Paleo-archeology has demonstrated that, everywhere in the world, the transition from hunting and gathering to a grain-based diet resulted in stunted growth, more bone lesions indicating infections, considerably more dental carries (cavities), and shorter lifespans.

We moderns consider ourselves the pinnacle of evolution, whose unsurpassed intelligence has created astounding progress. Yet our brains today are 10% smaller than our Homo sapiens ancestors of 20,000 years ago, no larger than that of Homo heidelbergensis, a human ancestor that lived 500,000 years ago, and less than 85% the size of the average brain of the Neanderthal, who survived for 400,000 years in a dramatically shifting climate.

Evolutionary Detour

According to A Short History of Progress  by archeologist and cultural historian Ronald Wright: 

Average life expectancy for early agriculturalists was twenty-nine years for women and thirty-four for men. Average life expectancy in ancient Rome was only nineteen or twenty years – much lower than in Neolithic Çatal Hüyük, in what is now Turkey. In many sites, skeletons indicate that the wealthy were getting taller (generally an indication of good health) and heavier while the peasants became stunted.

Cavities, extremely rare in Paleolithic teeth (as well as in modern hunter-gatherers) show a marked increase in Neolithic communities. The best-studied example comes from work on ancient Native Americans. The early hunter-gatherers had cavities in fewer than 5% of the teeth, while nearly 25% of the teeth from the period after the adoption of agriculture are afflicted.

According to Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization  by genetic anthropologist Spencer Wells:

“The average longevity of male Paleolithic hunter-gatherers was 35.4 years, and that of females 30.0. Women’s shorter lifespans were the result of complications due to childbirth, and the pattern of greater male life span has been reversed only in the past century. During the transition to agriculture of the Neolithic and Late Neolithic periods, the longevity for both men and women decreased significantly to 33.1 years for men and 29.2 years for women. More strikingly, the measures of health decrease dramatically. Male height drops from nearly five foot ten in the Paleolithic to approximately five-three in the Late Neolithic, and the pelvic index drops by 22%. People were not only dying younger, they were dying sicker. Similar patterns were seen in the Americas during the transition period. Overall, the data shows that the transition to an agricultural lifestyle made people less healthy.”

Wells uses data from a classic paper published in 1984 by anthropologist J. Lawrence Angel, which analyzed the skeletal remains of people living in the eastern Mediterranean before and after the transition to agriculture. Angel examined several parts of the skeletons, focusing on teeth (which allow an estimate of the person’s age at death), as well as height and something called the “pelvic inlet depth index”, both of which are measures of how healthy a person was.

The tabulated data showed that, except for average life expectancy which increased dramatically only in the 20th century (and substituted chronic degenerative disease for acute disease), humankind has never been as healthy as it was in Paleolithic times.

Measures of Health in the Transition to Agriculture

“An evolutionary biologist would say that hunter-gatherers had an overall 22% health advantage over Neolithic agriculturalists”, writes Wells.

Grain-based agriculture required a sedentary lifestyle, active manipulation of the environment, longer hours of more strenuous work, a system of storage and distribution and record-keeping, non-productive classes to control and safeguard both croplands and stored grains, a peasant class to supply the non-productive hierarchy, a permanent military for territorial protection and expansion, an expansionist paradigm to control more croplands and water sources for the inevitably growing population, and the development of more efficient technologies with almost universal unintended consequences. In almost every case of these early civilizations (from Sumer and Mesopotamia to the Americas and Easter Island), the result was deforestation, soil erosion and/or salination, loss of fertility, catastrophic flooding, human slavery or taxation/tribute, regular warfare, human sacrifice, and eventual societal collapse. The exceptions to collapse were Egypt and China, both of which had almost limitless soil – in Egypt from the annual Nile floods, and in China from the winds blowing loess from Eurasia and piling it up hundreds of feet deep.

Along with the domestication of wild grains (except in the Americas), came the domestication of animals for power, meat, milk and clothing.

According to A New Green History of the World  by Clive Ponting:

“The pattern of disease and death has been affected by four major developments in human history. First, the creation of farming communities opened humans to a whole range of diseases that originated with animals, such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, leprosy, influenza and aids (humans now share 65 diseases with dogs, 50 with cattle, 46 with sheep and goats, 42 with pigs, 35 with horses and 26 with poultry).”

“In addition, permanent settlements made it difficult to provide clean drinking water and a number of diseases became endemic, such as typhoid, dysentery, cholera and intestinal worms and flukes. Second, the development of cities brought humans together in numbers (at least 250,000) sufficient to allow the major epidemic diseases, such as smallpox and bubonic plague, to develop and eventually spread. Third, the gradual drawing together of human communities around the globe spread new diseases to peoples who had no natural resistance. Finally, medical treatment had a significant but limited impact and, by the late 20th century, it faced a new threat from the changing pattern of disease – the diseases of affluence, which include cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and the growing number of antibiotic resistant pathogens.”

Leaving the Garden

As first articulated by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins at a symposium entitled “Man the Hunter” held in Chicago in 1966, hunter-gatherers did not suffer from deprivation as had been previously assumed, but instead lived in a society in which “all the people’s wants are easily satisfied”. He called this the “Original Affluent Society”.

Sahlins argued that hunter-gatherer societies were able to achieve affluence by desiring little and meeting those needs/desires with what was available to them, which he calls the “Zen road to affluence”. This he contrasts with the modern way towards affluence, where “man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited…”

A number of ancient cultures had myths similar to the Garden of Eden story, which suggest that humankind left the Garden of plenty and ease for a life of struggle, want and hardship. These stories corresponded to the period of the shift to agriculture.

So, it’s ironic that, today, we consider small-scale agriculture to be the most sustainable economic lifestyle because the hunter-gatherer economy is no longer available on such an overpopulated and diminished planet – except in those few remote locations such as the Amazon, Australia, parts of Asia and Africa, and a scattering of other sites – and no longer possible, given how physically weakened and sickened we are as a species.



by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page


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