October 01, 2011

Affluent hunter-gatherers revisited

I think we need to get rid of the "affluent hunter-gatherer" paradigm altogether. There is no doubt that humans were well-adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a very long time. Species that aren't well-adapted tend to die out.

It is also true that the onset of the Neolithic was associated with negative health trends, exhibited e.g., in skeletal pathologies, and probably the result of a greater disease load due to higher population densities and a shift in diet.

Nonetheless, we should keep in mind that ten thousand years have passed since the onset of agriculture. People have had time to adapt, both in terms of their genetic endowment, and their culture, which mitigates the potential negative effects of the new mode of living. Primitivism in the sense of either fads like the "Paleolithic diet", or in glorifying living hunter-gatherers as some sort of ideal is a rejection of the progress our species has made.

Anthropol Anz. 2011;68(4):349-66.

!Kung nutritional status and the original "affluent society"--a new analysis.
Bogin B.

The theme of the 2011 meetings of the German Anthropological Society, "Biological and Cultural Markers of Environmental Pressure", provides the entree to revisit one of Anthropology's most enduring canons - hunters and gathers are well-nourished and healthy. The Dobe !Kung foragers of the Kalahari Desert often serve as a model of hunter-gatherer adaptation for both extant and Paleolithic humans. A re-analysis of food intake, energy expenditure, and demographic data collected in the 1960s for the Dobe !Kung finds that their biocultural indicators of nutritional status and health were, at best, precarious and, at worst, indicative of a society in danger of extinction. Hunting and gathering is the lifestyle to which the human species was most persistently adapted, in terms of the biological, cultural, and emotional meanings of the word 'adapted.' However, the few remaining foraging groups studied in the 20th Century are unlikely to serve as the ideal models of that ancient way of life.



DocG said...

As I point out in my book (see especially chapter Five -- http://soundingthedepths.blogspot.com/2011/02/chapter-five-hunter-gatherers.html), it's a huge mistake to generalize about hunter-gatherers, aka "foragers," as though there were some universal characteristic that could be called "hunter-gatherer-ivity."

"If they hunt and gather, and have no other visible means of support, that means they must belong to some mysterious cultural sub-species of the human race that for some mysterious reason shares all sorts of interesting beliefs, attitudes, methodologies, etc."

AK said...

It's always worth noting on this subject that most of the really productive land on the planet was long ago appropriated for agriculture/pastoralism. There may have been reversions, Aristotle (IIRC) refers to "disasters" in a sense that sounds like massive depopulations, and we have the historical depopulation of the Americas through disease that appear to have been accompanied by widespread reversion to a H/G lifestyle, but these were probably temporary. With returning population levels pastoralism and agriculture probably normally returned.

An exception may be Australia, where agriculture appears not to have developed [Gilligan 2010]. Perhaps a survey of recent pre-colonial societies specifically targeting various measures of "affluence" would help answer the question(s).


Gilligan, I. (2010) Agriculture in Aboriginal Australia: Why Not? BULLETIN OF THE INDO-PACIFIC PREHISTORY ASSOCIATION 30, 2010

P.S. While searching for ref's, I found two other interesting papers I don't have time to discuss (and anyway they're behind paywalls):



Pascvaks said...

"Primitivism in the sense of either fads like the "Paleolithic diet", or in glorifying living hunter-gatherers as some sort of ideal is a rejection of the progress our species has made."

It is also an ignorant and childish view of the very hard facts of life during the glacial periods of the past 4 million years. The "collective" and "specialization" approaches to problem solving that civilization has permitted tend to disappear very quickly as climate and environment change. Great examples in Central and South America during the past 1k years.

Unless they are made of stone, our accomplishments seem to crumble rather quickly once we lose the mulitfacited environment in which they grew.

Santiago F. Ballina said...

But in the 60s, there were even Safaris where they (the !Kung) were the prey, so I don't think they are an ideal population for studying abundance... Not to mention the fact that they weren't native to the Kalahari, they were just there because the Bantu had driven them out of their original lands.