Factsheet

Hunter-Gatherers

Groups of hunters can still be found in Canada, North America, South America, Africa, India, South East Asia, and Australia.

 

Introduction

We tend to take our way of life for granted. In our modern society,  few of us have to worry about food production except to the extent that it affects the price of our 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 of us, our main focus every day is not simply feeding ourselves and our families.  Instead, many of us go to work at all kinds of different jobs, some important, some vital, some boring, some constantly changing and always interesting.

Why do we 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 our society, money can make statements about who you are. Whether you have a lot of it or none at all can determine whether you live in luxury or on the streets. Most of us are somewhere in between.

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

If you don't have money, it's a big problem.  You can’t just go into a shop and help yourself to what you need. Even if you are starving and you take some food, just enough to feed you for one meal, it is still theft.   Money is generally the thing that makes taking things ok.  You can go into a supermarket and pile a trolley with £100 worth of food, and as long as you have £100 to pay for it, everything is fine.  The money is what you have exchanged for your food.

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

Living differently

There are still people in the world who are living the way their ancestors have done for thousands of years.  They don't use the cash-based system of exchange that we are all familiar with.  Their lives have a greater focus on living day to day, on where their next meal is going to come from.

Does this make them 'primitive'?  Certainly, they are different, but maybe in many ways, their way of life has a lot of advantages over our own.  They are generally fitter than us, have much greater affinity with nature and much more time for family and friendships.

So who are they, and why do they still live the way they do?

Hunter-Gatherers

hunters and gatherersWhere do these people still live? Pretty much all over the World. There are groups of hunters in Canada (Cree, Dene, Inuit, Naskapi, Montagnais, Chipeweyan), North America (Ute, Paiute), South America (Guayaki-Ache), Africa (Mbuti, Dorobo, !kung, G/Wi, Baswara et al), India (Mal-Pantaram), South East Asia (Montagnards, Negritos), and Australia (Yirrkala, Pitjantjatara).

Mainly they live in remote areas. The land isn't always suitable for agriculture, or it is too remote to access easily. Increasingly however this land has come under threat, as mineral resources have been discovered, or some other commercial purpose has been found for their lands, such as 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, hunting 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 aware, they are less likely to support new schemes for the industrialisation of land that has unitl 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 their simpler life has some real advantages over our modern, technologically and economically-driven society. For example, it is seldom necessary 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. Gift exchange is very important to hunters and gatherers and will be explained below.

Few hunting people have leaders. They may have a person within the group, male or female, who is valued above the others for their skills as an orator, a negotiator, a hunter or a healer. This person is not regarded as a leader, but more as a spokesperson for the group, or as the chairman of any discussions. Often their power amounts to little more than persuasion.

If you took us out of our normal lives and expected us to live like hunter-gatherers, most of us would now struggle to cope. Hunter-gatherers do not plant crops. They do not keep cattle. They do not own land, although groups tends to have their own hunting ground. For food, they depend on their knowledge of the environment.

Men and women tend to have different roles, but all help in the daily task of finding food.  For example, among the !kung San Bushmen of southern Africa, 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.

To us, this would be a really dangerous situation to us. If you can’t find food, you starve, then you die. But their way of life has survived for thousands of years, and generations live to teach their children how to forage and find food.

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.

As groups are dependent on naturally occurring resources of food, they have to be very mobile. There is no point in trying to build up large stocks of food or possessions. In harsh climates such as the Kalahari Desert, it is unlikely that any store of food would last long before being ruined by the heat. Besides, food and possessions are heavy, and have to be carried from camp to camp by the owner. So their 'stuff' tends to be of practical use to the owner. Bows and arrows, axes and cooking pots are  typical.  In their way of life, TVs, consoles and iPods are pointless!  Wealth has very little meaning to hunters and gatherers.

But for people who don't care about getting more 'stuff', they spend a lot of time exchanging gifts with each other. In the !Kung, gifts 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.

Spreading the Risk

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.

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.

In our modern society, there is a lot we could learn from hunting people. They could teach us how to take from the land without ruining it for the future. They could teach us to live more harmoniously with one another.   We modern humans have to have more of a sense of conserving our resources for the years to come, rather than taking all we can as quickly as possible.  We need to take less from the planet, we need to find a way of not needing as much stuff.

That's not to say that everything we do is bad.  In some hunter-gatherer groups, young people are leaving their clans to go to college and university. There, most learn about either medicine or law. But after this, many return to their homelands to act as doctors, nurses and legal advisors for their own people. They are learning how to adapt to living alongside modern society, about how they can take care of their own people and how they can use our systems - laws, for example - to protect their way of life for generations to come.

 

Credits

Image: Hunters and Gatherers by Charles Roffey

Author:  Peter Littlewood

First written: 1993

Last updated: June 2015

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].