The Hobbesian View, Agriculture and the Rise of the State

When most people think of "humans in a state of nature," or what we are calling hunter-gatherers, they immediately think of Thomas Hobbes and the famous (or infamous) notion that people existed in "...continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The idea was that hunter-gatherers (hgs) had to spend all of their waking lives in the search for scarce food resources, living on the edge of extinction in chronic sickness and unyielding hunger.

          So, the logical inference to be made is that it was natural and relieving for them to desire to settle down in permanent, sedentary villages. What they needed was a system for planting crops. However, by and large it is thought that hgs did not understand the natural cycles of flora, so they were helpless to do so. Until one day, some genius came along and realized that when you drop seeds in a hole, in a little while you get plants. Voila! Settlement became possible, and it was undoubtedly a step forward in every way. People now could refrain from always moving great distances in search of game, and their newfound leisure time enabled them to think, which in turn led to rapid advances in technology and therefore food surpluses, which enabled specialization into classes of artisans, priests and rulers. The foregoing is how most people historically, and even today, have considered the issue.

          The first flaw in this theory is the assumption that life for our distant ancestors was exceptionally difficult -- that it was nasty, brutish and short. Archaeological evidence from the Upper Paleolithic -- about 30,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE -- makes it very clear that people at the time had a very high degree of comfort and security, flatly contradicting Hobbes' assumptions. These people were masters of fracturing, chipping and shaping crystalline rocks, which was the basis of their technology. As a matter of fact, their "laurel leaf" knives, eleven inches long and only four-tenths of an inch thick, have still not been duplicated by modern technology. They created, with stone awls and incising tools called burins, magnificent barbed bone and antler harpoon points, antler throwing boards for spears, and fine bone needles used to fashion animal-skin clothing (Harris 1977). It's rather ridiculous to imagine that, with such intricate knowledge, hgs had no idea how to plant seeds!

          It would seem that forgoing the use of agriculture is not done out of lack of knowledge, but rather convenience. More nutritious harvests were made by collecting; there was no need for them to plant crops -- it wouldn't have made any sense. Hunter-gatherers exhibited all of the knowledge of how to make agriculture work -- they simply choose not to initiate it. The Shoshoni and Paiute were known to return to the same stands of wild grains and tubers, and even to weed and water them. Many hgs used fire to promote the growth of favored plants and to retard the growth of trees and weeds (Harris 1977).

          As already mentioned, hgs had satisfactory technology and lived well, even without agriculture. In southern Russia, archaeologists have found an animal-skin dwelling set in a shallow pit forty feet long and twelve feet wide. Over 20,000 years ago, winter dwellings with floor plans twenty feet in diameter were in use in what is now the Czech Republic. "With rich furs for rugs and beds, as well as plenty of dried animal dung or fat-laden bones for the hearth, such dwellings can provide a quality of shelter superior in many respects to contemporary inner-city apartments (Harris 1977)."

          The notion that hgs were starving is also completely false. Vast quantities of animal bones have been found at kill sites dating to the Paleolithic. Sites with the skeletons of over a thousand mammoth, and 10,000 wild horses, have been found. The hunters' bones themselves indicate that they were quite well-nourished. And man's caloric tasks did not overwhelm his schedule. Not only did hgs not have to work around the clock for food, and not only were they well-fed, but they had ample leisure time, to boot. Richard Lee, in working with the !Kung Bushmen who live in the Kalahari desert, a place one doesn't think of as lush, found that less than three hours per adult per day is necessary to procure a diet rich in proteins and other essential nutrients (1968).

          For purposes of comparison, the Machiguenga, simple horticulturalists of the Peruvian Amazon, spend a little more than three hours per day per adult and get less animal protein than the Bushmen. In eastern Java, where modern peasants grow rice, on average forty-four hours of farm work is done per week, and the Javanese peasants eat virtually no animal proteins. American farmers, who work fifty to sixty hour work weeks, eat very well but have virtually no leisure time (Harris 1977). So one can see, the common appraisal of the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture is a bit more complex than is often thought. The development of farming led to more work on a per capita basis, not less. The invention or knowledge of agriculture is not the issue; what is of significance is its acceptance. Motivation, not knowledge of techniques, is the central point here (Berman 2000). The reality is that the truth stands Hobbes on his head.