Hunter-gatherer
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Was life easier when humans hunted and gathered their food?

University seems to be summarised by a great struggle between socialising, studying, and sleep with few people achieving enough of all three. This will hopefully open a path to a high paying career that gives us an opportunity to encounter another struggle, this time between socialising, working and sleep. While such a lifestyle is tiring, it’s generally accepted that this is progress, and we would work less than our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors. However, a study published in Nature Human Behaviour could suggest otherwise.

Anthropologist Dr Mark Dyble, from the University of Cambridge, and his team lived with a group of hunter-gatherers called the Agta (or Aeta) who live on the island of Luzon in the Philippines and have an estimated population of between 20,000 and 30,000. Occupying remote and isolated mountainous regions, the Agta are primarily hunter-gatherers but some communities also engage in agriculture such as rice farming – possibly providing valuable insight into how current civilisations built on farming transitioned from hunter-gathering societies.

Anthropologist Dr Mark Dyble, from the University of Cambridge, and his team lived with a group of hunter-gatherers called the Agta (or Aeta) who live on the island of Luzon in the Philippines and have an estimated population of between 20,000 and 30,000

The Agta are thought to be the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines who arrived from the Asian mainland through the use of land bridges. By remaining in the mountains, they had little interaction with the Spanish during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines and have shown much resistance to change. However, activities such as mining and logging have caused their population to shrink and they are offered very little, if any, protection from the government.

The team lived with the communities for two years and recorded what their hosts were doing at regular intervals. The results showed that, while those who prioritised farming were estimated to work 30 hours per week, foragers worked for only an estimated 20. This startling difference is thought to be due largely to women working in the fields and being drawn away from domestic activities. A possible explanation, according to Dr Dyble, the first author of the paper, could be because “agricultural work is more easily shared between the sexes than hunting or fishing. Or there may be other reasons why men aren’t prepared or able to spend more time working out-of-camp.” Although, he states that it requires further examination. Dr Abigail Page, co-author of the study alongside Dr Dyble, stated that: “The amount of leisure time that Agta enjoy is testament to the effectiveness of the hunter-gatherer way of life.”

The results showed that, while those who prioritised farming were estimated to work 30 hours per week, foragers worked for only an estimated 20

The Agta differ from most hunter groups in that the women hunt the same quarry as the men (most have structured division of labour between men and women according to a 1986 study). In fact, hunting groups consisting of only men, only women and both men and women have success rates of 17%, 31% and 41% respectively. A common arrangement for most hunter-gatherers is for men to undertake big game hunting while the women focus on foraging.

Although providing a very interesting example, there exists great variability in hunter-gatherer societies, primarily dependent on climate and the surrounding ecosystem and wildlife. While most hunter-gatherers are nomadic (such as the Agta) and thus only build temporary settlements, some environments allow sedentary as well as semi-sedentary lifestyles such as the Pacific Northwest coast. It’s worth noting that the societies of settled hunter-gatherers have markedly less egalitarian societies in comparison to those of nomadic groups.

Hunting groups consisting of only men, only women and both men and women have success rates of 17%, 31% and 41% respectively

Benefits of societies like the Agta seem clear, and raise the question – why did our ancestors make the shift towards agriculture?Previous studies on the subject suggest that farming increases population growth and fertility as well as productivity. In fact, according to researchers, only around 57% of hunter-gatherers would reach the age of 15, showing that even if they had more leisure time than we currently do, it isn’t without significant drawbacks.

Despite living examples of such societies, it’s important to note that most current hunter-gatherer societies have had significant contact with outside groups and thus would have been influenced by them, leaving only a few small groups of uncontacted tribes around the world, mostly in heavily forested and remote locations such as the famous Sentinelese people on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal.

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