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"Hunter-gatherers" is a term generally used to describe people from ancient societies who survived exclusively by hunting, fishing, or gathering wild foods. There is controversy today among scientists, however, as to whether any societies in modern times can be considered to be true hunter-gatherer groups. Some scientists argue that no societies today dwell in isolation and that trade has existed between hunter-gatherers and neighboring societies for thousands of years. Others recognize the societal interaction but assert that the contact has done little to change the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers.

Despite varying opinions, one thing is clear: Until about 8,000 years ago, all people were foragers of wild foods. As recently as 3,000 years ago, the entire population of southern Africa depended on hunting game and gathering wild plants for their survival. Outsiders have given many names to the people in southern Africa who lived by hunting and gathering, including Bushmen, San, and Twa. Other notable hunter-gatherers, called the Soaqua, lived along the Western Cape coast of Africa, while others, known as Xam, thrived in the grassy plains of the semiarid Karoo region.

Basic Characteristics of Hunter-Gatherer Societies

While there is evidence that many differences existed among hunter-gatherer societies throughout the ancient world, there are also numerous uniting traits. The hunting and gathering lifestyle depended tremendously on large land areas where these ancient peoples could scout for adequate food. It has been estimated that people who depend on hunting and gathering must have approximately 20 to 1,500 square kilometers (10 to 700 square miles) of land per person, depending on the climate . Hunter-gatherer societies were generally very small. Large groups would have exhausted available food supplies rather quickly in any one area. These small groups were thought to be made up of individual family members or a number of related families collected together in a small band.

Hunter-gatherers usually moved in order to follow local food supplies. Possessions had to be carried from one camp to another. This suggests that permanent villages were rarely possible. Housing most likely consisted of crude lean-tos, huts, or primitive tents. A sedentary lifestyle may have been possible where food supplies were unusually abundant and reliable. Evidence suggests, for example, that the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest coast achieved high population densities and established permanent villages because resources were vast and reliable and food could be stored. Their main staples were dried salmon and flour made from acorns.

Ratio of Hunting to Gathering

Although hunting, fishing, or gathering of edible plants typically occurred together in hunter-gatherer societies, one activity sometimes prevailed. The Eskimos of Arctic Canada, Alaska, and Greenland, for example, traditionally relied on the hunting of whales and seals and on fishing for survival. By contrast, the San, or Bushmen, of modern-day South Africa tend to rely more on gathering than on hunting.

Varying Male and Female Roles

While hunting and gathering activities were usually performed together, different social roles were often associated with each function. For example, the !Kung people of Botswana are regarded by many scientists as living examples of early hunter-gatherers. Hunting was done by males, and females strictly gathered edible plants. This was the most important activity because up to 80 percent of this society's diet consisted of plant foods. Though plant foods were seasonal, they were more substantial and dependable as a food source than game.

The women, who had the knowledge of the location and seasonal availability of edible plants in their area, went out collecting every day or every few days, depending on the circumstances. The !Kung people were relatively lucky, compared to other groups in the region, because they lived in an area where there are mongongo trees, which bear nutritious nuts. The nuts could be eaten raw, but evidence shows that the !Kung liked to roast them in a fire. Among the !Kung, role distinctions were also made on the basis of age and degree of leadership within a group or society.

Other Kalahari hunter-gatherers also practiced roles where the men hunted and the women gathered. The importance of hunting lay in its significance as a source of prestige for the men of the group. Hunting also provided sought-after delicacies, thus allowing the sharing of social ties within the band. Hunting in very small groups of between two and six individuals, the men would often stay away from camp for two or three days while following wounded prey. Large animals were slaughtered and cut up at the kill site so the meat could conveniently be carried back to the campsite.

Farming versus Hunter-Gatherer and Primitive Agricultural Societies

Scientists consider hunting and gathering to be among the two oldest professions in existence. Most societies living this lifestyle eventually began practicing primitive agriculture by preparing simple garden areas to supplement their hunting and gathering efforts. In contrast to modern farming practices, primitive agriculture was typically practiced in forests where the loose soil was easily broken up with a twig or fallen branch rather than on grassy fields with heavy sod.

Additionally, primitive agriculture probably did not use extensive fertilizers or modern techniques such as crop rotation, irrigation, or terracing. Primitive agriculture is, therefore, much less productive than farming. Also, the size of the societies remained small with most being no larger than the hunting-gathering societies. The overall population densities of the primitive agriculture societies were also very low compared with farming regions.

Primitive agriculture societies that lived in forest areas often practiced "slash-and-burn" techniques. After about two years of cropping a plot, the land was left fallow for a number of years and allowed to revert back to secondary forest or brush. The brush was then burned. The most highly evolved slash-and-burn societies were the Maya of Guatemala and Yucatan.

see also Farming; Hunting.

Stephanie A. Lanoue


Barnard, A. Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Creamer, W., and Jonathan Haas. "Pueblo: Search for the Ancient Ones." National Geographic 18, no. 4 (1991):84-99.

Schapera, I. The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa: Bushmen and Hottentots. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1930.

Sitton, Thad. "Hunter-Gatherers and Human Ecology." American Biology Teacher 42(1980):345-347.

Steyn, H. P. Vanished Lifestyles. Pretoria: Unibook Publishers, 1990.

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