Health and the Rise of Civilization

by Mark Nathan Cohen


This is a book that’s filled with fascinating and overwhelmingly convincing information. At 142 pages, it took me longer to read than I thought it would, mostly because I am a sucker for completion and was often interrupted in my reading by the frequently interesting endnotes. The info got repetitive after awhile, however, which left me skimming a decent portion of the end of the book.

Cohen is basically positing — based on studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes (such as the San in Africa) as well as archaeological/paleological records of bones at ancient hunter-gatherer sites — that “primitive” hunter-gatherer life was neither as impoverished as many pro-civilization advocates would like to believe nor as peaceful and bucolic as many late 20th-century anthropologists would like to fantasize. The majority of the information that Cohen presents (mainly by citing dozens or hundreds of archaeological and anthropological studies) focuses more on the former claim than the latter.

Anyone short on time can read the great final chapter which sums up the conclusions of the entire book: Hunter-gatherers were generally more nourished, less sick, and living longer than any of their agricultural descendants. They endured periods of “stress” related to diminished food supply but due to their mobility very seldom experienced any famines as severe as those that would come in more “civilized” times. They suffered from parasitic infections due to contaminated water and food, but almost never anything as significant or crippling as the nutritive deficiencies and epidemic viruses that would come later.

It would take civilization until the 19th or 20th century to produce a citizenry as healthy as the “primitives” they replaced thousands of years before. Indeed, the idea that hunter-gatherers were impoverished is an opinion that can only be validated by comparing them to modern-day humans, because they were actually more affluent than any humans in history prior to the 19th century.

Cohen’s main point seems to be that the idea that we “progressed” and evolved out of hunter-gathering due to technological breakthrough gets the cause and effect mixed up. Really, because hunter-gathering was producing diminished returns after populations began to grow and food sources became scarce, agriculture was something they turned to out of necessity, even though it meant a less nutritious diet overall.

It may be a subtle difference, but it’s significant. Technology is not the cause of our evolutionary progress, but rather the result of very trying circumstances. And it did not improve our lives as much as we often like to think, since it brought with us food instability and epidemic disease. Only since the breakthrough of modern medicine (itself a response to horrible living conditions in the 14th-18th centuries) have we improved our lifestyle in relation to our ancient ancestors.


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