New research says that agriculture may not have been the smartest move we ever pulled. The authors of the study report that hunter-gatherers in the Philippines who are transitioning towards agriculture work for significantly longer each day. Women seem to be the hardest hit by this transition.

Carrot.

Image via Pixabay.

A team of researchers led by University of Cambridge anthropologist Dr. Mark Dyble lived with the Agta people, a group of small-scale hunter-gatherers from the northern Philippines who are increasingly engaging in agriculture. The team says that engagement in farming and other non-foraging work resulted in the Agta working harder and for more time every day — in essence, it ate into their leisure time. On average, the Agta that primarily engaged in agriculture worked 10 more hours per week compared to foraging-focused ones. The women living in agricultural communities were especially hard-hit: on average, they only had half as much leisure time as their hunter-gatherer counterparts.

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Toils of the earth

“For a long time, the transition from foraging to farming was assumed to represent progress, allowing people to escape an arduous and precarious way of life,” says Dr Dyble, first author of the study.

“But as soon as anthropologists started working with hunter-gatherers they began questioning this narrative, finding that foragers actually enjoy quite a lot of leisure time. Our data provides some of the clearest support for this idea yet.”

The researchers recorded what the Agta were up to at regular intervals between 6 am and 6 pm for every day they were there, across ten Agta communities. Using this data, the team then calculated how 359 Agta managed their time: in particular, they were curious to see how much time they assigned to leisure, childcare, domestic chores, and out-of-camp work per day. Some of the Agta people in the study engaged in hunting and gathering exclusively, while others mixed foraging with rice farming.

Increased engagement in farming and other non-foraging activities was linked to larger workloads and less leisure time, the team reports. On average, the Agta that engaged primarily in farming worked roughly 30 hours per week, while forager-onlys worked around 20 hours, the team estimates. The difference was largely due to women, they add, who had to forgo domestic activities and work in the fields. Women living in the communities most involved in farming had half as much leisure time as those in communities which only foraged.

Both men and women had the lowest amount of leisure time at around 30 years of age, although it kept increasing steadily later on. Overall, women spent less time working outside of the camp, and more on domestic chores and childcare (in-camp activities) than men. All in all, however, both sexes enjoyed a roughly equal amount of leisure time. Adoption of farming had a disproportionate impact on women’s lives, however, as we’ve mentioned above.

“This might be because agricultural work is more easily shared between the sexes than hunting or fishing,” Dr Dyble says. “Or there may be other reasons why men aren’t prepared or able to spend more time working out-of-camp. This needs further examination.”

“The amount of leisure time that Agta enjoy is testament to the effectiveness of the hunter-gatherer way of life. This leisure time also helps to explain how these communities manage to share so many skills and so much knowledge within lifetimes and across generations,” says Dr Abigail Page, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and one of the paper’s co-authors.

However, “we have to be really cautious when extrapolating from contemporary hunter-gatherers to different societies in pre-history,” she adds. “But, if the first farmers really did work harder than foragers then this begs an important question — why did humans adopt agriculture?”

The paper “Engagement in agricultural work is associated with reduced leisure time among Agta hunter-gatherers” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.