The oldest profession


I don’t know why Cecil suggests that agriculture could be considered the oldest profession, rather than hunting and gathering, as the questioner mentions. After all the latter precedes the former.

I was always under the impression that the “oldest profession” alluded to Eve who seduced Adam (not that I was there or anything) into eating the apple. She was paid with knowledge, carnal bliss and banishment from paradise. Bummer.

Because that’s what the phrase originally was coined to refer to. But even so, it’s arguable that hunting and gathering is not much of a profession, any more than mere subsistence agriculture would be. (An occupation, sure, but not really a profession.) “Profession” implies getting paid for something performed with skill. (Which is why prostitution – sex for payment – has a claim on being the oldest as well.)

I’m a bit disappointed that Cecil didn’t mention Erma Bombeck’s famous rejoinder that if prostitution is the oldest profession, motherhood is the second-oldest.
Powers &8^]

Agriculture and hunting and gathering are matters of subsistance - and prostitution grows naturally out of naturally occurring human relationships of sex and reciprocity.

Quips aside, I’d say the oldest profession - that is, hiring someone for pay to do work on your behalf - would be “mercenary”.

Astronomers are known for referring to their occupation as “the 2nd oldest profession”

Prostitution can’t be the oldest profession. The guy had to make some money to pay her with first.

Well, I suppose there’d need to be mining, smelting, a prophylaxis production line and quite possibly cigarettes before anyone started on astronomy (or possibly botany, or for the unfortunate few entomology, or construction and plastering for the choosy).

I’m sure the priesthood and psychoanalysts would soon follow (if they hadn’t gotten to work on the couple at childhood).

Edit: Of course, prostitution is merely a special case of an individual having no access to the means of production and having only their labour to offer. Perhaps it existed in barter form before?

I think it has to do with bartering and trading in the olden days. Bartering and trading for goods/services are transactions. So, let’s say that one farmer has planted wheat and another farmer has planted barley and a third farmer has planted oats. The three farmers trade for goods, because they each want each other’s goods for their needs. Gathering and hunting may not have any bartering/trading, unless what one gathers/hunts is used to be traded or bartered for some other good/service.

Another conjecture is that gathering and hunting are animal-like, nomadic activities, before humans settle down into permanent residential establishments. Farming requires land permanence, because it’s not easy moving land from place to place. So, when humans began farming, that’s when the “first profession” began. The “first profession” would mean the “first profession of human civilization”, not “first occupation of human existence”.

Wouldn’t “Pimp” be the second oldest profession?

Well, the second definition was “a way of making a living.” I think that qualifies hunting and gathering as the oldest, as it’s something we share with our non-human ancestors, though agriculture isn’t.

In thinking about the term “profession,” perhaps we can separate it from hunting/gathering and agriculture by thinking of it as a way of getting fed without doing either of those activities. I am no expert in anthropology, but I’m pretty sure there is evidence that prehistoric men (and Neanderthals) helped people survive crippling injuries. Did these people do nothing? Probably they cooked food, made arrows, what have you–arguably entered into a profession.

Astronomy is interesting too–I’m guessing that the real implications are that early men gazed at the stars and looked for meaning, and some were so good at providing that meaning that they became shamans, who were fed in return for “work” that did not directly bring in more food. Maybe that predated keeping cripples alive? Impossible to say, I think.

As for prostitution, it would be interesting to know if male great apes trade food for sex. If that is the case then perhaps we can say that prostitution is the oldest profession, though I doubt that any female chimp survives solely on a sex-for-food basis…though I’m happy to be shown wrong.

My recently ex-cat was professional. It’s not a matter of species or qualifications.

She trained continuously as a warrior. She rehearsed her escape routes and attack routes continually. Her egress into the dark dawn was a masterpiece of pausing to gain situational awareness before going out on patrol.

There is a major difference between being O.K. at something and being determinedly pursuing excellence at it. That is professionalism.

Given her efforts, her ancestors and many other carnivore ancestors are the true first professionals.

Us soft Ape derived people are not actually very good at anything. Admitted we have evolved brains and have invented some measure of professionalism, but a cat related carnivore has had that attribure for far longer than identifiable humans.

Sex for food isn’t prostitution, it’s dating.
I think a profession would indicate the exchange of fungible goods, not just providing basic needs. When someone is paid for their work with goods that can then be exchanged for other goods you have more than simple cooperative subsistinence.

It also might imply the idea of a fixed rate or schedule of payments for services. This distinquishes it from the basic “I’ll do the hunting, you do the gathering” model.

Using these quidelines I’d say the first profession was entrepreneur. Someone figured out how to set up the system of exchange across multiple parties. If that resulted in profits, prostitution would soon follow.

There’s a case of this reported in SuperFreakonomics and recorded by a researcher known as Chen. In fact, they trained the apes to use currency in exchange for food and the currency was then used in exchange for sex - they probably think we’re the unsophisticated ones.

I think as a technical point professions cannot predate language though: one has to be able to articulate what one does.

I don’t entrepreneurs predated warriors or priests by the way, nor slave owners. Easier methods of living off other’s surplus labour.

There once was a farmer from Nantucket…

Three Christians were arguing.

“God created Eve from Adam’s rib. Hence surgery is the world’s oldest profession”, said the surgeon.

“He constructed the world from chaos in 6 days before that. So mine is the world’s oldest profession”, said the engineer.

“Who do you think created the chaos?”, smiled the politician.

Religion is the oldest profession, no matter where you look you find medicine man, wise one, preachers, etc. That predate just about anything else, hunter gathers have, what we would call a preacher. That person generally did not hunt or gather, thus they were “paid”. Thus the oldest profession is religion in some form.

This should settle once and for all what’s the oldest profession,

The oldest profession might have been around longer than man himself.

I seem to recall that an earlier edition of The Guinness Book of World Records listed stone chipping as the oldest profession, the theory apparently being that these weapons makers were the earliest specialists of any kind. This would be from when the Guinness Book had McWhirter editorship. I don’t know how long there have been stone chippers, but they certainly predate agriculture and probably predate prostitution as a means by which a woman could support herself.

@ qazwart–

That is certainly suggestive, though it is in the context of experimentation, rather than something observed in the wild. Who knows what other filthy habits the capuchins picked up from their degraded human captors.

Surely a profession is not any old job or way of making a living? The paradigmatic professions are doctor and lawyer, occupations where someone makes a living from their particular skills, knowledge or talents by supplying a service to individual clients on a one-to-one-basis.

On that criterion, prostitution is a profession, and very possibly the oldest one.