Hunter-gatherers and farmers, the continuing saga

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Sandy made another response to my assertions about HG’s vs. farmers and quality of life, Agriculture Reduced The Periodicity & Amplitude Of Nutritional Stress. He’s done a lot of research to support his specific contentions, and certainly everything he reports is generally true. But, I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant or representative of the issues at hand.

First, he says:

I’ve done some reviewing of the literature and I still think that the probability that a child of an agriculturalist will reach reproductive maturity is higher than that of a hunter gatherer. Hell, that’s why there’s been a population boom ever since the Neolithic revolution.



No, not necessarily. In a previous post he alludes to r vs. K strategies. Agriculture could simply be a r strategy. Children never born are not children ever had. So agriculturalists could have a higher growth rate by simply increasing the total number of infants produced over a reproductive lifetime. To make it explicit:

Woman 1 = 6 live births and 3 survive to reproduce
Women 2 = 12 live births and 4 survive to reproduce

Obviously the second woman’s offspring have a higher mortality rate before reproductive age, but that doesn’t matter, there are more copies of her genes floating around. Population growth or decline is a dynamic which can be the outcome of many combinations of the parameters (e.g., fertility, mortality and generation time). If you know that in population A the mean number of children per woman is 3, and in B it is 4, you can not conclude that B has a higher population growth than A without knowing the death rates.

Over the long term agriculturalists have had on average somewhat higher growth rates, otherwise hunter-gathering wouldn’t have been totally marginalized as a way of life. But, that doesn’t mean that populations grew very fast; the logic of compounding growth means that very small differences in average growth rates can result in great divergences over long periods of time.

But, as I said in my previous post the issue isn’t really about looking over the long term. When the Europeans arrived in North America and Australia they perceived the land to be “empty.” Now, obviously there were peoples settled in these territories, but they’re average density was simply far lower than was typical in Europe. Why? Because these peoples did not have the cultural toolkit to extract as many calories per unit out of land. Europeans, with their more productive agricultural toolkit could naturally support far larger populations than the natives from the same land because of culturally contingent factors.

I think the same sort of dynamic can be projected back into the past. Imagine a group of agriculturalists who landed on the Breton coast 8,000 years ago, coming via sea from Portugal. The locals are hunter-gatherers who need enormous areas of range territory to support a small population. A group of farmers might be able to win or negotiate a “small” tract of land from the natives to farm. The natives might see this concession as minor; after all, they might not comprehend that a “small” territory from the perspective of farmers is actually going to be a “large” plot when conditioned on the agricultural techniques farmers had. During the early years farmers would experience plentitude as there is a surplus of land. Soon though they would need to expand, and here their ability to organize and project force because of their numbers would come to the fore. Not only would they be able to push back the hunter-gatherers, but likely powerful infectious diseases would sweep in front of their demographic wave. Soon, the only hope that hunter-gatherer tribes would have of defending against this would be take up farming themselves and become sedentarists. As this occurred the remaining hunter-gatherers would be pushed into marginal and less desirable land, further making the lifestyle relatively less attractive (any quality of life advantaged would be swamped out). There are plenty of data points which support these points from the last 500 years, from the European settlement of North America down to the relationship between hunter-gatherers and farmers in Botswana.

Most of the rest of Sandy’s post is an analysis of correct, but irrelevant or unrepresentative data. Or at least I think it is irrelevant, and suspect it is unrepresentative. To a great extent much of the human race today lives outside of the Malthusian trap, and the conditions of the past do not necessarily apply to today. Additionally, though over the long term populations grew rather slowly in the pre-modern era, there were local fluctuations up and & down. We know this for a fact from cultures where we have demographic data (e.g., England and China), so a “snapshot” of a given period does not allow us to generalize well across time. Comparing contemporary hunter-gatherers today with contemporary agriculturists is probably not representative of past conditions. For me the biggest problem is that hunter-gatherers today are selection biased toward regions where agriculture is not at much of a comparative advantage. This is why I tend to be more interested in comparisons of remains within a particular region which went through the lifestyle transition in the past. My general impression is gross physiological health declined. In other words, farmers are, on average, subject to greater morbidity, even if hunter-gatherers have more mortality.

In any case, one of the problem here is bigger meta-issue in the debate between Sandman and myself:

Anyways, in my previous post I outlined some of the ethnographic reasons why I think so. In this post, I’ll share some of the demographic data that supports my hypothesis.

I know less cultural anthropology than he does, and I’m not interested getting to know the whole literature. I could go to google scholar and look up some research articles which support my view because there are a lot of articles out there, and I’m sure I could find some trash which would support any contention I make. That’s why I’m leaning back on the theory about Malthusian assumptions that I can be rather certain of, even if I’m wrong as an empirical matter I can argue the logic with some concreteness and consistency. I’m not convinced by Sandman for all the reasons above, but, at the end of the day I wouldn’t be convinced by a few surveys of the literature because I’m sure I could selectively troll through the literature and find authorities to support me too. If I actually knew the literature with any fluency I could ascertain the value of any given citation I dig up, but since I don’t know the literature I’m really concerned about just selection biasing what I get based on the way I formulate a google scholar query. This is also why I’m pretty down on the citation wars which occasionally crop up in the comments, I strongly have the suspicion that the interlocutors aren’t really digging into each other’s citations, but rather just going to search for more papers to support their own argument. What’s really the point of all that? So I have decided to ask some people who really are in the “know” (that is, anthropologists who aren’t CAFRs) what they think.

Oh, and also:

Razib equates hunter-gatherers to lions, and farmers to antelopes. Lion cub mortality rates are higher than antelopes, upwards of 80% of cubs do not make it to adulthood. Whereas antelope calves, if they survive predation, have much more greater chances at seeing sexual maturity. It is much more precarious to count on mom to provide milk and hunt at the same time, than it is to graze. So, this issue is less about absolute availability and more about reducing the periodicity and amplitude of nutritional stress. And this is one of the reasons why the agricultural diet has ‘won’ over many humans, even despite the many shortcomings it has.

To the first approximation I somewhat accept this, but I’m not totally sure, and the characterization might elide some of the details. Imagine a scenario like the chart below, where Y = nutritional quality and X = generation. The average for a hunter-gatherers might be higher, but the far higher “floor” of farmers might make all the demographic difference over the long term.

Addendum: I don’t know cultural anthropology well, aside from the fact that CAFRism is endemic, but I do know something like the society of the Roman late antique period relatively well for a lay person, so I have seen people make arguments based on obviously retarded citations. Now, since these people are frankly retarded, dishonest or ignorant (or any combination thereof) any well informed response is really totally futile; people who can’t evaluate the plausibility of their own argument based on the quality of the authorities which they cite aren’t going to be able to evaluate the plausibility of someone else’s authority. This explains why I’m responding to Sandman in broad theoretical generalities and methodological objections; if I “dug in” by spending time looking for literature support my case I’d turn this into a lawerly dialogue, and what’s the point of that? Granted, I know Sandman better than if he was just a “random” from the internet, but still, life is short.

Labels:

7 Comments

  1. When the Europeans arrived in North America and Australia they perceived the land to be “empty.” Now, obviously there were peoples settled in these territories, but they’re average density was simply far lower than was typical in Europe. Why? Because these peoples did not have the cultural toolkit to extract as many calories per unit out of land.True, but also keep in mind by the time many European settlers reached areas, diseases had already ravaged the native population.

  2. Now, obviously there were peoples settled in these territories, but they’re average density was simply far lower than was typical in Europe. Why? Because these peoples did not have the cultural toolkit to extract as many calories per unit out of land. I thought this was more due to the last of resistance to various pathogens brought across by Europeans – IIRC, the plagues that swept through the aboriginal groups of North America are now thought to have killed somewhere around 90% of the population. 
     
    The Native Americans also did a much better job of preserving the ecology than the settlers, who immediately began clearcutting forests the same way they’d done it in Europe. Native farming techniques were quite effective in extracting calories – moreso than the European methods, I think.

  3. obviously aware of diseases. i was going to add that, but i was hoping readers would give me the razib-is-not-retarded benefit of the doubt ;-) in any case, the population density was still lower in *north america* (i’m excluding mesoamerica here, though from what i recall subsistence farmers have a higher time getting the same productivity out of maize as they do out of wheat). 
     
    The Native Americans also did a much better job of preserving the ecology than the settlers, who immediately began clearcutting forests the same way they’d done it in Europe 
     
    from what i gather a lot of the ‘virgin’ timber was regrowth after the great dying (though some people have told me that there is dispute about extrapolating from the pollen samples).

  4. “the settlers, who immediately began clearcutting forests the same way they’d done it in Europe”: as I’ve remarked here before, one of the leading authorities on the matter points out that no-one has a clue how our ancestors cleared the forests of NW Europe.

  5. i was hoping readers would give me the razib-is-not-retarded benefit of the doubt Sorry, razib. :c( I thought it needed to be said anyway. 
    as I’ve remarked here before, one of the leading authorities on the matter points out that no-one has a clue how our ancestors cleared the forests of NW Europe. We’re not sure how our neolithic European ancestors did it, but it’s pretty obvious from the Bronze Age onwards. The Native Americans could probably have managed the same thing, despite not having metal tools, with girdling and a little fire. It’s how they generally removed the trees they wished to.

  6. But “girdling” doesn’t kill NW European deciduous trees and those trees won’t burn either. That’s the point made by the ‘leading authority’, Oliver Rackham: almost everything written on the subject is unphysical guesswork.

  7. Bio, 
     
    I know you’ve brought up this point before, and I mentioned that a pickaxe is a good tool for such things, as indeed is a mattaxe. 
     
    I too have thought about this conundrum a fair amount, and have now concluded that the most parsimonious method of forest clearing is goats. 
     
    Here’s my theory: 
    You have a boat load of colonists from somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, or one of their colonies in the Western Mediterranean, like the Iberian peninsula, and they arrive at a location in NW Europe, which is sparsely populated, but heavily forested, and they wish to clear the forest and make way for arable land. 
    All they need do is bring some goats and release them into the wild, and then wait a while. 
    Goats will very effectively ring trees and kill them, but as you said, deciduous trees found in NW Europe are capable of surviving this. But what they are not capable of surviving is goats propensity to eat saplings! And that’s it, goats effectively kill off new tree growth, and once the current mature trees die of old age, all the trees are gone…

a