FARMING GOOD FOR HEALTH

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Science  14 Sep 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5844, pp. 1477c
DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5844.1477c

Teeth from an early Neolithic farm woman show enamel loss.

CREDIT: JAY STOCK/LCHES

The worldwide agricultural revolution that began about 10,000 years ago had its downside: Many researchers have found that early farmers were not as healthy as their hunter-gatherer ancestors (Science, 9 June 2006, p. 1449). But a new study of teeth from Nile Valley farmers offers the first comprehensive evidence—from data spanning some 10,000 years—that the farming life was better for health in the long run.

Childhood exposure to stress from disease or bad nutrition has a lasting effect on the formation of tooth enamel. So anthropologists Anne Starling of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Jay Stock of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. studied the teeth of 242 individuals who lived in the Nile Valley between 13,000 and 1500 B.C.E. They found that 70% of the Badari people, early farmers who lived between 5000 and 4000 B.C.E., showed signs of enamel loss, compared to only 39% of hunter-gatherers from the same area a few thousand years earlier. But once food stocks became more reliable, health improved markedly: Only 33% of people who lived from 4000 to 3100 B.C.E. had lost enamel. And by 2000 B.C.E., the incidence was down to 21%, the authors reported online 4 September in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Anthropologist Clark Larsen of Ohio State University in Columbus calls the study “especially interesting” because it shows that health improved with the rise of urbanization and the Egyptian state. He also says it bolsters the notion that hunter-gatherers were initially pushed into farming by population pressures or climate changes.

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