When Europeans first began to encounter hunter-gatherers, they considered them savages, projecting onto them the images and archetypes from their classical mythology (Jahoda, 1998). As the theory of evolution began to take hold, many Victorian anthropologists speculated on the role hunting and gathering played in humanity’s steady, inevitable ascent from such backwards primitivism to the obvious evolutionary ideal of the Victorian gentleman. They wrote about the difficult, dangerous, and marginal lives that hunter-gatherers led. With the invention of agriculture, however, hunter-gatherers had time for leisure for the first time, and with it they could begin to produce things they had never had before, like philosophy, art, medicine, and science. With this increased leisure time, hunter-gatherers were able to rise up out of savagery and begin their ascent to civilization.
Despite the apparent contradiction between this idea that hunter-gatherers had to toil constantly just to stay alive and the stereotype of “lazy savages,” no one bothered to actually measure how much time hunter-gatherers have to devote to work until 1948. F.D. McCarthy and M. McArthur’s study with four different groups in Arnhem Land, published over a decade later in 1960, suffered from a number of methodological problems, but they suggested the shocking possibility that foragers might actually work less than agricultural or industrial people, and have more, not less, leisure time (Kaplan, 2000).
Between October 1963 and January 1965, Richard Borshay Lee conducted fieldwork with the !Kung Bushmen in the Dobe area of Botswana. Presuming that foragers leaving and returning to camp to hunt or gather presented the closest point of comparison to workers in an industrial society leaving for the office or factory and coming home at night, Lee simply recorded who left, when, and when they returned (Lee, 1968).
“In all, the adults of the Dobe camp worked about two and a half days a week. Since the average working day was about six hours long, the fact emerges that !Kung Bushmen of Dobe, despite their harsh environment, devote from twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. Even the hardest-working individual in the camp, a man named ≠oma who went out hunting on sixteen of the twenty-eight days, spent a maximum of thirty-two hours a week in the food quest.” (Lee, 1968).
Since its initial publication, some anthropologists have criticized Lee’s study on several grounds. Some have pointed out that Lee did not record activity during the dry season (from August to October) when “water is limited and food scarce” (Kaplan, 2000). Lee’s records come from July 6 to August 2, 1964, right before the start of the dry season, so while they don’t record how hard the !Kung work during the hardest time of the year, neither do they record the easiest time of the year, and as Lee points out, even in the easiest time of the year, the Dobe area remains one of the most harsh environments on the planet, where no other form of subsistence will work at all. David Kaplan (2000) quoted demographer Nancy Howell, who spent two years with the !Kung, who noted that while the !Kung often complain of hunger and conjectured that hunger may contribute to other direct causes of death, &;dquo;there is a great deal of leisure in the !Kung camp, even in the worst time of the year.”
Others have criticized Lee’s study for its narrow definition of “work.” If you include the other necessary tasks that Lee’s numbers do not include, such as food preparation, cooking, cleaning, and making, cleaning, and preparing utensils, tools, and so on, then the estimates rise to 44.5 hours per week for men and 40.1 hours per week for women, estimates that seem far less shocking when compared to modern industrial work schedules. That said, the 40-hour work week common in the industrialized world does not include such tasks any more than Lee’s original estimate did. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2014 that on an average day, 83% of women and 65% of men spent some time doing household activities, and on days when they did so, women spent an average of 2.6 hours, while men spent an average of 2.1 hours. Using these numbers, we can calculate an average of 15.1 additional hours for such tasks each week for women, and 9.5 additional hours for men. If we add that on top of the traditional 40-hour work week, we get 55.1 hours for women and 49.5 hours for men, and if we compare these to the adjusted figures for the !Kung, we see that !Kung women work 72.7% what women in the United States work, while !Kung men work 89.9% what men in the United States work. To put it in broader terms, !Kung Bushmen seem to get a half day off every week.
A different group of hunter-gatherers in Africa, the Hadza of the central Rift Valley, have provided a different glimpse of forager work and leisure. “Hadza men seem much more concerned with games of chance than with chances of game,” as Marshall Sahlins put it (1972). Many ethnographers have noted the Hadza love for gambling, and the great amount of leisure time they devote to it. Sahlins cites James Woodburn, who estimated that over the whole year they spent an average of less than two hours a day obtaining food. The Hadza have steadfastly opposed efforts to introduce agriculture, in Woodburn’s words, “mainly on the grounds that this would involve too much hard work.” Likewise, Richard Lee writes that when asked why he hadn’t taken up agriculture, an anonymous Bushman replied, “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Lee, 1968) Marshall Sahlins (1972) quotes Martin Gusinde regarding the frustrations of farmers who try to employ Yaghan people from the Southern Cone in South America for agricultural work:
“Their work is more a matter of fits and starts, and in these occasional efforts they can develop considerable energy for a certain time. After that, however, they show a desire for an incalculably long rest period during which they lie about doing nothing, without showing great fatigue…”
The reports of “lazy” hunter-gatherers from around the world fits in with racist, colonialist notions, but the existence of the stereotype seems to lend credence to the idea that agricultural Europeans had grown accustomed to a much more marginal way of life that required more time, energy, and effort to sustain than most hunter-gatherers would reasonably expect. Those who would seem to have the clearest point of view to compare the two, the hunter-gatherers urged to adopt agriculture themselves, consistently refuse to do so, again and again responding that they do not want to live such a life of toil.
It should not surprise us that hunting and gathering requires less time and effort than agriculture, after all. In agriculture, one must devote time and effort to planting, growing, protecting, and harvesting plants, while foragers need only harvest them, leaving all of the other steps to the plant’s own prerogative. Why would we not expect it to take less time and effort?
Marshall Sahlins estimated (1972), based on a number of reports like Richard Lee’s study of the !Kung, James Woodbury’s observations of the Hadza, and many others, that extant hunter-gatherers typically work an average of 3-5 hours per day. Of course, such averages obscure the common pattern of working for a day or two and then taking off for a day or two, as well as seasonal changes. That said, such estimates make the old ideas of how agriculture led to civilization by introducing leisure time seem positively absurd.
It seems important to note here that hunter-gatherers survive today precisely in those areas where agriculture has proven altogether impossible. Everywhere else, agricultural, pastoral, or industrial societies have displaced them. Considering this, we should expect that even if foraging should prove easier than agriculture, farmers tilling the most fertile, abundant valleys in the world should still have an easier time than hunters and gatherers scraping by in the earth’s most desolate environments. While Sahlins may have somewhat overstated his case about the !Kung living in the “original affluent society” (Kaplan, 2000), we can see that the most wealthy and powerful industrialized societies that the world has ever seen still work at least slightly harder and longer than hunter-gatherers who survive in the most harsh, desolate environments on earth. Or, as Richard Lee put it, “It is likely that an even more substantial subsistence base would have been characteristic of these hunters and gatherers in the past, when they had the pick of African habitats to choose from.”
In a sophistic argument that includes such contentions as why a Hadza man spending the day gambling does not count as leisure, but a modern office worker’s 40-hour work week does, David Kaplan does nonetheless bring up an important point about the definitions of “work” and “leisure,” and specifically how the line between them can sometimes blur (2000). The tasks that make up “work&;dquo; for hunters and gatherers include hunting, fishing, walking, picking fruits and berries — the very tasks that we undertake on vacation, for recreation.
It would be a mistake to characterize the life of hunter-gatherers as perfect or idyllic, though. Even Marshall Sahlins himself admitted in his famous paper when he characterized them as “the original affluent society”:
“I do not deny that certain hunters have moments of difficulty. Some do find it ‘almost inconceivable’ for a man to die of hunger, or even to fail to satisfy his hunger for more than a day or two. But others, especially certain very peripheral hunters spread out in small groups across an environment of extremes, are exposed periodically to the kind of inclemency that interdicts travel or access to game.” (1972)
Hunter-gatherers do have to work for a living, and they occasionally encounter periods of want when their efforts yield little, but on the whole it would seem that even the hardest possible life for a hunter-gatherer compares favorably to the most leisured life one can expect in the world’s most wealthy industrialized societies.