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Non-Agricultural Societies

December 9, 2011


In his 2010 book investigating the origins of the ego entitled The Fall, author Steve Taylor discusses the life of non-agricultural people:

” Until around 8000 BCE, all human beings lived as hunter-gatherers. They survived by hunting wild animals (the man’s job) and foraging for wild plants, nuts, fruit and vegetables (the woman’s job). When anthropologists began to look at how contemporary hunter-gatherers use their time, they were surprised to find that they only spent 12 to 20 hours per week searching for food -between a third and a half of the average modern working week! Because of this, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called hunter-gatherers the original affluent society. As he noted in his famous paper of that name, for hunter-gatherers, the food quest is so successful that half the time the people do not seem to know what to do with themselves…. Most native peoples are strikingly egalitarian and democratic. For example, traditional Australian Aborigine groups don’t have chiefs or leaders, and there are no laws or penalties for crimes. The elders make most important decisions, and therefore have some authority, but the rest of the tribe are free to disagree with them. In traditional African societies, there are no classes or castes, and the most common form of government is rule by the elders of the community. As in Aboriginal society, however, the elders don’t have absolute authority but are merely part of a democratic process…. Amost all contemporary hunter-gatherers show a striking absence of any of the characteristics that we associate with social inequality. The anthropologist James Woodburn speaks of the profound egalitarianism of immediate-return foraging peoples and emphasizes that no other way of human life permits so great an emphasis on equality. Foraging peoples are also strikingly democratic. Most societies do operate with a leader of some kind, but their power is usually very limited, and they can easily be deposed if the rest of the group aren’t happy with their leadership. People don’t seek to be leaders – in fact if anybody does show signs of a desire for power and wealth they are usually barred from consideration as leaders. And even when a person becomes a leader, they don’t have the right to make decisions on their own. Decisions are made in co-operation with other respected members of the group… Apart from the small amount of meat they ate (10%-20% of their diet), their diet was practically identical to that of a modern day vegan – no dairy products and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, roots and nuts, all eaten raw (which nutrition experts tell us is the healthiest way to eat.) This partly explains why skeletons of ancient hunter-gatherers are surprisingly large and robust, and show few signs of degenerative diseases and tooth decay. As the anthropologist Richard Rudgley writes, We know from what they ate and the condition of their skeletons that the hunting people were, on the whole, in pretty good shape. The hunter-gatherers of Greece and Turkey had an average height of five feet ten inches for men and five feet six for women. But after the advent of agriculture, these had declined to five feet three and five feet one. An archaeological site in the lower Illinois Valley in central USA shows that when people started cultivating maize and switched to a settled lifestyle, there was an increase in infant mortality, stunted growth in adults, and a massive increase in diseases related to malnutrition.” (1)

One of the oldest agricultural sites is Asikli Hoyuk in Turkey, dating to 8,000 B.C. Here we see that the burden of farming was already effecting health:

“The skeletal remains of these women show spinal deformities indicating that they had to carry heavy loads. This does not itself prove that there was a division of labour between the sexes. The fact that the men seem to have outlived the women might be interpreted as sign that the women were subject to more strenuous physical labor than their male counterparts.” (2)

“The Neolithic evidence show indications of increased physical workload in the osteological material on both genders, where the male skeletons show signs of joint disease and trauma arguably caused by cutting timber and tilling.” (3)

The Neolithic Revolution involved far more than the adoption of a limited set of food-producing techniques. During the next millennia it would transform the small and mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that had hitherto dominated human history, into sedentary societies based in built-up villages and towns, which radically modified their natural environment by means of specialized food-crop cultivation (e.g., irrigation and food storage technologiesthat allowed extensive surplus food production. These developments provided the basis for concentrated high population densities in settlements, specialized and complex labor diversification and trading economies, the development of non-portable art, architecture, and culture, centralized administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies and depersonalized systems of knowledge (writing). The first full-blown manifestation of the entire Neolithic complex is seen in the Middle Eastern Sumerian cities.

There is little to no sign of warfare or social inequality before the introduction of city-states around 6000 years ago:

“Evidence from artwork, cemeteries and battle sites suggests that there was an eruption of these social pathologies during the 4th millennium BCE, starting in the Middle East and central Asia The groups who lived in the area – including the original Indo-Europeans and Semites would begin massive waves of migrations… Over the following centuries, they spread over the Europe, Middle East and Asia, killing and conquering the peaceful Old World peoples they came across, including the civilization of Old Europe (which was reconstructed by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas). By 500 BCE, these peoples had more or less completely conquered the whole of Eurasia, leaving only a few indigenous peoples such as the Laplanders of Scandinavia, the tribal peoples of Siberia, and the indigenous peoples of the forests and hills of India. In mainland Europe the only surviving non-Indo-European indigenous peoples were the Basque people of northern Spain (who amazingly still survive today) and the Etruscans of Italy, who were soon to be wiped out by the Romans.” (1)

In stark contrast, hunter-gatherers generally keep to themselves and enjoy the subtle qualities of life. Frank Hole, an early-agriculture specialist, and Kent Flannery, a specialist in Mesoamerican civilization, have noted that, “No group on earth has more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily on games, conversation and relaxing.” Agricultural societies require far more work than the 3 hrs per day average of hunter-gatherers.


1. Taylor, S. 2005. The Fall

2. Esin, U., and S. Harmankaya. 1999. Aşikli. In Neolithic in Turkey: the cradle of civilization

3. Wright, K. I. 2000. The Social Origins of Cooking and Dining in Early Villages of Western Asia. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society

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