Archaeologists Debunk Theory That Farming Ruined Our Health

Chew on this: Hunter-gatherers and somewhat later early farmers in Southeast Asia had different problems but similar disease loads, Australian researchers show

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Area of study: Con Co Ngua in northeast Vietnam
Area of study: Con Co Ngua in northeast VietnamCredit: Google Maps, elaborated by Haaretz
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

As we learned to farm and settled down, we grew starchy crops that rotted our teeth and thickened our waistlines. As our ancestors stopped chasing fleet-footed food, our health suffered. Agriculture brought us not only grains, grapes and goats, but also gingivitis, gout and vascular disease – so says the conventional wisdom.

Or not. A paper published in the world archaeological journal Antiquity reports that the health of hunter-gatherers in prehistoric Vietnam seems to have been just as lousy as that of early farmers who lived a couple of thousand years later.

The two groups may have suffered from different kinds of problems, but it cannot be said that one was clearly healthier than the other.

The paper, by Prof. Marc Oxenham of the Australian National University and colleagues, describes Da But hunter-gatherer communities who lived at a site called Con Co Ngua, starting around 8,000 to 7,000 years ago. The Da But culture lasted a couple of thousand years.

When, where and how agriculture began is one of those things that makes archaeologists want to brain each other with stone axes. But clearly, by around 4,000 years ago – after the Da But people were long gone – the area was populated by farmers (who augmented their diets by hunting, as people living in remote villages without supermarkets do to this day).

The surprise is that the team’s evidence indicates the earlier hunter-gatherers and the later farmers had roughly similar disease burdens. That had not been expected.

“It is often, in bioarchaeological studies, seen in terms of a binary ‘healthy’ versus ‘not healthy’ categorization, which is clearly not how health works in reality,” Oxenham explains.

Foraging at Walmart

Around 11,000 years ago, the northern hemisphere warmed as the Ice Age began to subside. Sea levels rose, flooding coasts worldwide. In the southeastern Asian area in question, rainfall was as much as double the precipitation levels of today. It was also 1 to 4 degrees Celsius hotter than now, on average. Plants thrived and game thronged – which is a good thing for hunter-gatherers – and the conditions were ripe for cultivation to begin.

Different areas around the world began growing different grains at different times. The Levant went for wheat, barley and oats, which were baked into bread. The oldest known so far is an unleavened flatbread dating back 14,400 years ago, found in what is now Jordan.

Asian cuisine, from antiquity to date, was more focused on steaming in clay pots rather than barbecuing on open fires, and the crop of choice was rice. In northern Vietnam and Thailand, rice cultivation seems to have begun a tad late – about 4,000 years ago. In China, domestication of rice seems to have begun as much as 11,000 years ago.

In any case, Oxenham stresses that early farmers continued to rely on hunting and gathering as well, for millennia.

This is a good place to ask what an early farmer is. Archaeologists tend to look at that in binary terms too, but reality isn’t black and white, Oxenham explains to Haaretz.

“You’re a farmer or a hunter-gatherer, and if we can’t plug you into one of these categories, you must be something else (such as a cultivator, whatever that means),” he says. Yet people today in remote villages in Asia and Africa farm for subsistence, and also still fish, trap birds and hunt: It isn’t the human norm to do just the one or the other.

For instance, the 2017 discovery in Israel of flint sickles dating back 23,000 years proves that grain was being harvested. But that doesn’t mean it was being purposefully farmed, let alone at subsistence levels.

“Many of our Neolithic sites, on further examination, are highly variable in terms of subsistence,” Oxenham explains. “Some show extensive use of hunting, while others the reverse. What are you? If you’re like me, you go to the supermarket to collect (buy) food, so you’re a forager!” Point taken.

Same spot, different ancestors

When saying the hunter-gatherers and early farmers had similar (i.e., terrible) states of health, that doesn’t mean they had the same problems.

Oral health was better among southeast Asian hunter-gatherers relative to later farmers. Studying their teeth shows that the hunter-gatherers had only a 1.5 percent rate of cavities, while the farmers had something like 11 percent.

Trauma patterns, such as which bones they broke, also differed. But the overall frequency of trauma was not necessarily that different between the two groups, says Oxenham.

Also, tapeworm infestation was rife among the hunter-gatherers of Con Co Ngua, going by the discovery of hydatid cysts. Also, Oxenham tells Haaretz, they suffered from gout (which we now know is not related to diet but to inherited predisposition). “Neither hydatids nor gout has been identified in later farming communities in ancient Vietnam,” he says.

For their part, the later farming communities had other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, and nonspecific (or unidentified) infectious diseases identified by way of lesions in the bones, Oxenham explains.

One caveat to the comparison of their state of health is that the hunter-gatherers and early farmers at Con Co Ngua not only lived at different times, they had different ancestors.

The Da But hunter-gatherers stemmed from early modern humans believed to have taken the southern route out of Africa, reaching southern China, Melanesia and Australia around 65,000 years ago, Oxenham explains. The farmers seem to have descended from a different group of early humans, who went more north and originally colonized Siberia around 40,000 years ago.

Later descendants of the hunters and farmers probably mixed. Evidence from another northern Vietnamese site, Man Bac, indicates that when farming was starting in the area around 4,000 years ago by migrants from southern China, they did mix with indigenous descendants of the Da But.

However, though they lived a couple of thousand years later, the early farmers in northern Vietnam do not seem to have descended from the hunter-gatherers – so they wouldn’t have inherited their propensities to disease or anything else.

The comparison of their well-being begs another caveat: There is no evidence that the Da But people at Con Co Ngua grew a thing, but they likely managed wild plant resources such as sago (tapioca-like starch from palm tree stems) and canarium, as well as wild animals such as water buffalo.

Oddly, while assuming that farming harmed our health, it has also been assumed that its development constituted cultural progress – that agriculture is superior to lurking in the bushes and spearing passing rabbits or cornering some hapless ibex. Oxenham for one isn’t slave to the theory that farming advanced humankind.

Yet at the same time, maybe farming isn’t the demon we thought. “It’s got to the stage where, by default, we expect to see poor health in farming assemblages,” Oxenham says. “So, this Antiquity paper is turning the tables on this idea. We are saying: Hold on, health was crap among these hunter-gatherers at Con Co Ngua. It was, in fact, as bad as any farmer’s.”

In short, the archaeologists sum up, the supposed correlation between farming and a decline in health may need to be reassessed.

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