Foraging didn’t provide ancient humans with a great abundance of food, but in many ways foragers likely had better diets than humans living in early agricultural societies. This idea doesn’t seem intuitive, but Yuval Noah Harari explains why it is likely to be true in his book Sapiens. He writes, “The typical peasant in traditional China ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. If she was lucky, she could expect to eat the same on the following day. By contrast, ancient foragers regularly ate dozens of different foodstuffs.”
It is tempting to think that foragers gave up their nomadic lifestyle in favor of an agrarian lifestyle because mastering agriculture provided more, and better, food. This was not the case for many ancient (and not so ancient) humans. Moving to an agrarian system could provide a surplus of some foods, which did provide more food security in some instances, but often decreased the quality of diet compared with the diets of foragers. Ancient foragers could find many different foodstuffs, from nuts, to berries, to edible roots, to small animals and bugs. Knowledge was passed along about what foodstuffs could be eaten and where foodstuffs could be found. Different things were eaten at different times of the year, based on what was blooming, what animals were around, and what the weather was like. Foragers didn’t have a ton of surplus food, but their diets were pretty varied and pretty nutritious overall.
When humans moved into agrarian societies, they often began cultivating just a single food item, like wheat or rice. Successful farming could ensure a good harvest and a surplus of the staple crop for the individual farmer, their household, and potentially others in the village cropping up around the crops. But a huge amount of work went into cultivating a single crop, and this meant that diets were not varied and that people were at risk if a harvest didn’t turn out as expected. Contrasting this to foragers again, Harari writes, “by not being dependent on any single kind of food, [foragers] were less liable to suffer when one particular food source failed.” Ancient peasants lost the knowledge of where and how to find edible foodstuffs, and how to safely prepare those items at different times of the year. This meant they were dependent on a surplus of a single crop to get them through.
Additionally, relying on a single crop meant that foragers who became farmers gave up the interesting diet of a hunter-gatherer. Ancient humans traded a nutritious but slim diet for a more bountiful but less nutritious and less varied diet. Without eating all the fruit, nuts, roots, and other foodstuffs that provided vital nutrients, nutritional diseases were more likely to pop up in agricultural societies dependent on a single crop. Eating just rice, just wheat, or a slim variety of foods likely meant that important vitamins and minerals were missing from ancient farming diets. Ultimately, humans figured this out and found a way to master their diets, but early humans were not exactly at a nutritional advantage by shifting to agriculture.