Did foragers enjoy more free time?

Researchers debate whether the adoption of agriculture was done at the expense of leisure time. A new study in ten camps of contemporary Agta hunter-gatherers actually finds that individuals who engage more in non-foraging activities have less leisure time. Results highlight the need to consider the evolutionary costs of the transition to agriculture.

When considering the evolution of human societies, the adoption of agriculture is often seen as a way to escape from an arduous foraging lifestyle, the foraging-to-farming transition being associated with increased food availability and fertility, despite the decline in dietary breadth and overall health1,2. In a seminal work four decades ago, Sahlins argued that the transition from foraging to agriculture also came at the cost of more working and less leisure time3. While the thesis has been enthusiastically embraced by many anthropologists, only a handful of researchers have put it to empirical tests4,5. This gap is surprising because, despite many other differences, all humans are equal in that we have 24 h per day, and the way we spend them can be considered an objective measure of livelihoods. So the question remains: did humans give up their free time to embrace agriculture? In a new study, Dyble and colleagues use data from a contemporary society of politically egalitarian hunter-gatherers, the Agta from the northern Philippines, to put the hypothesis to empirical test6.

Credit: Brian Jackson / Alamy Stock Photo

In his inspiring book, which continues to be mandatory reading in most anthropological courses, Sahlins proposed that the foraging way of life was “the original affluent society” in which “all the people's wants are easily satisfied”3. Sahlins argued that hunter-gatherer societies are affluent because they meet their needs with what is available to them and desire little else. Sahlins argument was based on the idea that, while foragers did not enjoy material wealth, they were able to subsist with few hours of work per day and enjoyed large amounts of leisure time. This hypothesis has found much acceptance among anthropologists aiming to counter the idea hunter-gatherer societies are primitive, but, as mentioned, it has rarely been tested. Moreover, the scarce empirical research on the topic has indicated that Sahlins's argument might not apply universally, as there are important variations in foraging and farming populations in issues such as food processing times or cyclical fluctuations in food availability7. Moreover, interpretations of what is considered ‘affluence’, ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ time are context-dependent, making interpretations made by the Western eye misleading4.

The Agta are particularly suitable for examining whether the adoption of agriculture is associated to the amount of time devoted to leisure because, although they continue to largely rely on foraging, they are increasingly engaging in agriculture and other forms of non-foraging work. Using a unique dataset with almost 11,000 individual spot observations collected in ten camps, Dyble and colleagues compare use of time across camps that vary in their relative engagement in foraging versus non-foraging out-of-camp work. The authors find that individuals who live in camps that generally engage more in non-foraging work spend more time working and have less leisure time than their peers who live in camps where foraging is more frequent. The result is largely explained by changes in women’s use of time, as women in their sample seem to significantly increase their out-of-camp work as camps move away from foraging.

This study provides compelling evidence that greater engagement in farming and other non-foraging work is associated with increased out-of-camp work time and, consequently, decreased leisure time, thus apparently confirming Sahlins’ intuition. However, the interpretation of these findings should be done with caution for two main reasons. First, as the authors rightly point out, extrapolation from data collected among contemporary foragers to explain foraging-to-farming transitions in prehistory is contentious. As any other population, contemporary hunter-gatherers are not exempt from the many pressures from global environmental change (from globalization, acculturation or urbanization to climate change and multinational corporate resource extraction) which prehistoric hunter-gatherers did not face8. Differences that challenge extrapolations from contemporary to past forager societies include, for example, the long-term anthropogenic transformation of the natural environments where contemporary hunter-gatherers live, fundamental differences in contemporary and prehistoric agriculture, and the ability of contemporary hunter-gatherers to access out-of-camp work other than agriculture and to access national services (for example, schooling or health programs). Moreover, in addition to these challenges, there is also a danger in projecting contemporary ethnographic observations of the micro-time scale onto discussions of evolutionary processes that occurred at the macro-time scale.

Second, the meaning of ‘more leisure time’ should also be interpreted with caution. To Western eyes, an increase in leisure time seems clearly associated with an increase in well-being9. However, we know little about how leisure contributes to the well-being of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies and even less about how it contributed to the well-being of prehistoric ones. Evidence collected among contemporary foragers shows that the objective and subjective well-being of contemporary hunter-gatherers is defined by factors that operate in a variety of dimensions (for example, economic, health, psychological and social)10. Acknowledging such complexity is important to avoid equating leisure time with affluence or well‐being, tempting as it might be in our busy world.

Challenges of interpretation aside, Dyble’s work remains one of the few empirical tests of Sahlins’ hypothesis. Future work in this line could further test the ecological impact of Sahlins’ theory. Sahlins argued that forager societies enjoyed more leisure time because they had limited “wants.” In the current situation of ecological crisis and overexploitation of resources linked to unlimited wants for material consumption, Sahlins’ argument seems to have a rabid relevance. Perhaps we should be looking back to prehistoric forager societies to learn how to limit our material wants and, in passing, recover some free time.


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Correspondence to Victoria Reyes-García.

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Reyes-García, V. Did foragers enjoy more free time?. Nat Hum Behav 3, 772–773 (2019).

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