On HumansJanuary 19, 202301:13:0066.84 MB

14 | What Can Hunter-Gatherers Tell Us About Our Origins? Going Beyond the Bestsellers ~ Vivek V. Venkataraman

What was life like before agriculture? Was it "nasty, brutish, and short?" Or was it quite peaceful and relaxing, making agriculture the "worst mistake in human history"

There are plenty of theories about our ancestral lives. And these are not just neutral hypotheses about a past epoch. They are often used as an origin story of our species. They shape the way we think of ourselves, our natural inclinations, and the virtues or vices of civilisation. 

But how can we go beyond origin myths? Is there a science of the past? 

For a long-time, it was common to use modern-day hunter-gatherers as a model of the past. This method has been popularised by books such as Sapiens. But recently, this method came under serious attack by another bestseller, Dawn of Everything, whose authors argue that the project is largely futile. But is it? Are there any methods to study our ancestral past?

Dr Vivek V. Venkataraman is a hunter-gatherer expert who recently wrote a clarifying piece on this for The Conversation. He joins Ilari to discuss topics such as:

  • What books like Sapiens or Dawn of Everything get right and wrong
  • Why there is no such a thing as a “hunter-gatherer lifestyle” - but we can still learn something from modern-day hunter-gatherers.
  • Dr Venkataraman’s experience of living with an egalitarian hunter-gatherer community (the Batek in Malaysia)
  • Were our ancestors egalitarian?
  • How archaeology helps anthropology
  • Beyond the "story of the seed": How climate change and population density explain more than agriculture
  • Some speculation about war and violence in the Pleistocene (see also episode 8)

Names mentioned:

  • Thomas Hobbes & Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Richard Wrangham (author of The Goodness Paradox)
  • Christopher Boehm (author of Hierarchy in the Forest)
  • Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, & Steel)
  • Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens)
  • David Wengrow and David Graeber (authors of Dawn of Everything)
  • Marshall Sahlins (author of the essay, The Original Affluent Society)
  • Karen & Kirk Endicott (author of The Headman Was A Woman)
  • Peter Turchin (referenced paper on complexity)
  • Douglas P. Fry (see episode 8)
  • Richard Dawkins (author of God Delusion)
  • John McPhee (author)
  • Kim Sterelny (philosopher of science)


  • Göbekli Tepe
  • Pleistocene (the era ending c. 11 700 years ago, starting c 2 million years ago)
  • Intensification
  • Scalar stress
  • Self-domestication (see e.g. Survival of the Friendliest)

Hunter-gatherer groups mentioned:

  • !Kung (a group of San Bushmen, also known Ju/’hoansi) in the Kalahari Desert
  • The Hadza in Tanzania
  • The Ache in Paraguay
  • The Batek in Malaysia
  • The Northwestern Pacific hunter-gatherers of US and Canada
  • The Calousa of Florida