The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

Jared Diamond, Discover (1987)

(Study questions at the end)


1.       Main thesis: Archeological findings (including paleopathology) suggest that "in many ways, adoption of agriculture was not progress but a catastrophe from which humans have never recovered"


2.       How archeology allows us to know this?

          a.       Analysis of what is in ancient garbage dumps: wild or domesticated food

          b.       Paleopathology: study ancient skeletons, can tell sex, eight, age at death, growth rates, disease, teeth show signs of childhood malnutrition, bones with scars tell of anemia, tuberculosis, leprosy

          c.       Ancient feces, well preserved, see if have hookworm and other parasites

3.       Negatives that came with Agriculture

          a.       Social inequality

          b.       Sexual inequality

          c.       Malnutrition/starvation

          d.       Poor health and disease epidemics

          e.       Despotism


          f.       Some were better off, but most/average person was worse off


4.       Diamond's critique of progress

          a.       Rejects idea that human history has been a long tale of progress:

          b.       We are better off than people in middle ages, who were better off than cave men, who were better off than apes


5.       Arguments for progress (that Diamond criticizes)

          a.       Today we have:

                    i.        Most abundant and varied foods

                    ii.       Best tools and material goods

                    iii.      Longest and healthiest lives (1900 average life span was 47, today 76 in U.S.)

          b.       Most are safe from starvation and predation

          c.       Get energy from oil and machines, not sweat

          d.       Hunter-gathers' lives were nasty, brutish and short

                    i.        No food grown, so little stored, so each day struggle to go out and find food to avoid starving

          e.       Ag gave us more food for less work

          f.       Ag gave us the free time to do art


6.       Diamond’s response to these arguments for progress

7.       Hunter-gatherer life is not all work and misery

          a.       20th century hunter-gatherers have plenty of leisure, sleep a good deal, and work less than farming neighbors

          b.       Average time a week in search of food

                    i.        Kalahari Bushman 12-19 hours

                    ii.       Tanzania Hadza nomads, 14 hours

                    iii.      Why work to grow food when nature provides it for free?

8.       Agriculture increases food insecurity by relying on so few species that when they fail results in a disaster

          a.       Farmers risk starvation if one crop fails

                    i.        Irish Potato famine of 1840s, hundreds of thousands died

          b.       Bushman use 75 or so wild plants for food, unlikely to starve

9.       H/G ate varied thus healthier diet; farmers ate only a few starchy crops (cheap calories and poor nutrition)

10.     With agriculture height went down

          a.       Skeleton from Greece/Turkey show average height of hunter-gathers at end of ice ages was 5' 9" for men and 5' 5" for women

          b.       With agriculture, height when down by 300 BC: 5' 3" men, 5" women

          c.       Modern Greeks & Turks still not regained average height of ancestors

          d.       Worry:

                    i.        Could this be due to selection of big and strong and weak die off

                    ii.       If so, not sure this is a sign they were better off

11.     Indian burial skeletons in Illinois/Ohio compared hunter-gatherers (=H/G) to maize farming in 1150 AD

          a.       Farmers had:

                    i.        50% increase in malnutrition

                    ii.       4X increase in iron deficiency anemia

                    iii.      3X rise in infectious disease

                    iv.      Higher degeneration in spine (due to hard physical labor of farming)

                    v.       Life expectancy at birth dropped from 26 to 19 due to nutritional stress and infectious disease

12.     Increased concentration of humans allowed by farming led to much greater disease

          a.       Farmers crowded together and traded with other crowded societies, led to spread of infectious disease and parasites

          b.       H/G had no epidemics

          c.       Tuberculosis/diarrheal disease awaited farming

          d.       Measles and bubonic plague waited for large cities

13.     Ag lead to despotism and deep class division

          a.       In H/G societies no one had stored food sources (herd of animals or orchards)

          b.       Thus, could be no kings-a class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others

          c.       Only with farming could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above disease-ridden masses


          d.       Greek royalty enjoyed better diet than commoners

14.     With ag, elite became better off, most people worse off

          a.       Same story today: Healthy in rich developed world, sickly in poor developing world

15.     For many in today's world, better to be a H-G

          a.       True for the 800 million malnourished-starving people today

          b.       Yes: To us it sounds silly to extol virtues of H/G

          c.       But for much of the world-e.g., poor peasant farmers in Ethiopia or starving ghetto dwellers outside Mexico city--would be better to be a bushman gatherer in Kalahari

16.     Agriculture led to sexual inequality

          a.       With farming, women needn't carry babies and pressure for more farm hands led to more babies and resultant decline in women's health

          b.       From average of one every 4 years in H/G to one every 2 years in farming

          c.       Women made beasts of burden in agricultural societies--gather the firewood, get the water, men go empty-handed

17.     Rejects idea agriculture led to flowering of arts

          a.       Great painting and sculpture produced by H/G 15,000 years ago

          b.       Post agricultural technology allowed for different, not better art

18.     H/G practiced most successful and longest lasting lifestyle in human history

          a.       Human life on planet represented in 24 hours, agriculture came 11:54pm

19.     Why then did hunter-gatherers take up farming?

          a.       Not by choice (as not choosing a better life)

          b.       Got trapped by agriculture, despite its pitfalls

          c.       Most H/G didn't farm until had do and doing so they traded quality of life for quantity

          d.       Farmed out of necessity to feed their growing numbers

                    i.        Farming supports more people

          e.       Farming bands out bred and killed off people who remained H/G

          f.       Drove H/G to marginal areas farmers didn't want

Study questions on Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”

1.       What does Diamond think is the worst mistake? How can archeology provide evidence for this?

2.       Why does Diamond’s agree or disagree with the idea that hunter-gatherers had to work more than agriculturalists to provide for their food?

3.       What does Diamond think about the idea that agriculture increases food security (when compared with hunter gatherers)?

4.       What does the evidence suggest about health of hunter-gatherers compared with agriculturalists?

5.       Explain why Diamond thinks agriculture lead to despotism, deep class division, including sexual inequality.

6.       Does Diamond think it is ridiculous to claim that people were better off as hunter gatherers than agriculturalists? Which people?

7.       Does Diamond allow that agriculture is what allowed the creation of art?

8.       According to Diamond, why did hunter-gatherers take up farming?