Modern farmers work harder than cavemen did: study

Most would consider themselves lucky to have been born in the modern age — unthreatened by food scarcity and saber-toothed tigers.

But a new anthropological study based in the Philippines suggests that hunter-gatherers get about 10 hours more leisure time per week than their farming counterparts — a shift which also disproportionately affects women.

Experts say that prehistoric man began growing plants as far back as 23,000 years ago and surpassed hunting and gathering as the primary means of food cultivation some 5,000 years ago.

“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,” says Mark Dyble of University of Cambridge, first author of the study now appearing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. “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.”

For the past two years, Dyble and his team of anthropologists have lived with the Agta, an indigenous, mountain-dwelling people who still engage in ancient foraging and rice farming practices. Researchers observed and recorded the daily activity of 359 individuals, noting how and when they scheduled free time, child care, domestic chores and either cultivating or hunting for food.

They found that the Agta communities that engage in agriculture ended up working harder and losing leisure time compared to their hunter-gatherer relatives. It was revealed that farmers spend on average 30 hours per week tending their crops, while foragers spent just 20 hours searching for food in the wild. Women in agricultural communities, who also manage the largest share of child rearing and domestic work, had half as much free time as women in hunter-gatherer groups.

“This might be because agricultural work is more easily shared between the sexes than hunting or fishing,” Dyble says. “Or there may be other reasons why men aren’t prepared or able to spend more time working out-of-camp. This needs further examination.”

Research co-author Abigail Page says this study can’t prove that cavemen had it easy, but it does raise the question: “Why did humans adopt agriculture?”

“The amount of leisure time that Agta enjoy is testament to the effectiveness of the hunter-gatherer way of life,” Page says. “This leisure time also helps to explain how these communities manage to share so many skills and so much knowledge within lifetimes and across generations.”

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