Until the development of farming practices, hunting and foraging for food was the means by which all humans survived.  Hunter gatherer communities still survive in many parts of the world today.

 

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Living differently

People in contemporary hunter gatherer societies are living the way their ancestors have done for thousands of years.  They don't use the cash-based system of exchange that people in the developed world are familiar with. Their lives have a greater focus on living day to day, and on where their next meal is going to come from.

Most hunter gatherers need to be able to keep moving to places where food is plentiful. This means living a nomadic lifestyle, travelling from place to place and setting up temporary camps. Some people build structures to stay in, others make use of natural caves or rock shelters. Where there are rich sources of food all year round, some groups have been able to stay in a settled population all year round. The need to keep moving has an impact on many aspects of a hunter gatherer’s life. There is no point accumulating many belongings that are not useful for survival as these objects would just weigh people down as they moved from place to place. Nomadic people might wait until their child was old enough to walk easily before having another, so that they did not have lots of children who all needed carrying. 

Hunter gatherer societies are typically egalitarian. This means that they do not tend to have an overall leader.  The person taking the lead at any given time, might depend on their skills at task in hand. A person within the group may be particularly skilled as an orator, a negotiator, a hunter or a healer and would take the lead in their area of expertise. Talents are not generally rewarded with extra praise or value. The !Kung San (also referred to as Jo'Huansi) of the northwest Kalahari in Africa, for example, are careful not to allow the best hunters extra food or recognition. Boasting is scorned and all food is shared equally, even amongst those who have put less effort into hunting. 

Men and women tend to have different roles, but are valued equally and all help in the daily task of finding food.  For example, among the !Kung, men provide about 44% of all foods, women 56%. Men tend to be the hunters, although women are also involved in the killing of smaller animals. Women tend to spend their time gathering vegetable foods which are growing in the area around the group’s camp. Men also gather, and they often need to if they haven't managed to find any game when hunting. 

Theirs is more a community of sharing.  Those who have food give to those who haven’t any. They do this freely, knowing that if they are unlucky in their search for food tomorrow, next week, next month or next year, there will be people around who will have food and who will remember acts of generosity and repay them when there is need.

Gift giving is another important aspect of !Kung society.  Gifts (such as food or weapons)  are exchanged in special arrangements between partners, known as hxaro. Each person will have a number of hxaro partners who are drawn from their immediate family, from other members of their own band, from neighbouring bands and even from more distant bands, sometimes up to 200 miles away. These partners give each other gifts, but not at random.

Once a gift has been given, the giver will wait until he or she receives a gift in return. This return of gift may not be given for several months, but there is an understanding between partners of the debt owed to the giver by the receiver.

The point of this arrangement is that it spreads risk over a wide area. If a person has had an unproductive day foraging, he knows he can rely on his hxaro partner for food. If there is a general shortage of food within a group, they will turn to hxaro partners in other groups for support. If the problem is even more widespread, they will disperse to their most distant hxaro partners’ lands, and will stay until the localised crisis has passed. This could be for up to two years, so great is the generosity and hospitality extended to hxaro partners. There is such generosity because in their society to look after others is to look after yourself - if others are happy they are happy too.

 

Read More: What are Some pros and cons of a Hunter Gatherer Lifestyle?

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