Why horticultural societies act like hunter-gatherers

Writing in a hurry to get the ideas down…

(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman, with thanks to Edge.org
(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman, with thanks to Edge.org

So I was reading this excellent interview the other day with Napoleon Chagon, (famous for his ethnography of the Yanomamo, a formerly isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest) and  Steven Pinker, (who wrote The Better Angels of our Nature and has generally been the guy pushing the notion that humans have become radically less violent over time,) Blood is Their Argument. Serious HBDers like Peter Frost have picked up this notion; one important idea is that humans have been self-domesticating, often by getting together in groups and executing the more violent among us.

Graph from the Wikipedia

Frost goes into a great deal of detail about his theory that European states, by executing murderers and other ne’er do wells, changed the genetic distribution of traits that code for violent behavior in European pops, leading to the relatively nice, non-violent people we see today. Chagnon, in his study of the Yanomamo, not only documented that thy are super-violent, but also that the Yanomamo who had killed the most people were also the ones who had the most offspring, providing evidence for the idea that evolutionary pressures could act on human populations, pushing them to be murderous (or not.)

Chagnon has suffered tremendous pushback from his “colleagues” in anthropology because there is a very vocal myth that pre-agricultural, pre-modern people were lovely innocents in a state of nature who never did bad things like murder or hate and that these were all just invented by evil white male cishetero colonizers, and that if we were only more like the virtuous mother goddess-worshiping innocent pagans, we could all be peaceful again.

The attacks on Chagnon have been shameful and, to be frank, horrible. There are powerful people trying to destroy a man and his life’s work because it conflicts with their narrative about human nature. Note also that Peter Frost has stopped writing because he is concerned about getting prosecuted by the Canadian government and James Watson, Nobel Prize winner, getting watsoned.

This is a myth I have been roundly trying to fight since about day one on this blog: No, hunter-gatherers were not peaceful paragons of gender equality.

Anyway, in the interview, Pinker noted that people often object to him that some of the tribes he documents are not hunter-gatherers, and he responds that limiting the inquiry solely to HGs doesn’t help matters and that the real division is between state and non-state. To quote a bit:

CHAGNON: … All I’ve been claiming in my writings is that the Yanomamö are not necessarily the modern day survivors of the Stone Age. They are, however, the best approximation that we have in the ethnographic world today of peoples living in a kind of environment—a kind of political system, okay, social system—that approximates as closely as you can find human beings today living in a condition—a state of nature, as it were—that is quite comparable to what must have happened during most of human history. And to that extent, we can learn a lot of things about politics, political attitudes, violence, agression, etc. from people like the Yanomamö. Unfortunately, there aren’t many people like the Yanomamö left, and that’s what awed and astonished me the first time I saw them.

PINKER: When I’ve cited figures on violence from a variety of hunter-gatherer, hunter-horticulturalist, and tribal peoples, I often get the criticism, “Well, these aren’t all hunter-gatherers.” My response is, “Well, that’s irrelevant.” For the purpose  of testing a specific hypothesis,  say, whether government reduces violence, it doesn’t matter whether they’re literally hunter-gatherers. What matters is the value of the independent variable you’re testing, for example, Is government present, or is government absent? My attitude is that the value of studying these peoples is that there are many features of our present environment that we can’t subtract other than by looking at such people. Whether or not they survive only by hunting and gathering is irrelevant to the effect of that variable.

CHAGNON:  I’ve had this argument with Marvin Harris and people like that. You’re not exactly what you eat, though in some cases you might be.

The important thing that I’ve discovered about the Yanomamö is the answer to the question of a lot of highly educated people in our society who say, “Oh, it would be so wonderful if we could just go back to an earlier time when life was so much simpler, and pleasant, and neighbors cooperated…” And what I found is the further back in time you go, the more that unpleasant things are ubiquitous in your environment. Violence is just around the corner, and wishing for a return to the noble savage past is possibly one of the biggest errors that one might make philosophically. I don’t think life in the state of nature was nearly as pleasant as a lot of people would like it to be.

I also sometimes get this same objection, but the Yanomamo are so much closer to “the state of nature” than ourselves that it is really quite silly. Obviously there is not a sharp difference between societies where merely raising a few yams or bananas will automatically make you peaceful.

Anyway, so I was reading Buckley’s account of life among the Aborigines and thinking to myself, How do you get states to start forming so that criminals can be punished and revenge spirals halted? and of course thinking about Gobekli Tepi and organized religion and accounts of missionary work among the Samoans, where the missionaries and local pagan witch doctors got into conflict because the missionaries were trying to stop the violence cycles with their pleas that god doesn’t approve of murder, and the local witch doctors were trying to keep them going because they benefited from them.

And it occurred to me that an important distinction here, that I think may be helping drive state formation, is between agricultural and horticultural societies.

Okay, what is agricultural and what is horticultural?

Horticulture is gardening, often of foods like squash, yams, and potatoes. Gardens are not too intense and can be grown by women. Horticultural societies are often dependent on female labor for growing food, because you don’t need men for it.

Agriculture is full-scale farming, generally of cereal crops like rice, wheat, and corn. Agricultural work is intense, difficult, and requires men. In agricultural societies, men plow fields and women tend gardens.

Obviously there exist a wide variety of hunter gatherer, horticultural, and agricultural societies throughout the world. As Richerson et al note in Principles of Human Ecology (ch. 4):


The range of variation in political institutions is large under horticultural subsistence. Note in Steward and Faron’s (1959) maps and tables that there is a pretty close cor-relation between ecology, population density, and political and social complexity. We looked briefly at the Gebusi in the last Chapter, who are as simple politically as the simplest hunting and gathering groups (Knauft, 1985). They lack any sort of formalized political
roles. Kin relations and personal ties are all that order Gebusi society. The weak headman is also found among the simpler horticultural societies, such as those of the Amazon Basin, while full-fledged imperial states are found in the most advanced societies, such as the Inca Empire of Peru. More typically, horticultural societies are either organized around “Big- men” or Tribal Chiefs.

In the simpler horticultural societies, differences compared to hunters and gatherers are, to repeat, modest. Kinship remains the most important means of organizing social interactions, and plays almost the same role as described for these societies.

We tend to think of agricultural and horticultural systems as essentially equivalent because they both involve the technology of growing food instead of hunting it, but they are often structurally quite different. In a horticultural society, women are busy and men are not; the men have plenty of leisure time to spend hunting or raiding other villages and killing people in them. One of these raids might result in a few men dying, but may also result in a few women captured, who can be brought back to the village and then employed in further food production. To get more children (evolution’s “goal,” as it were,) a horticultural tribe sacrifiices so me of its men to get more women who’ll make food and babies, and ends up polygynous.

By contrast, the men in an agricultural tribe are BUSY much of the time, plowing and hoeing and harvesting and so on, and so have far less time for war. The death of men in an agricultural society means one less farmer to bring in crops and so hunger for his wife and children. Bringing more women into an agricultural society is not particularly useful, especially at the expense of male lives, as these women cannot support themselves by producing their own food. (The upper class is an exception, who by taxing other men can support a harem for themselves.) For agriculturalists, war quickly becomes famine.

This may be, then, the long-term beginning of the process by which agricultural societies begin to pacify their people, start developing a state that manages conflicts, etc.

There is no hard line where “pre-modern” ends and “modern” begins. It is all a process of transition from one to the next.


8 thoughts on “Why horticultural societies act like hunter-gatherers

  1. “How do you get states to start forming so that criminals can be punished and revenge spirals halted?”

    Criminals compete with each other. Everything some other criminal steals is something you can’t steal yourself. And the theft discourages production in general. So it might make sense for a gang of criminals to eradicate all others and to fund a state to protect their monopoly on violence.

    Obviously the state must be more powerful than the criminals. But then it makes no sense to assume that it will use this power only against the criminals.


  2. This strikes me as exactly backwards. Agriculture cuts down on murder by redirecting it outward. Agriculture means enough surplus calories to support specialists.

    There is no such thing as selecting for non-violence (long-term). Local violence only appeals to low-IQ types. Nukes have artificially restricted a lot of violence, which has lead us to the brink of civil war across the West.


    • There are genes that influence people to be more aggressive. It is easy to select against them. There are likely also genes that influence people to be less aggressive, and those can be selected for.

      But I may still have it backwards.


  3. Violence is to fundamental to remove. Civilization does its best to remove people from the actual violence… cram diversity into ghettos, keep them there with cops ( armed and semi trained professionally outsourced violence) militaries (armed and somewhat better trained professionally outsourced violence) theoretically keeps other tribes from invading your neighbourhoods taking your shit, raping your bitch and enslaving your get

    Violence and only violence keeps your shit your shit etc

    Voting is a proxy for violence
    Wealth is a proxy for the ability to muster more troops to commit violence on your behalf
    Same for status


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