Farming is much harder work than foraging

The adoption of agriculture doesn’t mean an easier life, a modern study confirms. Nick Carne reports.

Among the Agta people of the Philippines, the women have more leisure time as hunter-gatherers than farmers.

Jacob Maentz/Getty Images

New research adds weight to the suggestion that, even today, hunter-gatherers who turn to agriculture end up working harder and having less free time.

A team of British and Swiss researchers found that among the Agta people of the northern Philippines, those who farm tend to work 10 hours more each week than those who still forage, with women suffering the most.

“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, an anthropologist from the University of Cambridge, UK.

"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."

While some Agta communities engage exclusively in hunting and gathering, others divide their time between foraging and rice farming.

Dyble and colleagues monitored 10 communities over two years, noting how 359 people divided their time between leisure, childcare, domestic chores, and out-of-camp work.

They found that, on average, those who engage primarily in farming will work around 30 hours a week, while foragers only do so for 20, and that this dramatic difference is largely due to women being drawn away from domestic activities to working in the fields.

Women living in the communities most involved in farming had half as much leisure time as those in communities which only foraged.

Agriculture emerged in multiple locations worldwide about 12,500 years ago and replaced hunting and gathering as the dominant mode of human subsistence 5000 years ago.

Abigail Page, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, cautions against extrapolating from contemporary hunter-gatherers to different societies in pre-history, but again asks the obvious question.

If the first farmers really did work harder than foragers, why did humans adopt agriculture at all?

"The amount of leisure time that Agta enjoy is testament to the effectiveness of the hunter-gatherer way of life,” she 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."

The answer may, in part, be that it’s not just about leisure.

Previous studies, including some on the Agta, have variously linked the adoption of farming to increases in fertility, population growth and productivity, as well as the emergence of increasingly hierarchical political structures.

In the modern context, there are other issues in play as well.

As the authors note in their paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the livelihood of the Agta is influenced “not only by their interactions with non-foraging neighbours, but also by national policies relating to the status of indigenous people, land rights and the environment”.

“Comparisons with farming aside, the amount of leisure time available to the Agta and other hunter-gatherers is testament to the success of the human foraging niche, made possible by our ability to share, process and cook food, make and use sophisticated tools, and accumulate foraging skills and knowledge, both within individual lifetimes and across generations,” they write.

“These traits may themselves be promoted by having the leisure time to interact and exchange cultural knowledge with large numbers of people.”

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