4 Jan 2008, 2:41pm
Latest Forest News
by admin

Hunter-gatherers: Noble or savage?

The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest

HUMAN beings have spent most of their time on the planet as hunter-gatherers. From at least 85,000 years ago to the birth of agriculture around 73,000 years later, they combined hunted meat with gathered veg. Some people, such as those on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, still do. The Sentinelese are the only hunter-gatherers who still resist contact with the outside world. Fine-looking specimens—strong, slim, fit, black and stark naked except for a small plant-fibre belt round the waist—they are the very model of the noble savage. Genetics suggests that indigenous Andaman islanders have been isolated since the very first expansion out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago.

About 12,000 years ago people embarked on an experiment called agriculture and some say that they, and their planet, have never recovered. Farming brought a population explosion, protein and vitamin deficiency, new diseases and deforestation. Human height actually shrank by nearly six inches after the first adoption of crops in the Near East. So was agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”, as Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist and professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, once called it?

Take a snapshot of the old world 15,000 years ago. Except for bits of Siberia, it was full of a new and clever kind of people who had originated in Africa and had colonised first their own continent, then Asia, Australia and Europe, and were on the brink of populating the Americas. They had spear throwers, boats, needles, adzes, nets. They painted pictures, decorated their bodies and believed in spirits. They traded foods, shells, raw materials and ideas. They sang songs, told stories and prepared herbal medicines.

They were “hunter-gatherers”. On the whole the men hunted and the women gathered: a sexual division of labour is still universal among non-farming people and was probably not shared by their Homo erectus predecessors. This enabled them to eat both meat and veg, a clever trick because it combines quality with reliability.

Why change? In the late 1970s Mark Cohen, an archaeologist, first suggested that agriculture was born of desperation, rather than inspiration. Evidence from the Fertile Crescent seems to support him. Rising human population density, combined perhaps with a cooling, drying climate, left the Natufian hunter-gatherers of the region short of acorns, gazelles and wild grass seeds. Somebody started trying to preserve and enhance a field of chickpeas or wheat-grass and soon planting, weeding, reaping and threshing were born… [more]

4 Jan 2008, 2:53pm
by Mike

For more about the Sentinelese, see:




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