Anthropology 275
Exercise for chapter 5

 

COMPARING NUTRITION IN PREHISTORIC
HUNTER-GATHERERS AND FARMERS
 

 The material in this exercise comes from a study by Claire Cassidy comparing evidence of nutritional health based on the skeletal remains of two sedentary or semi-sedentary populations: agriculturalists who lived about 400 years ago in what is now eastern Kentucky, and hunter-gatherers who lived in western Kentucky about 5,000 years ago. Habitat variables (animals, plants, water, and climate) were very similar for both populations.

 The basic research question was:

 Was the health and nutrition of farmers better than the health and nutrition of hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times? One reason why this question is important is that anthropologists have assumed that people who grew their own food had stable supplies and even a surplus, whereas hunters had unpredictable resources. However, there is some evidence that drought, infestation of insects, and famine were all too frequent problems of agriculturalists. Ethnographies of some foraging groups, such as the San of the Kalahari and the Hadza of Tanzania, have shown ample food supplies and a healthful variety of seasonal foods.

 Dietary patterns:

 The hunter-gatherers had a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. They ate large quantities of river mussels and snails. They also ate deer, small mammals (e.g., squirrels, porcupine, raccoon, etc.), wild turkey and other birds, box turtle, and fish. Sometimes they ate dogs ceremonially, and they ate gathered wild plants such as wild grapes, acorns, blackberries, sunflowers, hickory nuts.

 The agriculturalists had a high carbohydrate, low protein diet. They grew corn, beans, and pumpkin, and they gathered a wide range of wild plants. Wild animals such as deer, elk, turkey, turtle, and fish were eaten but constituted a much smaller proportion of the diet. Corn provided a weaning food for young children.

 The primary sources of data were:

 

Evidence of malnutrition and growth arrest could be seen in:

 

Findings of the study:
 
                                                               hunter-gatherers                              farmers
                                                              (285 skeletons)                         (296 skeletons)
  
 
infant mortality higher, birth-12 months lower, birth-12 months 

 

child mortality 44% died before age 17 54% died before age 17 

high death rates ages 1-4 

 

av. life expectancy at age 18, life expectancy is 

age 36

at age 18, life expectancy 

is age 30

evidence of growth 
arrest
present in higher numbers 

evidence of regular, brief 
periods of seasonal hunger

present in lower numbers 

evidence of irregular periods 
of longer duration (famine) 

 

evidence of iron- 
deficiency anemia
absent present in 50% of children 
under 5 years old
 
evidence of infection
inflammation in bones
 
present in lower numbers 
 
present in higher numbers
tooth decay, abscesses  low rate, average of 1 caries some tooth loss in old age 
due to wear 
high rate, average of 7 caries 

tooth loss in children

     
 

Conclusions of the study:

  1. In general, the health of the hunter-gatherers was better than the agriculturalists. Hunters had superior nutrition, especially in childhood. Child mortality was especially high in farming villages around the time of weaning, ages 2-4, probably due to higher rates of disease, both nutritional and infectious.

 2. Birth and early infancy were more dangerous in hunting groups than in farming groups. About 15 percent of infants died before age 12 months in hunting groups; around 8 percent of infants of farmers died in the first year. However, in the 1-3 year age group, 20 percent of the farmers’ children died, and only about 12 percent of the hunters’.

 3. Life expectancy in both groups was higher in females than in males, and average life expectancy for a newborn female child of a hunting group was considerably higher (average of 23 years) than for a male child of a farming group (average of 16 years). These life expectancies are calculated on the grouping on skeletal material into age intervals; aging in children is based on tooth eruption sequence and bone maturation, whereas in adults it is based on pubic symphysis wear and tooth wear.

 4. Children in both groups experienced growth arrest in middle childhood, as indicated by Harris’ Lines (bone scars). An average of 11.3 bone scars were found on hunter-gatherer shinbones, and an average of 4.1 in the farming groups. In the hunters, the distribution of bone scars is very regular, indicating that periods of hunger were normal and seasonal, perhaps every winter. In the farmers, the lines were more random, indicating that famine was irregular but probably more severe. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that enamel hypoplasia, present in both groups, was far more severe in the farming group.

 5. The poor dental health of the agriculturalists is probably due to the high sugar content and soft consistency of cultivated food. Adult males had an average of 6.74 caries per mouth; adult females had an average of 8.5 caries. Hunting-gathering adults had an average of 0.73 caries per mouth for males and 0.91 caries for females. The high rate of tooth decay in farmers contributed to high tooth loss and probably high infection rates as well, and in children such tooth problems would seriously interfere with nutrition and growth.

 


 This information is taken from Claire M. Cassidy, "Nutrition and Health in Agriculturalists and Hunter-Gatherers: A Case Study of Two Prehistoric Populations," in Nutritional Anthropology, Norge Jerome, Randy Kandel, and Gretel Pelto, eds., Redgrave Publishing Co, 1980, pp. 117-145.

 



BONUS QUESTIONS and Study Guide

 For bonus points, answer any 2 of the following 3 questions. Your answer to each question should be about 1 page. For exam preparation, review and try to answer all 3.

 1. This case study has focused on evidence of malnutrition in skeletal remains. If you were working with an existing population of farming peoples (either small-scale cultivators or larger-scale farmers), what physical evidence would indicate malnutrition in children? List and describe the symptoms of malnutrition, using information from chapters 5 and 6 of the text and from Dettwyler’s Dancing Skeletons.

 2. If farmers have more health problems than hunter-gatherers, as the Cassidy study suggests, why did most human populations shift to food growing as their primary subsistence? What are the advantages? Why is it difficult to return to a foraging existence once people have settled into farming villages?

 3. Why are tortillas and beans better than just tortillas? Discuss the dietary deficiencies associated with farming and with industrial lifestyles, and explain how these deficiencies can be avoided through certain combinations of foods and certain food preparation methods. Be sure that your answer addresses the idea of protein complementarity.