need to know if you hold a copyright to the picture, or if you know whether anyone does.

Thank you for your consideration.
Judith Hand

Comment by Judith Hand Mon Jun 20 13:00:00 2011

Judith --- That is a great photo, but unfortunately it's not mine. You can find the source for any of the photos on this page (or on the site) by clicking on them. Hopefully the real copyright holders can help you out. Good luck with your project!

Maire --- As a followup on my previous comment, I just read an interesting article that might clear some things up for you. Dawn of agriculture took toll on heath tells about a review of all the relevant literature showing that the advent of agriculture led to smaller, less healthy people across the world.

Comment by anna Mon Jun 20 13:06:53 2011

I like to read posts like this. Its trivial but it makes you wonder.

"I have to wonder if we would have needed those medical advances if we hadn't weakened our bodies by changing over to a grain-based diet"

I've read a couple of diet books(primarily vegetarian books.) I can recommend The Food Revolution by John Robbins. All of the sources i have read do link just about all of the diseases and illnesses we have picked up to the food we eat and the lifestyles we live. And it makes sense. As one moves farther away from one's natural course, then there must be side effects to that decision. So as we've moved to chemical agriculture, air conditioning with carcinogens in it, and carbon riddled air in the cities....of course there will be health problems. So i would agree that earlier man was a healthier human being(in certain parts of the year). Take for example: There is a tribe( I can't remember the name) somewhere in the tropics that had never worn shoes in their entire history. Scientists wanted to conduct a study so they went down there and somehow got select members to wear shoes for a period of time. During this period of time these people developed disorders/diseases of the feet in a very short period of time. They later got a podiatrist to examine the tribes feet and concluded that this tribe had some of the strongest feet ever recorded. Maybe people would have less back problems if they didn't wear shoes.

Comment by Jalen Mon Sep 26 20:48:53 2011
Jalen --- Thanks for sharing! I hadn't heard about the foot study you mentioned, but that's a great extra data point. I know I tend to obsess about the effects of food on our health, but there are a lot of other factors in modern society, like footware, that probably have a huge effect too.
Comment by anna Tue Sep 27 08:40:38 2011

yep, shoes are an odd one, not only that but the human body is capable of discharging something like 10000 volts, amperage may be low, but still, that is A LOT of built up energy, we were designed to be grounded.

Second, this book this huge study done on indigenous people who have converted to a western diet, and the ill effects. Diet before and during pregnancy, special diets, as in special plants for health. Mmm hmm, there is a plant out there that for any illness.

Comment by Evan Tue Oct 4 21:04:36 2011

Maybe that's why I always feel so good after I've fun around barefoot. :-) It also reminds me of this study that if you turn down the heat, you live longer.

I hadn't read that particular book, but have read a similar study about what happened to a group of Australian Aborigones who were Westernized.

Comment by anna Wed Oct 5 07:51:35 2011
that makes a lot of sense, it was last winter i believe, i spent a lot of time outside. On a particular day it was like 10 degrees F and i spent the better portion of a day wandering around this forest, or just sitting in certain areas, and, when i got back to my car, i had just realized, that, it wasn't cold. Well, obviously it wasn't warm, but, i dunno how to really describe it. even more than that, i find it much easier to adapt to the climate, hot or cold. Like all the other animals/life, i think its completely normal, why wouldn't it be. On that note, about converting energy into heat, via our mitochondria, there is a clip of this wild expert, famed through "dual survival" he is always barefoot, and walked around a wintery land with just wool socks, claiming his mitochondria are the key. Well, this is something else entirely, but, the ringing cedar books, its explained how we should be able to acclimate to our climate naturally, more clothing layers or not(i mean, many animals do). thanks for that link
Comment by Evan Tue Nov 22 01:13:14 2011

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