Hunter-Gatherer Societies

Hunter-gatherer societies are groups of people who forage for plant foods and hunt game instead of using agricultural techniques to grow crops. Anthropologists use the term hunter-gatherers to describe a type of lifestyle that existed in discrete areas until the 21st century. Historians have determined that all humans were hunter-gatherers before the advent of agriculture.

The tools used by hunter-gatherer societies to hunt animals were bows and arrows and harpoons. They also used an atlatl, which is a tool like a spear-thrower that uses leverage to gain speed in dart or spear- throwing. Ancient hunter-gatherer societies domesticated dogs, wheat, maize and millet.

Eaton (1988) reconstructed the diets of prehistoric groups living in marginal habitats. He hypothesized that they ate 35 percent meat and 65 percent plant foods. They probably consumed far more fiber than their modern-day counterparts.

Hunter-gatherer societies had to move often because of the limited supply of food within a given area. Short life expectancy limited population growth. The groups were subject to changes in food sources, predators, physical dangers and probably pathogens as well. The frequent moves necessary to access adequate food made the foraging groups thrifty, holding on to limited possessions. Some had tents, but most built huts or lean-tos when they reached their new living sites.

The societies' structure consisted of a group, called a troop or tribe, of 100 people or less. Their strong sense of social support contributed to their health and well-being. They likely had fewer cases of social deprivation and health problems caused by loneliness than exist in modern society. The societies lacked a hierarchical system and specialized roles for members. The absence of economic surplus precluded the possibility of one person holding a considerable larger share of goods than others.

Tasks were usually distributed according to ability rather than perceived status in the group. Groups that engaged in hunting and gathering assigned hunting of large game to men, while women and children collected plants and insects. Children were usually weaned at age 3 or 4, after which time they were taught to catch small game and fish in traps.

Historical research shows that hunter-gatherer societies attempted to reduce risk by traveling to safer locales. They seemed to cluster in areas with ecosystem diversity. A multigenerational knowledge of climates and ecosystems might have helped them settle in only the most hospitable areas.

James V. Neel, an American geneticist, theorized that hunter-gatherers were prone to severe food shortages. He suggested that inheritors of hunter-gatherers' genes would have a thrifty genotype, hoarding nutrients and fat. Other researchers contradicted his theory. Daniel C. Benyshek and James T. Watson compared the lifestyles and food availability of food in 28 hunter-gatherer societies with 66 agricultural societies. They found no link between lifestyle and food shortages, concluding that cycles of famine and feast were common throughout history and were not unique to hunter-gatherers.

Hunter-gatherer societies seemed to exist throughout most of the world until agriculture and animal domestication gained prevalence in Mesoamerica and Southwest Asia. Strategies for food acquisition varied depending on the environment. Societies trapped or hunted game and small animals, fished, gathered shellfish and insects and picked fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts. If the physical landscape permitted, they combined food-finding strategies to attain a balanced diet. The nomadic Plains Indians obtained corn from Plains villagers, supplementing their diets with agriculturally based foods.

The societies who foraged and hunted for their food supply accessed an extensive amount of land. They typically used from 7 to 500 square miles of land per capita. Areas that had naturally abundant food sources, such as the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, which were rich with fish, were ultimately settled with permanent villages. Villages had larger populations, given their better living conditions and lower death rates.

By 1500 CE, Australia and the Americas still supported large numbers of hunter-gatherer groups, but the number of groups had dwindled in Europe, Asia and Africa. By the early 21st century, hunting and gathering had all but disappeared as a main source of subsistence, but some groups continued foraging as a supplement to agriculture.

Hunter-Gatherer Societies: Selected full-text books and articles

Hunters and Gatherers in the Modern World: Conflict, Resistance, and Self-Determination By Peter P. Schweitzer; Megan Biesele; Robert K. Hitchcock Berghahn Books, 2000
The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania By Frank W. Marlowe University of California Press, 2010
Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers of the Baikal Region, Siberia: Bioarchaeological Studies of Past Life Ways By Andrzej W. Weber; M. Anne Katzenberg; Theodore G. Schurr University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2010
Lilies of the Field: Marginal People Who Live for the Moment By Sophie Day; Evthymios Papataxiarchis; Michael Stewart Westview Press, 1999
Archaeology of Precolumbian Florida By Jerald T. Milanich University Press of Florida, 1994
Librarian's tip: Part I "Early Hunters, Gatherers, and Fishers"
Human Diet: Its Origin and Evolution By Peter S. Ungar; Mark F. Teaford Bergin and Garvey, 2002
Forager-Traders in South and Southeast Asia: Long-Term Histories By Kathleen D. Morrison; Laura L. Junker Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Hunting and Gathering Strategies in Prehistoric India: A Biocultural Perspective on Trade and Subsistence"
Hunting for Sustainability in Tropical Forests By John G. Robinson; Elizabeth L. Bennett Columbia University Press, 2000
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