Hunter-Gatherers Live Longer and are Healthier than Agriculturalists

“Hunter-gatherers had better bones, had no signs of iron-deficiency anemia, no signs of infection, few (if any) dental cavities, fewer signs of arthritis and were in general larger and more robust than their agriculture-following contemporaries.”

I just read a fascinating and compelling article about a study done in the US in the 1970s that – in my opinion –  irrefutably demonstrates the superiority of the Paleo Diet (mostly protein and fat, some carbs) verses an agricultural diet (mostly carbs, via grains, and some protein).   If you want the full monty, including the science and statistics, I highly recommend you read the Original Article, by Dr. Michael Eades.  Allow me to summarize below:

The Premise

In general, it is widely accepted in the anthropological community that the health of early man took a nosedive when populations switch over from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Anthropologist can tell with a mere glance if the owner of an ancient skeleton was a hunter-gatherer or an agriculturist.  Dr. Eades points out, “Hunter-gatherers had better bones, had no signs of iron-deficiency anemia, no signs of infection, few (if any) dental cavities, fewer signs of arthritis and were in general larger and more robust than their agriculture-following contemporaries.”

The basis for the study, and the reasons it was unique, are as follows.  Archaeologists uncovered skeletal remains from two genetically similar populations living in pre-European America near modern-day Kentucky, 3,500 years apart, both of which had access to similar natural resources and climate (one in 5,000 BC and one in 1,500 AD).  The only substantial difference was their choice of subsistence.  One was agricultural, meaning they ate mostly grains, the other was hunter-gatherer meaning they ate mostly animal protein and fat.  Also, unlike other studies conducted elsewhere within the archaeological community, the one described in the article has two distinct advantages:

1.   They found an unusually large number of skeletons to analyze for both populations.

2.   Atypically, the Hunters in question stayed in the same location for a long period of time, reducing the number of variables between them and the Farmers (who by default are less mobile societies).

So to recap:

  • Two very similar populations
  • Located in the same place
  • Separated only by time and diet


Hunter Diet

The Hunters ate very large quantities of river mussels and snails while supplementing with other meat including small mammals, wild turkey, box turtle, fish and occasionally deer (dog was sometimes eaten ceremonially).

Farmer Diet

The Farmers ate primarily corn, beans, and squash.  Wild plants and animals (especially deer, elk, small mammals, wild turkey, box turtle) were eaten as an occasional supplement to this predominantly agricultural diet.

Study Results

Summarized by Dr. Eades, the study finds:

Here is the summary of the findings of this analysis of skeletal data as tabulated by the author:

  1. Life expectancies for both sexes at all ages were lower for the Farmers than for the Hunters.
  2. Infant mortality was higher for the Farmers.
  3. Iron-deficiency anemia of sufficient duration to cause bone changes was absent for the Hunters, but present for the Farmers, where 50 percent of cases occurred in children under age five.
  4. Growth arrest episodes for the Hunters were periodic and more often of short duration and were possibly due to food shortage in late winter; those for the Farmers occurred randomly and were more often of long duration, probably indicative of disease as a causative agent.
  5. More children suffered infections for the Farmers than for the Hunters.
  6. The syndrome of periosteal inflammation was more common for the Farmers than for the Hunters.
  7. Tooth decay was rampant for the Farmers and led to early abscessing and tooth loss; decay was unusual for the Hunters and abscessing occurred later in life because of severe wear to the teeth.  The differences in tooth wear and caries rate are very likely attributable to dietary differences between the two groups.

Overall, the Farmers were clearly less healthy than the Hunters.”

So what conclusions should we draw from this?  For me, this is a strong affirmation of the underlying principles of the Paleo Diet.  Specifically our bodies evolved to consume primarily protein and fat, sourced from wild animals and plants.  We ate this way for more than 97% of our evolutionary history and only recently deviated by cultivating and heavily relying on grains.  A large percentage of our modern health issues can be attributed to deviating from our natural dietary plan.  Fortunately, the resources are available to address this in-congruence.

If you’re not already eating Paleo, what’s stopping you?

Original Article:  Nutrition and health in agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers,
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