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Pithouse Sign, Mesa Verde

Since it seems to be Linguistics Week here at Gambler’s House, here’s another post on Jane Hill’s theory that the spread of agriculture into the Southwest was associated with a migration of speakers of Proto-Northern-Uto-Aztecan (PNUA) from somewhere in Mexico.  Previously I discussed an article of hers from 2001 in which she tried to show that a set of vocabulary items related to agriculture could be reconstructed all the way back to Proto-Uto-Aztecan (PUA), which, if true, would strongly support Peter Bellwood’s argument that agriculture was introduced to the Southwest by speakers of Uto-Aztecan languages migrating north from central Mexico.  I found that article unconvincing.  One reason was that, since almost all of the agricultural vocabulary known from Uto-Aztecan languages quite understandably comes from the southern languages of the family, which were spoken by farming groups, reconstructing that vocabulary all the way back to PUA requires the assumption that PNUA is a valid genetic unit combining all the northern languages, because almost all of the agricultural vocabulary known from those languages comes from Hopi, the only one spoken by a people who primarily practiced agriculture in historic times.  Hill’s 2001 article, however, doesn’t provide much evidence to show the reality of PNUA, which significantly weakens her argument, as do the many problems with the correspondences she does identify.

Basketmaker Pithouse, Mesa Verde

The article I’m talking about now, however, is about a related but somewhat different issue.  Published in 2008, it seeks to show that a set of agricultural terms from PNUA was borrowed into Proto-Kiowa-Tanoan (PKT), presumed to have been spoken by the indigenous hunter-gatherers who occupied the Southwest before the posited PNUA migration, and that a separate set of vocabulary referring to local wild plants and animals was also borrowed into PNUA from PKT.  Here, rather than dealing with the very difficult matter of reconstructing proto-language vocabulary, Hill is dealing with loanword studies, which is generally more fruitful (though still difficult and often frustrating).  The theoretical model for how this borrowing would have occurred is straightforward: speakers of PNUA, practicing an agricultural lifestyle somewhere in the Sonoran Desert, migrated above the Mogollon Rim onto the Colorado Plateau, where they found both a different environment and groups of hunter-gatherers who were very familiar with it.  Since agriculture is a much riskier and more difficult endeavor in this area, with its shorter growing season and less predictable weather than in the Sonoran Desert, hunting and gathering would likely have become more important for the PNUA farmers, and they would have eagerly sought out knowledge of local resources from the local people, who may also have been intrigued by the potential of the unfamiliar agricultural practices of the newcomers.  So, the PNUA speakers introduced the PKT speakers to farming, and in turn the PKT speakers introduced the PNUA speakers to plants and animals important on the Plateau but unknown in the desert.  In the process, some words for these things moved between languages as well.  Hill notes that this implies both that the PKT speakers, formerly hunter-gatherers, chose to adopt agriculture rather than being pushed to marginal areas by the PNUA speakers and that contact between the two groups was not necessarily always antagonistic.  Both of these implications are problematic for Bellwood’s theory of the correlations between language distribution and the spread of agriculture, which holds that hunter-gatherers very rarely adopt agriculture when they come into contact with farming groups expanding out of their homelands with large populations but instead are either assimilated by the farmers or pushed into marginal areas unsuitable for farming.  This is somewhat ironic, since Hill actually makes a very good case for these borrowings, which provides considerable support for some version of Bellwood’s general idea that language and agriculture generally spread together.

Reconstructed Basketmaker Pithouse at Lost City Museum, Overton, Nevada

As in the previous paper, Hill is careful in this one to point out all the potential problems with the etymologies and correspondences she posits here.  There are a lot, especially because Kiowa-Tanoan languages are not very well-documented and PKT reconstructions are much more tentative than P(N)UA ones.  In this case, however, I find most of the correspondences pretty convincing.  With contact linguistics like this, there are some inherent advantages over the sort of “pure” historical linguistics Hill was doing in the earlier paper.  The most important is that loanwords are often pretty easy to identify, especially in well-documented language families.  If a term is found in one language but not in any others in its family, but it’s very similar to a term with a similar meaning in a nearby but unrelated language, it’s pretty easy to conclude not only that an episode of borrowing occurred but also which direction the borrowing went.  This is something of an ideal case, of course, and in practice it’s often not quite as clearcut, but it’s still easier to show that a term was likely loaned into a language or subfamily than that a set of vocabulary can be reconstructed back into a proto-language.

Reoccupied Pithouse, Mesa Verde

In this case, it’s the borrowings from PKT into PNUA that are most convincing.  This is mainly because the PNUA forms are not attested elsewhere in Uto-Aztecan but are quite similar in both form and meaning to what can be reconstructed for PKT (which, again, is not all that reliable).  The loans in the other direction are trickier, in part because Kiowa-Tanoan is a small family and comparisons between branches can’t really be done the way they can for Uto-Aztecan, but given the other loans they seem pretty plausible.  Among other things, these loans provide pretty strong support for PNUA as a valid grouping, which in turn strengthens the argument of the 2001 paper, although it’s important to note that the issue in the 2008 paper is actually rather different, and it’s easy to imagine a group of farmers speaking PNUA migrating out of Sonora or southern Arizona without concluding that their ancestors necessarily migrating out of central Mexico speaking PUA.  PUA could also have been spoken by a group of hunter-gatherers in, say, coastal Sinaloa or Nayarit who adopted agriculture after contact with agricultural groups migrating up from further south, perhaps speaking a language related to Purepecha, much as the PKT speakers later adopted it after contact with PNUA speakers.  Nevertheless, the existence of PNUA is important to Hill’s 2001 argument, and the support for it here does strengthen that earlier argument.

Pithouse Ventilation Sign, Mesa Verde

The implications of this loanword evidence for archaeology are interesting.  It definitely supports R. G. Matson’s argument, based on totally different evidence, that the Western Basketmakers spoke a Uto-Aztecan language and migrated into northeastern Arizona and southeastern Arizona from somewhere further south.  In connection with that argument Matson also surmised that the of the Colorado Plateau and that they spoke Keres or a Kiowa-Tanoan language.  As Hill notes in this article, Keres is an isolate and it would be difficult to use it in this kind of study.  Kiowa-Tanoan, while a small family, does have a sufficient number of languages and enough apparent time-depth to be reconstructed into a form usable for comparisons to PNUA.  It is still fiendishly difficult to figure out what language(s) the inhabitants of any ancient site would have spoken, but the integration of linguistic evidence in studies like this has the potential to shed some light on the issue.

Pithouse Ventilation System, Mesa Verde

To tie this back to Chaco, which seems to have been a pretty important regional center during the Basketmaker III period, the evidence from this article suggests that the Eastern Basketmakers of the Chaco area may have spoken PKT, although they may on the other hand have spoken a language ancestral or related to Keres or Zuni (both isolates).  Or perhaps Chaco was inhabited by more than one linguistic group, as many archaeologists have argued for the later period of its more obvious regional dominance.  This evidence does suggest that whoever was living at Chaco at this time probably was not speaking a Uto-Aztecan language, although it doesn’t entirely rule it out.  There is, after all, no way to tell exactly when this episode of PNUA-PKT contact occurred, although if it involved early contact between farmers migrating in and local hunter-gatherers it would presumably have been rather early in the Basketmaker II period.  Importantly, the fact that the loans seem to have gone both ways shows that whatever contact took place involved both groups continuing to exist as social entities of some sort.  This is not evidence for assimilation, in other words, but for peaceful contact between agricultural and hunter-gatherer groups involving the exchange of information that enhanced the subsistence options of both parties.  The archaeological implications of that are difficult to figure out precisely, but it’s a subject worth thinking carefully about.
ResearchBlogging.org
Hill, J. (2008). Northern Uto‐Aztecan and Kiowa‐Tanoan: Evidence of Contact between the Proto‐Languages? International Journal of American Linguistics, 74 (2), 155-188 DOI: 10.1086/587703

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"Food for Thought" Sign at Anasazi Indian State Park, Boulder, Utah

The prehistoric peoples of the American Southwest were agriculturalists.  Different societies may have calibrated their mix of farming, hunting, and gathering differently, but they all seem to have done all three eventually, and for most it’s quite apparent in the archaeological record that farming was the predominant method of subsistence.  The crops they grew were corn, beans, and squash, the classic triad of North American agriculture.  These plants are not native to the Southwest, however, so they must have been introduced at some point from Mesoamerica, where they originated.  The introduction of corn, in particular, must have also involved the introduction of agricultural techniques, since it can’t grow without help from humans.  All this is pretty uncontroversial among Southwestern archaeologists.

Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

The nature of the introduction of agriculture, however, has been a point of more dispute.  The main arguments have to do with how long it took after the introduction of maize for the societies growing it to become totally dependent on it and thus become primarily agriculturalists rather than hunter-gatherers.  One view, espoused by Chip Wills at UNM, sees the introduction of corn as being gradual, perhaps filtering up from one hunter-gatherer group to another, and increasing dependence on it as taking place in the context of hunter-gatherer subsistence decisions and environmental fluctuations, with the total switch to a fully agricultural lifestyle not taking place until maybe as late as the Pueblo II period.  The other view, associated most strongly with R. G. Matson of the University of British Columbia, sees the introduction of maize as having been rapid and involving a totally different lifestyle from Archaic hunter-gatherers from the get-go.

Dryland Farming Sign at Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

Indeed, Matson sees the introduction of agriculture as having been so rapid that it could only have involved the physical migration of people who had already developed a corn-based agricultural lifestyle somewhere in Mexico.  Over the past few years evidence that supports Matson’s view has been accumulating from several sources, perhaps most notably excavations near Tucson that have shown clearly that there were people living in permanent farming villages there at least as early as 1500 BC, only a thousand years after the first such villages appear in Mexico.  Another line of evidence has been testing of human remains from Basketmaker II sites in Utah that has shown that the early Basketmakers were eating just as much corn as the later Pueblo villagers.  Matson has a good explanation of his views and the evidence for them here.  I find his arguments pretty convincing.

San Francisco Peaks from Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

People speak languages, of course, and people migrating from one place to another would presumably bring their language with them.  Thus, it’s reasonable to think about how the migration of an agricultural people from Mexico to the Southwest would be reflected in the distribution of languages.  The Australian linguist Peter Bellwood has argued for a general process by which early agriculturalists, who tend to experience much more rapid population growth than hunter-gatherers due to their ability to produce more food more reliably, relieve population pressure in their homelands by migrating into adjacent regions, bringing their language and lifestyle with them.

Nalakihu from the Citadel, Wupatki National Monument

Since the population issues stay with them, however, they will continue to spread out until something stops them, and that something is unlikely to be whatever hunter-gatherer societies occupy the fertile land they want.  Bellwood thus explains the enormous geographical extent of some language families by associating them with the spread of particular agricultural traditions.  This has been somewhat controversial, particularly in regard to Indo-European, as it produces a very specific answer (given Bellwood’s specific assumptions) to the vexing question of where a given language family originated, often called its Urheimat.  Since Bellwood argues that hunter-gatherers are unlikely to adopt agriculture, whether on their own or when exposed to it by contact with farming groups, his model predicts that the Urheimat of a given language family must be somewhere in the region where its agricultural tradition originated.  For Indo-European this means the Fertile Crescent rather than the Eurasian Steppe, which has been the preferred answer for many Indo-Europeanists on various grounds.  This has led to much controversy.

Fields Sign at Nalakihu, Wupatki National Monument

Bellwood has also applied his model to North America, and the language family he has suggested is associated with the spread of agriculture from Mexico to the Southwest is the one language family that extends from one to the other: Uto-Aztecan.  (I can’t find a good map of the full distribution of Uto-Aztecan languages, but the Wikipedia article has a few passable ones of smaller parts of it.)  Since this language family includes both the Nahua-speaking agricultural groups in the Valley of Mexico and the Hopi, who are part of the Pueblo agricultural tradition, it seems like an obvious link between the two and an obvious candidate for the relic of an ancient migration of farmers from Mexico to Arizona.

Entrance Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

This proposal isn’t without controversy either, however.  The main problem is that Uto-Aztecanists have generally proposed that the Urheimat of the family is likely to be somewhere in the northern part of its range, which has the greatest number of languages in the family and the greatest density of different branches.  Early on some proposed a Great Basin origin at the far northern end of the range, but more recently most specialists have agreed that a more southerly location, perhaps in California or northern Sonora, is more likely.  Only Bellwood and those who buy his arguments, however, have argued for an origin at the southern end.  There are a variety of arguments that have been made against this idea, some stronger than others.  The strongest, I think, is the fact that there are so few Uto-Aztecan languages at the south end and so many further north.  The number of different languages in a family, and especially languages from different branches of that family, in a relatively small area is generally considered a good sign of where that family may have originated.  For Athapaskan, for example, this criterion clearly points to Alaska or northern Canada.  For Uto-Aztecan, it seems to point to either California or Sonora.

Fence between Pipe Spring National Monument and Kaibab Paiute Land

Other arguments, such as those based on the Aztec traditions of a migration from Aztlan in the northwest, I think are much weaker.  One argument that superficially seems strong but I think is also pretty weak is that since the northernmost languages in the family are spoken by hunter-gatherers, the spread of the language couldn’t have anything to do with the spread of agriculture, since that would require that some of these groups had started out as farmers and given up agriculture in favor of hunting and gathering at some point.  And who would do that?

Yucca Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

Well, it’s true that not a whole lot of groups are known to have made this switch, but there are a few examples, and there’s really no theoretical reason to think it can’t happen.  Certainly in the sort of environment occupied by some ethnographically known Uto-Aztecan groups, like the Paiutes, farming would have been very difficult, but foraging considerably easier.  I think a lot of resistance to this idea is due to the deep-seated evolutionary paradigm with which anthropology as a discipline started out in the nineteenth century.  From this perspective, cultures evolve from “lower” to “higher” cultural levels, and they don’t go back down.  This sort of thinking was discredited long ago, but there still seems to be a lot of resistance to the idea that hunting and gathering could be a more attractive option than farming in some contexts, and that some groups would therefore have chosen it.  (On the other hand, there are those out there who find the idea of a switch to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle very appealing in general.)

Sign Describing Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Okay, so we’ve got some arguments for and against Bellwood’s theory, but if you look closely you’ll notice that while it’s based primarily on linguistic evidence (and is totally independent of Matson’s archaeological evidence), all that evidence is what I have called “external,” in that it is about linguistic distributions and relationships but has nothing to do with the languages themselves.  Bellwood doesn’t present any internal evidence from the Uto-Aztecan languages themselves supporting his idea that they originated in the south, probably because he doesn’t know much about them.  He seems to be an Austronesian specialist himself.  Jane Hill of the University of Arizona, on the other hand, is a specialist in Uto-Aztecan linguistics, and a while back she wrote an important article attempting to support Bellwood’s theory with internal evidence.

Garden Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

I say “attempting” because while she makes a good effort, I’m unconvinced by her arguments.  Internal evidence is inherently difficult to find and work with, especially in this case since many of the languages are not well documented.  Hill’s argument rests on the idea that there is a set of words related to maize agriculture that can be reconstructed all the way back to Proto-Uto-Aztecan (PUA), which, if true, would imply that the speakers of PUA were farmers, which, in turn, would strongly support the theory that they were the ones who brought farming to the Southwest.  She attempts to show that certain words in Hopi relating to agriculture are cognate to other agricultural terms in the southern Uto-Aztecan languages, especially the well-documented Nahuatl.  Since these languages are near the far ends of the family’s distribution, if they share the words in question and they can be shown to have originally had agricultural meaning, it becomes quite plausible that the original proto-language had the terms and was thus associated with an agricultural lifestyle.

Community Sign at Nalakihu, Wupatki National Monument

To her credit, Hill is careful to point out the many potential problems and pitfalls with this approach.  For one thing, the internal classification of the Uto-Aztecan languages is a matter of some dispute, and her arguments here depend heavily on positing a “Northern Uto-Aztecan” subfamily consisting of Hopi and the other northern languages.  Virtually all of the farming-related terms present in these languages are only found in Hopi (since the other groups didn’t farm).  If, as many linguists argue, these languages don’t form a single sub-family but instead consist of several sub-families no more closely related to each other than to any of the southern sub-families, the fact that all the evidence comes from Hopi makes it much harder to argue that the words in question go all the way back to PUA.  Hill acknowledges that her arguments depend heavily on positing a northern subgroup, but she doesn’t offer much evidence that such a group exists, and I don’t see any real reason to think it does.  Also, for some reason she consistently cites dates in uncalibrated radiocarbon years, which is an odd and not very defensible choice in a Southwestern context.

Owens Lake, California

More seriously, however, the cognate sets she presents are just not that convincing.  She discusses a total of 21 comparisons, only 9 of which are actually part of what she calls the “Uto-Aztecan Maize Complex.”  Even these nine, however, are riddled with problems of form and semantics, which is not unusual in comparisons like this but doesn’t inspire much confidence in their suitability as evidence for Hill’s argument.  She discusses the problems in detail, but then goes on to act as though she has nonetheless shown the accuracy and relevance of the comparisons, when she really just hasn’t.  (I should note that I haven’t studied any of these languages myself, so I can’t evaluate the data, just the argumentation.)  She even notes that a great number of agriculture terms in Hopi don’t seem to have any connection to other Uto-Aztecan agriculture terms, but she just ignores that to focus on the handful that seem like they might.  And, as I said, even those are iffy at best.

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Escalante Pueblo

Aside from the weak argumentation, it’s actually a pretty good paper, in that it clearly describes the issue and fairly presents the different theories and approaches to it.  Hill is careful to point out the potential counterarguments, and she tries to deflect them, with varying degrees of success.  Certainly I found some parts of the paper convincing, and have drawn on it significantly in writing this post, but overall I just don’t buy her arguments about the data.

Kaibab Paiute Housing Development from Pipe Spring National Monument

Does this mean I think she and Bellwood are wrong about the larger issue?  By no means.  I’m not totally convinced that they’re right, but the idea of a northward migration of Uto-Aztecan speakers is both plausible and nicely complementary to Matson’s archaeological model (which, again, is based entirely on archaeological evidence and totally independent of anything Bellwood and Hill say), which as I said before I find pretty convincing.  I think this paper mostly shows that, as Edward Sapir noted in his much more successful article on internal linguistic evidence bearing on Navajo origins, internal linguistic evidence is hard to find and often of limited usefulness even when it can be found.  It’s not totally worthless, but it can only ever provide a little extra support to theories proposed on the basis of other evidence.
ResearchBlogging.org
Hill, J. (2001). Proto-Uto-Aztecan: A Community of Cultivators in Central Mexico? American Anthropologist, 103 (4), 913-934 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2001.103.4.913

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Sign for Atlatl Rock, Valley of Fire State Park

I’ve long been critical of the agricultural triumphalism that tends to predominate in American public discourse on those rare occasions when it turns to matters of subsistence, and I’ve written before on the fact that hunter-gatherers were (and are) generally healthier than subsistence-level agriculturalists.   Nevertheless, the “Paleolithic diet” fad recently discussed in the New York Times seems awfully silly to me.  The specific people described in the article sound totally uninformed about what a hunter-gatherer lifestyle actually entails, and it’s quite possible that the article is presented in a misleading way that elides the saner aspects of these people’s lives.  It’s equally possible that the handful of people discussed in the article are not representative of the movement as a whole, and from what I’ve seen this seems to be the case.  This article by Ben Balzer is a much more reasonable introduction to the reasoning behind the diet, and while it has a lot of obvious errors of fact that even I, as someone without much knowledge of nutrition, can see, it’s a better place to start in explaining exactly what the problems are with this idea.

The basic problem, which is quite apparent in reading the Balzer article, is that the Paleolithic diet enthusiasts set up a grand dichotomy between hunter-gatherer and agricultural lifestyles that totally ignores the enormous amount of variation within each category.  Balzer’s very first paragraph shows this problem clearly:

There are races of people who are all slim, who are stronger and faster than us. They all have straight teeth and perfect eyesight. Arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, depression, schizophrenia and cancer are absolute rarities for them. These people are the last 84 tribes of hunter-gatherers in the world. They share a secret that is over 2 million years old. Their secret is their diet- a diet that has changed little from that of the first humans 2 million years ago, and their predecessors up to 7 million years ago. Theirs is the diet that man evolved on, the diet that is coded for in our genes. It has some major differences to the diet of “civilization”. You are in for a few big surprises.

Note the total conflation of the small number of modern-day hunter-gatherers with all other hunter-gatherer groups throughout human history, right back to the ancestors of all modern human millions of years ago.  He doesn’t even acknowledge that there could be any differences between “the diet that man evolved on” and the diet of modern-day foragers, and he explicitly states that that diet “has changed little from that of the first humans 2 million years ago.”

Atlatl Petroglyph at Atlatl Rock, Valley of Fire State Park

This is a common way of interpreting the lifestyles of modern hunter-gatherers, and anthropologists starting in the nineteenth century had a tendency to use these groups for evidence of the specific lifestyles of early people.  This was in keeping with the unilinear evolutionary theories of the development of human cultures that were popular in early anthropology, and while those theories have been discredited over time, the tendency to see groups at a “lower” level of cultural sophistication as living fossils has persisted, usually unacknowledged, in anthropology itself and even more often in popular understandings of human history.  Charles Mann does a good job of debunking this in a New World context in 1491.  It’s no more true in the Old World, and Balzer is totally wrong to imply that there is a single “Paleolithic” way of life that has been preserved unchanged among hunter-gatherers as the rest of the world has tumbled misguidedly into “civilization.”

The reason he and other Paleolithic diet enthusiasts are so intent on this conflation, of course, is that it’s not actually possible to tell in any detail what exactly the earliest humans ate.  The way archaeology works is that earlier periods leave less evidence than later ones, due to the vagaries of preservation and the effects of time, and the very beginning of human prehistory thus hasn’t left much more than stone tools and occasional bones.  It’s possible to get quite a bit of information out of this kind of evidence, but it’s not enough for a total reconstruction of an ancient lifestyle that can be easily adapted for modern use.  There is, however, lots of evidence in the ethnographic record on modern hunter-gatherers, so it’s easy to see how they live(d) and to put together dietary recommendations based on their practices.

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

This is not a reliable guide to the lifestyle of the earliest humans, however, precisely because of the development of agriculture.  Balzer himself has a good summary of the events and their impact on human society:

Around 10,000 years ago, an enormous breakthrough was made- a breakthrough that was to change the course of history, and our diet, forever. This breakthrough was the discovery that cooking these foods made them edible- the heat destroyed enough toxins to render them edible. Grains include wheat, corn, barley, rice, sorghum, millet and oats. Grain based foods also include products such as flour, bread, noodles and pasta. These foods entered the menu of New Stone Age (Neolithic) man, and Paleolithic diet buffs often refer to them as Neolithic foods.

This is basically accurate, as is his account of the advantages of this change for human societies:

The cooking of grains, beans and potatoes had an enormous effect on our food intake- perhaps doubling the number of calories that we could obtain from the plant foods in our environment. Other advantages were soon obvious with these foods:

· they could store for long periods (refrigeration of course being unavailable in those days)

· they were dense in calories- ie a small weight contains a lot of calories, enabling easy transport

· the food was also the seed of the plant- later allowing ready farming of the species

These advantages made it much easier to store and transport food. We could more easily store food for winter, and for nomads and travelers to carry supplies. Food storage also enabled surpluses to be stored, and this in turn made it possible to free some people from food gathering to become specialists in other activities, such as builders, warriors and rulers. This in turn set us on the course to modern day civilization.

This is all essentially true, and there isn’t much dispute among archaeologists about the basic story here.  Balzer goes on to describe why Paleolithic diet enthusiasts consider this such a bad thing, complete with a rather questionable account of the nutritional details.  What I’m more concerned with, however, is the way he’s conflating all agricultural societies the same way he earlier conflated all hunter-gatherer societies.

There’s a considerable consensus that early agriculturalists were much less healthy than the hunter-gatherers who lived at the same time as them and earlier.  The main reason is, as Balzer says, that grains provide lots of calories but not many nutrients.  They provide so many more calories, though, that an agricultural society, even one with very basic technology (the Neolithic was still a stone age, after all), can support a lot more people than a hunter-gatherer society, and with that sort of population growth it’s more or less inevitable that agriculturalists will take over any and all land in a region that can be productively farmed given the technology they have.  This forces the remaining hunter-gatherers onto land that is more marginal for agriculture, which also generally requires a shift in subsistence strategies to effective gather the resources on a different type of land.  Hunter-gatherers, like all humans, are fundamentally resourceful and adaptable, so they have generally been able to accomplish this in the regions where it has been necessary.  Another option, of course, is for the hunter-gatherers to adopt agriculture themselves, and this has also been a common response to this situation.

Sign for Hopi Garden, Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

So in the early days of agriculture, what was basically going on was that farmers were numerous but unhealthy, prone to nutrient deficiencies and ailments such as anemia, and hunter-gatherers were few and forced into areas the farmers didn’t want, where they had to adapt to changing circumstances, but generally healthier with a more balanced diet than the farmers.  Both groups, however, were pretty unhealthy by today’s standards, because both were dependent on fickle environmental conditions for their survival.  This probably had greater effects on the hunter-gatherers, since they didn’t have the ability to stockpile supplies the way the farmers could with their long-lasting grains, but drought, pestilence, and other occasional and unforeseeable problems could and often did cause crop failures and famine in farming societies.  This was particularly the case in relatively marginal areas for agriculture, such as the American Southwest, but it could happen even in areas that were usually much more fertile and reliable.  Northern Europe, for instance, suffered regular famines throughout the Middle Ages, and even the Valley of Mexico, one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the world, experienced a devastating crop failure in 1691 that had extreme repercussions.

So far, the Paleolithic diet still seems reasonable.  After all, the ability of farming to support large populations doesn’t seem very attractive if those populations were sickly, anemic, and still prone to occasional starvation when the harvest failed.  Why not go with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle instead?

Hopi Garden, Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

Well, for one thing, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle being practiced after the advent of agriculture was very different from the one with which humans evolved.  Remember, the spread of agricultural populations forced hunter-gatherers into less-fertile areas, which in turn forced them to adapt their subsistence strategies to take advantage of different sets of resources.  This worked well enough for them, but it means their diet after the farmers showed up was very much not the same as the diet they had had when they could forage throughout the fertile lands that the farmers took over, let alone the same diet their ancestors had had a million years before.  The very adaptability of human societies to changing circumstances means that modern hunter-gatherers are effectively useless as guides to the earliest humans and their diets.  This is kind of an obvious point, but the way Paleolithic diet enthusiasts conflate all hunter-gatherer societies throughout time obscures it.

Secondly, while modern Western society is based on agriculture, it isn’t really that comparable to Neolithic societies.  The so-called “Neolithic Revolution” in which agriculture was invented was an important change in human history, and I think it’s quite plausible to say it wasn’t entirely a change for the better, but the Industrial Revolution that created the society we live in today was just as big a change, and I think it’s hard to argue that its effects have not been positive overall (at least so far).  Among the changes introduced by industrialization were the mechanization of agriculture and the destruction of small-scale subsistence farming economies, as well as the development of modern medicine.  These changes have effectively solved the problems introduced by the invention of agriculture, and while they and other changes have introduced a whole new set of problems, they are decidedly different in nature.  People in America today, like people in Neolithic villages, don’t always get enough vitamins or eat enough fruits and vegetables, but for very different reasons.  And it’s very difficult to argue that one of the problems with the modern American diet is that it doesn’t include enough meat.

Demonstration Garden, Hovenweep National Monument

I don’t think the Paleolithic diet is likely to do any real harm to the people who try it, especially if they go with Balzer’s version rather than the ridiculous version depicted by the Times, but I also don’t think it’s likely to do them any more good than any other fad diet.  And I definitely don’t think it has much resemblance to the diet of the earliest humans, or that it would be any more effective if it did.  Maybe it’s best to think of it as one more manifestation of human ingenuity and creativity in adapting to changing circumstances.  Not all adaptations succeed, but they don’t have to be perfect to work well enough.

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