The Bushman and the Boer — a tale of foragers (not) assimilating to a farmer society

When agriculture and pastoralism started around 12.000 years there were evolutionary changes, often soft sweeps, that helped our ancestors cope with the changes in the environment. The gene for lactase persistence is such an example, which has particularly high frequencies among people with a long history of pastoralism and is extremely widespread in Northern Europe, the Middle East as well as among African pastoralists, such as the Fulani and Bedouins.

We don’t know about most of those genes involved in the transition to agriculture, but it is certain that it involved neurotransmitters like serotonin and therefore affected personality as well as physical traits. It is reasonable to hypothesize that latecomers to the neolithic revolution had difficulties in the following areas:

  • Food and digestion (e.g. allergies towards grains and dairy)
  • Social structure (in particular struggling with hierarchy and authority)
  • Work habits (in particular struggling with long rote work)
  • Mental health (struggling with feelings of self-worth and addiction)

I have been arguing for over two years now that neurodiverse people (ASD, ADHD, gifted) have such a “forager” genetic makeup (hunter-gatherer neurotribe) and therefore display problems in these areas ranging for intestinal problems to difficulties in school and at the workplace with mental problems such as depression, social anxiety and addiction as a consequence.

In Affluence Without Abundance (2017) James Suzman describes these very problems for Ju/’hoansi (San Bushmen) foragers in Southern Africa.

Like most neurodiverse people the San consider non-forager types potentially dangerous and often find their (especially violent) behaviour hard to understand or predict:

For Anu and her friends, having a /hun , a “ white,” living among them was a novelty. They had learned from their parents that most whites, whether they were farmers, policemen, or priests, were potentially dangerous creatures. Everyone agreed that the priests were the most harmless of the lot, but because they carried the judgment of the Lord with them and because some were known to be lustful when in the presence of young women, they too needed to be treated with caution.

The following passage could be the story of a neurodiverse person accounting for their experience with living in Europe or the US:

Based on several decades of careful observation of their bosses, Ju/’hoansi concluded that most white people were violent, proud, selfish, and unreliable. They were also irrationally greedy, sly, often sexually frustrated, obsessed with work, and perversely preoccupied with being shown gratitude even when all they had to offer was a beating.

It’s also interesting to see how the foragers are perceived by farmers. Typically they are considered lazy (their evolutionary programme consists of more punctuated bursts of energy!) and childlike (little planning and living in the moment — again an evolutionary trait that allows for flexibility as long term-planning wasn’t a necessity until the advent of agriculture).

Farmers conceded that Bushmen had some desirable qualities that compensated for their shortcomings. They often remarked how Bush men were “ technically gifted and how many demonstrated “an almost supernatural affinity for mechanics .” They also described them as “ inventive ,” “ imaginative ,” and “intelligent And, despite everything, many farmers also described the Bushmen as “loyal” and “likable.” But perhaps the quality that farmers liked the most was that they could get away with paying Bushmen little or nothing for their labor. (my emphasis).

This passage is particularly interesting as many neurodiverse people show a knack for technology and engineering or creative tasks. Universities and places like Silicon valley have particularly high rates of neurodiversity, including cases of ASD in the family. In fact, it isn’t hard to concede with Simon Baron-Cohen (The Patterns Seekers, 2020) that most of humankind’s inventions were made by neurodiverse people or the “hunter-gatherer neurotribe”. There are many other admirable traits neurodiverse people share with foragers: they are more egalitarian, less ingroupish, more honest (and direct, which often gets them into trouble) and less materialistic. Research on neurodiverse people and crime has shown that they are underrepresented when it comes to crimes like theft. As long as the San were allowed to forage freely theft was virtually unknown:

All of the settlers appreciated one of their neighbors’ traits: the fact that they showed no interest whatsoever in stealing the settlers’ stuff. One settler wrote of how “they do not steal among themselves, nor in Dutch houses, in which they are allowed without any oversight.

The struggle San people experience becomes particularly evident when it comes to their identity. They know there is no way back to the olden days but the way forward seems equally impossible, frequently failing when transitioning to farming or herding. They are also hard to employ as their highly developed egalitarian sense struggles with authority and hierarchy. It is therefore little surprising that many foragers succumb to substance use, Suzman reports how common tobacco, alcohol and weed are among foragers. Alcohol addiction is also very common in other forager populations: Australian Aborigines, Native Americans and Innuit. Alcohol is particularly detrimental, people with low-self esteem and social struggles are particularly prone to alcohol abuse and what’s more, farmer types having had an 8.000-year-old love affair with alcohol (barley and beer) are much more resistant to alcohol and its addictive effects.

There are hardly any foragers left who are able to live their traditional lifestyle, the one they were programmed for by evolution:

Like gathering, hunting too is now largely a thing of the past at Skoonheid. The last really good hunter at Skoonheid committed suicide in 2011 soon after his release from prison for murder.

Like with so many other forager tribes all over the world, suicide often is seen as the last resort. Hunter-gatherers and hunter-gather types struggling with integrating into society have the highest suicide rates in the world, be it Innuit or be it people on the spectrum.

James Suzman concludes in his book:

If in becoming New Time people Ju/’hoansi have accepted that their lives are shaped by the unpredictable eddies and currents of an ever-changing world, then they might take some comfort in the idea that we are on the cusp of a new age in which we will no longer be hostage to the economic problem and in which the productive mind-set that the Neolithic Revolution nurtured will no longer be fit for purpose. Doing so will require that we learn to be more like the Ju/’hoansi’s immediate ancestors, embrace the affluence we have created, and recognize value in things other than our labor. Working a whole lot less might well be a good place to start. And it may well be that millennials-a group in the first world who have known nothing but abundance and who seem increasingly inclined to seek out work that they love rather than persuade themselves to learn to love the work they find-will lead the way in doing this.

Incidentally, I have always considered myself one of the first millennials despite technically being an X-gener. For hunter-gatherer types like me and James Suzman, highly competitive workplaces make little sense. From the point of view of evolutionary psychology, the competitive work attitude made sense for early farmers as they survived more easily and left more offspring. However, today we are richer, work harder and have fewer offspring just so that we are able to compete in the rat race. We all lose. And the biggest losers are our children. I for my part, side with the millennials, foragers, neurodiverse people and all the children.

Originally published at on April 16, 2021.