Hunter-gatherer version of ‘You didn’t build that’

Are we really sure this farming innovation was a good idea?

Are we really sure this farming innovation was a good idea?

I ran across this quote in a WSJ review of a book about work and leisure among hunter-gatherers. A researcher in the 1960s studied a group of the few such people left, and got this quote from a member of the tribe:

“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

So, a culture like that one could never accomplish anything, could it? Depends on how you define that, I guess. The subhed of the review is, “If the inventions of the technological age save us labor, why do we work more than our ancestors?”

Why, indeed. Here’s what that researcher learned among this group:

He found that they managed remarkably well. Their diet was varied and nutritious. Life expectancy at birth among the Ju/’hoansi was 36; if a person was still alive at 15, he or she could expect to survive beyond 60. This was probably as good as it got in Europe until the 18th century. And the Ju/’hoansi enjoyed a lot of leisure. Economically active adults put in about 17 hours a week gathering wild plants and hunting, plus about 20 hours on cooking, child care and making and maintaining shelters and tools. This was less than half the time that the average American adult spent each week commuting, doing their jobs and managing their households…”


In Opinion pages of that same edition of the Journal, we find this headline, which is more stereotypical of what we expect from the WSJ: “Capitalism Is What Will Defeat Covid.”

I haven’t read that piece yet, but I suspect that hed was written by some young person who has killed too much meat.

I could also add that we didn’t have pandemics when we were hunter-gatherers. Such infectious diseases didn’t catch on until we started domesticating animals, working in cities, and overcrowding Lowe’s on Saturdays.

I will add this to my growing stash of evidence I’ve been collecting that suggests that this turning-to-agriculture lark that engulfed us 10,000 years ago wasn’t as great as it’s cracked up to be


11 thoughts on “Hunter-gatherer version of ‘You didn’t build that’

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I kind of think we’re a bunch of saps, really. The things we manage to rationalize ourselves into accepting…

        A couple of weeks back, I saw a video by Bishop Barron from out in L.A. in which he delivered a sermon about the Ten Commandments:

        At the end (at about 12:30 on the clip), in dealing with the part about not coveting one neighbor’s ass and such (OK, Beavis and Butthead, settle down), he put forth an interesting idea: That wanting things is only bad when the impulse is mimetic… that is to say, you want it because somebody else wants it, or has it… and that’s what causes conflicts. (He got this concept, I believe, from René Girard.)

        I don’t know if that’s right or not, but it’s intriguing, and I think there’s wisdom in it.

        Anyway, in making his point, he gave the rather stark example of people wanting a product because a celebrity has endorsed it. Which I’ve always thought was stupid, but now I have a term for it: mimetic desire

  1. Bryan Caskey

    So the people who are still hunter-gatherers have a guy in their tribe who goes hunting, brings back meat (for them), and some members of the tribe tell him it’s worthless because otherwise he’ll think of them as servants?

    Sounds like there are some deeper tribal issues to deal with.

  2. Barry

    I see where Trump attorney Sidney Powell’s legal filing depends heavily on convincing the court that Trumpers were as dumb as Sidney thought they were.

    Also read where, after falsely accusing Dominion executives of hiding, Sidney herself was hiding to avoid being served court papers.

  3. Lynn Teague

    Hunter gatherers really did have it better than we often think. And, early agriculturalists who lived in dispersed extended family groups often lived better than later larger scale farmers. I spent decades of my life studying this process with the Hohokam and adjacent people in the Southwest. However, there is also a great quote from an old ethnography about the San people of Africa– they had everything they wanted, as long as they wanted mogongo nuts.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      And of course, as Norm notes, they had no beer to wash down their mongongo nuts.

      I’ve always sort of assumed that’s why men started farming — for the beer. Their wives might have done it for the bread, but not the guys.

      By the way, for those of you who haven’t studied up on it… that’s not a joke. It’s a serious theory for why agriculture developed. It’s in the Daily Mail, and you can’t say fairer than that…


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