Agricultural Lifestyles Affect More Than Physical Health

Those who have been attending my recent lectures know that my focus has broadened to incorporate the study of hunter-gatherer children and how they were tended, nourished, and spent their time and how they differ emotionally from agricultural/industrial children. Suffice to say, this study has been very eye opening. I could never have imagined the full impact of our modern lives on children, which for many is sedentary, material, and divorced from nature.

There are many differences between hunter-gatherer children and agricultural/industrial children: their diets, their customs (including child care patterns), their beliefs, their time spent in nature, etc. These two types of children even grieve differently! A wonderful study was performed that examined adolescents of two groups of people with similar ancestry living in close proximity to each other. One was a hunter-gatherer group and the other was an agricultural group. Each group was studied to identify how they feel and cope with the loss of loved ones. Children of these two groups were questioned about who they remembered, the quality of the grief, and how their grief was remedied. The results were glaring and paint a stark picture of values in each of these two cultures.

1. The hunter-gatherer children remembered an equal number of male and female deaths. The agricultural children remembered almost twice as many male deaths as females.

2. The hunter-gatherer children felt equal grief over male and female deaths. The agricultural children felt more grief from male deaths.

3. The hunter-gatherer children remembered biological kin equal on the mother’s and father’s side. The agricultural children remembered kin primarily on the father’s side.

4. The hunter-gatherer children’s grief over the deceased love one was tied to the relationship they had with the person (emotion). The agricultural children’s grief over the deceased loved one was tied to what the person had provided them (material).

5. The hunter-gatherer children coped with grief by spending time in close proximity to family. The agricultural children coped with grief through receipt of gifts (e.g., clothes, food, money); they also felt the sadness lessen when they received articles that used to belong to the deceased person.

While these features may not be universal, several of them I have witnessed in my life and I can attest to the very different values in our agricultural/industrial lives. These may not be your experiences—there is no attempt being made here to claim that one person’s method of grieving is better than another’s. However, viewing the list of differences, it is clear that, in this case, the studied cultures have shifted from an egalitarian one to a male-dominated one. Further, material possessions are more important in the agricultural lifeway (hence, amassing of wealth becomes a goal of life).

Though we cannot return to hunter-gatherer lives, we can draw on their values and find ways to incorporate cultural patterns that promote emotional health. Remembering that we (hominids) lived as hunter-gatherers for millions of years, it makes sense to recognize that novel lifeways may not be better; in fact, they may lack features that children require to feel loved, safe, and part of the community. Given the high rate among American adolescents of suicidal thoughts, vandalism, and identity crises, I feel it is safe to say that we should be exploring other ways of raising and nourishing children. Best wishes to everyone and hoping your families are well.