Efficiency of hunting and gathering versus agriculture

I saw a site the other day claiming that hunting and gathering was “more efficient” than agriculture. This caused by BS detector to ring , until I considered the different possible meanings of “efficient.”

Obviously, agriculture is more efficient than hunting and gathering as a use of land, in terms of calories per acre, by orders of magnitude. On the other hand, hunting and gathering could at least theoretically be a more efficient use of labor, in terms of calories per man-hour, than early agriculture. I mean, a farmer has to invest months and months of hard, sweaty effort to produce a harvest, while hunter-gatherers can just pick up ready-made food every day, so long as they have an unlimited amount of land to move into once they’ve exhausted the local pickings.

I would think modern agriculture has to be more efficient even as a use of labor than hunting and gathering, given that one farmer can supply something like two hundred people, and surely one hunter-gatherer couldn’t supply two hundred of her tribe. But that’s because our modern farming machinery does the work of literally dozens of people, so if we measure “efficiency” in terms of calories invested (in gasoline and oil and fertilizer production and whatnot plus the human effort) per calorie returned, it would at least be conceivable that hunting and gathering could be a more efficient use of energy, and would have been a more efficient use of labor back when almost all the energy for farming came from the labor of humans and animals.

Anyway, if it is true, or once was true, that hunting and gathering was a more efficient use of labor than farming was, is it likely that the first adoption of full-time agriculture in human history was a result of growing human population and shortage of hunting-gathering land? As hunters and gatherers started stripping the land bare and running into other lands that had been stripped bare by other hunter-gatherers, it suddenly became more important to economize on land than to economize on labor?

(Of course, this hypothetical assumes that people passed from hunting and gathering directly to agriculture, without passing through an intermediate herding/pastoral stage, which probably many of them did).

discounting the inuits who could not farm, i could think of the native americans. they were pretty much content living along rich fishing grounds in the pacific northwest, or living on oysters and crabs along chesapeake bay,or following the bison herd. some tribes in africa maintain a mobile population of less than 30. the hunters in that group (numbering less than 10) could gather enough to feed the clan, sustain childbirths, and have enough numbers to defend the group. you have hunter-gatherer people to this day.

but some populations grow and only agriculture can sustain such a growth. civilizations developed along fertile belts. i suppose given a choice, i would prefer to set up a permanent base and if that base keeps me from follwing migrating herds and spawning salmon, all the better.

Mac, I don’t mean to pick on you, but do you happen to remember how back in Kindergarten they taught you the story of the first Thanksgiving? And how the Indians saved the Pilgrims by teaching them to grow maize?

How do you think that could have happened if the Indians weren’t farmers?

intention is not as important as action. :smiley: definitely some native americans also planted, not just corn but also rice. i just poined out the notable hunter/fisher/gatherers (who likely also did some planting of some sort.)

Utter bollocks. The vast majority of Indians were farmers. Even those “bison followers” were horse farmers.

Only in desert regions where farming is impossible. Nowhere else.

You have people who regularly hunt and gather, in New York city for example. You do not have hunter gatherers who sustain themselves entirely in that manner.

Absolute tripe.

Do you really think that Australia was settled tens of thousands of years ago by boats carrying hundreds of thousands of people? If not then where the hell did all those people come form if only agricultural populations can grow?

Bullshit. Rice is an Asian And Australasian crop. It was never cultivated by Indians prior to contact with Spaniards.

Except that as he pointed out, they were no more hunter/fisher/gatherers than the people of New York city in 2011. Some people hunted some of the time, just like today. The vast majority of food was farmed.

Anyway, back to the OP.

The answer is an unambiguous “No, H/G is not more efficient than farming by any metric.”
In terms of labour, HGs spend 8-16 hours a day performing tasks essential to survival. The oft-quoted figure of 2-4 hours a day is the time spent in obtaining food. It does not include the time spent making tools or the vast amounts of time spent walking from one locale to another amongst many other essential tasks. The other point to realise about HG populations is that in most of them starvation was routine. In most of them starvation was an annual event, and in almost all of them there was severe and unpredictable decadal starvation caused by droughts, prolonged winters etc.

If HGs were actually able to obtain all the food they needed in just a few hours a day, you have to ask why the population did not increase. Clearly something was regulating the population. You could posit that people were watching their children starve to death because they could not be bothered to work an extra hour each day to get food for their crying infant, but that seems unlikely. Or you could accept that populations were constrained by regular periods in which there was simply no food to be had, which is what we know to be true. Almost all HG societies regulated their populations through enforced infanticide, so actual starvation was not all that common, but the underlying reason for that control was a lack of food.

In contrast, a farmer in the conditions under which agriculture developed has to spend about 10 minutes day to obtain the calories needed to survive. Even up to the 16th century most farmers only needed to work an hour a day to obtain food for themselves and their families. The vast majority of their labour was spent in producing food to pay taxes to church and state, performing civil labour such as cleaning streams or building roads and other activities that did not produce food. And even then farmers only worked on average about 8 hours a day total. Remember, in most parts to the world farmers did nothing associated with food production for 4-6 months during the winter/dry season. They worked long hours during sowing, then did very little during the growing season then worked like hell during harvest then once again did very little.

Farming is incredibly efficient under many conditions, which is precisely why it is able to support civilisations. It allows any adult to produce far, far more food than they need very easily. It is that surplus of food that can be fed to soldiers, priests, clerks, judges and so forth to actually *produce *a civilisation.

It is only when the state apparatus starts demanding the bulk of food and labour that the life of a farmer becomes laborious. While we know that this is inevitable, the earliest farmers making the transition did not know that. Nor did they know that in many regions soils would become played out over time and productivity would decline, or that as populations increased local game populations would become exhausted and farmers would start suffering form protein deficiency. All those things meant that farming became more labour intensive and less healthy over the course of generations, but none it has any bearing on the original question.

hmmmm… wonder where they got the horses from.

ok, leave the far north out if this.

maybe not in north america but there are pure hunter/gatherers elsewhere.

ok tell me how a population can grow, in one spot, without agriculture. (seaboard trading perhaps?)

carrying capacity for an area to support hunting/gathering. admittedly a difficult subject.

did you know that until recently, the US was the biggest rice exporter in the world? and the indians of the lakes area regularly gathered wild rice? well gathering wild rice isn’t the same as following an entire crop cycle but it’s not hard to imagine some sensible indian putting aside a few grains for re-planting.

oh i don’t doubt that. after all, farming is just one step away from foraging for wild plants. the question was whether or not simply hunting and foraging was more efficient to planting (i guess some people don’t have the patience for it.) my stand is a small population, in an ideal place, can subsist on hunting and all the better for them.

Hunting and gathering is dependent on what food is self-producing. Because the food is self-producing it’s relatively cheap in terms of labor effort to feed yourself. All you have to do is go out and collect the stuff that grew itself. The downside is that there’s only so much stuff out there growing itself.

Agriculture is making stuff grow. It takes a lot more labor to do that. The upside is that you end up with a lot more stuff.

In a small population, you don’t have enough labor for farming. You’re going to hunt and gather by default.

In a medium sized population, you can go with either hunting and gathering or farming. But hunting and gathering is a more efficient use of labor because you get sufficient food for less labor.

In a large population, it becomes impossible to gather enough food by hunting and gathering. You’re going to farm by default.

the pygmy’s in africa are a pure hunting-gathering folk. according to national geographic, the control over their population is largely dictated by female fertility, infant and aged mortality. still, their numbers are kept fairly steady. they hunt deer in groups, preferring to flush out the deer and ambush them either with bows or woven nets. the percentage of arrows shot and deer bagged is very low (compared with stealthy hunting) but average deer meat bagged is higher so their method of hunting assures a steady supply of meat.

They certainly weren’t horse farmers until the (re)introduction of the horse to North America in the 1500’s!

You are correct that most Indians in terms of raw population in North America were farmers, but there were many definite “buffalo cultures” that were almost entirely nomadic hunter-gatherers following the buffalo. These are not to be confused with some of the tribes that lived on the fringes of the high plains who were primarily agricultural but who would go on seasonal buffalo hunts. Although some of these part-timers apparently partly or wholly abandoned agriculture and became full-time buffalo hunters when they got the horse (possibly coincident with populations being devastated by European diseases).

The nomadic tribes did engage in some land-management type activities, like burning the prairies to promote higher quality grasses, but nothing that would really fit the regular definition of agriculture.

the same place that every single people outside of Mongolia got their horses from: they traded them with their neighbours.

Who is talking about the far north? Your comment is bollocks no matter what area you are referring to.

No, there are not. 100 years ago sure. Maybe even 50 years ago. But not any more.

People fuck. They have children. What part of this confuses you?

No, it is not difficult at all. As you just admitted, the handful of original settlers multiplied to around 200, 00 within 1 few thousands years. That isn’t in any way difficult.

Your claim that HG populations could never increase is just ignorant crap.

And? It is also the world largest exporter of Macadamia nuts. Do you think that means that Indians must have farmed Macadamias? :rolleyes:

No, they didn’t. *Oryzae *is strictly and Old World genus.

Once again you are posting nonsense on a topic that you clearly know nothing about.

I don’t know whether you doubt it, but you just posted that it was untrue.,

Please stop doing that. GQ is for factual answers.


*Your *stand? Due that is an incontrivertible historical fact.

Your actual stand in this thread, as in all the others you join, is total ignorant shite.

Neither of those statements os true. It takes far less labour to produce the same amount of food from agriculture. H/G is far more labour expensive

Ever read “Little House on the Prairie”.

How do you reconcile the fact that that one man can manage to produce a surplus of food through farming with your claim that you require large amounts of labour for farming?

Wrong. For any given labour pool agriculture will always produce more food for the same amount of labour.

Umm, you appear to have invented a Catch 22.

You can only get a large population after you are agricultural.

And agriculture can only be competitive after you have a large population.

So how precisely did agriculture start? Was it used by a small non-competitive group that was hell bent on working harder for less and was then beaten up by its HG neigbours who were getting more food for less work elsewhere? If so then how did their population grow?


They are not a pure hunting-gathering folk.

They never have been pure hunting-gathering folk.

It is in fact impossible for them to be a pure hunting-gathering folk because rainforests do not produce enough food for humans to survive by hunting and gathering.

Mac can you please just stop posting ignorant carp on topic that you know nothing about? Please? I have asked you nicely.

It’s not like you only do this occasionally. Or that you are only slightly incorrect. Your posts betray a total ignorance of the topics that you post on.

and before there were horses what did they do? farm other animals? :rolleyes:

i mentioned it. is it wrong? too extreme an example, eh? google ice farming. :rolleyes:

you’ve never heard of the pygmies? what about fisher folk along the amazon? :rolleyes:

most of it. married just once, fathered only once. :rolleyes:

No, it is not difficult at all. As you just admitted, the handful of original settlers multiplied to around 200, 00 within 1 few thousands years. That isn’t in any way difficult.


still difficult. rate of growth was anything but steady.

you’re the one who’s confused. so give an example of an HG population that grew to significance and remained HG.

you’re the one spewing crap. there is wild rice in north america, unrelated to asian rice (oryza) that indians have been exploiting for centuries. :rolleyes:

oh by the way, what family does genus falco belong to again? :smiley:


No, there were not.

HGs on the plains had territories far to small to follow the buffalo migration. Many of them in fact survived primarily by trading with the farmers of the river valleys, but none of them had a territory sufficiently large to follow migrating buffalo.

The “Plains Indians” came into existence with the introduction of the horse. They were all descendants of farmers and displaced the local HGs, who were almost all exterminated before any European entered the area. We really only know about the HGs of the Great Plains from archeological evidence and oral tradition. Only a couple of lines of written records remain.

That is true. What you don’t seem to appreciate is how small the home territories were, and how far buffalo migrate in a year. The idea of HGs following buffalo migrations is as absurd as the idea that people in Africa followed wildebeest migrations. It would require a territory of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres.

The typical pre-European Bison migration pattern was a loop about 400 miles long and 15o kilometres across. The idea that any one HG groups controlled that entire territory is absurd. Even the later horse herders never controlled a territory even even a fraction of that size.

someone’s taking longer to google than usual.

No, they did not exist.

WTF? Are you seriously suggesting that people ice farm in Africa? :rolleyes:

Yep, they were the subject of a chapter in my Honours thesis so I know a little about them. Not a lot, but clearly much more than you. I know, for example, that none of them do or ever have lived exclusively as HGs. I know that they all work as farm labourers during the off season, and that they survive primarily by trading meat, honey, shells and other wild good with farmers for cultivated foods. I know that the cast majority of their calories come from agricultural products, and that this has has been the case for all of recorded history.

So what is your point?

What about them?

Once again, not a single exclusively non-agricultural group among them.

Can anyone explain what he is trying to say here? :confused:

That is complete crap, but let’s assume that is true.
It still happened didn’t it?
It still proves that HG population can and do expand, doesn’t it?

So it still proves that you were talking crap when you said that it is impossible for HG populations to expand.

I already did: Australian Aborigines. The continent was settled by at most 500 people. The population expanded between 200, 000 and 1 million people and remained HG the entire time.

Hell, lets just confine ourselves to the human species. ~150, 000 years ago the global population seems to have been less than 10, 000 people. By 15, 000 years ago it was over 30 million, and agriculture did not exist anywhere on the freakin’ planet during that entire time.

You really have no knowledge on this topic at all do you?

So it is not rice at all. And it was never, ever cultivated.

So your claim that Indians cultivated rice was ignorant crap.

I am still waiting for an explanation of the significance of the fact that the US exports rice. Quite clearly you thought that the rice that the US exports and “wild Rice” are the same plant. :smiley:

Also waiting for a reference to support the claim that there are no intermediate steps between foraging for wild plants and farming.

Also waiting for a reference to support the claim that “there are pure hunter/gatherers” in the world at this moment.