Were Hunter-Gatherers Healthier Than the Modern Humans?

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Hunter gatherers are often thought of as dumb animalistic folks who lived short, miserable lives. In terms of societal advancements such as technology, hunter gatherer societies were inferior to modern civilized human societies. However, this simplistic perspective prevents individuals gaining insight into 90%1 of our evolution as hunter gatherers, and that insight might offer us lessons as to how to maximize our quality of life by catering to our nature and about how we evolved. 

Hunter-Gatherers

It is well known that hunter gatherers had significantly shorter average life expectancy than contemporary humans, the average hunter gatherer lifespan being somewhere between 21 and 37 2 compared to the global life expectancy of humans today which is 70 plus3. However, once violence, child mortality and other factors are controlled for, average hunter gatherer lifespan at birth becomes 702 which is almost the same as of contemporary humans.  

Hunter gatherers that exist today are also vastly healthier than civilizational humans. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are very uncommon amongst hunter gatherers – less than 10% 4 of over 60s in a population have NCDs, compared to modern urban populations where about 15% 5 of 60 to 79 year olds have heart disease alone (only one of the many possibilities of NCD). The average hunter gatherer is also far fitter than the average urban human, as the average hunter gatherer has approximately 100 minutes per day of moderate to high intensity exercise 4, compared to the modern American adult’s 17 minutes 7. Their mean body fat is also around 26% for females and 14% for males 4, compared to the average American adult’s body fat of 40% for females and 28% for males 8

Furthermore, when the Neolithic era started (this generally constitutes a transition from hunting and gathering to farming), health of humans as individuals declined 6. An increase in dental diseases, infectious diseases, and nutritional deficiencies occurred 6 with the onset of the Neolithic revolution. There is also a trend of decreasing adult height with an increasingly agriculture-based diet 6. The reduction of variation of foods in diet is likely a large aspect of this. Ironically, hunter gatherers actually also acquired their sustenance in less time than agriculturalists, meaning hunter gatherers had more leisure time 9. Even more shockingly, there was actually less famine amongst hunter gatherers than agriculturists 10

Hunter gatherer societies were also more egalitarian than farming-dependent societies 11 because less resources were accumulated and therefore individuals could not gain power over other individuals, as they were all necessary parts to the collective. Therefore, it seems that resource accumulation leading to large population explosion was the primary factor for human innovation since onset of agriculture, and that it is likely that the health of individuals was compromised as a result. Although, clearly many of these innovations such as medicine can improve human health, however, many causes of mental and physical health deterioration are due to our divergence from our hunter gatherer roots. 

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References:  

  1. Daly R., …. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge University Press. Available online at  https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5eEASHGLg3MC&pg=PP2&redir_esc=y&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false  
  1. McCauley B., 2018. Life Expectancy in Hunter-Gatherers. Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. First Online: 30 November 2018. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2352-1 Available online at https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-16999-6_2352-1#:~:text=in%20their%20grandchildren.-,Conclusion,individuals%20living%20in%20developed%20countries. 
  1. Max Roser, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Hannah Ritchie (2013) – “Life Expectancy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy’ [Online Resource] https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy 
  1. Pontzer H., Wood BM and Raichlen DA 2018. Hunter‐gatherers as models in public health. Obesity Reviews. Volume 19, Issue S1. First published: 03 December 2018. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12785  Available online at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/obr.12785 
  1. Mozaffarian D et al. 2015. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2015 Update. Circulation. 2015;131: e29-e322. Available online at https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_449846.pdf 
  1. Mummert A, Esche E, Robinson J, Armelagos GJ. Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: evidence from the bioarchaeological record. Econ Hum Biol. 2011;9(3):284-301. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2011.03.004 Available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21507735/ 
  1. Romero M., 2012. How Much Do Americans Really Exercise? Washingtonian. Published on May 10, 2012. Available online at https://www.washingtonian.com/2012/05/10/how-much-do-americans-really-exercise/#:~:text=The%20CDC%20says%20adults%2018,half%20times%20less%20than%20teenagers. 
  1. Marie-Pierre St-Onge 2010. Are Normal-Weight Americans Over-Fat? Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Nov; 18(11): DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2010.103 Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3837418/#:~:text=Average%20American%20men%20and%20women,particularly%20in%20lower%20BMI%20categories. 
  1. Dyble, M., Thorley, J., Page, A.E. et al. Engagement in agricultural work is associated with reduced leisure time among Agta hunter-gatherers. Nat Hum Behav 3, 792–796 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0614-6 Available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0614-6 
  1. Berbesque JC, Marlowe FW, Shaw P, Thompson P. Hunter-gatherers have less famine than agriculturalists. Biol Lett. 2014;10(1):20130853. Published 2014 Jan 8. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2013.0853 Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3917328/ 
  1. Gray P., 2011. How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways. Psychology Today. Posted May 16, 2011. Available online at  https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/freedom-learn/201105/how-hunter-gatherers-maintained-their-egalitarian-ways  

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