One Little Duck

Sharing her views with the world

Hunter-gatherers – Noble or savage?

Dec 19th 2007

From The Economist print edition

The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest

HUMAN beings have spent most of their time on the planet as hunter-gatherers. From at least 85,000 years ago to the birth of agriculture around 73,000 years later, they combined hunted meat with gathered veg. Some people, such as those on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, still do. The Sentinelese are the only hunter-gatherers who still resist contact with the outside world. Fine-looking specimens—strong, slim, fit, black and stark naked except for a small plant-fibre belt round the waist—they are the very model of the noble savage. Genetics suggests that indigenous Andaman islanders have been isolated since the very first expansion out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago.

About 12,000 years ago people embarked on an experiment called agriculture and some say that they, and their planet, have never recovered. Farming brought a population explosion, protein and vitamin deficiency, new diseases and deforestation. Human height actually shrank by nearly six inches after the first adoption of crops in the Near East. So was agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”, as Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist and professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, once called it?

Take a snapshot of the old world 15,000 years ago. Except for bits of Siberia, it was full of a new and clever kind of people who had originated in Africa and had colonised first their own continent, then Asia, Australia and Europe, and were on the brink of populating the Americas. They had spear throwers, boats, needles, adzes, nets. They painted pictures, decorated their bodies and believed in spirits. They traded foods, shells, raw materials and ideas. They sang songs, told stories and prepared herbal medicines.

They were “hunter-gatherers”.
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