Monday, 16 April 2012

A Comparative Analysis of Hunter Gatherer Societies and Agricultural Societies

“The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence…” Jared Diamond in The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

It has been a few times that I have found myself arguing in defence of hunter gatherers or propagating the empirical realities of non-agricultural societies that are all too misconceived. One intensive example happened on the first day of semester holidays in 2011 whence I found myself arguing about cooperation in human nature with two others at 2AM in the cold morning in the Great Court of the University of Queensland. Thus I have been proverbially labelled at parties and such as the one who advocates the Palaeolithic lifestyle, and what a brutish, improvised and unhealthy one it is assumed. Let the record show that I do not advocate and am not advocating for a return to the hunting and gathering of our Palaeolithic ancestors. I do not advocate for such on normative and empirical grounds. Firstly, this would require an immense amount of death and suffering due to the inevitable nature of the low population density of subsistence living and the large population struggling over resources. Normatively, I believe this is morally indefensible to advocate for. Secondly, even if it were morally defensible, it is empirically physically impossible for the wholesale return of the human species to hunter gathering due to the obvious changes to the natural environment, resource depletion and changes to ecosystems and thus is moot point. 

A recent book that provides a systematic overview of hunter gatherers and agricultural societies that I also ascribe to is Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (2010) by Dr Spencer Wells, a geneticist, the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Cornell University and the Director of the Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society. In it is asked is there some sort of fatal mismatch between western culture and our biology that is making us ill? And if there is such a mismatch, how did our present culture come to dominate? Wells argues that all of the diseases and faults of modern society, from terrorism to depression and from obesity to economic inequality, stem from the advent of agriculture. Growing grain crops ultimately made humans more sedentary and unhealthy and made the planet more crowded. The expanding population and the need to apportion limited resources such as water created hierarchies and inequalities. The desire to control and no longer cooperate with nature altered concepts of religion, making deities fewer and more influential, foreshadowing today’s fanaticisms. The proximity of humans and animals bred diseases that metastasised over time. Freedom of movement and choice were replaced by a pressure to work that is the forebear of the anxiety and depression millions feel today.

But onto those criteria that I will be using to compare hunter gather societies with agricultural societies to establish which provides the better way of life for the average person. I will be looking at two essential areas of comparison – nutrition, and socioeconomics – which I will lay out individually. This is part one and therefore the article looking at nutrition. Let us begin.

Part One: Nutrition

The area of nutrition is a very interesting one and has been subject to substantial study in debate both in the academic literature and in popular culture. With the rise of the fad of the Palaeolithic diet to counter the rising levels of chronic diseases, there has been a rekindling in the interest of the study of hunter gatherers and the disease of affluence. Through studying hunter gatherers of the past through the fields of palaeopathology and Palaeolithic archaeology and through studying the hunter gatherers of present through the fields of nutritional anthropology and ethnomedicine, it is straightforward to establish the nutrition and health of hunter gatherers in general.

The landmark study by DrClaire Cassidy, whilst a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institute and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, of 296 skeletons of isolated American Indian agriculturalists of Hardin Village off the Ohio River in Kentucky of CE 1500 and CE 1675 and 285 skeletons of isolated Native American Indian hunter gatherers of Indian Knoll off the Green River in Kentucky of 3300 BCE to 2000 BCE, is very insightful for the comparison of nutrition. The study is fascinating due to the climatic, ecological and genetic similarity of the two cases with the only major differences being socioeconomics, chronology and diet. Through analysis of the skeletons and other archaeological evidence, the study concludes that infant mortality was higher, life expectancy was lower, and infectious diseases, tooth decay, and anaemia were more prevalent for the Hardin agriculturalists.

 “1. Life expectancies for both sexes at all ages were lower at Hardin Village than at Indian Knoll.
2. Infant mortality was higher at Hardin Village.
3. Iron-deficiency anaemia of sufficient duration to cause bone changes was absent at Indian Knoll, but present at Hardin Village, where 50 per cent of cases occurred in children under age five.
4. Growth arrest episodes at Indian Knoll were periodic and more often of short duration and were possibly due to food shortage in late winter; those at Hardin Village occurred randomly and were more often of long duration, probably indicative of disease as a causative agent.
5. More children suffered infections at Hardin Village than at Indian Knoll.
6. The syndrome of periosteal inflammation was more common at Hardin Village than at Indian Knoll.
7. Tooth decay was rampant at Hardin Village and led to early abscessing and tooth loss; decay was unusual at Indian Knoll and abscessing occurred later in life because of severe wear to the teeth.  The differences in tooth wear and caries rate are very likely attributable to dietary differences between the two groups.” (Cassidy 1980: 145)

It is pertinent to extrapolate this comparative study to analyse nutrition for many other hunter gatherers and agriculturalist. Indeed, Professor Tim Roufs of the University of Minnesota gives a systematic overview of the study and corroborating cases, as well as further analysis of the biocultural consequences of the agriculture from the Neolithic to this day.

It is also important to study the state of health and nutrition in agricultural, post-agricultural and industrial societies. A comprehensive research paper by an international group of dieticians, epidemiologists, anthropologists, biologists and medical scientists, entitled "Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century" published in the eminent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, posits that the diseases of civilisation, from chronic diseases to preventative illnesses, have causation with the mismatch of our Palaeolithic genome and the new foods of modernity that stem from agriculture.

“In the United States and most Western countries, diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality. These diseases are epidemic in contemporary Westernized populations and typically afflict 50–65% of the adult population, yet they are rare or non-existent in hunter-gatherers and other less Westernized people. Although both scientists and lay people alike may frequently identify a single dietary element as the cause of chronic disease (eg, saturated fat causes heart disease and salt causes high blood pressure), evidence gleaned over the past 3 decades now indicates that virtually all so-called diseases of civilization have multifactorial dietary elements that underlie their etiology, along with other environmental agents and genetic susceptibility. Coronary heart disease, for instance, does not arise simply from excessive saturated fat in the diet but rather from a complex interaction of multiple nutritional factors directly linked to the excessive consumption of novel Neolithic and Industrial era foods (dairy products, cereals, refined cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, fatty meats, salt, and combinations of these foods). These foods, in turn, adversely influence proximate nutritional factors, which universally underlie or exacerbate virtually all chronic diseases of civilization: 1) glycemic load, 2) fatty acid composition, 3) macronutrient composition, 4) micronutrient density, 5) acid-base balance, 6) sodium-potassium ratio, and 7) fiber content. However, the ultimate factor underlying diseases of civilization is the collision of our ancient genome with the new conditions of life in affluent nations, including the nutritional qualities of recently introduced foods.”

Thus it is clear that in terms of nutrition, hunter gatherers had a far healthy diet than agriculturalist and that many of the chronic diseases of the contemporary stem from the mismatch of agricultural based foods and our Palaeolithic genome. Although, it is obvious that the Western diet is poor through the mere observation of the high chronic levels of obesity, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes that plaque our society. It should be known that I am not advocating the Palaeolithic diet as the cure to all this. The consumption of the agricultural based foods and other products is only a danger to health when it is combined with the sedentary lifestyle we have and when preventative health measure (such as health education, dental care, exercise) are ignored. In summation, it is clear that the nutrition of hunter gatherers led to healthy lives for the average person than in agricultural societies. Although through modern medicine and preventative health, all the general nutrition and therefore health of the average modern person is improved in theory if not in practice.
Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He debated at the 2012 World Universities Debating Championship in Manila, was a Member of the 2011 Queensland Youth Parliament and was an Australian Representative at the 2010 Asia Pacific Young Leaders Summit in Singapore.

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