Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hunter-gathers and city dwellers

Our knowledge of history before the invention of writing is made on many assumptions and conjectures. As time passes we make new discoveries and think of new ways to look at things. The new discoveries and perspectives cause us to rework our theories on history.

An assumption that was held for a long time was that hunter-gather societies were uncivilized. We now do not think so. Hunter-gather societies had complex social and political structures. Hunter-gather societies on occasion built great monuments like stone hedge which would require massive team work and knowledge to create but the people who did it did not live in cities or have writing. The tools they created and used were complex and some are difficult to recreate even using modern technology.

We know that hunter-gather societies can have political and economic societies. One example of such a society was located around 3,400 BC in what is now Louisiana. They found 11 mounds 26 feet high linked by low ridges into an oval 916 feet long. We know they were built by hunter-gathers because farming did not come to North America (as far as we know at this time) until 3000 years later. They had visited the site each spring and summer to fish, hunt, and collect freshwater mussels. They did most of the things required to be called civilized but they did not build cities or farm. They did sing, have religion, traded with others, had technology (boats, spears, knives) etc.

Cities and hunter-gathering both have their advantages and disadvantages. At first it is likely that cities had more disadvantages for the majority of people than hunter-gather societies. The reason I say this is hunting and gathering food is actually easier than farming. Spend a few hours a day picking food and hunting, the rest of the day you can spend doing what you want. Farming requires a lot of labor to get the food and constant care. Farming also has more difficulties than hunting-gathering in a lot of ways. Poor crops, bad weather, flooding, etc., and farmers have a real problem. Hunters though encounter those just go somewhere else where there is food and animals.

Studies of fossils of early farmers when compared to hunter-gathers show that hunter-gathers were healthier. Hunter-gathers were larger (around 6 inches bigger), less malnourished (first city dwellers had protein and vitamin deficiencies), skeletons were in better conditions (farming caused more wear and tear on the body from working) and had less diseases (close contact with larger number of people, domesticated animals, and improper trash disposal led to an increase in disease in cities) . The wandering hunter-gathers were overall in better condition than the farmers.

If hunting gathering was easier than farming, why did people start farming and making cities? There are several theories. One being that the first farmers were forced to farm to provide food for other people call them slaves or serfs name really doesn't matter. A second theory is there was some type of catastrophe and they were forced to farm to get food since picking/hunting was not getting enough. A third theory is that someone thought of why should I continuously walk around when I can grow food here and just stay here. A fourth theory is there was to many humans around and to little animal life to support them so they had to adapt to a farming society to survive. We will probably never know and it is likely new theories will exist or the cause was a combination of things.

There are quite a bit of benefits to city living as well. A successful farmer can buy the labor of others with his crops. Other trades start existing since house need building, cities need policing, a centralized government of some sort needs to be created, granaries, etc. Farming can and does produce a lot more food than you can get otherwise. Which means you can store more food.

More food means larger populations. Larger stationary populations need cities to house the populations. These cities would need many things like a market so that people can trade goods and services. New technologies that weren't needed by hunter-gathers would be invented to make life easier and deal with problems of cities bring about. Things like the cart, to move the farmed produce, and plows, to plow the fields. City life would lead to greater technological advances than hunter-gathers needed. City life also requires a lot more and more complex socialization than the hunter-gathering life style does.

Technology is created mostly by need. Hunter gathers needed less so created less. Many technologies had been created repeatedly throughout history but didn't go anywhere because a practical need for it did not exist. The Greeks had invented steam powered toys but didn't see a need for steam powered things - The Pneumatics of Hero Alexander.

There were down sides to the hunter-gather life style as well. Sure a lot of them were healthier and had for the most part less to do. Hunter-gather societies are more limited in growth. A square mile of land can produce only enough food to feed a few humans at most when not cultivated. When cultivated it can feed around a hundred. It is also extremely likely that hunter-gather tribes fought one another a lot more often than cities did. Populations had to be kept down and from observing modern hunter-gathers like the Sentinelese (a hunter-gathering people that live on an island) as well as chimpanzee's they would fight over territory, water, and for females.

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