Hunter–gatherers have less famine than agriculturalists

J. Colette Berbesque, Frank W. Marlowe, Peter Shaw, Peter Thompson

Abstract

The idea that hunter–gatherer societies experience more frequent famine than societies with other modes of subsistence is pervasive in the literature on human evolution. This idea underpins, for example, the ‘thrifty genotype hypothesis’. This hypothesis proposes that our hunter–gatherer ancestors were adapted to frequent famines, and that these once adaptive ‘thrifty genotypes’ are now responsible for the current obesity epidemic. The suggestion that hunter–gatherers are more prone to famine also underlies the widespread assumption that these societies live in marginal habitats. Despite the ubiquity of references to ‘feast and famine’ in the literature describing our hunter–gatherer ancestors, it has rarely been tested whether hunter–gatherers suffer from more famine than other societies. Here, we analyse famine frequency and severity in a large cross-cultural database, in order to explore relationships between subsistence and famine risk. This is the first study to report that, if we control for habitat quality, hunter–gatherers actually had significantly less—not more—famine than other subsistence modes. This finding challenges some of the assumptions underlying for models of the evolution of the human diet, as well as our understanding of the recent epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

  • Received October 2, 2013.
  • Accepted December 1, 2013.
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