In a world similar to the earth, a new colony (let's say 1000 settlers) is installed in a wild environment without any other colonies around them (i. e. no commercial routes). The technology advancement is the same as humans around 1000-2000 B.C).

Let's imagine two distinct scenarios.

First scenario, they don't have any initial seeds or tools for agriculture but the environment is very friendly. They can hunt animals in the forest, fish in rivers and sea, gather a lot of berries, fruits, etc. With theses conditions, how many settlers should be hunters, fishermen or gatherers to ensure the supply of food for all the colony in the first decades?

Second scenario, they have advanced knowledge in agriculture (advanced for ~1000-2000 B.C.) and they already have seeds, tools and some domesticated animals. So they can plant seeds, manage and harvest large fields or make orchards. They are also able to raise cattle, chickens, pigs, etc. The environment is the same so they can hunt or fish wild animals . In this kind of colony, how many settlers are required for food supply?

  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand what you mean by "advanced for 1-2k BC." Technology was extremely stagnant up until the past millennia (or less, depending on your standard). So do you mean a modern farmer and their tools transported to 2-1k BC? $\endgroup$ May 28, 2015 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ Please give more details. Otherwise the answer is all of them and almost all of them. $\endgroup$
    – palako
    May 28, 2015 at 9:37
  • $\begingroup$ @IsaacKotlicky Sorry if you don't understand, english is not my native language. By technology advancement is the same as humans around 1000-2000 B.C I meant settlers know the basics of agriculture like plant seeds, harvest fields, raise cattle, etc. $\endgroup$ May 28, 2015 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ So the only fundamental difference is that they have tools? Since the difference between "basic" and "advanced" knowledge at the time was pretty non existent... $\endgroup$ May 28, 2015 at 9:48
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In the Western world, it's only over the past century or so that the percentage of people involved in primary food production has fallen significantly, and much of that is tied to the mechanisation of agriculture (basically, fossil-fueled farm machinery becoming available, then later commonplace). Look up historic figures for say 1800 or 1900; you might be surprised. $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 28, 2015 at 11:44

4 Answers 4


As noted in the other answers, the mass of the population involved in gathering or farming for food was always quite high even into recent historical times.

In a hunter gatherer society, virtually everyone was involved in food gathering or preparation somehow, the number could be as high as 100%. Generally there would be a few elders, pregnant women, shaman and other "specialists" exempt from tasks (the guy who knapped flint into spear points, arrowheads and other tools would be especially valuable), so expect the number to be in the 80-90% range. OTOH, hunter gatherers generally could gather a decent amount of food in a short "work week", so had lots of time for other activities, and were generally healthier and longer lived than their farming cousins.

Farmers can support more people on the same amount of land as a hunter gatherer tribe, and the surplus of food means that there is room for more people to be involved in activities outside of farming, such as craftsmanship, trade and of course the development of hierarchies of priests, kings and nobility (and their muscle to stay there). Even so, 80% of the population was farming, even in places we consider highly civilized and urbanized like Classical Greece. This should change your thinking about how the city states of ancient Greece were organized, since 80% of the population, and the people who, for the most part, generated wealth in an agrarian society, actually did not even live in the polis. (Places like Sparta and Athens were exceptions to the rule, Sparta using slave labour to generate farm produce and income, while Athens imported much of its grain from as far away as the Black Sea, severing the need to farm the uplands of Arcadia).

Once farming was mechanized, and machinery and chemical fertilizers could allow productivity to explode, the proportion of farmers to urbanites began to change. The "Green Revolution" of the 1960's was when farmers became a minority on most nations, and once the opposition to GMO plants is overcome, we should see a second "Green Revolution" with almost as much increase in productivity as the first one.


In the first scenario the basic unit will be the family group, on top of that the village. Everyone will pitch in to gather food including the village head. There will be no one NOT gathering food and in a bad year people will starve. For example, average age in the stone age was 21 years old or thereabouts.

In the second scenario there will be a minority not involved in food production. Farmers and hunter-gatherers will produce a small surplus, and in bad years more people should survive. How large will that minority be? That depends on how food is divided, for everyone to have enough non-producers (leaders, military, civil servants, doctors etc.) will have to number less than 100 I think. The more the producers are squeezed, the more non-producers there can be. I guess that more than 300 will mean subsistence for especially the producers.


I will use knowledge gained after watching some videos on world history. But I'm sure all of those are based on solid scientific understanding of history and anthropology.

Simply said, before Industrial revolution and Second Agricultural revolution, somewhere between 90%-60% of people were farmers or otherwise part of food production chain. But this number depend heavily on fertility of land those people are living in. For example Egyptians had huge food surplus thanks to Nile's flooding, which allowed them to invest lots of workforce to building monuments. At the same time, everywhere else, people had to try really hard to get food so most people were focused on farming or hunting & gathering and only few percent could focus on trade or industry.

Your options don't affect the outcome much, because first will soon lead to second one. But the outcome will depend heavily on what kind of land they land on. Will they land on self-fertilizing and predictable land (Nile river)? Then only 50% might be farmers. Will they land on rocky, hard-to work, infertile land with minimal water supply somewhere in hills? Then expect 95% to be farmers or changing the land to better support farming, like water canals and irrigation.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer and for the videos ! They seem to be really interesting and will probably help me a lot. $\endgroup$ May 28, 2015 at 11:17

Unless you've made some fairly remarkable assumptions about the location of the colony and the native biosphere and ecosystem, both starting points reach the same point very quickly.

The problem with your farming settlers is that your new colony location is not guaranteed to have the same climate and soils as the settlers are accustomed to, and they can pretty reliably assume that the local pests are different, and especially the microflora and microfauna in the soil. It would be a miracle if many of the transplanted crops did well, and free-ranging animals would be very difficult to keep alive - they don't know which local plants and bugs are poisonous.

As a result, I'd expect the colony to revert to hunter-gatherer in a few years. And the gatherer part would be traumatic, to say the least, as (often lethal) trial and error would be needed to determine which plants are edible.


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