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What can we learn from Humans' shift from Hunter & Gatherers to Food Producers: a lesson from prehistory (7000 years)?

We've all encountered human inertia when it comes to shifting from old to new. This resistance applies to everything: new technologies, products, methods to achieve the same outcome, new processes, new food, inventions etc. However, this resistance has deep roots in human evolution over the past 13,000 years. The only way to understand this is by examining historical facts, even prehistory. Admittedly, not every shift—whether technological or non-technical—brings about fundamental changes in human societies. Nonetheless, historically, there have been a few shifts that initially took many years for humans to evolve or make complete shifts, overcoming initial resistance. In this essay, I'll highlight one of these instances, which I find fascinating because it seems we are still following the same patterns that were true 10,000 years ago.  

Let’s start with a small story. When I moved to Chennai from Bihar for my engineering studies, I lived in the College Hostel—a great representation of India's diversity. UG and PG students from over 20 states, including many from the Northeast, resided there. The presence of students from 20+ states meant we could cover almost all Indian languages spoken by more than a billion Indians. Pretty amazing, right?

Despite this, I was super hesitant to reveal my state name due to the reactions it often elicited—too much for a 16-year-old like me to handle. It felt like abuse. Hence, like many from Bihar, I used to hide my original identity. But how can you hide your accent? To be honest, I won't judge my 16-year-old self for this behavior; in fact, I'm proud of him. Here's a surprising part of the identity problem: We had a friend named Murari Singh whose ancestors (his father) were from Bihar, but they had settled in Mumbai, and he used to make fun of us. Ultimately, how long can you hide your original identity? 

This was my nature for quite a long time. To be honest, I tried to conceal my identity for a good while, maybe until I was 24 or 25 years old—initially in Chennai and later in Bangalore. However, God had a different plan for me, and I developed two beautiful habits in my early days. Firstly, I was hardworking without expecting too much in return. This is in my genes because I've seen my dad doing enormous physical work. After all, that was the only way to increase our monthly earnings to satisfy our growing needs. Secondly, I became an avid reader. To be honest, even though I couldn’t see the visible or invisible impact of reading for a long time because I started reading at the age of 18, by the time I reached 24 or 25, I could see the invisible impact of both habits.

When you come from the bottom of the pyramid (village: Dasaut, Bihar) to a bustling city like Chennai or Bangalore, and then return to your village during festivals and holidays, you ask many questions: Why are our people struggling for everything? Why do I have to travel over 2000 km for a decent education? Why are we left behind so much? Is it the fate of our people? Is it the case that when God was allocating wealth, they allocated more to people from these localities and forgot about us? These are important questions to ask when you see disparities of wealth, resources, living standards, and inequality.

As I read a diverse set of books, I could see the root causes of why Bihar was left behind. Why is there so much disparity of wealth and equity among the people? Why is Bihar the lowest in GDPS per capita among all Indian states? Why is it that people are so obsessed with status? And throughout this, I kept thinking: How could those in power for the past 20 or 30 years sleep at night, knowing they had the power to improve human life, bring prosperity, and make Bihar one of the highest GDP-per-capita states in India? This last question is based on personal experience because if you were to ask me today why I do what I do, my answer is simple: today, I have a few luxuries and power and I believe I can make quality healthcare affordable for billions of Indians, hence I do what I do. It is this belief that, after 20 years, when I'm 48 and I visit our customers, I will have the satisfaction that I contributed to the betterment of our people. This is the root of my motivation for what I do!

So, today (technically not today, 4 years back), I know God had not distributed wealth unevenly or given anything special to the people of any other state. It is the work and commitment of the people living there that made the state and people prosper, and today, their generation and future generations will probably have a better life compared to our people. I know I am creating this "Us vs Them" dynamic, but in this "Us vs Them," I am only concerned about Us; in that, I also wish no harm to Them. In fact, I wish "Them" made more progress because ultimately, at some level, progress made by any one of us is helping everyone in our country.

Knowing the above answer is one thing, but to bring about fundamental changes that have been needed for the past 30 years, I need to understand all these at a very fundamental level. “Because the purpose of understanding something is to change and alter the outcome”. Hence, I have been reading history. Last month I read “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson, and now I am reading “Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years”. This is interesting because the invention of writing took place in 3000 BC, hence we only have a recorded history of 5000 years. However, there is a lot more history before the invention of writing, and this book took me some additional 7000 years back, which we term as prehistory. Even though I am in the middle of this book, I am surprised by the fact that we are still following the same progress template, except for the addition of the prefrontal cortex in our brain; our way of thinking and making decisions is the same. However, the shift of the human species from Hunting-Gathering (H&S) to agriculture is super interesting, and I think that tells a lot about us and our current behavior. 

Okay, so before getting into details, let's set the timeline. And to make it clear, the only reason I am using these timelines is so we can understand our past with some rationality. However, these timelines are just approximations. So, let’s simply assume 11,000 BC (13,000 years) ago, our ancestors evolved and exhibited some human-like behavior, and they started living like hunter-gatherers (H&G). By some approximation, we also have an idea that the first domestication of plants was around 7000 BC (9,000 years) ago. It took around 2000 years from the invention of farming for human societies to completely shift from hunter-gatherers to farming.  

This is surprising because, in hindsight, we can all question, "Hey, it seems super logical for any H&G to shift to farming; however, there was such high resistance from the entire H&G." Of course, if something is going to change society at a fundamental level, no society can resist for long—and at the start of 4000 BC, humans becoming an agriculturally dependent society is testament to that.

However, for us (especially humans from emerging societies), it is important to understand all these at the fundamental level. 

Like all innovations, farming was inefficient and less rewarding, initially. This was due to multiple factors, including around 5000 years of experience in doing the same job. Hence, I created a table illustrating how initially farming was super inefficient compared to Hunting & Gathering.

This was the difference between Hunter & Gatherers and Farming; in any comparison, farming was worse than H&G. However, like most fundamental innovations/technologies that bring a paradigm shift in human society, Farming had one advantage over Hunting & Gathering: “Future Potential Innovation” (which we can also call luck: higher surface area). When evaluating any paradigm shift due to innovation, we must consider this specific factor—the number of variables that could be affected and the potential for net efficiency to be 1000X compared to available alternatives. And to add, we can see the potential of scale to cover the entire humanity. 

The future potential for innovation or multiple factors that could have played non-linear roles was super high in farming because of the inherent involvement of a higher number of components. For example, in farming, factors such as the selection of land, seeds, availability of water, and potential for better technology to conduct farming were crucial. And improvement in one means a strong network effect. 

On the other hand, Hunters & Gatherers were limited by supply, and the method was linear; there was no future innovation scope. And this was the biggest factor that played its role in making humans shift to farming.

Like most present humans, the humans of 7000 BC rejected farming, and only a few per cent chose food production. However, thanks to the potential for future innovation, in 1000 years, the entire H&G shifted to farming. Here is a list of potential factors involved in the paradigm shift. 

Also, farming was the root cause or responsible for trading and the invention of money; before farming, there was no culture of trade—perhaps a topic for a future essay.”

The 4 factors that played a key role in the shift from H&G to farming were:

  1. Shortage of Supply for H&M: once one wild animal was killed for food, it took many years for small wild animals to grow and become big. 

  2. The better reward for planting—farming can be done from one place and humans can have more time to reproduce (More Sex has been one of the biggest rewards for any species).  

  3. Improvement in farming technology: domestication of animals, selection of seeds, stone-based farming equipment, etc. 

  4. As farming doesn’t demand travelling, humans' rate of reproduction increased, hence higher food demand, and consequently more agriculture, creating a cycle.

Apart from the slow growth, it took around 1000 years; this feels like the regular technological shift or evolution nature of our human species—or for any innovation that brings a paradigm shift. We resist every innovation because we become more comfortable with the old options and almost always the new methods are inefficient compared to the old. 

However, thanks to unprecedented progress towards technology, in the past 50 years, similar paradigm shifts can take place in a decade; however, the signs of those can be identified, and those who identify early create enormous value for societies. But I don’t think many humans are good at identifying such early signs. Also, the face and type of such paradigm shifts are based on societies. For example, the Internet changed the communication method of the world; UPI changed the face of money—relax, in the next 20 years, UPI will be used by more than 60% of the world’s population.

Jared Diamond quoted in his book: “Naturally, I don’t subscribe to the obvious fallacy that every society promptly adopts every innovation that would be useful for it”. He used this quote on the domestication of Plants and animals. Even if you look at the above examples, many of the innovations that changed Western societies struggle to do the same for the rest of the societies.    

Today, I see similar signs of a paradigm shift in healthcare for the entire humanity; most probably, in the next 20 years, more than 60% of the world's population will be using ABHA (Ayushman Bharat Health Account) as the medium of interaction with their healthcare needs, and ABDM (Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission) will be the world-dominated healthcare protocol for the entire humanity. This might seem like too much; however, most probably, countries like the USA will switch to ABDM because their current system is broken, data sits on the individual provider's cloud, and the entire system is centralized rather than open and interoperable. If the USA shifts to ABDM today, their Healthcare per Capita would be sliced by ¼ with similar/better quality, and I am not making this up—the USA’s inflation of Healthcare per capita is not natural; it is artificial, and that is a solvable problem.

As I mentioned above, not all innovations yield similar paradigm shifts for all societies; however, if we can identify a few, we as a nation will be the world’s biggest economy in the next 20 years.

Thanks for reading, If you find this insightful, please share in your network, and I shall see you all next week :) 

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