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Hunter-Gatherers Ravaged the Environment. Industrialization Saved It.

In 1972, Stone Age Economics, by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, appeared. It came out in France in 1976 under the title Stone Age, Age of Plenty. The aim of the author is to deconstruct what he considers to be conventional wisdom about the disadvantages of primitive societies and the advantages of industrial civilization. He threw stones in a still pond by showing that the hunter-gatherers had a life full of abundance and less painful than the settled peoples did.

We learn indeed that they worked only a few hours a day and were better nourished than the human beings who succeeded the Neolithic Revolution, agriculture, and the rise of more sedentary lives. The work had a resounding effect. According to left-wing anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber, Sahlins’s work had a decisive influence on the emergence of ecological, decreasing, and primitivist movements in the 1970s.1 The conclusion of this story is a priori confusing and poses a real question: why the heck have human beings settled down, since this has led them to work more to earn less? Are humans as rational as they claim?

Hunter-Gatherers and Malthusianism

However, the suspicions of irrationality seem to dissipate if we include in our equation the question of the sustainability of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Economists Douglass North and Robert Paul Thomas describe the problem well when they point out that hunter-gatherers acted like parasites.1 They staged a vast tragedy of the commons.

They add no richness to what nature spontaneously offers. They have every incentive to overexploit it in the absence of well-defined property rights. Finally, they are subject to diminishing returns and heavy demographic constraints. Wherever they go, their resources are dead. More and more scientists believe that the hunting activities of prehistoric man are at least partially responsible for the extinction of the megafauna of the Pleistocene.2

It is now believed that it is this fragile sustainability that led the hunter-gatherer populations to resort to drastic Malthusian practices to limit their demography: prolonged breastfeeding by women, consumption of contraceptives and abortifacients, abstinence, wars, and, above all, routine infanticides. Some studies suggest that “intra- and intergroup killings routinely wiped out more than 5% of the population per generation.”3 Anthropologist Joseph Birdsell estimates that the rate of infanticide during the Pleistocene was between 15 and 50 percent of the total number of births and women seem to have been more targeted by this kind of abuse.4, 5

The intellectuals who most idealize the hunter-gatherer lifestyle do not deny the frequent use of infanticides. Anthropologists like James C. Scott or Marshall Sahlins, however, attribute this behavior to the logistical constraints of nomadism, incompatible with the presence of too many young children.6 But these assertions, which slightly twist the neck with the dominant literature, join in finding the problem of durability. Because it is the depletion of resources that forces hunter-gatherers to migrate continuously.

The Invention of Agricultural Capitalism: An Ecological Response to the Excesses of Hunter-Gatherers?

The emancipatory fraternity of the first primitive communities and their harmony with nature thus prove to be a fable. The relative idleness which characterizes the primitive and free way of life was obtained only at the price of actions intended to compensate for an unsustainable management of the substances available in the wild. It was not until the Neolithic era that this problem was circumvented by the institution of agriculture.

Agriculture inaugurates several major upheavals. It introduced the first forms of land, plant, and animal property for the purposes of domestication, conservation, and sustainable production. Man ceases to be a mere consumer. He becomes a producer.

It is therefore logical that it [humanity] also ceases to perceive itself as a parasite and that it allows itself to form more densely populated communities. The density of hunter-gatherer communities was generally around 0.1 people per square mile (2,590 square kilometers), with the exception of the more resource-intensive areas. It is estimated that the first forms of agriculture allowed this density to be multiplied by at least forty.7

Agriculture humanizes family relationships. It reduces the need to resort to infanticide. In the words of libertarian anthropologist James C. Scott, “Sedentary farmers were experiencing unprecedented reproductive rates.”8

Private Property, Mother of Ecology

The property rights that emerged with the agricultural revolution were therefore born from the demographic constraints that inevitably arose from the environmental excesses inherent in the way of life of primitive societies. What lessons can we learn from this story?

The fable of the good savage remains a myth. Civilization based on the principle of private property is not the enemy of sustainable development. On the contrary, it is societies that despise or ignore private property that expose themselves to Malthusian tragedies and abuses.

Private property is, finally, a force of responsibility and conservation. All of the endangered species are now wild species while domesticated animals, especially for food, have never been so numerous. The challenge of resource conservation is therefore to introduce domestication — and private property — wherever possible.

[Originally published in French by Institut de recherches économiques et fiscales. Translated by Ryan McMaken.]

  • 1a1bEditor’s note: In the French original, the word used to describe Graeber’s ideology is “libertaire.” I have used the term “left-wing anarchist” after consulting with the article’s author.
  • 2Anthony D. Barnosky, et al., “Assessing the Causes of Late Pleistocene Extinctions on the Continents,” Science 306 (2004): 70–75.
  • 3Brian Hayden, “Population Control among Hunter/Gatherers,” World Archaeology 4, no. 2 (1972): 205–21.
  • 4Joseph B. Birdsell, “Some predictions for the Pleistocene Based on Equilibrium Systems among Recent Hunter-Gatherers,” in Man the Hunter, ed. R. B. Lee and I. DeVore (Chicago: Aldine, 1968), pp. 229–40.
  • 5Joseph B. Birdsell, Human Evolution (New York: Rand McNally, 1972).
  • 6James C. Scott, Homo domesticus. Une histoire profonde des premiers états (Paris: La Découverte, 2019).
  • 7Fekri A. Hassan and Randal A. Sengel, “On Mechanisms of Population Growth during the Neolithic,” Current Anthropology 14, no. 5 (1973): 535–42, www.jstor.org/stable/2741024.
  • 8James C. Scott, op. cit.
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