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Before the advent of agriculture, humans fed themselves by hunting and gathering. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to function quite differently from agricultural societies. Arguably, historically, with agriculture came kingdoms, wars, slavery, and overpopulation. In 1987, Jared Diamond wrote an interesting essay on the question.

Could it be different? Could one envision a technologically advanced society¹ that does not do agriculture at all — but still relies on hunting and gathering for feeding the population?

Edit: By agriculture, I mean to actively change and manage land for the intelligent² purpose producing of food or other products (wood, rubber, leather) with a significantly higher yield than would occur naturally. Examples include (but are not limited to) clearing land to grow crops, irrigation, livestock domestication. For the scope of this question I do not consider limited forestry (cutting wood in a naturally growing forest, as opposed to planting forests for wood production) or managed hunting (limiting hunting to prevent species extinction, or hunting competing carnivores such as wolves) to be agriculture. I admit that there are grey zones in this definition (one might speculate on how to categorise in-vitro meat).


¹For the scope of this question, I will arbitrarily define technologically advanced as being able to launch a satellite into orbit.

²Some activities may lead to enhanced food production as a side-effect. For example, water lilies do well in beaver ponds, but beavers probably don't actively plan this, so I do not consider it agriculture for the scope of this question.

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    $\begingroup$ The very wide definition of agriculture makes any larger hunter-gatherer societies agricultural as they would need to manage the resources and in doing so become agricultural. Managed => Agriculture. $\endgroup$ – Surt Oct 20 '14 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ an interesting video on topic from CrushCourse: The Agricultural Revolution $\endgroup$ – Igor Milla Oct 21 '14 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Surt Interesting perspective. Then it becomes a question of definition. Would you consider the management of hunting permits, for example, to be a form of agriculture? I have noticed the word harvest is sometimes used in the context of hunting. $\endgroup$ – gerrit Oct 21 '14 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ By the way: Agriculture is not exclusive to humans, some insects also do it. $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft Oct 21 '14 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ That article is a bit horrifying, but not for the reasons the author states. Look at the alternatives: An expected lifespan in the 20s and a regular practice of infanticide as a cultural necessity, and this is from a proponent of the hunter-gatherer culture! Even an oppressed slave in a modern agricultural community has a better life than that! $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Oct 22 '14 at 1:50
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Actually, the answer is yes, with some assumptions:

In a classic food pyramid, such as we expect to see on land, (think lions, antelopes, grass) you need a lot of grass to feed a few antelopes to feed a much smaller number of lions. It's extremely difficult to come by enough food, and lots of territory must acquired and be defended.

Population density is low, and small groups are in fierce competition with each other, so cross group collaboration is not encouraged.

In this situation, agriculture allows the farmer to make the land vastly more productive. A few farmers can produce food enough for all, freeing up much of the population to focus on literature, science, art, architecture, etc. People can live in larger groups without exhausting the resources available to them

However, there are alternative food pyramids available.

Alternatives to the classic food pyramid

Take a pristine reef environment (or one which has been allowed to regenerate)

In this environment, the top level predator is a shark, and the pyramid is (shark / fish / algae). Here we find that the total biomass of shark is much higher than the biomass of fish (in fact 85% of the total biomass is shark). Moreover, the sharks appear to have quite an easy time coming by food, lazily circling in very large groups for much of the day and snacking when they feel like it.

This works because in this environment, the lower level biomass is so insanely productive that it can support a much larger biomass of long slow living sharks without being degraded.

Here the sharks do not have to farm because the reef is more productive than any farm we could imagine.

A human society?

We could hypothetically imagine a human society, perhaps living in an arboreal environment where food simply regenerates faster than it can be consumed and it is not so hard to acquire food. Perhaps massive airbourne whales that grow to full size quickly, harvested by harpoonists in light aircraft. Perhaps an interstellar migration route with a large ingress of cyclical, readily stored food. Perhaps the humans ingest sunlight directly with the aid of algae living under their skin. Perhaps they routinely voyage through some interdimensional gateway to trap and kill large monsters or some kind.

The key is that humans are able to live in large collaborative social groups and food is not the limiting factor. Farming in this hypothetical situation is not the most economic way to acquire food.

You might see some division of labour with a few people going out to hunt and easily feeding everyone else. The rest of the population could then concentrate on civilisation building.

Reference

See Enric Sala discussing this at TED here:

http://arcsecond.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/coral-reefs-are-85-shark/

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, downtime is very important, but so is a 'need' to advance, or the advances are going to be very slow in coming. If everything is 'handed' to you, do you need to advance? What ever for? $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Oct 20 '14 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Kromney - yes, downtime is one key to advancement. If everyone is producing food, there's no-one to produce civilisation. We also need predictability. If starvation events are frequent and unpredictable, that would tend to de-prioritise investment and long term planning. For example, unpredictable harvests in pre-war Britain prevented investment in machinery. It was only when the government guaranteed a minimum price for food that investment took place. $\endgroup$ – superluminary Oct 20 '14 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ The assumptions on a human society being able to manage it does not take into account a growing population. If food is that easy to come by without farming (and in the absence of creatures preying on humans) the population will grow. People like to have sex...so my concern with that assumption is that no hunting/gather food sources can cope with an expanding population (at least not to the level that farming can). As the population rises the availability and accessibility (travel farther to hunt) would drop, and thus require more people to support it. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 20 '14 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ The significant difference in your scenarios is that on the African savannah, the predators are homeotherms, while on coral reefs, they are not. Each kilogram of lion needs much more food each day than each kg of shark. Robert Bakker has used this relationship to argue that dinosaurs were homeotherms. $\endgroup$ – sdenham Oct 20 '14 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ @superluminary that sort of religious bias wouldn't last past the first food shortage. Religion is important sure. But eating is more important. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 20 '14 at 18:36
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I studied archaeology, so I'll apply something from what I learnt:

  • for technological advance, you need spare time. Hunters usually need just two or three work hours a day in a game-rich area, and most hunter-gatherer groups live in such environments. So hunters usually have more times than farmers.

  • nomads can't carry too much things with them, so they are unlikely to develop any big tools. Producing some artifacts also require staying in one place for a long time. But there were cultures of hunters-gatherers living in villages (mostly at rivers full of fish), so this problem can be avoided.

  • the more people you have and the more interaction they have with each other, the more new ideas they will likely get. However, as Superluminary wrote, hunters need a lot of space to get food, so hunting-gathering can support only low population density, so ideas will emerge slowly and technology requiring a lot of people at one place (such as any factories) is impossible. Nomads can move a long distance to visit other people and share ideas, but unless the new gear is easily portable, they are unlikely to embrace the technology (see last point).

  • need is the key factor of technological advance. For most of history, the technological progress was so slow that most new technology was strictly worse than older, mature one, and it could take generations until they became comparable. Prospect of getting the invention into profittable technology in few years is very specific to the rapid progress science does since 19th century, for prehistoric people older was usually better. Unless the technology is really needed, it's unlikely to be adopted by anyone but few crazy inventors, since it's worse than older counterparts. Farmers need more tools than hunter-gatherers, which means higher need for resources, that may be so hard to find that introducing some new, clearly worse material is needed. Hunter-gatherers face much less challenges solvable by better technology - lack of game can't be solved by any new technology except for agriculture. Sticks and stones good enough for weapons are usually much more abundant than food, so no reason to develop some strange materials to substitute for the right stones we lack.

So to conclude, developing metalworking without agriculture is theoretically possible, but extremely unlikely, especially because being hungry is the mother of invention, but agriculture is the only really efficient invention that could feed the poor hunter-gatherers. Running industrial revolution without agriculture is impossible - for industry, you need concentrations of people that can't be supported without farming.

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  • $\begingroup$ could you imaging that a herd-animal culture could generate enough surplus to start a technological society? Or did the Mongols gets their initial technology (domesticated animals/horses) from their agricultural neighbours? $\endgroup$ – Surt Oct 20 '14 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Surt: Animal husbandry is a form of agriculture. $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft Oct 20 '14 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ The very wide definition of agriculture makes any larger hunter-gatherer societies agricultural as they would need to manage the resources and in doing so become agricultural. $\endgroup$ – Surt Oct 20 '14 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Surt: my point is that food surplus in good times helps developing new things (but this is the more true the society is more advanced - any clever hunter could invent a bow, you wouldn't need a team of scientists for it), but only need can make the society to start using them and polish them enough to be able than the previously known technology. Hunter-gatherers or herders are unlikely to have needs that can be solved by any other technology but farming. Perhaps in warfare, but early metal (copper) weapons are clearly worse than stone ones, so they wouldn't start using them while in need. $\endgroup$ – Pavel V. Oct 21 '14 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ There are other drivers that could lead to technological advancement besides hunger. Consumerism drives technology today, I don't need an iPad to eat. Sexual selection might be another such driver. $\endgroup$ – superluminary Oct 21 '14 at 10:12
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The short answer is no. An additional note: Agriculture IS a technology set. The evolution of farming technology has allowed for the evolution of other tech...thinking about it, it felt weird that we were talking about agriculture as if it weren't part of the tech advancement world.

Here's why. For non-necessary scientific advancement to take place, people must have the spare time to work on it.

In the evolution of human civilization farming is the corner stone. Farming, and the improvement of farming processes allowed us to get past the most basic tribal/nomadic levels because:

  • People had to settle in place to tend crops
  • Allowed for food storage, food hunted/gathered for is less likely store-able without refrigeration, whereas grains are easy to store for later.
  • Allows for the division/specialization of labor. A person excels at something (especially when pioneering a skill) by practice and trial and error.
  • Apprenticeships, specialization and experimentation are nothing if the knowledge is not passed on. Again, excess food production and storage allows people more time, this way you have someone learning and passing information on.

There is one (ok there are more but this is key) more thing that needs to be taken into account and that is need. Hardship, and the need to advance are just as important as having the free time to advance.

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    $\begingroup$ and don't forget that those farmers have a lot of time on their hand in between planting and harvest season. Sure, they need to weed and maybe water the crops, drive off wild animals looking for an easy snack, but that takes far less time (and the wild animals can be killed or tamed and used as food or draft animals) than gathering stuff in the wild. They'll naturally start coming up with ideas to make those jobs easier still, from drainage ditches to fences, just like the hunter comes up with a spear or net. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Oct 21 '14 at 10:08
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting Good point. Seasonal work was important to social and tech development. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 21 '14 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ All of this is possible while harvesting wild grains, or fishing in productive coastal areas (see Jomon Japan, or the Native American Pacific Northwest). Agriculture is usually a prerequisite for settlement and specialization, but not always. $\endgroup$ – user243 Oct 21 '14 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed, but we are looking at a size and constancy required for propulsion to get a vessel into space. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 21 '14 at 21:08
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I would say no, unless food to gather is plentiful enough that it doesn't take much work to gather it. The biggest thing agriculture does for a civilization is to allow a greater percentage of people to be released from food production to focus on other pursuits. This would also allow more specialization, such as cloth making, tool making etc. Which of course leads to trading good tools for food and on and on.

Agriculture also tends to create larger and more permanent settlements. More people means more food requirements. If you have only ~50 people in a semi-nomadic group, you don't really need lots of specializations, most everyone does everything, one or two might have a great skill at tanning leather, or napping spear heads but there just isn't then need for a lot.

There are a lot of things that need someone with spare time and a single location to come up with a good 'advancement'. While you can have 'mobile' black smiths, black smithing really needs to start in a fairly permanent location, likely near the raw materials. So now you have location that needs to be fed. Agriculture with excess to store for lean times can help.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe. Some sources claim hunter-gatherer work/worked just 3-5 hours per day. Perhaps it's rather a greater absolute number of people-hours devoted to other things (as agricultural society can undoubtedly support larger populations)? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Oct 20 '14 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ That is true, maybe my sociology is dated. agriculture does tend to lead to more permanent and larger communities. I'll add more to my answer $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Oct 20 '14 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ @gerrit It depends on how plentiful food is. In tropical conditions with tons of growth and fruit hanging off every other tree and a population that is kept down by warfare or other methods, sure it doesn't take long to feed everyone. In a harsher environment, eskimos for example, much more time is spent hunting and other basic survival tasks. $\endgroup$ – Vulcronos Oct 20 '14 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with you in that agriculture is what freed up people to a much larger degree of specializations (and potentially the rise of the 'patriarchal' society we've ended up as). Not sure if I agree that this is the only way it could happen. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Oct 20 '14 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Twelfth I can live with that, however, since the question dealt with hunter-gatherer societies as the example, I was considering 'agriculture' to include all situations where people grow and tend a crop, as home gardens would be the first step in creating large production crops. So this is more semantics, mine being less clearly stated position. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Oct 20 '14 at 18:34
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What is the pre-society situation like?

  • The population of our species (and its prey and predators) are roughly such that there is an equilibrium of deaths and births. Thus the population is roughly constant.
  • Every individual nearly performs the same tasks and needs to spend all its resources (in particular time) to survive.

If this weren’t the case, our species would grow until this situation is reached. Until then, there would be no pressure that would cause the establishment of a society or developing technology.

What changes in a technological society?

  • Personal resources are better used due to cooperation and specialisation.
  • Technological advancement.
  • These efforts will be devoted to improving the birth and death rates, as our species be evolutionary preconditioned to this path. Also, any society that does not go for growth will eventually be consumed by one that does (a survival of the fittest if you so wish).

Eventually, our species will have reached a point where it can afford that enough individuals care about things not directly related to survival but instead try to launch stuff into space.

How does the above translate for humanity?

For humans, the main addressable factor controlling the birth and death rates was food. Thus this was the natural first goal of technological and societal advances, which eventually lead to agriculture. Hunting and gathering lost, because it could not be improved that much by cooperation and technology. Also, it came with little means to compensate for an increased impact on the prey species and thus was subject to a natural ecological limit – this is one of the key features of agriculture.

It is only recently that we began turning onto other limiting factors such as illnesses.

How can agriculture be “avoided”?

  • Make something other than food be the limiting factor that controls the growth of our pre-society species. For example, if the biggest problem is predators, technological and societal advancements would be directed at defending against these predators (and maybe eventually exterminating the predator species). Keep in mind that the limiting factor should be something that technology and society can address. For example, if the main limiting factor is the maximum pregnancy rate, this can only be addressed by evolution.

  • Change the conditions for agriculture or hunting and gathering such that the latter is the more efficient way to go. For example, there could be no prey species fit for domestication or there are prey species, which can be hunted or gathered much better with certain technological or societal advances (think of fishery). Also, make the prey species such that being preyed upon by our species cannot eventually become a major factor limiting their populations.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Make something other than food be the limiting factor that controls the growth of our pre-society species" - good point! $\endgroup$ – superluminary Oct 21 '14 at 10:14
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Yes.

Basically, necessity is the mother of all invention. If agriculture, which is a technology, never developed it would just mean that there was no need for it. This would imply a food rich society, as you don't need to grow the food and keep it near you if you can just go get it.

However, that does not mean that there is nothing else to drive technological advancement. For example, conflict. War has been a huge driving force for technological development in human technology. Take for example: nuclear power being developed because of the atomic bomb. If, in some contrived example, one "country" really likes carrots, but all they have is lettuce, and the carrot kingdom doesn't like the league of lettuce, then the LoL may decide to war it out with the CK with the winner being the one with advanced weaponry.

Finally, in your society you would, possibly, have a lot of free time. This means that maybe rather than a food based technological push, they would have a novelty based technological advancement. Since they (possibly) do not have to work at survival, there is some implied boredom. And since boredom is a powerful motivator, they'd probably have a large entertainment inclination.

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I think it is possible. However, societies usually do not pick an arbitrary path through their world. A society given the option to have more food for less work will not ignore the opportunity unless there is an opposing force nudging them away. The opposing force has to ensure there is a easier-cheaper way to do things.

The challenge for world building with technology but no agriculture would be setting up reasons why agriculture does not spontaneously invent itself. One solution would be to remove the explosive population growth a culture often has when food is plenty. If food demands never rise to meet food sources, then there is no reason to invent agriculture... creative energies are better spent elsewhere.

A culture growing under the oversight of a superior race which punishes agriculture would easily be able to go technological without agriculture.

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Yes- a society could if it has a small population or it has a large (or small) population and totally depends of other societies to supply food.

For the small population case, it has to have lot of comparative smart people and determined to develop its people as a resource. Western countries had a lot of people of which only a few produced what was the major inventions and ideas. The proposed society would need a proportionately greater number of those above average people doing useful achievements for technological gain.

For the other case, it doesn't matter they can do hunter-gathering or no food production at all if they make goods for export that others want -it doesn't have to technological advanced- they could make simple art or natural products that are highly desired- the mauve ink was highly desired by Romans for their leader's coats.

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I think but to a limited extend and taking very long times as hunting gathering societies do not grow their populations and social organization to the extent organized agricultural societies do. This is due to the fact that ariculture permits large concentrated societies of thosands of individuals in small concentrated areas while hunting gathering societies need many many times the same space and therefore divide their populations in small groups. So it is reasonable to think that any progress in such an small group will take a very long time while a larger group will take much shorter for reasons which are related to the diminished intereaction from individuals and therefore advancements in the complexity of technology. (See uncontacted groups on Wikipedia - They lived as small groups of hunter gatherers in the upper Paleolothic). The number of social interactions between individuals with different expertise by unit of time seems to determine technology progress. As population growth is smaller as per availability of resources and there is a smaller number of interactions any technological development may take tens of thousands of years instead than a hundred years.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if the example of existing uncontacted tribes is convincing, because if any would have grown large enough to become more sophisticated, they would not have remained uncontacted, even without agriculture. $\endgroup$ – gerrit Jan 23 '15 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ I think what you are saying is incorrect because all of them are hunter gatherers they have not developed agriculture to a large extent. $\endgroup$ – Barnaby Jan 23 '15 at 0:47
  • $\begingroup$ I think you have to think also on environemental conditions allowing for agriculture (See interglacial periods) Growth with out agriculture is possible but very limited (The neantherthal man lived for 150,000 years and they were never more than 100,000, this occurs also with the other 15 aprox genera homo. Homo sapiens needed close to 150,000 years to grow from 50 thousand to 4 million pre neolithical and this is with all the developments of the previous 2 million years of technology. $\endgroup$ – Barnaby Jan 23 '15 at 0:49
  • $\begingroup$ Well, they can only be uncontacted because they are so few — so that observation is inherently biased. The groups that did develop agriculture, as well as the larger groups that did not, have come into contact with others centuries ago. $\endgroup$ – gerrit Jan 23 '15 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ Forgot to say that this the pre development pre neolithical took place mostly post last glaciation maxima during the last 20,000 years and possibly due to the fact that other genera homo had becomed extinct. $\endgroup$ – Barnaby Jan 23 '15 at 1:05

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