This article examines why humans shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture. According to some the so-called “paleo diet” is the healthiest way to eat because our that is how our ancestors, going back to 300,000 years, ate and that is how genetically we have evolved to favor it. Agriculture and its attendant diet only goes back some 10,000 years. The article quotes Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student in UConn’s department of anthropology, as saying:
“A lot of evidence suggests domestication and agriculture doesn’t make much sense,” says Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student in UConn’s department of anthropology. “Hunter-gatherers are sometimes working fewer hours a day, their health is better, and their diets are more varied, so why would anyone switch over and start farming?”
One theory says that in times of plenty there was more time to work on domesticating plants. The other theory is that times were bad and agriculture developed as a necessity to supplement the diet. Weitzel tried to test both hypotheses by analyzing animal bones from several archeological sites and what they ate as well as pollen analysis of the detritus from the same human settlements. His data provided evidence for the second hypothesis: There was some kind of imbalance between the growing human population and their resource base, effected perhaps by exploitation and also by climate change.
However this article calls into question some of the basic premises of the “paleo diet”, for example, do we even know what it actually was? That article notes that for advocates of the palaeolithic lifestyle, life at this time is portrayed as a kind of biological paradise, with people living as evolution had designed them to: as genetically predetermined hunter-gatherers fit for their environment. This seems to be highly romanticized as life in the Stone Age was probably harsh, with high infant and maternal mortality, and people very much at the mercy of the natural environment. Seasonal shortages in food would have meant that starvation was common even despite the ability of hunter-gatherers to be highly mobile.
Weitzel notes that looking to the past and seeing how these populations coped and adapted to change can help inform what we should do as today’s climate warms in the coming decades. He says, “Having an archaeological voice backed by this deep-time perspective in policy making is very important.”
What do you think the coming decades will mean for farming and our ability to feed people?