Life was easier when humans hunted and gathered their food, Cambridge University finds

Agta hunter gatherers in the Phillipines
Agta hunter gatherers in the Phillipines Credit: Cambridge University 

Switching from hunting to farming made life 50 per cent more difficult for humans, a study by Cambridge University suggests.

The move to agriculture, dubbed the Neolithic revolution, began around 11,000 years ago in the Middle East and had spread to Britain by around 4,000BC.

But although farming allowed previously nomadic communities to stay put and grow, a new study of hunter gatherer communities in the Philippines suggests it came at a huge cost.

Anthropologist Dr Mark Dyble, lived with 10 Agta groups and found that those who still hunted and foraged their food spent around 20 hours working in the week to live, but those who had switched to farming needed to work 30 hours for the same amount of food.

"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,” said Dr Dyble.

"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 followed 359 people from the Agta community recording how much time they spent on leisure, childcare, domestic chores and out-of-camp work.

Farming communities spent more time working  Credit: Cambridge University 

As well as the overall difference in hours worked, the study also found that women living in the communities most involved in farming had half as much leisure time as those in communities which only foraged.

Co-author, Dr Abigail Page, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added: "We have to be really cautious when extrapolating from contemporary hunter-gatherers to different societies in pre-history.

“But if the first farmers really did work harder than foragers then this begs an important question - why did humans adopt agriculture?"

Previous studies have suggested the adoption of farming grew up to help cope with expanding societies, although other experts claim that it was agriculture itself that allowed sedentary communities to expand, and once they reached a certain size, it would have been impossible for groups to return to a hunter gathering lifestyle, even if they had wanted to.

Dr Page says: “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.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.