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Hunter-Gatherers & the Development of Agrarian Societies

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  • 0:01 What Is a Hunter-Gatherer?
  • 1:12 Development of…
  • 3:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After watching this video, you will be able to explain what a hunter-gatherer was and how and why humans might have given up that lifestyle in favor of an agrarian one.

What Is a Hunter-Gatherer?

A hunter-gatherer is a member of a nomadic group of people who live by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild sources of food. Being nomadic means that you move around a lot from place to place over the seasons and years. For 90% of human history, we were all hunter-gatherers - until 12,000 years ago, to be exact. This was one of the most successful lifestyle choices humans ever made, and it led to a lot of success as humans took great advantage of their natural environment, using it to find food, clothes (for warmth), and shelter.

Life in a nomadic society wasn't bad, and in fact, studies show that they were in many ways much healthier than humans who lived in farming communities later. They were strong and had healthy bones and teeth. They also had a relatively large amount of free time, allowing for art, music, and leisure. In a nomadic society, people would hunt and gather for the same amount of food that they burned in calories. But, starting 12,000 years ago, humans began to ditch the nomadic lifestyle in favor of a different one - that of an agrarian society.

The Development of Agrarian Societies

An agrarian society is a society where cultivating the land is the primary source of wealth, where the focus is on agriculture and farming. There are many theories as to why this began to happen, and there is no conclusive answer. One theory is that as humans had more and more children, population pressure meant that they needed a way to collect larger amounts of food than they could through hunting and gathering. Another theory said that having plenty of leisure time led to experimentations with farming. Or, perhaps planting crops started as some kind of fertility rite, or to try to get grains to create increasing amounts of alcohol. Maybe early humans just thought, 'You know what would be nice? More food!'

But whatever the reason, it happened, and that had huge consequences on the development of human societies. With farming and raising livestock, you could produce far more food and support a larger population. You could also make enough food that not everyone's job had to be collecting food. Some in society could specialize on creating food, while others could be craftsmen who invented things and progressed human knowledge. Then, with that knowledge, tools could be created to make it even easier to grow food, and on and on humans could progress - all because of agriculture.

But the agrarian revolution wasn't without its issues. Humans in agrarian societies often turn out to be less healthy, and farming was extremely time-consuming, leaving less time for other pursuits, especially at first. Since farming was so time-consuming, this also encouraged things like slavery to develop, where some humans could be forced to work for the betterment of others who 'owned' them. And, agriculture has definitely been a disaster for the environment, taking over huge swathes of land - land that was originally made up of natural environments.

But without the development of agrarian societies, humans wouldn't be where we are today. We wouldn't have Big Macs or the Internet, modern medicine, or people planting flags on the moon. And as life expectancy increases year after year across the world, it's hard to argue that we didn't, overall, make the right choice.

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