A lot of proponents of new diets, e.g. Paleo, Primal, Atkins argue that grains have made people unhealthier and life expectancy was much better before the transition to agriculture.

Some research turns up statistics like beyondveg.com

We can conclude that farmers were less healthy than hunters, at least until Classical to Roman times. [Due to the difficulty in disentangling all relevant factors, as Angel explains a bit earlier] [w]e cannot state exactly how much less healthy they were, however, or exactly how or why.

It's argued that people were better fed then, showing sharp drops in pelvic inlet depth index and stature. It's also argued that the rates of dental disease were 3-4 times higher, indicating poor nutrition. Even today, we still don't meet the physical size and health of our Paleolithic ancestors despite the doubling of life expectancy.

A part of this may be due to a more sedentary and crowded lifestyle of agriculture, but physical size and bone development seems like a good indicator of nutrition.

Is there another way of interpreting data such as this or counter-arguments that denote that agriculture has made people healthier? Does the depth of the pelvis actually mean anything in regards to nutrition?

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    Please define "healthier". You mention in a single sentence they were healthier but had half of our life expectancy. Isn't it a self-contradiction?
    – kubanczyk
    Apr 24, 2013 at 8:19
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    @kubanczyk Healthier as in better nutrition. I left out the details on the life expectancy part because it's a catch all measurement that derails from the topic. Our generation is no longer killed by animals, has third world countries with better sanitation than kings did in the paleolithic era, lacks wars, does not suffer from starvation, has little infant mortality, and so on. Life expectancy is a very poor metric for nutrition!
    – Muz
    Apr 24, 2013 at 8:41
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    @Muz better nutrition as in what? More food, higher quality food, more stable food supply, more balanced diet? I'd say no to all of those except maybe the last. It's not the lack of agriculture that made these people have a more natural balance in what they ate, but the lack of farming subsidies.
    – jwenting
    Apr 24, 2013 at 9:53
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    "it is argued" conceals the fact that the source presenting the argument "Beyond vegetarianism" is based on those who have years of experience with alterante diets. I haven't read deeply, but my impression is that the history of human diet contains more controversy than established fact. I suspect that there is no satisfactory answer to your question. Exercise and death due to warfare would have to be figured in.
    – MCW
    Apr 24, 2013 at 14:12
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    This would be a better question for Skeptics.SE. Apr 24, 2013 at 16:51

6 Answers 6


I'm not exactly sure how to answer this question because there seems to be a hundred factors involved, including the definition of healthy.

Healthy may mean: to survive certain extinction events; to be able to pass on the genes to the next generation (to reproduce); to survive a long time; to be able to successfully compete with conspecifics; etc etc.

Then there is the factor of changing diets. Certainly the diet changed when humans started to plant their own crops but certainly our diet today offers a variety no human being of that time has ever seen.

Therefore, in my opinion, to just state something along the line like "we don't live as healthy as our ancestors who didn't eat grains" lacks a scientific basis. What may be easier to undertake and what has been done in the study you cited (but still lacking a definition of healthy) is to compare diets at the same point of history.

The advantage of agriculture is the increased supply per area rate compared to hunting and gathering and the aspect of food security. Even if it turns out to be less healthy for individuals it supports a bigger population which often replaced other populations throughout history.

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    +1, particularly for the point of farming sustaining larger groups of people, security in food sources, and the resulting genetic spread.
    – benteh
    Nov 25, 2013 at 16:49
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    The hunter-gatherers also died younger. So their remains might seem healthier, as they would be younger...
    – benteh
    Nov 25, 2013 at 16:51

The one fact I know of regarding carbohydrates and diet is that they are, indisputably, worse for the teeth of homo-sapiens. Paleontologists can tell the teeth of (neolithic) agricultural people apart from those of hunter-gatherers at a glance, due to how much worse their teeth are.

The fact that the Iceman suffered from tooth decay is attributable to his eating more and more starchy foods such as bread and cereal porridge which were consumed more commonly in the Neolithic period because of the rise of agriculture

Much of the rest of the new Atkins orthodoxy I think is still up for debate. I personally think he has pretty compelling evidence of a relationship between extremely high carbohydrate intake and Diabetes, but even that is still disputed.

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    – MCW
    Jan 31 at 14:51

I've got Pandora's Seed here, by Spencer Wells, and it goes into dentition before and after agriculture. As far as teeth go, they were worse after the high carb grain diet developed. The book shows photos of ancient molars with and without cavities.

  • there was cross infection by parasites from livestock.

Consider also that bad teeth can lead to secondary health problems.


Nutritional advice is relative and changes according to fashion. When I was a kid, eggs were 'out'. No more than 2-3 eggs per week. And drink milk. Lots and lots of milk! Three pints (large glasses) per day, no less. Then I moved to Thailand where people asked: do you want an extra fried egg with your fried egg? And milk was something weird only farangs (foreigners) drank ... I'm still alive! The validity of certain diet fats is debatable.

The reason why people changed from hunter gatherers to agriculturalists has nothing to do with better diets, but with more regular caloric intake.

The problem for hunter gatherers is the lack of regularity, not the nutritional value. A hunt is either successful or it is not. A successful hunt meant sometimes too much food, an unsuccessful hunt meant starvation. It depends on the prey, of course. But you can't hunt a mammoth for exactly what you need. Either you kill it and have too much, or the beast gets away and you have nothing.

What could pre-agricultural men do with the surplus? Not a lot. Hunter gatherers can't store it, or carry it around. Every kilo of food carried meant one kilo less of vital tools. One can only carry so much.

Settling down, and practice agriculture solves that problem. Food is more regular, less 'too much' or 'not enough' because farmers can store produce for later consumption. The food is less nutritional, but more plentiful.

Eating nutritional food too much or not enough is unhealthy, no matter how healthy the food itself is. Starvation is far more serious than feeling hungry. It has lasting effects.

The benefits of a regular but less nutritional diet outweigh the drawbacks:

  • more regular food means no (or at least less) starvation risk.
  • it also means you can have more children, with shorter time spans in between.
  • being able to store food gives you the opportunity to specialize.

I base my answer on Guns, Germs, and Steel from Jaret Diamond. Read this book for more details. Highly recommended!


Carbohydrates were the basis for nutrition stores (silos), which were not possible with meats and fruits/vegetables due to availability. Such storage allows longer forays (time spent doing an activity rather than gathering/preparing food); which probably enabled more scouting/exploration, conquest, design / 'science'.

People today do not need to eat so much grain / carbs. Our nutrition only expanded since agriculture. So we cannot say that we had better nutrition back then.

I suppose you could try to argue that, per capita, nutrition was better. This argument would require proving that fewer meats, fruits and vegetables exist per-capita today than in pre-agricultural times. If you cannot show that, then the situation is purely that we have more options for nutrition today (and possibly worse choices)


There is a massive counter argument to the one who says that hunter-gatherers were taller than farmers, even the ones of today:

but physical size and bone development seems like a good indicator of nutrition.

No, these are not good indicators. Big bones are stronger but they do not denote better health: they just characterize a DNA-based development of the body. Physical size is mostly controlled through generations: studies show that today, size is determined by a small and regular increase until a certain level. For example, there is today a generation of very tall teenagers, and soon their children will "offset" and be small again.

Actually, what those data prove is that in the farmer-based group of humans, people with less physical force and capacities could survive more than in hunter-gatherers' societies.

However, archaeology gives hindisghts that farmers were more subjected to diseases than hunter-gatherers, especially through pandemia since they lived in bigger communities and close to groups of domestic animals.

  • 2
    Citations needed.
    – cmw
    Jan 31 at 5:09

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