Workload: Hunters vs Farmers

Thanks for engaging on this topic and showing me some alternative views. It was interesting to read Ted Kaczynski, even if he was obviously an extremist. What he writes actually supports a lot of what anthropologist David Graeber talks about with respect to work: that there is a significant difference in how meaningful work is perceived. 10 hours hunting is not the same as 10 hours toiling in the mine. You challenge to my claims got me into reading some interesting articles. I found this from Psychology Today interesting in this context.

I think it makes some great points. The life of a hunter and gatherer far more resembles our play than our work. Ever since childhood we are fascinated by animals and like to play games like tag, running after each other. In effect we are preparing for the life of a hunter.

The kings of old did not do farming for fun in their spare time, they went hunting. Even today hunting is a popular leisure activity for modern humans. Evolution developed our brains specifically for this life. So naturally a lot of this life is something we enjoy doing.

You have not cited any studies in favor of the view that hunter-gather societies spent only 10 hours per week working.

I write stories for fun. I do my best to be accurate, but I am not providing sources for everything I write. I write based on what I have read in the past. That hunters and gatherers spent less time working than farmers is a fairly widely held belief, which you can see references many places.

My initial estimate of 10 hours was probably too low and I have updated it based on this study.

The idea that hunter-gather societies had more leisure time directly contradicts the well-developed theories of geographers such as Jared Diamond

You may have misread Jared Diamond then. It is pretty clear what he thinks about the issue in the article titled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” Here is a quote which makes it quite clear:

For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

Benefits of Hindsight

Based what you are writing I get the impression that you believe I am making quite a different argument than I attempted to make. That may entirely be my fault for not communicating it well enough. So I will try to clarify my original point about hunting and gathering as well as farming and industrial society.

I am not some kind of back to nature utopian. I am not against modern society. Quite the contrary if you read my medium articles you will find a guy quite enthusiastic about technology and scientific progress. I don’t think back to nature style hippies would write about building floating cities on Venus.

I am quite fond of the modern society we live in. Rather I was trying to show a common thread through human history in how we have tended to exhaust resources which has forced us to adapt.

Yes agricultural societies became more advance than hunterers and gathereres. However for the initial people who did the transition, it was not an advantage. They where not thinking ahead that “hey if we stop hunting and live as farmers, one day we can live in skyscrapers and order Pizza!“ Rather the change was forced upon them by lack of game to hunt. Humans with their increasingly efficient hunting skills would completely erradicate large animals in many areas. Many animals where made completely extinct by humans.

Even Jared Diamond, a geographer, believes that the transition to agriculture — specifically through the domestication of livestock he believes are only found in Europe — is what gave Europeans a technological advantage over Africans, native Americans, and South Americans.

I am not disputing this at all. Quite the contrary. It is easy to point to the benefits of argricultural society in hindsight, but our anchestors could not have foreseen those benefits. The advantages of agriculture took long time to achieve.

Advantages of Agriculture

The food surplus from agricultural production allowed more humans to spend time researching new technologies and this is the reason why, according to some anthropologists, that hunter-gatherer societies that don’t make such a transition generally have less technology than agricultural societies.

Again we are not in disagreement on this. Farming gave a food surplus which allowed the development of different specializations within human society. However I think you draw the wrong conclusion from this. It seems you are implying that this is some kind of proof that farmers spent less time working than hunters and gatherers.

Hunters and gatherers had no simply way of accumulating resources, because they did not stay in one place. Even if a hunter could kill a lot more game than he could eat, it would be quite pointless. The meat would quickly rot. Population density meant it was hard to trade this meat for any other products. Accumulating a lot of stuff would also be pointless as they would need to carry that stuff with them when changing camp.

Farmers in contrast could spend available free time constructing better dwellings, food storage facilities etc. The higher population density afforded by farmers allowed farmers to trade their surplus for other things as buyers would be available relatively close by. For a farmer in isolation it would make not sense to spend lots of extra time producing a large food surplus if it would all go to rot anyway by not getting consumed in time. However as soon as the farmer is close to other people, he can spend surplus food on getting better clothes, tools, weapons, furniture and other useful things.

In particular if you live by the sea or a river you can use water transport to move a lot more goods and get in touch with a lot more people. That means more ideas and products can flow between people than in a hunter and gatherer society.

There is a common thread here. Surplus can be spent in different ways. Hunters and gathereres spent it on leisure, socializing and play. A farmer could spend it on building a house or trading for other items. Adam Smith remarks on this in “the Wealth of Nations.” The old aristocrats he remarked, had large banquet halls and feasts, inviting numerous people. The land owners of his time did not have the same kind of grandiouse parties. The reason was that surplus could be spent different. The land owners of older simpler times could not buy very many products. Hence surplus was used to entertain a large number of people. However when roads and water transport got improved and cities grew in size, more specialized items got made: beautiful intricate clothes, ornate furniture and jewlery, paintings etc. Rich land owners could suddenly buy a large number of these things, and hence ended up with quite a small set of retainers and servants.

This has expanded into modern times. The filthy rich today, have quite few servants if any. I doubt that Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos have servants. Instead they own far more “stuff”.

I can even observe these kinds of differences at smaller scale around the world. I have lived in different countries and I noticed that e.g. in America surplus is generally spent acquiring more things, while Europeans will often prefer leisure. Like hunters and gatherers vs farmers of old it is often a question of ability to store surplus. America has far more land and hence people have larger houses where more “stuff” can be stored. Europeans will simply not have the space to store a lot of stuff and will hence prefer to spend their surplus on experiences over things.

However all modern societies have the same problem that I tried to point out, which is that we are driven to consume far beyond our needs causing us to work more than needed and causing a greater environmental footprint than is strictly necessary.

Through a different arrangement we could have consumed less, worked less and enjoyed more leisure. It would have been better for us and for the planet.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store