Foragers have it easy: Study reveals hunter-gatherers who switched to farming worked longer hours
11/30/2019 // Darnel Fernandez // Views

The first agricultural revolution is considered one of the major turning points in human history because it introduced stable settlements and allowed the blossoming of culture in many areas of the globe. This event, commonly known as the Neolithic revolution, brought significant changes to the general human populace as they began a wide-scale transition of many cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of settling and farming, which would have been impossible in a nomadic lifestyle. Now, recent evidence has suggested that this drastic change in lifestyle is not without a few sacrifices.

An anthropological study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior found that hunter-gatherers in the Philippines who transitioned toward agriculture worked significantly longer each day to get the same amount of food that they would have had in their previous lifestyle. Women, in particular, seemed to take the most damage from this transition.

"For a long time, the transition from foraging to farming was assumed to represent progress, allowing people to escape an arduous and precarious way of life," said first author Dr. Mark Dyble, an anthropologist from the University of Cambridge. "But as soon as anthropologists started working with hunter-gatherers, they began questioning this narrative, finding that foragers actually enjoy quite a lot of leisure time. Our data provides some of the clearest support for this idea yet.”

Was life more comfortable back in the day?

Researchers from the UK and Switzerland followed a tribe called the Agta people, a group of small-scale hunter-gatherers that live in the northern regions of the Philippines. The researchers aimed to test the hypothesis suggesting that the transition from hunting to agriculture resulted in people working much harder and having less leisure time. They did this by examining the adult time allocation among the Agta people, who have been increasingly involved in agriculture and other non-foraging and non-hunting work. (Related: Can agrihoods (agricultural neighborhoods) help tie communities together?)


The team recorded the daily activity of 359 individuals across 10 Agta communities at regular intervals between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Using the data gathered from their time with the Agta, the team was able to calculate how these people managed their time, taking note of how and why they scheduled their free time, domestic chores, childcare and out-of-camp work.

From the observation, the research team reported that increased engagement in agricultural and non-foraging activities was linked to much larger workloads and less leisure time. The team estimated that, on average, Agta adults that focused more on farming worked roughly 30 hours per week while their hunter-gatherer relatives only do so for 20 hours. The difference between hours was mostly due to the changes in the time allocation of women, who spent significantly more time doing out-of-camp work in agriculture-focused communities.

The researchers also observed that both men and women had the lowest amount of leisure time available when they were at around 30 years of age, although the number steadily increases as they grow older. They also saw a sexual division of labor among the Agta. Women spent less time doing out-of-camp work and more time on domestic chores and childcare than men, even if their leisure times are nearly equal in amount. The adoption of agricultural practices had a disproportionate impact on the lives of Agta women.

According to Dyble, the reason behind this might be because agricultural work can easily be shared between the sexes than hunting or fishing. He mentioned that there might be other reasons, but further examination is required to give a conclusive answer.

"The amount of leisure time that Agta enjoy is testament to the effectiveness of the hunter-gatherer way of life. This leisure time also helps to explain how these communities manage to share so many skills and so much knowledge within lifetimes and across generations," added co-author Abigail Page, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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