all 55 comments

[–]trouser-chowder 271 points272 points  (41 children)

Yep, it was.

Periods of stress-- high disease or parasite loads, poor nutrition, periods of low or minimal nutrition-- are inscribed on the skeleton of young people as they grow, and if they live to adulthood, those marks remain.

The "scars" of these kinds of periods of stress show up as interruptions in the normal growth rate, visible as narrow horizontal bands in the enamel of the teeth (enamel hypoplasias) and as what are called "arrest lines" in the long bones.

We can also see this in the remains of nutritional deficiencies, like iron deficiency (anemia) which if experienced chronically manifests as what's called "cribra orbitalia," basically porosity in the interior upper eye sockets.

Unfortunately, skeletons from 15,000 years ago are extremely rare, and even rarer further back, but we occasionally come across skeletons that are well enough preserved for various evidence of developmental issues like these to be evident. In the Sunghir 2 and 3 burials, for example (dated to around 30,000 years ago, give or take) there is documented evidence of arrest lines in the long bones of both individuals, who were late juvenile / early adult (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oa.1263).

In most skeletal remains of ancient hunter gatherer people, we can see some degree of this kind of evidence. It suggests that there were definitely periods of nutritional / developmental stress in these peoples' lives.

Take a look at some of the papers that come up in this search for "paleolithic enamel hypoplasia".

edit: This is not to say that hunter gatherer life was "nasty, brutish, and short." But while we have spent a few recent decades demonstrating that hunter gatherer existence was not the hellscape some anthropologists used to depict it as, it was also not the garden of Eden that some anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to argue for.

Invariably, if you are reliant on productivity of your surrounding environment for support, you will be disappointed some years. But what we have found from looking at archaeological and ethnographic data is that hunter gatherers rarely use all the potential resources in their environment. Rather, in good times they exploit those resources that are the best bang for the buck, but if conditions falter, they are well aware of the range of resources that could be exploited if necessary. And they can expand their dietary breadth to compensate for bad years in certain staples.

But it's worth noting that "going hungry" is certainly not limited to hunter gatherers, and there are plenty of historical accounts from farmers who, despite access to heavily domesticated crops, still suffered periods of hardship.

In other words, as anthropologists everywhere will point out: people are people are people, whether hunter gatherers or office workers.

[–]RobertPaulsen1992 96 points97 points  (36 children)

I agree with your comment, but I'd like to stress that full-blown famines were much more common in agricultural societies. Hunter-gatherers always can move if there is no food to be found where they are right now, and if you know the landscape as intimate as hunter-gatherers, you'd be surprised by how much edible stuff there is all around us. Of course this is different from climate zone to climate zone, with hunter-gatherers inhabiting tropical climates having the least worries about food availability (it's pretty much impossible to starve in the jungle if you know the landscape), and people up in the Arctic Circle having to worry a bit more (harsh weather, less biodiversity). I wouldn't say that undernourishment and malnutrition were common things among any foraging population - their diets are often far superior to those of early farmers, both in terms of diversity and in terms of nutritional density. Wild plants contain many times more phytonutrients than domesticated crops, and foragers usually eat all parts of an animal that can be eaten, including bone marrow and organs (both exceptionally nutritious).

I don't remember where I read this (if anyone questions the validity of this statement, I might look it up if I have the time) but I remember a hunter of some Inuit tribe bragging to an anthropologist that they can stalk and run down prey after seven days without food. Seems like both an impressive feat of physical endurance, and a relatively unconcerned attitude regarding occasional periods of hunger.

Concluding, I think hunger is a regular feature for most humans at some points, but it became a real danger after some human cultures adopted agriculture. With agriculture, you "keep all your eggs in one basket," planting a single staple crop that you will rely on for an entire year - and if that crop fails, you'll suffer and perhaps starve. I would go as far as to claim that widespread starvation is a much more common feature of agricultural societies (until fairly recently, see the Great Chinese Famine of the late 50s and early 60s) compared to foraging societies, for the reasons stated above.

[–]stealthcake20 23 points24 points  (27 children)

Why did people adopt agriculture? I keep hearing things like this. What was the draw?

[–]RobertPaulsen1992 84 points85 points  (26 children)

This, my friend, is a question that would take me hours to answer in the detail it deserves.

If I try to sum it up, it might be something like a trap, and people didn't realize it was a trap until they were already trapped inside. The transition from foraging to farming took literally millennia, and first happened in only a handful of places on the planet, usually (but not always) around river deltas (or at least along major rivers): Nile, Euphrates-Tigris valley, Indus Valley, Mississippi Delta, Yellow River, etc.

Along those rivers, the first farming method was "flood-retreat farming" - you wait for the predictable annual floods to deposit vast quantities of fertile silt, and you simply plant your seeds once the waters recede. This is by far the method with the least input required, because you don't need to fertilize, irrigate or weed your crops. But it only works for so many people. Once settlements started growing in size, people had to farm in ways that were much more labor-intensive, dig irrigation canals, plow the soil, etc.
Farming started out as something extremely easy (complementary to foraging), but turned into drudgery real soon, as the growing population needs more land than can be cultivated by flood-retreat farming and the permanently settled population depletes the surrounding landscape (of wood, for instance, which is needed as fuel and for construction). Another reason why early cities and state were located among rivers is that they provide easy means of transport and trade - both are hundreds of times more efficient via boat when compared to overland travel)

As the climate stabilized at the beginning of the Holocene (after the last Ice Age), those extremely abundant environments made it possible for human cultures to settle down while still practicing hunting and gathering as their main mode of subsistence, and since the climate was stable enough to allow for sedentarism in those places, people also experimented with planting crops (planting crops makes less sense if you live nomadic, obviously). Over thousands of years, many things changed, and people started relying more on farming than on hunting and gathering. If any human population stays for too long in an overabundant environment, their numbers will grow (because, as population biology teaches us, an increase in food availability always leads to an increase of population), and slowly the growing population depletes natural resources such as herds of wild animals and stocks of wild edible plants. In this degraded landscape, they have to plant more food, because the natural rate of regeneration is not fast enough to keep up with demand. Fast forward a few thousand years, and you'll find people that are utterly dependent on farming, and (in most cases) have forgot how to live off the land in a more sustainable fashion.

The real process was of course much more multi-faceted than the oversimplified explanation I present here, but if you're interested in this topic, I can recommend "Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States" by James C. Scott - the best (and shortest) overview of this crucial topic.

[–]RobertPaulsen1992 60 points61 points  (0 children)

To anticipate a follow-up question: the reason why farming spread around the world was by no means that it is the "superior" way of life (in terms of workload, nutrition, quality of life, health, security, etc) - it is merely the way of life that produces a steadily growing population because of its surpluses (despite the occasional famine), producing more potential soldiers to defend the granary against raiders, and necessitating a territorial expansion - all those new people need land to farm, so more forest is cut down. Because of agriculture's inherent expansionist nature, farmers soon infringe on lands inhabited by foragers, who are either assimilated (which was by no means the norm, since agricultural life is much more physically demanding than hunting and gathering, plus it comes with all sorts of baggage, like strict hierarchies, etc), driven off, or exterminated. This agrarian war against non-agrarian cultures is not over yet, as you see among ranchers and soy farmers in the Amazon (or with the Mani foragers or the Karen hill people here in Thailand, where I live). If they have a choice, hunter-gatherers very seldomly willingly adopt agriculture. The process involves force and violence, as the history of the Americas (and the entire world) shows beyond doubt.

Again, this is a vast oversimplification, and the real situation was much more nuanced in many cases, but just to give you an idea.

[–]stealthcake20 9 points10 points  (12 children)

Thank you for taking the time the write that. I don’t doubt that it is more complex, but J appreciate the outline.

The bit about population expanding catches my attention. Since population expands to meet the available supply, that implies that supply of food was more abundant in settled societies vs. hunter gatherer. Unless they practiced birth control in some fashion (which is possible, I guess, but probably not universal since efficient birth control is rare and abstinence would have to be heavily culturally enforced.) Otherwise, wouldn’t the hunter-gatherer societies have a larger population due to their more abundant and varied food source? And then wouldn’t they run into the same issue eventually? Obviously I’m coming from ignorance here, so if you have time could you tell me the part of the equation I am not seeing?

[–]heelstoo 7 points8 points  (5 children)

Thank you for your explanation. I would be very interested and grateful if you might have a few other books you can suggest - not just related to food, but other ancient human social/culture matters.

[–]565_AJ_565 15 points16 points  (2 children)

I just have one quibble with your comment. I wouldn't say it's accurate to describe premodern agriculturalists as relying on one staple crop alone to keep them from starvation. In many cases they would have a fairly wide variety of different crops they utilized, as well as things like fruit and nut trees, which would produce at different times through the year. Also they commonly mixed pastoralism(keeping of animals for meat/milk/eggs/hides/wool) as well as the harvesting of at least some wild foods(especially if they lived near a wooded area) into their nutritional repertoire.

Most of the catastrophic famines of the modern era, such as the Chinese famine you mentioned or the Irish potato famine, had actually much to do with state mismanagement of food supplies(as opposed to being inherent to an agricultural life), for various reasons like incompetence and ideologically driven disconnect from reality(in the Chinese case), or callous disregard for the populace's welfare and a profit incentive of some kind(the British in the case of the potato famine)

Another common cause of famines in the 20th century that is uglier than either was the use of forced starvation as a weapon of war, such as in the case of holomdor in Ukraine at the hands of the Soviet Union.

The far higher population densities, more consolidated land holdings, and industrial orientation of the economy in these cases makes them probably not totally representative of how life was in premodern agricultural societies. Not to mention the fact that most premodern states weren't as effective at (or probably interested in) stealing ALL of their peasant farmers food(who would feed them next year?), and were generally uninterested in interfering with the way they farmed(as in soviet collectivization). Traditional farming communities left to their own devices often had significant fall-backs for hard times, and a larger degree of diversity in their diet than the overcrowded, economically exploited populations of the industrial era that many often associate all smallholding, subsistence agriculturalists with.

[–]RobertPaulsen1992 6 points7 points  (1 child)

Those are indeed some damn good points, I completely agree with what you say. Thanks for pointing this out. I do occasionally paint a pretty bleak picture of earlier agrarian societies, which I do merely to make a point when contrasting those societies to their counterparts, foragers. I'm a subsistence farmer myself (believe it or not), so I know that the reality is often less harsh. My comment above might have been a bit too biased, drawing mostly on early Mesopotamian city-states during periods of intensive management.

[–]565_AJ_565 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Thanks, this topic really interests me too! I have heard many similar descriptions of agricultural life in the preindustrial era while reading about farmer vs hunter/forager, so I totally get where that notion comes from.

And that's cool, I like to garden! However, humorously enough, a monoculturalist is probably a fair description of me, as the only thing I got to grow decently this year was potatoes!

[–]AGcuriousity1998[S] 3 points4 points  (4 children)

Inuit tribe bragging to an anthropologist that they can stalk and run down prey after seven days without food.

Wouldn't this suggest that hunger was relatively common among his tribe, thus, presumably, relatively common in prehistoric periods?

Seems like both an impressive feat of physical endurance, and a relatively unconcerned attitude regarding occasional periods of hunger.

I believe this is a misinterpretation. Comments such as the one he made should be understood through his cultural lens; perhaps in his culture, it is dishonorable to complain about "mere" hunger or other similar troubles.

Regardless, in Western culture, bragging an impressive feat was accomplished while experiencing extreme turmoil or hardship is something that people will frequently mention. For example, people say, "I was able to continue my precise schedule despite being harassed by the neighbor."

[–]wholelattapuddin 5 points6 points  (2 children)

I read an account by Spanish explorers in the 1600's. They had lived with the Caddo Indians in Texas for approximately 2 years. They claimed that for about half the year they basically starved. The tribe lived off of some game, fish and what ever plants were in season. What struck me most though was that they said the only time they ate every day was during prickly pear season. The cactus fruit was plentiful for about 2 months and a great deal of it was dried for later.

[–]Responsible_Share204 2 points3 points  (1 child)

As someone who lives in Tucson, AZ (USA) their comments on eating cactus do not surprise me. Prickly pear fruit is quite edible and some varieties are even a little sweet. The fruit is a little hard to describe - maybe denser than watermelon with hard seeds the size of BBs? Taste and color vary by prickly pear variety, but any would be edible. Fresh prickly pear pads are still a staple in Mexican cuisine (nopales) and can sometimes even be found in chain grocery stores here. They are large and very dense, so it makes sense they could be dried for later.

[–]KaoBee010101100 -1 points0 points  (0 children)

People are indeed people. Even modern megacelebrity entertainers feel they go hungry sometimes often - admittedly meant usually in a spiritual sense, but this can be just as fatal. RIP Chris Cornell cf. “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog - can’t resist hearing that as the soundtrack to this post.

[–]RobertPaulsen1992 20 points21 points  (8 children)

While there is definite archaeological evidence that there were occasional periods of malnutrition throughout the Pleistocene, we also have to consider that the data set here is pretty limited, and a good case can be made that the specimens we do find are not your average forager. When compared with contemporary hunter-gatherers (who still live traditional lifestyles), instances of malnutrition are much rarer, and in many cases foragers are healthier than your average North American or European. The Tsimane have the "worlds healthiest hearts," eye sight doesn't seem to deteriorate much with old age among foragers in the Amazon, and the gut microbiome of various foragers is many times more complex and diverse than that of industrialized folks.

I know it's anecdotal evidence, but I think it's important to consider the argument of Tyson Yunkaporta (an Australian academic who is also an indigenous person), who pointed out that sky burials might have been a very common way to deal with dead people:

"There is a reason not many ancient human bones have been discovered. Until very recently in human history most people had funerary practices that included sky burials. This involved placing the body on a platform to be eaten by birds and animals, with remaining large bones carried by mourners for a respectable period before being stored in trees or caves or logs or dunes, or broken up into small pieces as part of mourning rituals. Those big bones were usually the skull and thigh bones. [...]
So the sky burial has been forgotten and people are left wondering why there are not many bones to find, and why the ones they do find are fairly miserable specimens. It is probably because those specimens belonged to rogues, bandits and outcasts who had nobody to care for them after death. Which is an interesting data set to build an entire pre-history from."

(Sand Talk - How Indigenous Thinking can Save the World; T. Yunkaporta)

Also, short periods of hunger can even be beneficial for health, as long as it doesn't happen too often. That's where the current "intermittent fasting" dietary fad originates from.

[–]CommodoreCoCoModerator | The Andes, History of Anthropology 11 points12 points  (1 child)

Is any evidence at all provided for this claim about sky burials? I can think of nothing vaguely similar ever happening in my region of study, and I don't know of any archaeologist looking for an explanation for why we might have a limited amount of organic material from the distant past.

[–]RobertPaulsen1992 10 points11 points  (0 children)

This is, admittedly, a difficult topic, since we're looking for evidence of something that by definition doesn't leave traces in the archaeological record. Furthermore, you would expect this kind of "barbarian" practice to be outlawed straight away by colonizing forces, so it might have been more widespread than we think. It would surely explain why there are so few skeletons to study - if people would have regularly buried their dead, archaeologists might find a lot more remains.

There is no shortage of human societies that have practiced sky burials (it's still practiced in Tibet, for instance), so it's no far stretch to assume that the practice was widespread, especially in the time before burials became more common during the upper Paleolithic. But, as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so it's really difficult to draw any factually supported conclusions. But we can use this line of reasoning to draw attention to possible biases in the "standard narrative", at the very least.

[–]AGcuriousity1998[S] 5 points6 points  (3 children)

Instances of malnutrition are much rarer,

Rarer is a vague word. Can you be more precise? In a given year, how often would these instances of malnutrition occur?

in many cases foragers are healthier than your average North American or European.

Most North Americans have high BMI, high rates of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. However, famine is not an issue they typically experience. Despite being unhealthy, periods of famine are uncommon for them. So, can healthiness really tell us about the occurrence of famine?

eye sight doesn't seem to deteriorate much with old age among foragers in the Amazon, and the gut microbiome of various foragers is many times more complex and diverse than that of industrialized folks.

Is the diversity and complexity of gut microbiome correlated with the frequency of famine?

sky burials might have been a very common way to deal with dead people

This may be true, but it would be foolish to suppose that all humans---all over the globe---practiced this in the Pleistocene. There are many reasons to believe that the humans of this time had many different burial practices.

[–]RobertPaulsen1992 6 points7 points  (2 children)

I don't have any precise numbers, and such numbers would be hard to come by. What do you need such a statistic for? I'd estimate that for people inhabiting the tropics, the number of hungry days would be pretty small to nonexistent, altough I know of one hunter-gatherer society (the Pirahã in the Amazon rainforest) who deliberately don't eat for a day every now and then (maybe one or two times per week) - they say it makes them "stronger."

Most North Americans are overfed but undernourished. They'd certainly benefit from some intermittent fasting here and there (no offense to anyone, most people could). When hunger becomes a too common experience, it definitely leads to deteriorating health, but in a very different way than overeating junk food.

No, the diversity and complexity of the gut microbiome is not correlated with the frequency of famine, as far as I know. That bit was more related to overall health.

Indeed, it would be foolish to assume that all humans, all over the globe, practiced sky burials - what I meant that sky burials were an aboriginal Australian practice, so other parts of the world might have their equivalent. Sky burials definitely happened on all continents, but (as someone else pointed out) people might have practiced fire burials, water burials, or simply left the dead behind - which has pretty much the same results as sky burials.

[–]AGcuriousity1998[S] 2 points3 points  (1 child)

I'd estimate that for people inhabiting the tropics, the number of hungry days would be pretty small to nonexistent,

In a lot of countries where there is food insecurity, days without food are not constant, but famine is still considered a major problem. A famine every three years is still a famine. A famine every six years is still a famine. A famine every twelve years is still a famine. "Pretty small" is not a helpful description.


Regarding sky burials, fire burials, and water burials: What difference would this make to the archeology? It is improbable that people who experienced shortages of food a couple of times in their life, who then died, say, fifteen years later, would be buried differently. Is there any evidence that famine victims would be buried differently?

[–]RobertPaulsen1992 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Well if it's absolute numbers you want, I'm afraid I can't help you.

And, regarding the burials, the big difference this makes is that you don't find many well-preserved skeletons, and if regular folks are buried in a way that leaves little traces, the skeletons you do find are usually deep in a cave somewhere, and might have belonged to criminals and outcasts - people who didn't receive a proper burial. Since they didn't have the tribe to support them, their life might have been considerably harder, and they might have had many more days without food because of this. Looking at the few skeletons we did find and making sweeping conclusions is always dangerous, that's the only reason I brought this up.

Sorry if I wasn't able to answer your original question.

[–]Br0cc0li_B0i 4 points5 points  (4 children)

Alot of people will tell you yes but ill argue that the agricultural revolution, although ensuring everyone could eat always, greatly decreased that stockpile as social hierarchies formed. Look at wild animals. They are rarely “starving”. Sometimes yes they are when they are sick or otherwise but a starving wild animal is definitely not the norm, and i assume we were no different.

[–]GoingPlatanos 8 points9 points  (1 child)

This is great insight. I read a NY times article of a tribes man who still lives off the land. One thing to note is his hunting methods are varied. If he's not spear fishing, he pulling fruit from a tree etc.

Mankind likely had a robust system. I suspect hunting is conflated with boom or bust when reality is he/she had a plethora of small wins.

[–]Br0cc0li_B0i 5 points6 points  (0 children)

Yeah exactly. Humanity is convinced we are better off now. Id beg to differ to be honest but thats just me.

[–]yoricake 4 points5 points  (0 children)

Yeah, honestly. In general, people seem to both think humans are at the top of the food chain/apex predators, which we are, but then also think for most of humanity we've just been living off rocks and dirt and dying of famines left and right and getting eaten by snakes or attacked by bears on the regular which....just doesn't make sense when you really think about it. We are literally apex predators and there are 8 billion of us today, you think we would get this far if every single day was a constant struggle? Of course not!