Glamorizing Our Hunter-Gatherer Past

I finally read Jared Diamond’s controversial article (published back in 1987) “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“.  In it, he writes: “Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest lasting lifestyle in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.” Parts of this article certainly resonate with me, other parts don’t. The agricultural revolution, in my opinion, has presented some interesting challenges for humans and in many ways is at least partly responsible for many of our modern health woes. To blame agriculture for all of the flaws in humanity is, however, simply not fair.

Diamond is clearly guilty of wishful thinking and romanticizing the past. He writes about our collective past with a unique brand of Panglossian vigor. “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism,that curse our existence.” I have one minor objection to that claim: these problems are, however, not unique to societies with agriculture. This is merely a rendition of “the myth of the Noble Savage“.

The myth of the Noble Savage is anthropology’s oldest and most successful hoax. The myth makes the false claim that tribal societies of the past were noble and non-violent and it is often used in modern discourse to promote idealistic political agendas. The reality is that native peoples, the world over, have been fighting, conquering, and generally mistreating each other since the beginning of human history. Denying historical truths and elements of human nature demonstrates a rare form naivety. I didn’t expect to find this type of naivety in the writings of a renowned anthropologist like Diamond.

Bruce Thornton trashes “the myth of the noble savage” in his brilliant book Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge. Thornton never praises the ugly side of world history or human nature, but he never tries to deny its existence. Thornton shows compelling research suggesting that men in all known tribal societies dominated women. Sadly, women and children were the first to starve when food was short. Democratic practices in tribal societies were almost non-existent and power resulted largely from physical strength. Furthermore, almost all tribes engaged in warfare.

As I stated, agriculture, has likely been detrimental to human health. It is, however, unfair and naive to blame agriculture for all moral and societal ills as well.  There are indeed clues from our past that can make us healthier and help us to live better.  I think, however, that it’s one of the worst mistakes in anthropology to glamorize our hunter-gatherer past in its entirety.


3 Comments on “Glamorizing Our Hunter-Gatherer Past”

  1. Ben Atlas says:

    Greg, I have been thinking about this. With the agriculture the payoff of taking over a land increased exponentially. If you take over a territory of hunters gathers you might lose the knowledge of the terrain, etc. But the reward of taking over a cultivated land or a live stock is exponentially higher. Next thing you know the insensitive for wars is through the roof.

  2. […] Diamond, for one, has argued that the agricultural revolution was the worst mistake of the human race.  Then, there are those who argue that the industrial revolution was the worst mistake of the […]

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