School history lessons encouraged us to believe that the transition from a nomadic ‘hunter gatherer’ lifestyle to a more settled existence was progress.
But if free time is important to you, it’s the opposite.
Some communities are still making that transition, so it’s possible to study the change in detail. A team led by University of Cambridge anthropologist Dr Mark Dyble, lived with the Agta, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the northern Philippines who are making the shift from hunting to agriculture.
Over two years, Dyble’s team logged how much time the Agta people spent on various activities and how much it affected their leisure time.
Their conclusions are published today in the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour.
“Why did humans adopt agriculture”
Dr Abigail Page
On average, the team estimated that Agta who were mainly farmers worked for around 30 hours per week. Their hunter-forager neighbours worked for only 20 hours.
The dramatic difference was largely due to women being drawn away from domestic activities to working in the fields.
The study found that women living in the communities most involved in farming had half as much leisure time as those in communities which only foraged.
Dr Dyble, first author of the study, writes: “For a long time, the transition from foraging to farming was assumed to represent progress, allowing people to escape an arduous and precarious way of life.
“But as soon as anthropologists started working with hunter-gatherers they began questioning this narrative, finding that foragers actually enjoy quite a lot of leisure time.
“Our data provides some of the clearest support for this idea yet.”
Focusing on the way that the move to a more settled existence has a bigger impact on women’s free time, Dr Dyble says: “This might be because agricultural work is more easily shared between the sexes than hunting or fishing.
“Or there may be other reasons why men aren’t prepared or able to spend more time working out-of-camp.”
Dr Dyble’s c o-author, Dr Abigail Page, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, adds: “We have to be really cautious when extrapolating from contemporary hunter-gatherers to different societies in pre-history.
“But if the first farmers really did work harder than foragers then this begs an important question – why did humans adopt agriculture?”