Early Farmers Were Sicker and Shorter Than Their Forager Ancestors

By Valerie Ross | June 17, 2011 2:30 pm

What’s the News: As human societies adopted agriculture, their people became shorter and less healthy, according to a new review of studies focused on the health impacts of early farming. Societies around the world—in Britain and Bahrain, Thailand and Tennessee—experienced this trend regardless of when they started farming or what stapled crops they farmed, the researchers found.

This finding runs contrary to the idea that a stable source of food makes people grow bigger and healthier. The data suggest, in fact, that poor nutrition, increased disease, and other problems that plagued early farming peoples more than their hunter-gatherer predecessors outweighed any benefits from stability.

How the Heck:

  • The researchers dug through data from more than 20 studies that collected clues to stature and overall health—everything from dental cavities to bone strength—from ancient skeletons. These studies focused on a wide range of cultures in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas as they transitioned from foragers to farmers.
  • The team saw that across the board, people’s height decreased and health worsened as they traded hunting and gathering for the garden and the herd.
  • What accounts for the decline? While we tend to think that growing our food rather than foraging for it must be a good thing, “humans paid a heavy biological cost for agriculture,” anthropologist George Armelagos, one of the researchers, said in a prepared statement.
  • A diet based on a limited number of crops meant that people weren’t getting as wide a variety of nutrients as when they relied on a range of food sources, leaving them malnourished—and thus, both shorter and more susceptible to disease.
  • Living in agriculture-based communities likely made infectious diseases more of a problem, as well, the scientists say. Higher population density, disease-carrying domesticated animals, and less-than-ideal sanitation systems all would have helped diseases spread.
  • This effect was seen over thousands of years, starting at the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.In more recent times, however, height and health have been increasing, especially in 75 years or so since mechanized agriculture began to spread.

What’s the Context:

  • Armelagos and his colleague Mark Nathan Cohen first introduced the idea that agriculture could negatively impact human health in a 1984 book, Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. While many researchers were initially skeptical, the idea now has wide support.
  • This new review bolsters the theory with data from societies across many millennia and five continents, gathered during the quarter century since the book’s publication.

Reference: Amanda Mummert , Emily Esche, Joshua Robinson, & George J. Armelagos. “Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: Evidence from the bioarchaeological record.” Economics and Human Biology, July 2011. DOI:10.1016/j.ehb.2011.03.004

Image: Flickr / mckaysavage

  • http://evolvingthoughts.net John S. Wilkins

    An early view that agriculture caused a degradation in forager health and stature can also be found in David Rindos’ classic The Origins of Agriculture (1984), many of the ideas of which ended up in Diamond’s work.

  • Joe

    Is it not also equally possible that a less physically demanding lifestyle and more certain and less dangerous to obtain source of food enabled the survival of individuals who would have not been physically suited for hunter gathering?

  • John Lerch

    How about societies becoming less egalitarian as servanthood and outright slavery became the norm? And although I think the 2nd amendment people are mostly nuts; the lack of training of the farming/proletariat in the arts of hunting/war made them THEN more susceptible to predation?
    And how about the possibility of the reversal of cause and effect? I.E. hard times gave the farmers an advantage over hunter/gatherers but times were still harder than they had been in the archaeologically indistinguishable time a few generations before from which we gather the data on the hunter/gatherers?

  • Bonnie Bowman

    I can’t see early humans giving up foraging and gathering as this article implies, just because they had a field of wheat or barley and some cows. Early farmers had to have had a good reason to give up all the nutritional benefit derived from continued hunting and gathering. This article does not go into any of those reasons.

  • amphiox

    I can’t see early humans giving up foraging and gathering as this article implies, just because they had a field of wheat or barley and some cows. Early farmers had to have had a good reason to give up all the nutritional benefit derived from continued hunting and gathering. This article does not go into any of those reasons.

    One hypothesis has to do with the Pleistocene mass extinction (whether triggered by over hunting or not). Early humans gave up hunting and gathering in favor of agriculture not because the latter was superior to the forming, but because, thanks to the dying out of much of their preferred prey and significant diminishment in the numbers and diversity of what remained, hunting and gathering didn’t work anymore. Agriculture was their desperate last ditch solution that kept them alive, if worse off than before.

    It probably happened in stages, over many generations. Hunter-gatherers figured out early on that they could manipulate their environment in certain ways to increase their hunting and gathering yields. This would have evolved over time into the earliest forms of proto-agriculture (it could have begun with something as simple as noticing that a relative abundance of edible plants grew “spontaneously” near their communal latrines). A mixed system would have arisen where people obtained some of their nutrition from hunting and gathering, and some from local small-scale agricultural production. But as it became harder and harder to hunt and gather, more and more food was provided by agriculture and more and more effort devoted to it, until hunting and gathering was abandoned entirely. Once they committed to agriculture on a large scale, this resulting in agriculture-supporting environmental manipulation that made any return to hunting and gathering impractical.

  • tamurphy

    As sugested, farming was likely initially taxing, as it had to be carved out of then traditional modes of support, and was surely very inefficient in most instances. Abundant animals in the environment would have shared in the harvest, even if only while their human benefactors slept. In fact, this would have been a prime inducement to domestication. The decrease in stature could reflect diminishing physical exertion in the presence of what might now be regarded as quite moderate eating habits.

  • me

    Is no one talking about the fact that a hunter-gatherer diet is the diet humans evolved on? We’re not designed to eat grains and legumes. Our bodies thrive on animals, fruits, and vegetables. We turn away from that and we begin to get sick. Period. Discover really botched this story.

  • http://daybrown.org Day Brown

    Not everywhere. The 5000 BP graveyard at Varna Bulgaria shows women average in their mid 40’s and men in their late 30’s. None of the skeletons found so far, over 150, show signs of malnutrition. This is the graveyard with the famous ‘penis sheath’.

    The diff is that this culture was run by women who used herbal birth control so there was always the resources needed to raise every child. Make no mistake; dozens of herbs evolved to cause sterility or abortion to prevent herbivores from developing a taste for them. I have, for example, both sweet potato and wild yam in my garden. Both have the same hearth shaped leaves on vines, but the deer will eat the former right to the ground and not touch the latter just couple yards away.

    Wild yam has phyto-estrogen, the active ingredient in RU-486 and the pill. Part of the problem is the history we have was written by scribes in the pay of warrior elites, so these are the cultures that get looked it, and yes, slaves are not fed well.

  • ganesh

    I find it interesting and somewhat amusing that people speak of previous societies “choosing” to adopt agriculturalism over hunting and gathering. While it may be true that somebody once _chose_ to raise an aurochs calf or _chose_ to harvest that particular grass near the trash pit, nobody EVER chose to adopt farming over foraging. The changes in culture and behavior that eventually resulted in sedentary, agrarian societies happened over thousands of years. These disadvantages only developed and manifested very gradually, probably so slowly that people living at the time were scarcely able to witness it happening. It is not as though these ancient farmers were dunces who would decide to be sicker and shorter as a trade-off for an easier life and a more certain food supply. In fact, it is NOT certain that foragers have a harder working life than agricultural peoples. It is also false to make this into a dichotomy of one lifestyle versus another; there have existed societies that were sedentary, stratified and socially complex but were based on hunting/gathering (Japan and Pacific NW U.S., to name two).
    If the people of the past were able to see anything at all about this new “invention” it was that now they could have food surplus in a way that is seldom provided by the natural environment. Yes, there were salmon runs and and there was berry ripening time, etc., but the development of animal husbandry and plant farming allowed food to be plentiful at all times of year, even sometimes through hard times, and in such quantities as to enable people to simply reproduce in larger quantities. This is a benefit that even an individual can witness over a lifetime and whose ramifications we are still seeing today as truly modern production methods infiltrate “traditional” societies. Nutritional deficiency persists today, even in developed countries, for largely the same reasons as they did then. Farming is intensive land use that allows surplus food production and therefore larger populations, but since agriculture is and has almost always been fairly limited in diversity, there is little that it can do to provide a full range of nutrients in the same way a (necessarily) diverse strategy of forgaing can.

  • AG

    It is story of quantity beating quality. Just look at recently history of farmers replacing hunter-gathers tribes in North America, Taiwan, African farmers southward migration. You need one square mile to support a single hunter/gatherer. You only need one acre to support a whole famer’s family. Farmers will outbreed hunter/gatherers in very short time.

    It explained why roaches out survive dinosaurs.

  • Sean
  • dcwarrior

    and when you can support more people per unit of land, you also have the ability to amass the surplus, specialize and defend yourself… or attack. Once a society of farmers are in place, the hunter-gatherers around them would have a hard time pushing them back off the land. Too numerous and well-defended.

    I wonder whether the nobles among the agricultural societies were similarly unhealthy?

  • AG


    Both Chinese and European records indicate healthy height and development for nobles compared to civilian or slave populations. Nobles had luxury to eat like hunter/gatherer ancestors. Nobles basically were hunt/gathers over even larger land since they owned both farmers and lands. Ironically, some hunter/gatherers imposed themself over farmers and became ruling noble class. Their traditional life style of hunting wild animals however lost due to habitat lost to farming. When Hun invaded Europe during Roman time, the ruling hun actually recruited European farmers to settle in Hungary in order to provide them with material wealth. Well, farmers are domesticad animals like catttle.

    However, exploited farmers still outnumber hunter/gatherers in the end. People who can survive with very limited resource always have edge. In modern history, only country that did not suffer population decrease in World War 2 was China despite huge number of people had been killed or starved. China population had increased during world war 2. On battle field, kill/death ratio for Chinese army was 1:2. To Japanese army, they seems winning every battle. But at end, Chinese army seems never run out of supply of soldiers. Actually, the army size even increased at end of world war 2. To fight such opponent, you can win every battle but still lose the war at end mathematically.

    The same can be said during early struggle between farmers and hunter/gathers. Hunters might be good fighters to win every battle. But farmers had unlimited supply of troops.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Joe, no. Go with the less than optimal diet theory. What did farmers grow, the harder to produce but more nutritious xxxx or the easier to grow higher bulk yyyy? Clue – people are lazy and they want a full stomach.
    Also nutrition wasn’t something they even had a clue about. Farmers do not want to grow 37 crops, they want to grow one, maybe 2.

  • Shirley Dawson-Michael, Ph.D.

    The introduction of massive amounts of grain into the human diet can also account for less than optimal health, particularly in Europe. Follow the gluten trail and you will also find a trail of disease and compromised health.

  • Doug

    I wonder what the infant mortality looked like between the cultures? I would almost bet anything that agricultural families, with a relatively stable food source, were able to raise many more children into adult-hood than the hunter/gatherer groups.

  • RickW

    Bonnie Bowman says: “Early farmers had to have had a good reason to give up all the nutritional benefit derived from continued hunting and gathering.”
    And John Lerch says: “How about societies becoming less egalitarian as servanthood and outright slavery became the norm?”
    Put the two together and it becomes entirely possible that the majority of humans in any given society were no longer ALLOWED to forage. This can be loosely corroborated by the fact that among the earliest artefacts constructed by humans were irrigation systems:
    which required an “organized” (read: enslaved) population, not only for the actual physical work required, but (as longevity was shortened and illnesses grew in frequency) the need to procreate in a regimented atmosphere.
    As far as nutrition goes, this can be reinforced by Senate document #264:

  • Ashley Cakes

    What I want to know is why everyone seems to be bashing Discover for not reporting the whole story when it’s obviously a bullet-point article made to announce a discovery, highlight a few points, and then direct the readers to the more in-depth version by naming the book that originally theorized this and having links to other sites. Did you actually expected to find everything in this one tiny article? I mean, really, people.

  • Ashley Cakes

    Aside from my above comment, you all have interesting points. 😉 Hunter-gatherers were not as close-knit a society as the farmers, who eventually grouped together into villages and cities, created irrigation systems, therefore spreading disease at a quicker rate and to more people. I wonder what our civilizations would be like now if, hypothetically speaking, we had never evolved into farmers and instead remained hunter-gatherers? Hmmm…

  • Walter

    This is not new and is part of every introductory anthropology class.

  • http://www.bonsaikingdom.com Bonsai King

    It is very clear therefore that the mass production of carbohydrates through the advent of agriculture is the culprit. A high carb diet leads to all sorts of diseases due to increased body weight. Long live Dr. Atkin’s Low Carb Diet Revolution!!!

    Moreover, hunter gatherers have a variety of diet which gives them all the vitamins from a to z.

    We are as unhealthy now as the early farmers . . . . Thanks to the erroneous food pyramid and the carb companies that fool us to eat their cheap cereals, chips, and snacks. Also hotdogs and hamburgers which are chiefly made of carb extenders. And softdrink companies that feed us sugar instead of water when we are thirsty.

  • http://xyquarx.blogspot.com Bill Chapman

    I don’t see how anyone, especially hunter gatherers, could have had ready access to fruit all year in anyplace that had winter. I would also expect hunter gatherers to frequently have to go for days without any food at all. This whole finding is very counterintuitive.

  • Matt B.

    Of course it was unhealthy; you shouldn’t eat stapled crops. Those little wires can hurt on the way down. /sarcasm

  • Elizabeth

    So many bone fields to harvest for research…..all the ranges of height around the world and genetics have to play their part
    looking at the whole wide world with average height of different races can be a part of the research..

    I do not believe all early farmers were short or unhealthy, each generation continues to produce variety in size and structure from ancient dna

    unlike cloning (imagining)…. ancient dna works not by replication over and over, just ever and ever creating human tapestry
    Virgina Woolf remarked,
    “One can not think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” (Cader & Roth, 1991). This is a wonderful little book, my favorite line is by Gilbert Le Coze, “I am human. I eat meat ” (Cader & Roth, 1991).
    Cader, M., & Roth, D. (1991). EAT THESE WORDS. New York: HarperCollins Publishers lyz


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