Hunter/Gatherers Slandered

21:29 Fri 10 Aug 2007
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I know it’s The New York Times, but still, an outright lie in the first sentence of an article is a bit much.

The line is “For thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty, first as hunters and gatherers, then as peasants or laborers.” It’s from an article on the transformative effects of the Industrial Revolution.

The lie is that most hunter/gatherers lived in abject poverty. This simply isn’t true. The majority of hunter/gatherer peoples in the past had remarkably comfortable lives, living off the bounty of the land. Most didn’t struggle for subsistence, but rather could survive by spending a few hours a day in food-provisioning activities.

Agriculture (and especially fedual agriculture) did seem to bring a lot of abject poverty with it. Pre-Industrial England was quite a poor nation, no question. But the prevailing modern view that our distant hunter/gatherer predecessors lived in abject poverty is false and also prejudiced.

The prejudice is an understandable one, rooted in the concept of “progress”. The prevailing conception of “progress” is that it is some kind of vast, natural, historical force, constantly making things better over time.

Certain things may have gotten better. Other things have gotten worse. Industrialization and urbanization bring significant stresses and adverse environmental conditions that our ancestors didn’t have to deal with. In certain respects, the hunter/gatherers may have had more freedom, and more meaningful lives, than we have. I don’t want to overstate the case—I’m not arguing that hunter/gatherer societies are superior to modern ones, or that it would be preferable to live in them. But comparisons need to be accurate, and not based on ignorance of their actual conditions.

There are political forces at work in the idea of “progress”, and the denigration of the past. Examination of the past that isn’t dismissive would lead to certain realizations about those past societies, that they had some aspects that might be worth resurrecting—often an absence of hierarchical power structures, greater day-to-day freedoms in a lot of ways, a markedly increased level of participation in community decision-making. Examining those positive aspects of these cultures (and not dismissing the cultures entirely as “primitive” or “savage”) naturally leads one to question why we can’t have both the positive aspects of our culture and of these older cultures. It should be clear that this is a deeply political question. A challenging one, also, because the question holds up alternatives that have worked, contradicting some of the prevailing myths of our modern political structures.

I think that there’s also a low-level colonial prejudice here also, the idea that since modern societies are so much better than the benighted “primitive” societies, and since our society is clearly more steeped in “progress”, our domination of the planet is really good for everybody.

Another note: when comparing the typical hunter/gatherer life, do not make the mistake of comparing it to, say, the typical American’s life—to really compare it with the modern age, one has to examine the entire world’s population, standard of living, etc. It may be that the modern system provides far better lives for some of the people on the planet now, but what’s the cost to everyone else?

Hunter/gatherers didn’t have cities, computers, airplanes, hot showers, the Internet, or the vast stores of knowledge that we have now (although it’s quite possible than individual hunter/gatherers possessed as much knowledge, or more, as individuals in the modern West). They didn’t have modern medicine, their expected lifespans were probably shorter than those of the readers of this site, and I am expressing no desire to swap places with one of them. But they had rich and comfortable lives, didn’t live in “abject poverty”, and given the choice might not want to swap with one of us, either.

(Guns, Germs, and Steel covers this topic, and many others, quite well, and its bibliography should have plenty of references for those interested.)

4 Responses to “Hunter/Gatherers Slandered”

  1. kevintel Says:

    Normally, I’d step in here with sarcasm but I’ll save that for another time. Tadhg, I’m sorry, but that’s utter rubbish. You’re romanticising the life of the hunter/gatherer. It was short, and it was harsh, and it was brutal. Hunter/gatherers didn’t have poverty in perhaps today’s sense of the term, but I sincerely doubt you could go back in time and find that they were having a ball. That’s a middle class Western notion of ‘harking back to simpler times’. You’re making it sound like they just roamed about for a bit looking for edible twigs for an hour or two, then sat down for the rest of the day having a laugh, discussing the state of Hrrhg’s marriage and playing rock, leaf and flint cutting implement.

    “But they had rich and comfortable lives, didn’t live in “abject poverty”, and given the choice might not want to swap with one of us, either.”. No, they didn’t. They may not have had some of the pressures of so-called civilisation (disease, overcrowding, inequitable social structures and whatnot), but they didn’t really have time to think about it too deeply; they were too busy surviving.

  2. mollydot Says:

    It’s hard to tell what their life was really like, but there is a theory that they didn’t spend that much time looking for food. Tadhg’s not just making it up. Eg, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_affluent_society

  3. Jesrad Says:

    At least their diet was much better suited, if you believe the various “paleolithic diet” enthusiasts. Plus the introduction of cereal-based diets from agriculture introduced mankind to the tragedy of… tooth decay.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Jesrad: I’m not sure how much I believe in those diets, but there might be something to them. I also didn’t realize that a cereal-based diet meant more tooth decay…

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