The Original Affluent Societies


Most people assume that hunter-gatherers had a much more difficult way of life than farmers. Indigenous people in North America were bothfarmers and hunter-gatherers in different places and different times. However, the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers was quite different from what many have assumed.

As Yuval Noah Harari explained in his book Sapiens,

“The hunter-gather way of life differed significantly from region to region and from season to season, but on the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers, an office clerks who followed in their footsteps.”

As we know people in modern societies work an average of forty to forty-five hours a week. In fact surprisingly perhaps, in the last couple of decades the average weekly workweek has been increasing. It seems the more “advanced” we get the more we work. What kind of advancement is that? Yet today, as Harari said,  “hunter-gatherers living in the most inhospitable of habitats—such as the Kalahari Desert—work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week. They hunt only one day out of three, and gathering takes up to just three to six hours daily. In normal times this is enough to feed the band. It may well be ancient hunter-gatherers living in zones more fertile than the Kalahari spent even less time obtaining food and raw materials. On top of that, foragers enjoyed a lighter load of household chores. They had no dishes to wash, no carpets to vacuum, no floors to polish, no nappies to change and no bills to pay.”

Harari  also pointed out that according to his research, “The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.”

European people ate much less nutritious food than the Indigenous people they encountered in North America. At first contact, Europeans were surprised at how fit and healthy the indigenous people were. As Harari said,

“In most places and at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition. That is hardly surprising—this has been the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years, and the human body was well adapted to it. Evidence from fossilised skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants.  Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty-four years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality…The foragers’ secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet.”

The reason for this is that foragers were not as dependent on one food as so many Europeans were. As a result they were much less likely to be ravaged by famine. If they suffered a loss of one of their staple foods the hunter-gatherers were easily able to switch to other species or move to a better area.

As Harari explained,

“Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domestic animals and were transferred to humans after the Agricultural Revolution. Ancient foragers, who had domesticated only dogs, were free of these scourges. Moreover, most people in agricultural and industrial societies lived in dense, unhygienic permanent settlements.”

Of course this became a serious problem when indigenous people in the New World were contacted by Europeans who had built up immunities to many of such infectious diseases. the Europeans  were able to spread their diseases quickly and with deadly efficiency to their indigenous hosts. Usually this was not done deliberately.

For all of these reasons Indigenous hunter-gathering societies were pretty good places to live. They were not perfect and we should never idealize them, but they were a lot better than many non-Indigenous people believed. Their prejudices against the Indigenous people were without foundation.

As Harari said, “The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working hours have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as ‘the original affluent societies.”

We must as careful not to idealize them as we should be careful not to be biased against them. For example, in Paraguay there was a tribe of indigenous people that were called Achépeople. They were also hunter-gatherers and when an important member of their band died their custom was to kill a little girl and then bury the two together. If an old Aché woman became a burden to the rest of society a young man would sneak up behind her and kill her with an axe-blow to the head. This does not sound ideal.

Yet Aché people had societies relatively free of violence. They smiled and laughed a lot. The things they valued the most were good social interactions and good friendships.  Interestingly this is exactly what modern research has demonstrated that this is precisely what leads to the happiest lives. If only we in the west could learn the truth of this.  It is also interesting that “the Aché were hunted and killed without mercy by Paraguayan farmers.” If only we could learn to be as smart as the hunter-gatherers.

We should always look at such societies without prejudice or bias. We should keep our blinkers off. As Harari said, “The truth is that Aché society, like every human society, was very complex. We should beware of demonizing or idealizing it on the basis of a superficial acquaintance. The Aché were neither angels nor fiends–they were humans. So, too, were the ancient hunter-gatherers.”

In any event, any presumption that Europeans were vastly superior to Indigenous people like so many people now seem to believe is entirely unjustified.

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