Historical life expectancy, via Wikipedia
It’s often said that villagers eat better than the cream of Colombo 7. Cream is, literally, bad for you. I’ve been doing some reading and apparently life expectancy dropped with the onset of agriculture, only recovering quite recently. Just as today the convenience of processed food has a heavy cost in terms of heart disease and obesity. Human progress in food has largely been quantitative rather than qualitative, more rather than better. Being a hunter gatherer isn’t idyllic, but we did get the balanced diet and exercise that now requires personal trainers and discipline. In many ways humans have left the Garden of Eden, made a shitload of mistakes, and are only now beginning to understand the logic that evolution weaves so seamlessly. Or as Michael Pollan says in the Times, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
I’ve been reading Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. His most popular book is Guns, Germs and Steel, which advances a unique and relevant thesis. He says that current power and political dynamics are largely determined by geography. The Old World had plants which could be easily domesticated and harvested (wheat, barley rice). They also had animals which could be tamed and domesticated (cows, horses, pigs). The New World (Americas), in contrast, largely did not. They had corn, but only later, and even that is a pain to harvest. In terms of animals, they had only guinea pigs, llamas and alpacas, which aren’t so much in use today, mainly cause they’re not that useful. Also, the North/South axis of the New World prevented the easy spread of plant and animal life because climates changed so much. Anyways, yadda yadda yadda. The Old World centralized, developed large standing armies, also the diseases that come from domestic animals and crowding, and the technological headstart that their descendents enjoy today. More than anything, their diseases wiped out the populations of the New World, which were then repopulated. Anyways. This is only one part of the book, but it’s amazing how important geography and food are.
Between Eden and Burger King
Diamond doesn’t portray hunter gathering as an Eden, and I wouldn’t agree with him if he did. Life expectancy was low, mainly because here was so much infant mortality (which skews the figures). He does, however, cite historical skeletal data which shows that hunter gathers were taller and healthier than their later agricultural descendants. This is also sorta obvious today in that high carbohydrate diets make you fat and less healthy than someone who eats mostly plants or meat. Hence the Atkins and South Beach diets, which cut out carbs entirely.
Also, many agricultural societies are literally living in shit, and in cramped quarters that lead the the spread of diseases (flu, cholera) that have killed more humans than any war. The reasons that agriculture reduced health are myriad, and the fact remains that life expectancy did go down from our paleolithic days. It is only now exceeding those levels, largely thanks to sewers and modern medicine. As Wikipedia says, ‘The sharp drop in life expectancy with the advent of the Neolithic mirrors the evidence that the advent of agriculture, actually marked a sharp drop in life expectancy that humans are only recovering from in affluent nations today.’
This means, to me, is mainly surprise. I always though agriculture was an unfettered good. Of course, it allowed more people per acre, greater centralization (and class differences), division of labor, and all sorts of good things that enable me to live longer today, but it’s on the backs of hundreds of rather stooped generations.