Kay has posted another of the “Seven Deadly Sins” for us all to write about. This week, it’s sloth.
When reading first-hand accounts of the exploration of the American west in the 18th and 19th century, and even more when reading 19th and early 20th century accounts of the lives of the native peoples of the region, a common theme is the alleged sloth or laziness of the natives. When you go digging through the documents, what was perceived as sloth was turns out to be a general lack of interest in agriculture.
This tendency to equate sloth with a lack of agriculture was in part due to the prevailing attitude of the time – that agriculture=labor=virtue (a notion that informed the authors of the Constitution, and explains many of the aspects that seem odd to a modern reader of the document). It was also due in part to the notion that hunter/gatherers simply took what was readily available to them rather than working for their food (in fact, the average hunter gatherer had to have a fairly exhaustive, and hard to develop, knowledge of both the landscape and the resources available in that landscape), and to the fact that the material culture of the natives of the Americas appeared primitive or bizarre to the Europeans, and as such was dismissed without a fair assessment of the skill and knowledge required to produce that material culture.
The life of a hunter/gatherer is one of cycles: feast and famine, seasonal movements, gathering cycles. And it is not strictly correct to claim that people who have such a subsistence strategy are not producing their own food, there is a huge amount of ethnographic evidence that indicates that hunter/gatherers from Australia to Africa to the Americas were well aware of the conditions in which plants and food increased in abundance or productivity, and that they engaged in practices that modified the landscape to bring this about*. Many of these groups may even have engaged in some basic-level gardening, or other forms of proto-agriculture.
So, why didn’t they shift to true agriculture? The early European observers blamed it on laziness, but the truth is rather more interesting.
The shift to agriculture is generally more labor intensive than foraging for food, it is true. However, it is also generally less healthy. Studies that compare the skeletons of early agriculturalists to early hunter/gatherers routinely find that the early agriculturalists suffer more injury and illness as a result of the shift to farming. As agricultural societies develop, they tend to work out methods of production and delivery that alleviate this and eventually result in better health than their hunter/gatherers ancestors. However, this is a process that takes generations, and is not clear to the early proto-agriculturalists.
Also, whereas hunter/gatherers are generally reliant on a broad range of foods such that a lack of one simply requires greater reliance on others (or movement to an area of greater abundance), agriculturalists tend to become reliant on a very narrow range of crops, so that something that reduces the productivity of even a single species may have devastating effects on the people reliant upon that species (and they are less mobile than hunter/gatherers).
So, all of this being the case, it would appear that the correct question isn’t why hunter/gatherers didn’t farm, but, rather, why did the agriculturalists start? There’s a lot of good reasons (ranging from social pressures to ecological changes to conscripted ranges of movement), but I seems that, contrary to what even such generally intelligent people as Samuel Clemens wrote, it wasn’t the sin of sloth that prevented the adoption of agriculture, but rather the virtue of intelligence that prevented it.
*One of the most common examples is the use of controlled burns to promote the growth of vegetation that might otherwise be choked out by other encroaching plants. However, there are other examples in the literature, for anyone who cares to look.