Mongongo nut tree

Mongongo Nut Tree

The Thesis: Hunter-Gatherers Were Affluent Because They Had Ample Leisure

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. . . The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

So declared Yuval Noah Harari last year in his best seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015).

Judging by the 1000 plus reviews on Amazon of which only about 10% are negative, lots of his readers are buying into the agriculture-was-a-disaster theory.

Just imagine. Work for a couple of days or a bit more, then lie back and chat with visitors, snooze away the afternoon, dance in the evening. The Garden of Eden hardly offered better. Perhaps the agricultural revolution was a mistake.

I’m not going to take on all aspects of the agriculture-as-disaster theory. What interests me is the idea that farmers worked harder than foragers. It’s based on a limited number of studies of hunter-gatherer work. One of the most important, dealing with the Kalahari bushmen, turns out to be bunk.

I’m not the first to have discovered this by any means (see below). But it’s shocking and important to me. The agriculture-as disaster theory rests, at least in part, on ignoring the work involved in processing and cooking food.  If you take cooking and processing into account, agriculture was not a disaster.

Since processing and cooking is my major theme and since it interests most readers of this blog, forgive me for going on a bit.

Background to the Agriculture-As-Disaster Theory

You’ve probably already heard the agriculture-was-a-disaster theory.

It’s not new but has been around in its modern form since the 1960s.

In 1972, the prominent anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins talked about how forager-gatherers had found a “zen road to affluence” by having few needs that they could be easily meet (in contrast to the endless wants of urban dwellers) in Stone Age Economics. In fact, he suggested, much of the time they hardly knew what to do with themselves. Mark Nathan Cohen in Health and the Rise of Civilization (1989) added arguments that health deteriorated over the Neolithic transition.

By then, Jared Diamond had taken the agriculture-as-disaster theory beyond anthropologists to the general public with an article in Discover Magazine, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” in 1987. When he repeated the theory in the Pulitzer-prize-winning mega-best seller, Guns, Germs and Steel in 1997, the idea entered classrooms and living rooms and book clubs across the United States.

The Evidence: The Bushmen of the Kalahari Could Gather Enough Mongongo Nuts to Survive in 2-1/2 Days a Week

One very important line of evidence for the leisured hunter-gatherer thesis came from research carried out on the !Kung San, hunter gatherers in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa by Richard B. Lee in the early 1960s. It was much discussed at an important conference, Man the Hunter, held shortly thereafter.

The Bushmen had a “work week . . . of 2.4 days per adult,” Lee claimed in The !Kung San. Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society, 1979, chapter 9 (link to relevant chapter), 250-280.

Oh wow.

He continued, the bushmen “appeared to enjoy more leisure time than the members of many agricultural and industrial societies.”

The Problem: Food Processing was Not Counted as Work

But read on

“To accept the proposition that housework is work . . . does not mean that housework should necessarily be brought into the sphere of capitalist wage labor. . . . I have considered housework [defined as including food processing, tending the fire, collecting firewood] as a separate category in order to make these data comparable with data on industrial and other societies.”

Jeepers creepers.

I suppose it is a good idea to try to compare hunter-gatherers with modern industrial workers. But at the expense of not counting food processing when considering the work load of hunter gatherers? Really?

Consider Lee’s figures on the “different” category of housework.

Mongongo nuts. Wikipedia

Mongongo nuts. Wikipedia

8 hours a week spent cracking mongongo nuts (minimum, not clear if this includes preliminary cooking to soften the shell or subsequent time extracting the kernel), p. 270

4-7 hours a week spent making and repairing tools (35-64 mins daily), p.277.

15-22 hours a week spent on butchery, meat cooking, and fuel collection (2.2-3.2) p. 278 (no mention of carrying water in ostrich shells)

In short, between 27 and 37 hours a week spent by each adult on food processing and ancillary activities: fuel, water and tools.

Assume an eight-hour work day. Therefore: 3.5-4.5 days a week spent on food processing, tools, fuel, and water.

That is, given any reasonable sense of work, bushmen spent more time dealing with the food they collected than collecting it.

As so often, food processing for humans takes longer than food production or collection.

And the total work week for the bushmen on the lowest of estimates turns out to be between 6 and 7 eight-hour days (not counting child care).

Lee also claimed that a nut-collecting expedition yielded 1900 kcals per forager hour.

Later re-calculations by Kristen Hawkes and J.F. O’connell adding in the time to process the nuts suggested a much lower figure of 670 kcals per forager hour.

Turning Mongongo Nuts into Food

In case you’re curious, a little on mongongo nuts. They’re supposed to be pretty nutritious though mention is also made of their indigestibility. And they’re not that easy to process.

“The difficulty of extracting the kernel is one reason why exploitation of mongongo has been so limited, ” says the New Agriculturalist. This reminds me of the problem of exploiting macadamia nuts, which depended on finding a way to crack them without destroying the kernel.

Mongongo nuts come from a tree that grows widely across southern Africa. Sometimes its Latin name is given as Schinziophyton rautanenii and sometimes as Ricinodren rautanenii, so don’t let that throw you off.

The nuts ripen between March and May. A thin egg-shaped layer of edible flesh surrounds a thick, hard, pitted nut shell, and if you can break into that there is a hazelnut-sized kernel inside. The nut shell stores well for much of the year, a big plus for the hungry forager. Even the dried, crumbly flesh of old fruit is edible -there may be edible dried fruit on the ground for as long as eight months, overlapping the fall of the new crop. Some bushmen remove the flesh from the fresh fruit, dry it in the sun, and store it for use later in the year. Both Bantu and Bushman peoples use the fruits, with the modern preference being to boil the whole fruit to remove the tough and indigestible outer skin, and make a sweet, maroon colored porridge – very similar to ‘applesauce'(USA)/stewed apples (British colonial) – from the flesh. Natural Food Guide

So the flesh is nice, but it’s the kernel that packs the calories. Continuing from the same source.

The big value is in the seed. The skin takes up 10% of the fruit by volume, the flesh 20%. The remaining 70% is the nut-like seed, including the wide hard shell around it. The ‘shell’ (endocarp) around the ‘kernel’ is very thick indeed, and although porous, it is very hard and tough. So hard that even elephants, which love the sweet fruit, can’t crack them.

Edwin A. Menninger, in ‘Edible Nuts of the World’ says:

“A forester in Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] set this author some Manketti nuts and on the package under the scientific name Ricinodendron, he had written “recovered from elephant dung”. This startled me. The nuts are like oversized pecans which have had smallpox and were covered with pockmarks.

I wrote the forester to ask why the special inscription, and he replied that there are three reasons: (1) The elephants eat the fruits greedily and it is much easier to let the elephants do the job of picking; (2) The seed will not germinate until it has spent a week inside the elephant, and (3) The elephant enjoys the fruit but his digestive mechanism does not affect the extremely hard shell and the nut inside.

The natives of Rhodesia, therefore, follow the elephant, recover the hardshelled nuts where they have been dropped, clean and dry them, then crack the extremely hard shell, and find the contents perfectly delicious.”

So you get your nuts the best way you can.

The bushmen walk out of camp, collect them, pile them into sacking judging by the photographs on Lee’s site at the University of Toronto, and lug back 40 plus pounds on their backs. It must have been more laborious before sacking was available.

An adult bushman consumes about 300 nuts a day, according to Lee. A tree yields about 900 nuts a year. That means visiting about 122 trees a year for every bushman.

Once collected, the hard shell can be broken between two rocks, and the single kernel (sometimes there are two) extracted. It is easier to crack if it is roasted in a fire first – or, as in some areas, covered in sand and a fire built on top. Natural Food Guide

Reflections on the Agricultural Revolution as a Mistake

It’s good to question sacred cows, and the idea that the shift to farming was good had been a sacred cow since at least the Scottish Enlightenment (even if both the Bible and Romantics saw it as a disaster).

At the same time, however, the glee with which many of the “foraging is great” camp seized on the reported data about the short work week of the foragers has always given me pause. It seems more because it confirms their pre-existing suspicions about progress than a simple acceptance of scientific evidence.

Now I would be the last to claim that the life of farmers through most of history was a whole bundle of fun. It was usually grindingly hard work. On the other hand, most of history has been a pretty hard haul. And most changes in history have had uneven consequences.

The great thing about the research by Lee that set the recent re-thinking of the agricultural revolution rolling was that it was based on numbers, on observations of hours worked. I am all for trying to quantify claims. Even when it can’t be done exactly, it sharpens and clarifies the issues at stake.

But Lee’s work was horribly flawed by a concept of work that as what happened outside the household, thus eliminating all the tedious daily chores of collecting water and firewood, preparing carcasses and plants, and then cooking them.

A bit of personal history here. One of the things that impelled me to write Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History was Guns, Germs and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies The Fates of Human So. I loved the grand scale but hated that part two “The Rise and Spread of Food Production,” a long 100 pages’ worth, was in fact about agriculture. If you looked at the index, there were no entries under cooking and none under processing.

It was, I thought, ridiculous to equate food and farming. Farms produce far more than the raw materials for food. They also supply us with raw materials for clothing, with fuel, and often with the raw materials for housing. Conversely farm products are not food, not until they have been processed and cooked.

It turns out that Diamond’s lack of interest in cooking and processing was part of a consistent pattern going all the way back to the evidence Sahlins drew on for the leisured hunter-gatherer.

Eating is the whole point of food whether it is gathered or farmed. And until we pay sufficient attention to turning raw materials into food by processing and cooking, we’re not going to have an adequate history of the fates of human societies.

Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” said a bushman to Richard B. Lee in the mid-1960s (reported in Man the Hunter, 1968, 33). Well, because although the life of a farmer is hard and the diet can be monotonous, I find it hard to imagine that “it’s less stimulating and varied” than slogging around collecting mongongo nuts or that the diet is worse than a daily ration of 300 mongongo nuts and a bit of stewed bush meat.


For more criticisms of the agriculture-as-disaster theory, see David Kaplan, The Darker Side of the “Original Affluent Society (2000), Robert Kelly, Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers (2013), and “The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest,” Economist, December 19th 2007.

Wonderful photographs by Richard Lee of life among the Kung. Unfortunately under copyright.


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