Our Non-Sustainable Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors

Over at the Guardian, the archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones has written an enigmatic article asking “What Can We Learn from Our Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors.”  While I think there is a great deal to be learned from our foraging ancestors, the existential and ontological lessons I have in mind are quite different from those Wickham-Jones proposes.

She begins by noting that our current ways of life — dependent entirely on the radical changes that flowed from the Neolithic Revolution or the introduction of farming — are unsustainable.  Given the Malthusian world in which we live — 6.85 billion people and counting (watch this population clock for five minutes and cringe), this hardly seems to be in dispute.

Here is how Wickham-Jones describes the incredible changes over the last 6,000 years as humanity transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture:

Farming underpins our society. Farming has permitted population growth, it created stability for industrialisation and provides the economic basis for life today. Farming bought benefits, but with a sting in the tail. More reliable food production led to population increase; food surplus and a settled lifestyle facilitated innovation: we can track an exponential increase in technological development from the arrival of pottery to present day Tupperware.

The specialisation that first developed in the neolithic period has led to our almost complete dissociation from the means of production on which we now rely. Our addiction to energy took off: from hand-drawn prehistoric ploughs, to oxen-led medieval ploughs, to water and then steam, the emerging dominance of oil, and our current package of nuclear/wind/wave. We rely on energy and we no longer produce it for ourselves.

And here is the radical remedy she suggests but knows is unworkable: “Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but global populations and changed circumstances make that impossible.”

You would be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of the paleoterrific than me, having been persuaded long ago by Marshall Sahlins’ “Original Affluent Society” and wide reading in hunter-gatherer ethnography, but even I can see that Wickham-Jones is wearing some very rosy colored glasses when she pines for the non-sustainable (and often starving) purity of hunting and gathering.

That blind spot in Wickham-Jones’ rearview mirror is directly linked to her archaeological interest in the consequences of change rather than mechanisms of change:

In reality, the roots of our situation go back 6,000 years to the radical changes in lifestyle that came about with the introduction of farming. Why, and how, the change took place is still an archaeological mystery. For my part, I am interested in the consequences rather than the mechanism of this introduction.

If Wickham-Jones focused on the mechanisms driving the transition from foraging to farming, she just might discover that as hunter-gatherers around the world improved their techniques and technologies, their populations increased and wreaked wholesale destruction on the megafauna and other large game animals on which hunter-gatherers had for so long depended.

It surely is no coincidence that when highly proficient human hunters arrived in Australia and the Americas, it was not long before much of that fauna disappeared, a fact which may have forced the domestication of plants and animals.  Something similar may have occurred in the Levant, where large groups of semi-sedentary foragers such as the Natufians efficiently exploited game animals to the point of near extinction.

Finally, it should be noted that one the primary cultural consequences of the transition from foraging to farming was the rise of organized and systematic supernaturalism.  Shamanisms became religions.

Did you like this? Share it:

2 thoughts on “Our Non-Sustainable Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors

  1. Leslie

    “It surely is no coincidence that when highly proficient human hunters arrived in Australia and the Americas, it was not long before much of that fauna disappeared”.

    There is wide ranging dispute of this. George Frison, a hunter and premier archaeologist who studied Plains Indians, says that taking down a mammoth with clovis points is not an easy task; certainly not one that can be done on such a massive scale that extinctions take place.

    The more dominant theory now is that climate change (end of the ice age which occurred very quickly) as well as probably a meteor which caused great dust storms, caused the demise of many of the North American mega-fauna

  2. Cris Post author

    There is indeed a dispute over this! That post is so old that I had forgotten about it. I’m not sure why I wrote that. David Meltzer’s article on the peopling of the Americas discusses this also, and there was a recent Nature publication which challenged the idea as applied to Australia. I once mentioned this dispute over at another prominent blog and was thoroughly trashed for raising the issue and noting there was a dispute.

Leave a Reply