Factsheet

Hunter-Gatherers

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.

 

What is a Hunter Gatherer?

A hunter gatherer is a person who lives in a society where food is collected by hunting wild animals or by searching for wild, edible plants.  

Archaeologists have suggested that the earliest humans in the Lower Paleolithic probably lived in areas of woodland. This meant they had access to a wide range of nuts, seeds and fruits. People would also seek out rivers and coastlines for fishing and finding shellfish. It is sometimes believed that the earliest humans scavenged meat from animals already killed by other predators. Later, they learned to hunt wild animals themselves, developing tools such as spears to use.

Until the earliest development of agriculture (growing and tending plants and animals in large quantities to provide food for a society) hunting and gathering was the way that humans had survived since pre historic times. Around 12,000 years ago, early farming practices started to be developed in the Middle East, parts of Mesoamerica, some areas of Africa and South East Asia, and the Andes. Nowadays, the vast majority of humans live in societies where food is produced via farming and industrialised methods of production.

However, some hunter gather societies do still exist, and lifestyles in these communities have remained unchanged in many respects, over thousands of years.

Photo: Woodlouse

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.

 

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

hunters and gatherers

Hunter-gatherers know that they live off finite resources. They must never take more from one place in a year than can be replaced naturally in the next.  This means that no one is allowed to acquire too much of anything – food, possessions, power, as this may upset the balance, not only of the group, but also of the environment. If too much is gathered, not enough may be left to enable natural replacement.  So hunter-gatherers have to live not only in harmony with themselves but also with their surroundings. 

Children in hunter gatherer communities begin learning the tools and skills of their culture by imitation from a very early age. While a young person from the Mbendjele people of northern Congo-Brazzaville may not go to school, or learn to read written words, a toddler would be starting to learn how to cut meat with a sharp knife and a child of primary school age would have an excellent understanding of collecting yams or using a machete.  There is more importance placed on independence from a young age. 

When food is shared equally between members of a small hunter gatherer group, it is seldom necessary for anyone to work for more than two or three hours a day to ensure that everyone will have enough to eat. The rest of the time can be spent playing games, talking, sleeping, relaxing or exchanging gifts.

People who live in such communities are often physically fitter than those in societies where their lifestyles are less active. However, largely as a result of disease, around 43% of hunter gather people globally do not live past 15 years old. Of the 57% who do, only 64% of these go on to live past 45 years old, though some people live into old age. Those who die younger may also do so as a result of violence or accidents; hunting for food is not without risks!

With threats to their homelands, language and cultural practices, young people from some hunter gatherer groups are leaving their clans to go to college and university. There, most learn about either medicine or law, with many returning to their homelands to act as doctors, nurses and legal advisors for their own people, in order to protect their way of life for generations to come.

 

Where do Hunter Gatherer Communities Live?

There are groups of hunter gatherers all over the world.  In the Arctic, the Inuit people hunt walrus and travel in nomadic groups across the ice, where modern farming methods cannot be sustained. The Ache people of Paraguay in South America still survive in small communities, despite repeated attempts over the years to remove them from their ancestral homelands in order for the land to be developed.  In Africa, the Hazda people of Tanzania live in a tribe of around 1,300 people and are known to be one of the oldest ‘lineages’ of humankind.  In the past 50 years, these people have lost over 90% of their homelands.  In Australia, the Pila Nguru, (often referred to in English as the Spinifex people) still maintain some aspects of their traditional hunter gatherer lifestyle that date back over 20,000 years, despite encroaching farmlands, railways and the use of land for testing atomic bombs in the 1950s. 

Most hunter gather societies have been pushed into increasingly remote areas, by the growing agricultural communities surrounding them. They have been left with land that isn't suitable for farming, or that is located in places too difficult for many people to access. Increasingly, however, this land has come under threat too, as mineral resources have been discovered, or some other commercial land-use purpose has been found.  Lands used by hunter gatherer communities might be at risk from the construction of an oil pipeline, clearing to make way for plantations, or the building of a dam for a hydro-electric scheme.

Up until a few decades ago, hunter gatherer people were regarded by governments as reminders of a ‘primitive’ past. More recently however,  opinions have changed.  As people across the world are becoming increasingly environmentally and culturally aware, they are less likely to support new schemes for the industrialisation of land that has, until now, been untouched by modern society.  In recent years, there have been many public protests in support of the maintenance of hunter-gatherers' way of life and, in some cases, people’s legal rights to ancestral lands are starting to be recognised. 

In Brazil, the government’s Indian affairs department (FUNAI) is actively trying to protect lands from incursion and development in areas that are home to the country’s 100 or more groups of uncontacted hunter gatherers, who still live in unexplored areas of the Amazon rainforest.  These uncontacted peoples have never met people from outside their forest home.  Whether they choose to or not should be their decision alone, which is why active protection for uncontacted people now exists in the Brazilian rainforest.

 

Credits

Image: Hunters and Gatherers by Charles Roffey

Author:  Peter Littlewood

First written: 1993

Last updated: December 2020

Infomation sourced from: 

Resurgence and Ecologist, Reforming the Common Agriculture Policy [online] Available from: https://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article477-reforming-the-common-agricultural-policy.html [accessed 30/06/2015].

Survival International Hunters Gallery [online] Available from: https://www.survivalinternational.org/galleries/hunters [accessed 2/12/20]

The Conversation, (August 2019) Modern hunter gatherer children could tell us how human culture evolved and inspire new ways of teaching by Gul Deniz Salali [online] Available from: https://theconversation.com/modern-hunter-gatherer-children-could-tell-us-how-human-culture-evolved-and-inspire-new-ways-of-teaching-122241 [Accessed 2/12/20]

 

 

An Economy Based on Money

In Western developed countries, people tend to take their way of life for granted. Few people have to worry about food production except to the extent that it affects the price of their favourite meals at the supermarket. Modern farming methods mean that only a small percentage of the UK's population is involved in supplying food to the population as a whole. In other words, for most people, their main focus every day is not simply seeking out food for themselves and their families. Instead, many people go to work at all kinds of different jobs.

Why do people work? Some would probably say “Because I enjoy what I do.” Others would say “Because I have to.” Most people who have jobs have some expectation of being paid for what they do.  In western society, having money defines the ways in which people are able to live their life. Whether they have a lot of it or none at all can determine whether they live in luxury or in  poverty. Most people are somewhere in between.

Western society encourages us to be consumers, whether it's buying fashionable clothes, the latest mobile phone, a cool car, or a nice house.  Money enables us to get this stuff and we are encouraged to spend our money on products by the people who make them.

If a person in this kind of society doesn't have money, it's a big problem.  People can’t just go into a shop and help themselves to whatever they need. Even if a person is starving and they take some food, just enough to feed themselves for one meal, it is still considered theft.   Money is generally the thing that makes taking things ok.  Someone can go into a supermarket and pile a trolley with £100 worth of food, and as long as they have £100 to pay for it, everything is fine.  The money is what is exchanged for the food.

But it's not like that for everyone in the world.

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