Hunter-gatherers have more leisure time

We hope that the front page we’ve started at will become the thing that people find first when they hear about “rewilding,” wonder what it means, and type it into Google. We tried to make it flow like a story that unfolds as you scroll down the page to lead you from the standard way that WEIRD people think to the point where you might join this forum. So we start by pointing out that we have some big problems, and then pointing out some context for those problems. Then we get to the first batch of essays, all about overturning the usual stereotypes about hunter-gatherer life.

I think we can continue developing these over time, so I want to start a thread here to collect your comments, critiques, and suggestions. Think of this thread like an ongoing working group.

Hunter-gatherers have more leisure time.


Nice “work”. For me, the word “work” could have been put between quotes right from the start, but I guess for people less familiar with the topic this might “work” better.

How about adding a line somewhere near the end that the “work” of hunter-gatherers probably makes for much more interesting conversation etc. during leisure time than civ-work?


I often think about savanna lions when I think about hunter-gatherers. They sleep like 23 hours of the day, get up, hunt for an hour, kill an animal, eat their fill, go back to sleep. It would be interesting to compare “work” of any other animal to that of humans. What other animal spends ALL DAY in their food quest? I mean, foragers just kind of snack all day long… and since we are a sort of hybrid between forager and hunter, this would be an interesting angle in terms of looking at the flow of natural systems: are civilized humans just unique for humans in that we work more, or are we unique for ALL animals? Just a thought worth exploring…


Poor lions with frequent nightmares…
Regarding ALL DAY food quests… my first thoughts went to ants, or bees, wasps and such. On a Dutch site I read that depending on temperatures some bees species “work” around the clock, others more likely from around sunrise to sunset.
And what about ruminants… would ruminating fall under “work” or “leisure”? I would vote for “work” because it seems not quite the time to spend cracking jokes.

So perhaps we should also look at what we consider “work” - time spent as a daily necessity to sustain ourselves? Or should we also look at the psychological attitude with which we go about it? Would some hunter-gatherers not prefer to take a “day off” and spend it making a bow, but “have to” go and collect yesterday’s kill?
Could ‘rewilded’ imply a state where we no longer feel the need to make the distinction between work and leisure time? Does only civ make this distinction?


Hm… Yes! I also think about the psychological gratification that comes with making things with our hands. Or even just creative juices in the “work” place. Or adrenhaline and how important that is. I think there are two kinds of work: work that comes from your own inner drive, and work that has been imposed on you by external forces. People hate work that they are not creating themselves. I think many hunter-gatherers were not doing what they were told, and working for someone else. The impulses driving their work come from within, and collectively. I think that is also a very important part of this conversation: what makes work feel like “work” and not like creative play?

Shrews. They’re nutters, seriously. Estimates seem to vary, but they apparently need to eat 1-2 times their body weight +every day+ to make up for a crazy-high metabolic rate (heartbeat 1200/min or 20/sec) and the heat loss cause by a proportionally high surface area for their small size. Apparently they take little naps throughout the day and night but are generally out hunting insects every two hours. They don’t build up enough fat reserves to hibernate either, although

they do become less active in winter. Remarkably, their size shrinks in winter, so that they require less effort to move and so need less food, not only does the liver shrink but also the brain and the skull.

There’s a bit about them in an Attenborough documentary about mammals and just watching them move gave me a headache!

It would be interesting to see the ‘work’ rate predicted by the human metabolism and compare that to how much we’re forced to work in the civilised culture (not providing simply for ourselves, but amassing wealth to get siphoned up the hierarchy). It’s revealing that most analogies people draw between their work activities and ‘natural’ systems point to social insects like ants or bees - again creatures with a very high metabolic rate who have to eat on a regular basis or starve. It fits the feeling of scarcity which haunts every aspect of the capitalist society (even in wealthy countries), but if we’re looking at human +biology+ surely there isn’t this same need to grasp at resources at every available opportunity, and the comparatively low metabolism would leave space for much ‘nonproductive’ activity. Although maybe we couldn’t get away with being as lazy as the big cats!



two thoughts / questions:

other omnivorous primates seem like a good place to look for comparisons and contrasts in terms of how much activity / energy is spent on food “quests”… any good resources on this?

what about trophic levels within a food chain or web - could that correlate with activity / energy spent “making a living”? if so, would it look something like a half circle upside down? - with producers at the beginning of the curve, apex predators at the peak (bottom) of the curve, and “decomposers” aligning somewhere near the producers’ levels on the other side?


would it be a valid comparison to look at “amassing wealth to get siphoned up the hierarchy” next to trophic levels amassing energy to pass up the food chain? if so, that would mean that civilized systems such as capitalism ARE the apex predator “above” us… hmmm…

I agree super strongly with this sentiment… Although the lives of hunter-gatherers certainly aren’t perfect, and there are tasks that get monotonous, at least it seems many of these are more social. Activities such as hunting waterfowl would be a bit more interesting “work,” considering many in our society do this for fun, despite being more of a solitary thing. Tasks such as processing acorns, hide tanning, splitting/gathering wood, picking berries may not be quite as exciting “work” but tend to allow for conversation and community building in some cases. This stands in stark opposition to the few hours of socialization many folks in so-called “developed” countries get each day. Obviously some work is social but factories, sitting in an office cubicle, etc. aren’t exactly conducive to social and spiritual fulfillment… definitely some interesting questions with regards to exactly what “work” entails.

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That inner drive seems a very important aspect to me, indeed.
And points to another skill that I consider important in rewilding: to have faith other people’s (in particular also children’s) internal motivation. In my experience it is pretty hard to keep this faith especially when the other has so little time to themselves anyhow, and it seems that there will always be others ready to defeat their possible ‘alone-time’.

Also I suppose that that internal drive will not just get someone up and going, but that it will give an added sense of need. Going out for a recreational hunt or stroll has much less of a need than knowing that your people hope or even expect you to bring home food and stories.

When companies tell you that doing laundry is “work” and you shouldn’t like to do it, gives you a very different outlook on home life than when you feel that you play an essential part in making home a happy place together and those around you feel the same way.

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Good question, I don’t really know… The way I’ve been thinking about it lately is of the system cultivating/farming/domesticating us the way agriculturists shape the behaviour and outward appearance of plants & animals over time. Similarly the civilised culture exerts various selection pressures on its citizens, broadly favouring obedience, conformity, docility, lack of critical awareness, social atomisation, consumer gratification etc. although this depends on the class of person being ‘cultivated’. I don’t think ‘apex predator’ is quite right though. Don’t predators mostly leave their prey species alone in contrast, without the constant heavy-handed management which practically defines the domestication process? I mean, prey species are free to live as self-willed beings for their whole lives until the point where they’re actually caught and eaten (although you have other pressures like fear & vigilance affecting behaviour - eg: deer in yellowstone park after the wolf reintroduction).

Interesting thought, could you explain it in a bit more detail please? I don’t quite follow the point about the curve. The only thing that strikes me as different so far is that an apex predator wouldn’t absorb so much of the ‘lower’ species into its own population biomass. Under capitalism ‘work expands to fill a vaccuum’ and employers want as much of your time & energy as you can feasibly spare after you’ve performed the basic essentials of feeding, clothing, housing yourself (all at your own expense) while allowing just enough time to feed the consumer economy in evenings and weekends. Increasingly they demand more than is possible to give longterm, so the workforce gets burned out young and then replaced before health problems and tricky issues like pensions & retirement (or even families before that) become part of the equation. Parasitism might be a better analogy. Although even then many parasites have co-evolved with their hosts, some even performing beneficial functions to the point where they’re practically indistinguishable from the host body (eg: bacteria in the digestive tract). Only the most virulent parasites suck the host dry until it dies the way the civilised economy does to so many of its … well, let’s not mince words: slaves.

Here are a few links I dug up on primate/human metabolism. Apparently we have a much lower rate than most other mammals of a similar size for some reason. Also diet plays an important factor, with energy-dense, cooked or processed foods originally paving the way (so the theory goes) for greater brain size and other defining human characteristics. Not read these all the way through, but the last one looks interesting, comparing Hadza to western patterns of energy use and consumption. Looks like the whole subject plays into paleo diet discussions, so wouldn’t surprise me if some of those writers are already on this.


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Hi Ian, thanks for your thoughtful comments and for the links - I hope to read through some of the material very soon and reply with additional thoughts & questions :smiley:

Hey, no problem. The last link’s a good’un, playing into the original subject of Jason’s article. They went into the study (comparing Hadza h/gers with subsistence farmers and market-society westerners) expecting that the reason h/gers had such little body fat compared to obese westerners was because the energy they expended through the day was considerably higher. In fact they found that it was roughly the same, supporting ‘original affluent society’ theories and suggesting that there must be other reasons for the discrepancy (eg: diet). Metabolic rate and energy use while walking were also found to be similar. The subsistence farmers were way up on the energy expenditure scale in contrast. They conclude (spoilers! and TEE=total daily energy expenditure):

Like other complex, continuous traits (e.g., stature), environment can clearly influence TEE, as is evident in the elevated energy expenditures of traditional farmers (Table 1). Nonetheless, TEE is remarkably similar across a broad, global sample of populations that span a range of economies, climates, and lifestyles (Fig. 1, ​,2).2). Not only is TEE statistically indistinguishable between Westerners and Hadza foragers, but the range of TEE within Western, foraging, and farming populations largely overlap, both at the individual and population levels (Table 1, Fig. 1, ​,2).2). We hypothesize that TEE may be a relatively stable, constrained physiological trait for the human species, more a product of our common genetic inheritance than our diverse lifestyles. A growing body of work on mammalian metabolism is revealing that species’ metabolic rates reflect their evolutionary history, as TEE responds over evolutionary time to ecological pressures such as food availability and predation risk [49], [50]. In this light, it is interesting to consider human TEE as an evolved trait shaped by natural selection. Humans are known to have greater TEE than orangutans [50], a closely related ape, but have low TEE compared to other eutherian mammals [50], [51]. Data from other primate species are needed to fit the human metabolic strategy into a comprehensive evolutionary context.


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(Of course it should be noted that the reason TEE is lower for us westerners is because we have externalised the energy cost of our food production largely to 3rd world producers and/or to the energy embedded in fossil fuels and the machinery which makes use of it in mass industrial agriculture. Taking all that into account our TEE is astronomical compared to Hadza h/gers living hand-to-mouth directly from the land.)

Thanks. You’ll see a nod to this “what do you call ‘work’” argument in the latest article, and there’s another one coming up soon that goes even deeper into that topic.

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