The bestselling author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel surveys the history of human societies to answer the…smile.amazon.com
“[There’s] an island near Bougainville called New Britain, where among the Kaulong people it was customary that if a man died, his widow was strangled, and not against her will. She expected it.
“She would call out to her brothers to strangle her. If the brothers were not around, she would call out to her son to strangle her, because she had seen this happen to other women, and now she expected it for herself.
“To us it sounds horrible, and I have to say I don’t see any benefit to it. It again underscores the point that there are wonderful things we can learn from traditional societies, and there are also things where we can say, thank God we’re past that.”
Among the San speakers of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia and Botswana, 60–80% of the diet came from non-meat sources, especially nuts and roots. Since women provided most of the vegetable foods, they were responsible for the majority of the calories that were consumed. Men mostly provided the most desirable food, which was meat. The San way of life was remarkably efficient. While they had few days that were free of subsistence activities, the ratio of labor expenditure to production was low. The ethnographer Richard Lee discovered that adult San spent only about 2½ days of 6 hours each week hunting and gathering. Young people did not fully join the workforce until around 20 years old. The 60% of the society that were healthy adults provided the food for everyone by working only 15 hours a week. Foragers have rightly been referred to by Richard Lee as the most leisured people. In the United States today, less than 1% of the population produces all of the food for the entire society. Given this remarkable efficiency, it is worth asking why the rest of us work 40–50 hours a week, often with considerable psychological stress.
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?”
While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.
One straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5' 9'’ for men, 5' 5'’ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5' 3'’ for men, 5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.
Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.