Take a piece of string…..

Here’s an interesting little exercise to try on your friends. Take a piece of string, a metre long. Tell your friends it represents a time frame of 4 million years; one end is the present time, the other is 4 million years ago.

Why 4 million years?

Because that’s the date given to the earliest-known skeletal remains of upright-walking humans; people like us. (Actually, recent discoveries have pushed that time back a further million years, but 4 m will do for this exercise).

Your friends, if they know any history, should know that humans haven’t always practised agriculture; that at some time in the distant past they obtained food by foraging, or hunter-gathering as it’s more popularly called. They probably have a mental picture of a group of cave men and women, digging up roots and tubers and bashing defenceless animals over the head with a club, and that picture might also include, at some time in the distant past, some bright spark inventing agriculture, in a faraway place called the Fertile Crescent.

Now ask them to tie a knot in that 4 million year length of string at the point that humans stopped hunting and settled down to tend crops.

Did anyone put the knot about 2.5 millimetres (yes, millimetres!) in from the present time?

Well, that’s about where it should go.

It’s generally agreed that agriculture got going about 10,000 years ago. 10,000 years is 0.25% of 4 million years. 0.25% of a metre (1000 mm, the length of the string) is 2.5 mm.

In other words, we humans have hunted and gathered for our food for 99.75% of the time that we’ve been walking upright (and so considered substantially different from our ape-like cousins that walk on all fours).

Did anyone get it right? Write in and tell me how it went.

The main purpose of this exercise is to emphasise that we are not adapted, in an evolutionary sense, to either agriculture or civilization or to our present diet. (Evolutionary biologists say that in geologic time, 10,000 years is just an eyeblink). Given also that industrial agriculture utilises huge amounts of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, which are not normal components of healthy, natural food, is it any wonder that our food is making us sick? Is it any wonder that so many people are now turning to growing their own food, at home and without chemicals?

If you’d like to read more about the subject of western diets versus hunter-gatherer diets and healthy food in general, try the website of the Weston Price Foundation.

Here’s another useful essay by anthropologist Jared Diamond who labels agriculture “The worst mistake in the history of the human race.”


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