Hunter-Gatherers Suffered Violence, Famine and Disease–No Idyllic Golden Age

(p. 44) The warfare death rate of 0.5 per cent of the population per year that was typical of many hunter-gatherer societies would equate to two billion people dying during the twentieth century (instead of 100 million). At a cemetery uncovered at Jebel Sahaba, in Egypt, dating from 14,000 years ago, twenty-four of the fifty-nine bodies had died from unhealed wounds caused by spears, darts and arrows. Forty of these bodies were women or children. Women and children generally do not take part in warfare – but they are (p. 45) frequently the object of the fighting. To be abducted as a sexual prize and see your children killed was almost certainly not a rare female fate in hunter-gatherer society. After Jebel Sahaba, forget the Garden of Eden; think Mad Max.
It was not just warfare that limited population growth. Hunter-gatherers are often vulnerable to famines. Even when food is abundant, it might take so much travelling and trouble to collect enough food that women would not maintain a sufficient surplus to keep themselves fully fertile for more than a few prime years. Infanticide was a common resort in bad times. Nor was disease ever far away: gangrene, tetanus and many kinds of parasite would have been big killers. Did I mention slavery? Common in the Pacific north-west. Wife beating? Routine in Tierra del Fuego. The lack of soap, hot water, bread, books, films, metal, paper, cloth? When you meet one of those people who go so far as to say they would rather have lived in some supposedly more delightful past age, just remind them of the toilet facilities of the Pleistocene, the transport options of Roman emperors or the lice of Versailles.

Source:
Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

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