Why did Hunter Gatherer Societies adopt agriculture to sustain themselves?

28th April 2017

“If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture”.

(Diamond 1987:66).

In terms of time, humans have existed for a relatively minute period on the face of the planet. Until about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago[1], according to Barnard (2004:1), much of this time had been spent producing food by gathering wild plant such as nuts and seeds, fruits and berries, grasses and grains, as well as hunting large and small game as a valuable source of protein. Researchers who have studied the hunter gatherer lifestyles have commonly found that these people, generally, had a higher quality of life and more often than not, increased amounts of leisure time available to them. It is believed, according to Robins (2014:170) that they spent as little as twenty hours each week devoted to “work”. He states that, contemporary archaeological studies, alongside research conducted into contemporary hunter gatherer tribes “indicate that food was relatively plentiful and nutritious” (also note Lee, 1968:43). Jared Diamond also found through his own research a similar story, and wrote in regard to contemporary hunter-gathers that,

It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Diamond 1987:64)

This then begs the question of what changed for individuals and groups, previously associated with a hunter gatherer way of life, to engage in, and develop systems agriculture and domestication as a means of sustaining themselves.

One possible reason for the transition from a hunter gatherer society to that of an egalitarian one, resonated in the thoughts outlined by James Woodburn (1982:431). He voiced the idea in terms of economic systems which were based on the notions of immediate–return and delayed-return. Economies based on and immediate-return principle, he noted, tended to reject the accumulation of surplus in favor of a method which supported the actions of communal consumption and sharing (Woodburn 1982:432). On the other hand those based on a delayed-return principle allowed better for planning ahead (Woodburn 1982:433). Woodburn argued that delayed-return economies are better adapted to pastoralism and agriculture whereas immediate-return ones are not (Woodburn 1982:432-433). He claims that it is not that the people in individual-return systems have any technical difficulty with the ideas of food production, but rather that it is their social organization and value systems, which are based on egalitarianism and sharing (Woodburn 1982:431). A good example of this is in viewing the reasons why the Aboriginal people in Australia never adopted systems of agriculture. As a social value system, agriculture require a belief and adherence to the notions of personal ownership, of items, land and produce, and the demarcation of fixed personal, not tribal, territorial boundaries. The Australian Aboriginal people believed that it was the land who owned the people, not the people who owned the land, making a system in which the land was exploited for personal gain an impossible thought to understand.

In applying the ideas suggested by Woodburn (1982), it is possible to creatively link these with the theories of Mark Cohen (1977, cited in Robbins 2014:170) who argued in favor of what he termed “population pressure”, rather than environmentally related factors that caused the resultant transformation. “Population pressure” he states, is the imbalance which exists between a given population and resources available to support it. He very carefully adds the disclaimer that “the model did not presume that population growth was the only possible cause of the pressure. Declining resources could also be involved, as could, political pressures” (Cohen 2009: 591) that resulted in increases in population densities, which may have required hunter-gather peoples to range over much greater territories in order to meet population requirements. Such alterations would have then likely require increased forward planning and organization. In this case, agriculture could be viewed not so much a conscious decision or choice but rather an adjustment that was forced upon burgeoning societies as an effective means of meeting increasing demands.

Regardless of the initial causation of events, the transition from small hunter-gatherer societies to agriculturalists must have been a slow gradual shift, emerging first in Mesopotamia during the Neolithic era (Robins 2014:170). It is likely that the earliest agricultural practices were a form of swidden agriculture since this is generally regarded as the easiest means of crop cultivation, and one that requires only a few simple tools (Kottak 2009:357). This form of agriculture, while requiring large amounts of detailed knowledge about the local habitat, it is generally highly efficient. Cohen (1977) argues that it was not out of ignorance that hunter-gatherers refrained from the practice of agriculture, but rather that there was a lack of necessity that drove groups to engage and develop it. More importantly it is plausible, as Cohen (1977) relates, to consider swidden agriculture a direct and natural extension of many horticultural practices and techniques that already existed within hunter-gather societies, to increase the yield of natural resources. The only limitation, as much as there is one, to this practice is that it remains land intensive.

Robins (2014:171) addresses this issue as part of the ongoing debate concerning the reasons why later generations of swidden agriculturalists began to practice the more labor intensive form of irrigation or plow agriculture, since, he notes, it “do[es] not necessarily produce a greater yield relative to the labor energy used” (Robins 2014:171). Agriculture, particularly in its early forms, while allowing for a more sedentary life style, did not allow for an easy one, nor did it provide for increased short-term quantities of acceptable food sources (Kottak 2009:360). The only advantage of transitioning to this form of agriculture can be recognized in its provision for is an increased intensity of land use, which resulted in the production of more food per unit of land, and the provision of a more dependable yearly harvest (Kottak2009:360). This translated to the ability to support increased numbers of people without the need to open new, and possible more remote farming areas. Cohens (1977) argument may have been structured a little different but the outcome was quite similar. He speculated that population-pressure resulting from expansive human territorial networks, which by the onset of irrigation or plow agriculture had already occupied the entirety of the known habitable land, were no longer able to increase food production through the exploitation of larger land areas. As a result, in locations where suitable conditions existed, a more intensive approach to land usage was conceived as the only possible solution. Progressivists relate that, although the labor requirements for plow and irrigation agriculture are substantially higher than swidden agriculture, the most important fact is that, the net yearly yield for equivalent sized areas, is considerably higher (Robin 2014:171; Diamond 1987:64). This higher yield, Robins (2041:171) explains, comes at a cost.

Of the four agricultural essentials – land, water, labour, energy – irrigation requires more water, labour, and energy than swidden agriculture, [and] … requires a more complex social and political structure, with a highly centralized bureaucracy to direct the construction, maintenance and oversight of the required canals, dikes, and in some cases, dams” (Robins 2041:171).

The outcome of this appears obvious, since any specialization of labour, along with an increased labour source needed to manage both construction projects and agricultural duties, requires an increased population, which could only be fed through land exploitive practices made possible through plow and irrigation agriculture. The application of similar population-pressures among different groups, would require similar responses and would explain why agriculture appeared in apparently unrelated and wide ranging societies at around the same time.

A defining feature in human affairs has always been the fluidity and transformation which exists within social relations. As technological advancement, in this case in the form of agriculture, has continued to progress, the development and implementation of formal institutions has played an increasingly important role in human adaptation. In considering this, it would be a justifiable position to claim that, as a direct result of the “progress” made in agricultural techniques and technologies, civilization became possible not through the development or betterment of a quality of life, or even of a quality of food, but rather through the sheer quantity of food that, using plow and irrigation methods of agriculture, was now able to be provided to sustain an increasing population density. Lee and Devore (1968:12) perhaps expressed the outcome of this situation best when they wrote that “It seems clear that when the means of production come to depend upon the exclusive control of resources and facilities, then the small-scale society cannot be maintained”.


Bernard, A. (1986). Hunter-Gathers: In history, archaeology and anthropology. Berg Books, New York.

Cohen, M.N. (1977). Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Cohen, M.N. (2009) “Introduction: Rethinking the Origins of Agriculture,” Current Anthropology 50, no. 5, pp. 591-595

Diamond, J. (1987). The worst mistake in the history of the Human race. Discover Magazine May, May 1987, pp. 64-66

Kottak, C.P. (2009). Anthropology: The exploration of human diversity. McGraw Hill, New York.

Lee, R. (1968). What Hunters Do for a Living, or, How to Make Out on Scarce Resources  in Lee, R.B. & Devore, I (Eds.)(1968). Man the Hunter. Aldine Transaction. London

Robbins, R.H. (2014). Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, 6th Edn. Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, N.J.

Woodburn, J. (1982) Egalitarian Societies. Man, New Series, vol 17 no. 3 pp. 431-451


[1] Robins 2014:170 and Diamond 1987:64 cite 10,000 while Barnard 2004:1 cites 12,000 years as a beginning transition date toward agriculture; Kottak 2009:352 lists the range 10,000-12,000 years