Hunting and Gathering

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Hunting and Gathering

I. Old World Prehistoric SocietiesJ. Desmond Clark


II. New World Prehistoric SocietiesArthur J. Jelinek


III. Contemporary SocietiesColin M. Turnbull



The Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, covers all but 1/200 of human history. The study of paleolithic society is, therefore, not only that of man’s emerging technical ability and broadening cultural horizons, but also of his physiological and intellectual evolution. It includes examination of the effects of the climatic and physiographic changes that shaped the environments in which man lived and to which his cultural skills enabled him to adapt with increasing efficiency.

Paleolithic man was a hunter and gatherer, and the Paleolithic is divided into three substages—lower, middle, and upper. The lower Paleolithic is a stage of unspecialized hunting and gathering populations; the middle Paleolithic saw the beginnings of regional specialization; and the upper Paleolithic was a time of advanced hunting and collecting activities.

The Paleolithic appeared first in Africa during the later Villafranchian or Lower Pleistocene, some 1.75 million to 2 million years ago. The Villafranchian was a time of climatic change and significantly lowered temperature in higher latitudes coincident with the onset of the Quaternary Ice Age or glacial epoch. At the same period, the first true elephants, horses, and bovids appear in the fossil record. By the beginning of the Middle Pleistocene, probably about one million years ago, tool-making had spread to Europe and Asia. This paleolithic stage of culture continued up to the end of the Pleistocene.

The world-wide termination of the Pleistocene period, approximately 10,000 years ago, was coincident with the end of the last glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere and of the last “pluvial” in the tropical and subtropical belts.

The close of the Pleistocene was marked by climatic amelioration—the recession of the ice sheets in northern Europe and Asia and the reafforestation of regions previously glaciated or covered only by tundra. It appears to have been a time of population increase, of movement into hitherto unoccupied country, and of a much more intensive use of environmental resources. The economy still consisted of hunting and gathering but at a more advanced level. This post-Pleistocene period is called the Mesolithic by some European prehis-torians; in the Mediterranean Basin it is often referred to as the “epi-Paleolithic” while in sub-Saharan Africa it is known as the “Later Stone Age.”

The Mesolithic ended first in the Levant, where by the eighth millennium B.C. incipient grain cultivation and domestication of sheep and goats initiated the beginnings of food production and thus the Neolithic or New Stone Age. By the seventh millennium B.C. (e.g., at Nea Nikomedeia, Macedonia) the new economy had spread to eastern Europe, and by the third millennium it had spread up the Danube to the Atlantic coast and Britain. [SeeDomestication.]

The initial spread of this new economy to the Nile Valley, India, and southeast Asia appears to have begun in the fifth millennium B.C., but its diffusion was retarded as it came into contact with the rich tropical savannas and forests of southern and eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, south of the Sahara the bulk of the population remained Later Stone Age hunters and food collectors until the introduction of metallurgy during the first millennium B.C.

Chronological basis of cultural succession. One of the prehistorian’s chief concerns is establishing a chronology into which to fit his various cultural assemblages. In fact, it was the necessity felt by the eighteenth and nineteenth century antiquarians to prove the existence of “man before Adam”—as evidenced by the stone implements being found in direct association with fossil remains of extinct animals in ancient geological strata—that began the close collaboration of archeologist, paleontologist, and geologist, which still remains the basis for establishing the chronology of early man.

In Europe, culture history is based on the relationship of the different industrial stages to the deposits of the Pleistocene glacial advances and interglacial epochs. These are also correlated with periods of fluctuating sea level; the level was low when water was locked up in the ice sheets, and high during the interglacials, when much of the water was released as the ice melted. This geo-morphological evidence can now be checked by studies of deep-sea cores. Each epoch supported a distinctive land fauna, while studies of pollen from interglacial deposits show that the general vegetation patterns also differed with each interglacial.

In Africa, geologists and archeologists have established a succession of pluvial and interpluvial oscillations, which they have sought to correlate with the glacials and interglacials of northern latitudes. Caution is needed, however, since in east Africa, which is the type region, tectonic movements cannot be discounted as factors in bringing about the fluctuation of lake levels on which the “pluvial hypothesis” is largely based. However, morphological studies of river systems and closed basins in areas where tectonic movement is absent show that climatic changes did indeed take place during Pleistocene times in Africa and, one may say, in the tropics generally. Except for the last pluvial and the post-Pleistocene episodes, their intensity and precise correlation with the glacial chronology is, however, as yet unknown. But there can be no doubt that the last pluvial is synchronous with the last glaciation in Europe.

Stratigraphy of glacial deposits, river terraces, changing sea and lake levels, and faunal and pollen stages provides a basis for a relative chronology of human cultural evolution. In recent years, however, the archeologist has had available several methods developed by natural scientists that provide an absolute chronology or age in terms of years obtained from organic and mineral samples found in association with the cultural material. These methods are still subject to refinement and elimination of error, but their use has introduced an over-all precision into Stone Age chronology never before possible. The most important are the radiocarbon method (Libby 1952) which, with the enrichment process, provides dates back to 75,000 years and the potassium-argon method (Evernden & Curtis 1965), which can be used to date volcanic rocks that are rich in potassium and provides dates for all but the most recent of such rocks.

These chronometric methods have the great advantage of providing the basis for accurate age determinations of cultural successions and fossil assemblages in widely separated regions independent of any factors on which the relative chronology is based.

Recovery and interpretation. Before World War II prehistorians were chiefly concerned with the classification of stone and bone artifacts, which were usually all that remained of the culture being studied. These artifacts were preserved in caves, where they were systematically excavated, as well as in gravel and ballast pits and similar commercial excavations. The recognition of regularly recurring artifact classes led to the establishment of industrial patterns, and where these were found to have consistent chronological and regional distribution they determined the existence of “cultures.”

Thus it was largely the surviving lithic and bone elements of the material culture and their inferred function within the framework of the habitat that prehistorians drew on for their reconstruction of the paleolithic and mesolithic way of life. Since World War II, however, improved field techniques have greatly increased the evidence an excavation can yield. Not only is the distribution of tools, waste, and food debris on an occupation surface studied in relation to special features such as hearths, stone concentrations, walls and other constructional features, and natural features of the site, but quantitative analysis is now used to demonstrate the relative importance of the different types and classes of tools. When the tool content of several successive occupation layers is examined, the way the industrial patterns change is studied in relation to such other significant differences as may be indicated by the pollen diagram or the animals that provided the main source of meat. Another complete dimension has thus been added from which to reconstruct the paleolithic hunting way of life.

A growing awareness of the possibility of reconstructing prehistoric society through the combined use of environmental, biological, and cultural evidence, and the perfection of the methods used are likely to result in a much wider understanding of paleolithic culture over the next few years.

Already, studies of the behavior and social organization of primates such as baboons, chimpanzees, and gorillas and the patterns of land use, settlement, and behavior of present-day hunting and gathering populations are valuable in demonstrating how social and economic organization might have made best use of the environmental resources at the Australopithecine and early mid-Pleistocene levels. Examination of the fossil evidence of primate and hominid evolution as seen in the changing nature of skeletal remains sometimes associated with the cultural record shows the limitations imposed by physiological factors. [SeeEvolution, articles onHUMAN EVOLUTION and PRIMATE EVOLUTION.]

The lower Paleolithic

The earliest tool-makers

During the later Tertiary, groups of apes occupying tropical and equatorial savanna in northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia became fully bipedal simultaneously with the specialization of the hands for tool-using.

This selective adaptation probably was largely induced by the aridity of the tropics during the Pliocene and the consequent destruction of the natural environments of these hitherto unspecialized apelike forms. It appears to have taken some ten to twelve million years for these animals to evolve from Ramapithecus (in Africa Kenyapithecus) into the genus of man-apes known as the Australo-pithecines (Simons 1963).

Authorities are divided concerning the classification of the various Lower Pleistocene hominid fossils, but the majority are agreed that the Australo-pithecines are divisible into a small, gracile species —Australopithecus africanus—and a much heavier form—A. robustus—previously known as Paran-thropus. The fossil Homo habilis (man having ability), described in 1964 (Tobias 1964; Leakey & Leakey 1964; Leakey et al. 1964) as representing a separate Homo ancestral stock distinct from the Australopithecines, is also classified by some investigators as a third form of Australopithecine A. habilis (Oakley 1964).

The Australopithecines are known from cave breccias in the Transvaal and northern Cape, Republic of South Africa (Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Taungs); from lake beds in east Africa (Laetolil, Olduvai, Peninj at Natron); and from Chad (Yayo). From fluviatile sediments in Java comes the closely related Meganthropus, often classified as an Australopithecine.

The earliest tools—Lower Pleistocene culture

Stone tools first appear in Lower Pleistocene context at the base of Bed I at the Olduvai Gorge. In South Africa they are found in early mid-Pleistocene breccias at Sterkfontein and Swartkrans. So far, however, it is only at Olduvai that the hominid fossils are unquestionably associated with faunal remains on living sites.

The problem arises as to which hominid made the tools; as yet, the evidence is inconclusive. It appears most likely, however, that tools were first made by a form akin to A. africanus, which, because of the selective advantages conferred by tool-making, developed during the early part of the mid-Pleistocene into Homo erectus by way of the H. habilis form. The evidence of the Peninj jaw, found in 1964 near Lake Natron, makes it likely that A. robustus, while he used tools, did not make them (see Leakey & Leakey 1964; Isaac 1965).

The manufacture of stone tools was a development of the greatest importance, considerably facilitating the consumption of meat. The tools could also be used for pounding and for sharpening stakes for digging, thus increasing the sources of vegetable foods. Sometimes bone was also used. Natural stones were intensively collected at the habitation sites and must have been used as aids to hunting and protection. Indeed, since fire-making was unknown, such stones must have been one of man’s chief means of keeping other scavengers away from his larder.

The tools themselves are of the simplest kind. Besides the natural stones showing little or no modification, others have been unifacially or bifacially flaked to form simple chopping implements. Various polyhedral stones attest to their use for bashing or pounding, and a number of flakes show minimal retouch or utilization for skinning and scraping. Artifact assemblages of this kind belong to the Oldowan culture. The living floors seem to have been temporary occupation surfaces on the edge of a brackish Olduvai lake. Tools are scattered over a comparatively confined area; in one instance, a roughly circular concentration of stone and broken bones about 15 feet in diameter leaves no doubt that the artifacts had been used to dismember and break up the bones of the small or young animals that formed part of the diet of these not very efficient hunters. At another site are two roughly semicircular concentrations of stones thought to have been the wall of some kind of windbreak or hide. Juvenile Australopithecines were dependent on their parents for a longer time than are the young of present-day pongids (Dart 1948); this fact and fear of predators were probably major reasons for the establishment of camps or home bases in the open savanna by these comparatively defenseless hominids. They did not live in caves, although they visited those in the Transvaal limestones—perhaps to find water or to trap game.

Thus, the picture that emerges of Lower Pleistocene tool-makers is of small family groups of gracile, swift-running hominids, within or very close to the Australopithecine pattern, living in open savanna country close to water and gallery forest. They were unspecialized, not very efficient hunters who supplemented their meat supply largely by scavenging and obtained most of their food from vegetable sources.

Middle Pleistocene culture

The beginning of the Middle Pleistocene witnessed the spread of tool-making to Europe and Asia. In Europe the oldest tools of this stage are abraded hand axes found in the 45-meter terrace of the Somme River in France and now believed to date to an early inter-stadial of the Mindel glaciation. Contemporary with these tools is the flake and chopper industry (Clactonian) from Vertesszollos on the Danube in Hungary, where the main source of meat was small animals—mice, voles, and other rodents (Kretzoi & Vertes 1964).

In the Middle East crude hand axes and chopping tools, associated with a rich, early mid-Pleistocene fauna and some hominid teeth and skull fragments, come from faulted lake beds at Ubeidiya in the Jordan Valley (Stekelis 1963), while in the Far East current excavations in the Lower Trinil beds at Sangiran, whence came the remains of Pithecanthropus (now H. erectus), are reported to be yielding stone implements in situ (Jacob 1964). In China, at Choukoutien, near Peking, H. erectus fossils are associated with a simple chopper and flake industry, much animal food debris, and hearths (Teilhard & Pei 1932). In Africa several occupation floors are known from Olduvai Bed II but are as yet not fully described.

The association of culture with large animals is a regular feature of the living sites of mid-Pleistocene man. At the base of Bed II at Olduvai the complete remains of a Dinotherium were found with simple chopping tools. At BKII, near the top of the bed, large, now-extinct species appear to have been driven into a swamp, butchered, and eaten (Leakey 1958). At Torralba and Ambrona in Spain the remains of over 45 straight-tusked elephants (E. antiquus) were found; the animals had been dismembered and eaten (Howell et al. 1962, pp. 28-29).

In Africa, a number of living sites from the later part of this period (Olduvai Bed Iv, Karian-dusi, Olorgesailie, Isimila, Kalambo Falls, Cave of Hearths) have now been excavated so as to recover all or part of the distribution or scatter pattern of artifacts, fauna, or associated objects on the occupation surfaces, from which a clearer picture is gained of the behavior and abilities of mid-Pleistocene man.

Sites at this time seem to have been occupied for longer periods of time and, it would seem, were sometimes revisited. At Latamne, in Syria, occupation debris is associated with a scatter of large limestone blocks, which may have formed some kind of structure (J. D. Clark 1964).

Living sites and butchery places are still close to water, indicating inadequate water-carrying and storage equipment. Artifact scatters cover wider areas than those of the Lower Pleistocene hominids, suggesting that the population was distributed in larger groupings—probably resulting from the improved technique developed for hunting large animals. Fire was first used in the periglacial north (such as Choukoutien, Torralba), only later spreading to the tropics.

Artifacts now begin to show specialization of function: There are cleavers, hand axes, choppers, small and large scrapers, points, polyhedrals, etc. Probably environmental adaptation dictated the concentration of chopping and flake tools found, on the one hand, in regions adjacent to the ice sheets and, on the other, in the tropical forest areas of southeast Asia as well as the composition of the “hand ax/cleaver” industries in the open, temperate forests and the savannas and grasslands of the tropics.

No tool at this time is exclusive to any one region, the different activity patterns being reflected in the varying proportions of artifacts in the tool kit.

The hominids. In the Far East and Africa the earlier mid-Pleistocene cultures are associated with the Pithecanthropus stock, in which slender and more robust forms are distinguishable. Later, however, greatly expanded cranial capacity led to the appearance of early sapient-like forms (Swans-combe, Steinheim, Fontechevade, Kanjera), and it is apparent that selectively adaptive characteristics distinguish both the hominids and their cultures in the various regions.

The middle Paleolithic

By the early Upper Pleistocene (beginning with the Riss Glaciation) more specialized industries point to distinct activity patterns, suggesting that groups now split up into small units for specific purposes. This specialization of activity is best seen in the Mousterian industries of the early Last Glacial (Würm), where distinct “traditions” are found interphasing in the caves and rock shelters which now formed regular homes for bands of hunters (Bordes 1961).

In Africa, the beginning of the last pluvial was a time of population explosion and movement into the previously unoccupied forests of Equatoria where regionally specialized cultures developed. This was made possible by the use of large woodworking tools and undoubtedly by the regular use of fire.

Much experimentation must have gone on, and this period saw the beginnings of deliberate burial, belief in an afterlife, and magical ritual. Populations were now emancipated from waterside sites, and the structural alteration of cave dwellings was begun. Hunting began to be selective; tools were hafted; and more functionally specialized implements were manufactured. Wooden spears and throwing and digging sticks are known, and the regular use of bone and antler first began at some localities (e.g., Salzgitter-Lebenstedt in northern Germany (Tode et al. 1953).

In Europe and Asia the makers of the Mousterian culture were the genetically overspecialized Neanderthals. Related types are known also from southeast Asia (H. soloensis) and Africa (H. rhodesiensis). Their disappearance when faced with competition from Homo sapiens is usually explained as due to genetic drift caused by isolation of small populations.

The upper Paleolithic

Homo sapiens first appeared in Europe, Africa, and the Near East at much the same time—about 35,000 years ago—and rapidly replaced the Neanderthals. In southeast Asia, a H. sapiens fossil from the Great Cave at Niah (Sarawak) is dated somewhat earlier—nearly 40,000 years ago.

In Europe and western and northern Asia H. sapiens was the bearer of the upper paleolithic blade and burin cultures. However, in Africa, India, and elsewhere in the tropics, no doubt for environmental reasons, the regional expressions retained to varying degree technical features of the middle paleolithic tradition.

The upper Paleolithic was a time of fundamental advances in technology. The hunting populations rapidly became regionally specialized and modified their social and economic behavior, making more extensive use of a wider variety of raw materials and more intensive use of some of these by the introduction of ever more efficient ways of food-getting.

The fish resources of rivers and lakes were exploited as never before, and man made use of sea foods for the first time. Hunting was often geared to the seasonal killing of one or two species (mammoth or reindeer in Eurasia; wildebeest, zebra, or pig in Africa). Some investigators regard the men of this time as partly responsible for the extinction of some of the more archaic Pleistocene animal species and, indeed, the upper paleolithic bands of Europe and northern Asia attained a degree of hunting efficiency unsurpassed by even such advanced specialists as the Eskimo or some of the North American Indians.

The technology was much more varied: there were knife blades; projectile points of stone, bone, and antler for spears and darts; spearthrowers; harpoons; fishhooks; and needles, chisels, and boring tools for engraving, for working antler and bone, or for making skins into clothing and covering for dwellings (Sonneville-Bordes 1963). By the end of the Paleolithic the bow and arrow were present in northern Germany (Ahrensburgian culture; Rust 1943, pp. 189-192) and probably somewhat earlier in Spain and north Africa also. To this tool list can be added throwing sticks and clubs; sometimes in Africa the clubs had a stone head enclosed in a greenhide sleeve.

This was again a time of population explosion and occupation of new territory, and man spread into the steppes of northern Russia to Siberia and across the Bering Strait into the New World. In southeast Asia he moved down the Malay peninsula and over the Sunda shelf to Australia.

Seasonal or semipermanent settlements are known from the loess country of central Europe, Russia, and Siberia, where the populations were largely mammoth hunters. They (Eastern Gravet-tians) built large communal summer structures, each with several hearths, as well as small, circular, tentlike dwellings with mammoth bone and ivory supports, covered probably with skins (e.g., the sites of Pavlov and Dolne Vistonice in Czechoslovakia). More elaborate winter tents also occur near Hamburg where they are found with a Magdale-nian culture, while in European Russia and Siberia partly or fully subterranean earth houses are found, again with several hearths and occupied by several family groups in the winter.

Less is known about cave-site occupation, but excavations at the Abri Pataud in the Dordogne (Movius 1964) are showing that the nature of hearths, cooking methods, and lithic equipment underwent considerable modification during the earlier half of the upper Paleolithic.

The size of communities does not seem to have been any larger than hitherto, but the greatly superior technology permitted populations to spread more thickly and to occupy previously unfavorable territory—not only periarctic regions but also deserts such as the Namib in South West Africa and the Libyan Sand Sea.

The rich art mobilier and cave art of upper paleolithic man attests to both his high artistic ability and to a widespread code of magico-religious beliefs, which may be likened to those of the bison hunters of the North American Great Plains, the Australians, and the Bushmen.

Post-paleolithic hunting societies

In the northern hemisphere, the end of the Ice Age brought about the breakdown of the specialized hunting organizations of paleolithic man; the animals on which he depended moved away, and forests grew again on the tundra of northern Europe and Asia.

In the tropics, readjustment to the higher temperatures and spread of lowland forest and thicket occasioned a redistribution of population, necessitating a basic alteration in the livelihood pattern. The widespread diffusion of the bow and arrow—probably associated with the use of poison—and the general development of composite tools gave new impetus to hunting techniques. The individual hunter, or the small group, now acquired an efficiency previously the prerogative only of the community hunting in concert.

Seafood and the fish and other food resources of large rivers were now widely exploited—assisted by the use of rafts and boats—and there is no doubt that greater population density now led to increasingly intensive use of the natural resources of the environment.

Whereas upper paleolithic man had specialized often in the hunting of a single species of animal, the success of the mesolithic hunter was his ability to use a wide range of food sources, both animal and vegetable. A good example is the early Mag-lemosian settlement of Star Carr in Yorkshire (±7600 B.C.). It covered some two hundred square meters and was probably seasonally occupied, from October to April, for 12 to 15 years by some 16 to 25 individuals, of whom five were adult males able to hunt large game (J. G. D. Clark 1954). The community fished and collected food on the coast in the summer and hunted game and wildfowl in the winter.

The Later Stone Age populations of the south African coasts steadily increased their concentration on seafoods, correspondingly disregarding land animals and thus becoming more sedentary. Some coastal caves contained middens about 30 feet thick and are traditionally said to have been permanently occupied.

In southwest Asia the post-paleolithic Natufian populations achieved a settled way of life that differed little from that of the first food producers. The richness and rapid altitudinal range of the environments from the Jordan Rift over the mountains to the coast—a distance of not more than fifty miles—rendered these populations largely independent of the need to make seasonal moves.

Ruled by chiefs, they lived by hunting, fishing, and reaping wild grasses. They inhabited circular huts, burying their dead beneath the floor. They were an artistic people, and a shrinelike structure in the Natufian occupation at the base of the Jericho mound attests to the presence of organized magicc—religious belief and ritual (Kenyon 1960, pp. 36-43).

It was the self-sufficiency of the Natufian economy that formed the basis for the development of cereal cultivation and animal domestication, perhaps in response to a temporary climatic swing toward greater aridity between 8000 and 7000 B.C.

J. Desmond Clark

[See alsoArcheology; Domestication; and the biography ofBreuil.]


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Early European explorers coming to the New World encountered hundreds of different American Indian cultures, ranging in levels of development from the indigenous civilizations of Nuclear America to the simplest food-collecting groups of the arid deserts. There was virtually no area with moisture and vegetation sufficient to sustain human life that had not been occupied. The long period of development represented by this diverse and complex assemblage of cultures has been outlined with varying degrees of clarity by archeological studies. It is now clear that hunting and gathering cultures occupied most of the New World in the earlier phases of its prehistory and that in many areas cultures of this type persisted into the historic period. It is also important to note that in most areas outside the urban centers of civilization hunting and gathering continued to significantly supplement the produce of primitive cultivation.

Terminal Pleistocene big-game hunters

The date of man’s first entry into the New World is still largely a matter of conjecture. Our best evidence concerning this problem is derived from archeological sites in which material of unquestionable cultural derivation is linked to reliable chronological estimates, such as those yielded by carbon-14 dating.

The earliest of these sites (as of 1965) is Muaco, Venezuela, where stone tools have been found associated with the bones of now extinct Pleistocene mammals, which had been charred, engraved, and split, presumably by human beings (Rouse & Cruxent 1963, pp. 34-36). A date of about 12,500 b.c. is likely for this material on the basis of carbon-14 evidence. By 10,000-9000 b.c. the human occupation of North America was fairly widespread, and by 8000 b.c. man had reached the southern tip of South America (Rubin & Berthold 1961, p. 96; Delibrias et al. 1964, p. 244). On the basis of the sum of this chronological evidence, the biological characteristics of the American Indian, the formal relationships among New World cultural industries, and our knowledge of cultures of the late Pleistocene in northern Asia, it would appear that man entered the New World via the Bering Strait land bridge about 17,500 b.c. Our knowledge of the environment of this arctic area during the Würm-Wisconsin glaciation (Hopkins 1959, p. 1527) indicates that the most likely means of survival for these men would have been the hunting of large mammals, such as mammoths.

This type of hunting appears to have continued as an important part of the subsistence pattern of the paleo-Indian cultures of terminal Pleistocene age. It is well demonstrated by sites in the western United States, such as the Clovis gravel pit in eastern New Mexico (Sellards 1952, pp. 29-31) and the Lehner site in southeastern Arizona (Haury et al. 1959), both dated to 10,000-9000 b.c., where the abundant remains of mammoth, bison, and other now extinct animals are found associated with distinctive Clovis fluted projectile points and other stone and bone tools. Later, in the same area, people using Folsom fluted points (8000 B.C.) and unfluted lanceolate points (8000-5000 b.c) hunted several now extinct species of bison. While a somewhat similar evolution of distinctive projectile points is found in eastern North America (apparently during the same time period), no direct evidence has yet appeared associating these tools and weapons with the remains of large Pleistocene mammals. It is possible that the large-game hunting tradition continued where extensive herds existed, from the arctic to the western plains, while the temperate woodlands of the east, inhabited only by relatively solitary herbivores, supported different subsistence patterns.

Post-Pleistocene cultural diversity

In succeeding time periods it appears that economic patterns based on a greater diversity of resources began earliest in areas in which large herds were absent. By 6000-5000 b.c. the Early Archaic cultures of eastern North America were clearly utilizing a wide variety of forest resources, and, on the basis of notched in addition to lanceolate projectile points, they were using hunting techniques that differed from those of the paleo-Indian (see, for example, Fowler 1959).

During the same period in the arid regions of western North America, an adaptation to sparse resources had been made by the small bands of hunters and gatherers of the Desert Culture, who developed seasonal cycles of utilization of the most fruitful areas of their limited environment (see Jennings 1964, pp. 152-153). And, in the great river valleys of the northwest, Indians had apparently begun to utilize the abundant resources of annual salmon runs as a basic food source (Borden 1962, pp. 10-11). Thus, by the sixth millennium b.c., there appear to have been several distinct culture types in North America, each adjusted to the resources of a particular natural area. That a similar diversity was true of Middle and South America is suggested by archeological evidence found in Tamaulipas (MacNeish 1958), Tehuacan (MacNeish 1964a), and recent discoveries in the coastal desert and mountains of Peru (Lanning & Hammel 1961), where several specific adaptations suggest similar specialization in areas as yet unexplored.

The first New World appearance of food production occurs in northeastern and central Mexico during this period (MacNeish 1958; 1964b). However, because of diverse local environments and arid climatic conditions, it was several thousand years before the effects of this innovation radically influenced the development of the prehistoric cultures of Nuclear America. The trend from widespread cultural uniformity to increasing local diversity reflects the specialization of cultural adjustments and the increasing utilization of the most favorable resources of each specific habitat. This trend can be seen in the prehistoric cultural sequence in much of the New World from about 5000 b.c. to the period of the introduction of cultivation in each area. Only in the extremely arid regions is there little evidence of significant change following 5000 b.c. Here, in general, successful and near-optimal cultural adjustments had been made in earlier periods.

The Arctic

Where natural conditions were un-suited to primitive cultivation, increasing refinements of hunting and gathering techniques continued virtually up to the period of historic contact. Perhaps the most outstanding example of such a sequence is found in the arctic region. The earliest well-known cultural tradition began about 4000 b.c., represented in the western Arctic by the Denbigh phase (Giddings 1964, pp. 191-243), and spread eastward to the northern and eastern shores of Greenland by about 2000 b.c. (Knuth 1954). This tradition was characterized by the use of microlithic tools similar to and undoubtedly derived from the mesolithic industries of northern Eurasia. The eastward spread of this culture appears to coincide with the Altithermal, a climatic interval somewhat milder than present conditions, from about 5000 to 2500 b.c., when a generalized adaptation to arctic resources was probably sufficient for survival. Although much of the material culture was perishable, enough remains to indicate that certain basic elements of specifically arctic culture were already common; these include stone lamps, permanent semisubterranean houses, toggle-head harpoons, tailored clothing, and watercraft. The stone industry included many microlithic tools similar to those of mesolithic cultures in northern Eurasia, but it also includes distinctive bifacially flaked end-blades and side-blades, which were used for projectile points or harpoon points. The extensive finds of burins and burinlike tools probably reflect a substantial bone industry which is little known to prehistorians because of poor preservation. In the eastern Arctic, the Sarqaq and similar “arctic small-tool tradition” cultures appear to have given rise in situ and without extensive outside influence to the primitive Eskimo-like Dorset culture (Taylor 1959). By the last half of the first millennium b.c., these people, who were apparently similar to the historic Eskimo in physical appearance, had spread widely along the coastal areas of the eastern Arctic. The Dorset culture retained several features of the earlier traditions, such as microlithic tools, and lacked certain cultural techniques later developed by the Eskimo, such as the use of dog sleds, ceramics, and the bow drill. The Dorset people did not venture into open seas in pursuit of whales, although other large sea mammals were hunted. Near the end of the first millennium a.d., the Dorset culture appears to have been replaced by the intrusive and fully-Eskimo Thule culture (Collins 1954, pp. 87-93), which had developed in the western Arctic from an ancestry similar to that of Dorset but with the continued stimulus of contact with northeastern Asia. It was from Asia that a knowledge of ceramic techniques was probably received by about 1000 b.c. In general, the prehistoric cultures of the western Arctic indicate somewhat more interest in the resources of the interior (especially the caribou) than do those of the eastern Arctic.

Northwest coast

Our knowledge of the prehistoric hunting and gathering cultures of the boreal forest to the south of the Arctic is still poor; this area remains one of the least explored archeologi-cal territories in the New World. The northwest coast of North America, on the other hand, has yielded sufficient material to indicate that the spectacular marine-oriented cultures of the historic period were part of a long sequence of local development. Evidences of the distinctive Northwest Coast art style have been found in the Marpole cultural phase of the Fraser River delta area in the first millennium b.c. along with numerous artifacts similar to those employed by the historic Northwest Coast Indians (Borden 1962, pp. 12-13). It now seems likely that this culture owes its origin more to local innovation among peoples adjusted to the riverine resources of salmon and seal than to the southward diffusion of Eskimo technology, as was formerly believed. Cressman (1960) has demonstrated in sites at the Dalles, Oregon, that the riverine-oriented cultures of the northwest plateau area underwent a marked change in artifact inventory about 5000 b.c. Several technological features, such as microblades, burins, a particular type of projectile point, and bolas (presumably for snaring birds), disappeared at that time, and succeeding horizons are characterized by a wide variety of projectile points, end scrapers, mortars and pestles, etc., which suggests a more diversified utilization of resources, perhaps in response to the less favorable conditions of the warmer Altithermal period between 5000 and 2500 b.c. However, this hypothesis is difficult to confirm, since animal bone and other food refuse have as yet been found only in the earlier levels of the sequence.

Great Basin

To the south of the plateau, the 9,000-year-old hunting and gathering tradition of the Desert Culture continued almost unchanged into the historic period. The Great Basin Indians collected virtually every digestible substance to be found in the environment. This early utilization of diverse resources included the intensive use of plant fibers for implements and equipment such as sandals and clothing. In areas where game was more abundant or moisture required the use of more lasting materials, many of these items would have been made of animal hide. The arid conditions of the Great Basin throughout the post-Pleistocene period have resulted in the remarkable preservation of almost all material remains of this culture, leaving us with a much more complete picture of the technology than we have for any group of comparable age. In addition to these objects of normally perishable materials, the Desert Culture peoples made frequent use of milling stones and heavy chipped stone “pulper-planers,” as well as a wide variety of small projectile points and scrapers of chipped stone.


Whether the early cultures of California originated out of the Desert Culture is still a matter of debate. While these early California cultures do not show evidence of a strong link with the paleo-Indian hunting traditions they seem also to lack many characteristic Desert Culture items. Some of these items, such as milling stones, would have been useful in processing a wide variety of edible plant foods in California. The prehistoric record in California indicates an increasingly dense population in areas of relatively abundant resources after about 2000 b.c. (Heizer 1964, pp. 122-131). It appears that the essential specialization in the utilization of acorns as food in the southern coastal and interior valley areas had taken place by this time. Acorns, supplemented by game and various other local resources, were sufficient to support villages of over one thousand persons in the early historic period. The increase in population in California appears to have been accompanied by increasing warfare or conflict and individual accumulation of wealth, two features frequently observed in the historic cultures of that area.

The Southwest

The Desert Culture of the southwestern United States is still relatively little known in comparison to the succeeding village-farming period. In the cultures of the Cochise tradition (Sayles & Antevs 1941) an adaptation similar to that of the Great Basin peoples seems to have been basic, encouraged by somewhat more abundant resources. By about 1000 b.c. gathering activities were supplemented by maize, squash, and bean cultivation, undoubtedly derived from Mexico.

To the east of the Desert Culture, other small groups of hunters and gatherers populated the Rocky Mountains, as, for example, the culture of the McKean phase (Mulloy 1954).

Great Plains

On the Great Plains hunting patterns seem to have persisted as the chief source of subsistence until the end of the first millennium b.c., when the earliest techniques of cultivation were introduced from the eastern woodlands. The lowest level of deposits of the Signal Butte site in western Nebraska (Strong 1935, pp. 224-239) yielded the small lanceolate points that perhaps persisted from earlier paleo-Indian traditions until about 2500 b.c.; these were accompanied and followed by a sequence of notched projectile points, which elsewhere are more typical of this time-horizon. The fauna represented in the lowest deposits of this site is similar to that of the historic period, including bison, deer, elk, and antelope.

Eastern woodlands

In the eastern United States in the late Archaic period (2500 b.c.), hunting and gathering cultures followed two major patterns of adjustment to local resources—a northern lacustrine-oriented way of life and a southern riverine-oriented pattern. Several less widespre; I adaptations also occurred, including utilization of the Atlantic coastal region. The northern lacustrine-oriented cultures apparently maintained a balance in subsistence between hunting, fishing, and plant collection. One interesting variant of this tradition, the Old Copper culture of the Michigan-Wisconsin area, made extensive use of the deposits of native copper in the vicinity of Lake Superior for the manufacture of a wide variety of implements, including knives, spear and arrow points, and woodworking tools (axes, adzes, etc.). The copper was worked by cold-hammering, or heated and hammered, but it was not smelted or cast. Implements made from copper, which came from the Lake Superior area, are frequently encountered in Archaic cultures of other Great Lakes areas and occasionally as far away as the southeastern United States. This implies widespread patterns of barter and exchange in eastern North America as early as 2000 b.c. Other items whose distribution yields evidence of extensive late Archaic trade patterns in this area are chipped implements of a distinctive gray hornstone deriving from southern Indiana and Illinois and modified fragments of large conch shells probably imported from the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the southeast.

The occupation sites of southeast riverine-oriented food collectors are characterized archeo-logically by extensive accumulations of river mussels. This debris is obvious evidence for heavy reliance on mussels as a source of food, supplemented chiefly by deer, waterfowl, and collected plants, including large quantities of nuts. While the settlements of late Archaic food collectors in the southeast were larger than those of the northeast, there is no good evidence for more complex social patterns or status differentiation in the south. In burial practice, for example, there are no individual differences in the concentration of wealth represented by grave goods sufficient to postulate marked social differentiation. At about 1000 b.c. techniques of cultivation derived from Middle America began to contribute to the diet of the food collectors of eastern North America. During the next 500 years this pattern spread through most river valleys west of the Appalachians and south of the present limits of the 140-day growing season. In a scattering of less favorable habitats cultivation probably contributed a smaller portion of the diet, and hunting and gathering, which everywhere retained some importance in the subsistence pattern, was the major source of food.

Middle America

The early food-collecting cultures of Middle America are still little known. The few sites thus far explored in Mexico reveal an early stratum similar to the Desert Culture of the western United States at about 8000-7000 b.c. (MacNeish 1964b). The increasingly arid conditions of the Altithermal throughout most of Mexico produced an increasing intensity of collection of wild plants and the early cultivation of domestic forms, while hunting declined in importance. However, it was probably not until about 1500 b.c. that cultivation provided the major portion of food in any area of Middle America.

Central America

A single site in Central America, Cerro Mangote (5000 b.c.), on the west coast of Panama, is representative of a nonfood-producing horizon in this area (McGimsey 1956). The food refuse and stone tools suggest an economy largely dependent upon marine resources such as mollusks, fish, and crabs but supplemented by the hunting of deer and other land mammals and the use of plants (as evidenced by grindstones). The persistence of this pattern is seen at the nearby site of Monagrillo (Willey & McGimsey 1954), dated nearly three thousand years later, where a similar assemblage of tools, with the addition of pottery, has been reported. It has been suggested that this site represents the initial horizon of cultivation in Panama (Rouse & Cruxent 1963, p. 41). Cultures similar to that of Cerro Mangote were also characteristic of the food-collecting horizon in the Antilles, apparently depending on a similar group of resources. They differ from Cerro Mangote chiefly because of their more extensive use of large shells for implements and less frequent use of stone. That the Antillean cultures are roughly contemporary with those of Panama is indicated by a nonceramic site of this type in the Dominican Republic that is dated somewhat earlier than 2000 b.c. (Tamers et al. 1964, p. 158). They appear to have been gradually replaced in the late first millennium b.c. by peoples bringing a knowledge of cultivation north out of Venezuela. In a few peripheral areas, such as western Cuba, food-collecting cultures survived until the early historic period (Rouse 1964).

South America

In many areas of South America, as in North America, food collection persisted until the historic period, and hunting and gathering continued to supplement primitive cultivation except in the nuclear area of Andean civilization. Our most extensive knowledge of these cultures in South America comes from coastal settlements where the collection of marine animals supplemented land resources. The Cubagua phase of Venezuela, which is probably related to the early Antillean cultures, is represented by sites of this type (Rouse & Cruxent 1963, pp. 44-46). Farther to the south, along the Atlantic coast of Brazil, the sambaquis, or shell mounds, are frequently many feet thick; besides providing evidence of the extensive use of shellfish as early as 6000 b.c., these mounds also contain abundant remains of fish, land mammals, and birds (Hurt 1964). The cultural industries show a development from purely lithic assemblages containing relatively crudely chipped stone tools (Sambaqui de Maratua) to a much more varied later assemblage (Torres Site), including ceramics, a wide variety of ground stone tools, and abundant bone and shell implements (Serrano 1946; Silva & Meggers 1963, pp. 124-125).

Along the Pacific coast, the Valdivia phase of Ecuador exhibits a primarily shellfish-gathering and fishing subsistence base (Estrada & Evans 1963, pp. 79-80). The presence of a well-developed ceramic industry in this phase, dated to about 3000 b.c., has led to a hypothesis of transpacific contact with the Jomon culture of Japan in which similar ceramics were being manufactured during this period. An external source is suggested, since these ceramics are the earliest known in the New World, and chronological evidence suggests a dispersal northward and southward from this area. The only alternative would seem to lie in a yet undiscovered ceramic tradition in the Amazon Basin, which could have been carried across the Andes into coastal Ecuador.

In coastal Peru the successors of the early hunting tradition appear to have migrated seasonally, spending winters in the vicinity of fog meadows along the coasts where grazing deer and guanaco were available as well as many wild plants (Lan-ning 1963). Resources of the nearby ocean were utilized to a lesser extent than in the previously mentioned cultures, although sea shells and fish bones both occur at most sites. Seasonal migration seems to have occurred: summers were probably spent in the highlands hunting and collecting different types of wild plants. Early in the third millennium b.c. a shift in the coastal currents off Peru resulted in the desiccation of the winter fog meadows and an increase in marine animal life. This, coupled with the beginning of cultivation of cotton and gourds, led to the establishment of permanent settlements along the coasts, ancestral to the civilizations of several thousand years later. The earliest well-known cultures of coastal Chile are characterized by assemblages which include varied types of fish hooks, harpoons for sea mammal hunting, and grindstones, presumably for plant food (Bird 1946a). While there is no firm chronology for these cultures, a date of 2000 b.c. does not seem unlikely. The long cultural sequence at Tierra del Fuego indicates that a cultural pattern similar to that of the historic Indians of that area persisted over a considerable time period: various types of projectile points, bolas stones, end scrapers, and bone awls are present in all but the earliest cultural levels (Bird 1946b).

Thus, throughout the New World we see a trend indicating a relatively rapid diversification of food-collecting cultures adjusting to local resources, following the period of relative cultural uniformity of the terminal Pleistocene. While general patterns of utilization of wild foods were established early, specific patterns of artifact design, reflecting relatively minor technological innovations, continued to change throughout the prehistoric sequence of these hunting and gathering cultures. In areas outside the centers of civilization, the gathering of wild plants and animals continued to be a major factor in the economies of most peoples who practiced cultivation. It was only in the Nuclear areas of Middle America and the Andes that the hunting and gathering of wild foods had lost importance by the time of European contact.

Arthur J. Jelinek

[Directly related are the entriesArcheology; Indians, North American; and the biographies ofGifford; Kroeber; Strong.]


Bird, Junius (1946a) 1963 The Cultural Sequence of the North Chilean Coast. Volume 2, pages 587-594 in Julian H. Steward (editor), Handbook of South American Indians. New York: Cooper Square.

Bird, Junius (1946b) 1963 The Archeology of Patagonia. Volume 1, pages 17-24 in Julian H. Steward (editor), Handbook of South American Indians. New York: Cooper Square.

Borden, Charles E. 1962 West Coast Crossties With Alaska. Pages 9-19 in John M. Campbell (editor), Prehistoric Cultural Relations Between the Arctic and Temperate Zones of North America. Montreal: The Institute.

Collins, Henry B. 1954 Arctic Area: Indigenous Period. Publication No. 60. Mexico City: Instituto Pan-americano de Geografía é Historia.

Cressman, L. S. 1960 Cultural Sequences at The Dalles, Oregon: A Contribution to Pacific Northwest Prehistory. American Philosophieal Society, Transactions New Series 50:1-108.

Delirrias, G.; guillier, M. T.; and labeyrie, J. 1964 Saclay Natural Radiocarbon Measurements I. Radiocarbon 6:233-250.

Estrada, Emilio; and evans, Clifford 1963 Cultural Development in Ecuador. Pages 77-88 in Betty J. Meggars and Clifford Evans (editors), Aboriginal Cultural Development in Latin America. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Fowler, Melvin L. 1959 Summary Report of Modoc Rock Shelter, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956. Illinois, State Museum of, Report of Investigations No. 8. Springfield: The Museum.

Giddings, James L. 1964 The Archaeology of Cape Denbigh. Providence, R.I.: Brown Univ. Press.

Haury, Emil W.; sayles, E. B.; and Wasley, William B. 1959 The Lehner Mammoth Site, Southeastern Arizona. American Antiquity 25:2-30.

Heizer, R. F. 1964 The Western Coast of North America. Pages 117-148 in William Marsh Rice University, Houston, Texas, Prehistoric Man in the New World. Edited by Jesse D. Jennings and Edward Norbeck. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Hopkins, David M. 1959 Cenozoic History of the Bering Land Bridge. Science 129:1519-1528.

Hurt, Wesley R. 1964 Recent Radiocarbon Dates for Central and Southern Brazil. American Antiquity 30: 25-33.

Jennings, Jesse D. 1964 The Desert West. Pages 149-174 in William Marsh Rice University, Houston, Texas, Prehistoric Man in the New World. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Knuth, Eigil 1954 The Paleo-Eskimo Culture of Northeast Greenland Elucidated by Three New Sites. American Antiquity 19:367-381.

Lanning, Edward P. 1963 A Pre-agricultural Occupation on the Central Coast of Peru. American Antiquity 28:360-371.

Lanning, Edward P.; and hammel, Eugene A. 1961 Early Lithic Industries of Western South America. American Antiquity 27:139-154.

McGimsey, Charles R. 1956 Cerro Mangote: A Preceramic Site in Panama. American Antiquity 22:151-161.

MacNeish, Richard S. 1958 Preliminary Archaeological Investigations in the Sierra de Tamaulipas, Mexico. American Philosophical Society, Transactions New Series 48, no. 6.

MacNeish, Richard S. 1964a Ancient Mesoamerican Civilization. Science 143:531-537.

MacNeish, Richard S. 1964b The Food-gathering and Incipient Agriculture Stage of Prehistoric Middle America. Volume. 1, pages 413-426 in Robert Wauchope (editor), Handbook of Middle American Indians. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

Mulloy, William 1954 The McKean Site in Northeastern Wyoming. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 10:432-460.

Rouse, Irving 1964 Prehistory of the West Indies. Science 144:499-513.

Rouse, Irving; and cruxent, J. M. 1963 Venezuelan Archaeology. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Rubin, Meyer; and berthold, Sarah M. 1961 U.S. Geological Survey Radiocarbon Dates VI. Radiocarbon 3:86-98.

Sayles, Edwin B.; and antevs, Ernest 1941 The Co-chisc Culture. Medallion Papers, No. 29. Globe, Ariz.: Privately printed for Gila Pueblo.

Sellards, Elias H. 1952 Early Man in America: A Study in Prehistory. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

Serrano, Antonio (1946) 1963 The Sambaquis of the Brazilian Coast. Volume 1, pages 401-407 in Julian H. Steward (editor), Handbook of South American Indians. New York: Cooper Square.

Silva, Fernando A.; and meggers, Betty J. 1963 Cultural Development in Brazil. Pages 119-129 in Betty J. Meggars and Clifford Evans (editors), Aboriginal Cultural Development in Latin America. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Strong, William D. 1935 An Introduction to Nebraska Archaeology. Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 93, No. 10. Washington: The Institution.

Tamers, M. A.; Pearson, F. J. Jr.: and Davis, E. Mott 1964 University of Texas Radiocarbon Dates II. Radiocarbon 6:138-159.

Taylor, William E. 1959 Review and Assessment of the Dorset Problem. Anthropologica New Series 1: 24-46.

Willey, Gordon R.; and Mc Gimsey, Charles R. 1954 The Monagrillo Culture of Panama. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Papers 49, no. 2:8-137.


There are few hunting and gathering peoples left in the world today, and fewer still who maintain this type of economy in its purest form, without knowledge of agriculture, without domestication of animals, and without the use of imported foods obtainable through barter, trade, service, or any other means. There are not many parts of the world left where it is possible to maintain the kind of isolation that is vital to the continuation of a hunting and gathering tradition.

In order to live by hunting and gathering, a community must exist in a generous environment that supplies all its needs or, if it exists in less advantageous circumstances, either must be isolated from all contact with other food-producing economies or has to possess an ancient, powerful, and vital tradition that enables it to resist foreign influences. If the environment is bountiful, the community is able to maintain its economic independence with ease and with conviction in the face of outside influence. With eminent good sense, such people can see no point in abandoning their simple but fully satisfactory way of life in favor of the dubious advantages of a more “advanced” way, particularly if that new way involves working in the fields or, indeed, working anywhere in a place and at a time not of their own choosing. The most striking example of such a people is the group of Mbuti pygmies, of the central African rain forest. Another example is the gypsy, who in a sense is a hunter and gatherer and whose situation and organization carry many parallels.

Usually, however, where the environment is kindly, it becomes the object of attention of peoples who believe that they can make better use of it than can the indigenous inhabitants; with their advanced skills and technology they wittingly or unwittingly destroy the delicate balance that makes hunting and gathering possible. In such circumstances the hunters and gatherers, ill equipped for resistance, are either obliterated or absorbed.

If the environment falls short of abundance, either by its gradual impoverishment or through the arrival of newcomers who make additional and different demands upon its resources, then the indigenous hunters and gatherers usually seek a new way of life. They may adopt a new form of economy (generally cultivation), or they may become dependent upon the more successful newcomers.

But even under the harshest circumstances—and Africa again provides a classic example in the Bushmen of the Kalahari—hunters and gatherers do sometimes survive. If their tradition is ancient and powerful enough, and as long as there is someplace, however inhospitable, where they can be free from interference, a hunting people may well choose to retain their independence at the expense of all material comfort and ease.

An alternative response to a contact situation, one in which hunters and gatherers preserve their integrity to a great extent, is for both groups to accept the contact as inevitable but to erect a barrier between their two worlds, keeping physical contact at a minimum. In such cases trade may exist between hunters and gatherers and their farmer neighbors. Such trade may be no more than a matter of mutual economic convenience or a way of formalizing the relationship. But where ideological barriers exist, and where the environment is capable of supporting both hunters and farmers (or other “outsiders”), the traditional hunting and gathering way of life may survive, remarkably intact, while apparently a close, sometimes symbiotic relationship with foreign cultivators is maintained. Again the Mbuti of Africa are an example.

For the purposes of anthropological research and theoretical analysis, we need not look only for groups that subsist wholly by hunting and gathering. We may find many or all the essential elements of a hunting and gathering society among a people who make use of cultivated foods or who even practice a limited amount of cultivation themselves. Essentially, there should be potential total economic independence; the bulk of subsistence should come from hunting and gathering.

There are a number of such peoples in the New World—the Eskimo, the Indians of the Pacific Northwest Coast and the Great Plains, the Siriono of Bolivia, and other South American tribes, particularly the Yamana, often called Yahgan. In Africa the Mbuti pygmies and the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert offer two striking examples, and there are several smaller groups. In Australia the aborigines maintain their hunting and gathering economy under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable, and in India and southeast Asia there are a number of Negrito and other groups, of which the Birhor and the Andaman Islanders are probably the best known.

Environmental considerations

The most cursory survey of the abbreviated list given above indicates at once the enormously wide variety of environments in which hunting and gathering can persist: arctic, equatorial, tropical, subtropical, and continental. Hunters and gatherers are found inland and on seacoasts, in forests and on deserts, from sea level to 10,000 feet or more. It is also plain that there are few instances in which the environment can actually be said to favor hunting and gathering to the extent that it does, say, in the case of the African pygmies. In most cases the hunters suffer from extremes of temperature, from an uncertain supply of game and vegetable foods, or from the necessity of an arduous and often dangerous daily quest.

In a study of any hunting and gathering community, the environment is of paramount importance. It not only affects and often determines the exact nature of hunting and gathering activities, including the technology involved, but it also has a profound effect upon the social organization, the political system, and the religious beliefs of the people. Ultimately it may even be responsible for determining the nature of intergroup relationships, that is, relationships between hunters and gatherers and others who occupy the same environmental region. Each instance should first be studied on its own, without a search for an easy application of universal laws supposedly resulting from a superficial similarity of economy. The intimate relationship between hunters and gatherers and the world around them is perhaps the most important and certain common factor, and from it stem many, if not all, other similarities.

Theory of social evolution

There has been much fruitless generalization about hunting and gathering because of its self-evident simplicity, or perhaps “directness” is a better word. It has also attracted the attention of those concerned with social evolution. It was certainly one of the earliest forms of social life known to man, but it is neither helpful nor perceptive to regard it as a stage, or a level, through which the form and structure of society has evolved, any more than it is intelligent to suppose that peoples who still hunt and gather must necessarily be backward because they have not “advanced.”

It is necessary to avoid generalizations about the social structure of these people. The alleged patrilineal bias of hunters and gatherers is one such dangerous assumption, although Elman R. Service (1962) has made a notable contribution by conducting very specific research into the structure of both contemporary and early bands of hunters and gatherers and has at least made available a great deal of data hitherto inaccessible. There is a remarkable dearth of factual monographs resulting from field work in this area.

With these warnings in mind, it is instructive to look at the hunting and gathering economy, as maintained under diverse environmental conditions, and to observe its effect on the overall structure of the society.

Nomadic way of life

Hunting and gathering impose on a people, regardless of their environment, a certain degree of nomadism. When the game moves, or becomes hunted out, and when the vegetable foods are exhausted, there is no alternative but for the people to follow the game and to search for fresh vegetable supplies. The need for mobility immediately limits the extent of material culture, the entire possessions of a family having to be transportable, in some cases on a single back.

There is a continuum of nomadism that ranges from the daily wanderings of the jungle (Uthlu) Birhor of India and some Kalahari Bushmen, through the monthly change of hunting camps among the Congo pygmies, the quarterly movements of the Blackfoot Indians, and the biannual movements of Canadian coastal Eskimo, to the sedentary lives of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians. The last, who depend mainly on fishing, are able to settle in villages and have an exceptionally rich and complex material culture. Nonetheless, they are forced to make temporary seasonal encampments following the migration of salmon.

The material culture of the Congo pygmies, whose environment is most abundant, is probably the most minimal and is comparable with that of the Andaman Islanders and other hunters who live in similar rain forests. The bow and arrow or spear (blowguns are not found in Africa) is the only necessary equipment, although nets are used by some pygmies. The carrying basket and the hammer for pounding out barkcloth are the only other items in general use. There is virtually no visual art other than decoration of the body. Among the Eskimo, on the other hand, whose environment makes rigorous demands, the technology is infinitely more complex, and much wider use is made of all available materials for artistic as well as practical purposes.

The Yamana of South America appear to offer a different picture, for their technology is slight although their environment is harsh. The notion that the Yamana are mentally backward because they do not know how to clothe themselves against the damp and cold is particularly absurd. It rests on the assumption that the relative values of hot and cold must be the same for the Yamana as for everyone else, but it ignores other factors. The Yamana use oil and grease against the cold and may well prefer to be unhampered by clothes when sailing the fragile canoes in which most of their life is spent. The canoe is probably their major technological response to the environment, serving not only as a means of pursuing their game but also as a home and a shelter. In all cases the technology of the hunters and gatherers is obviously adequate for survival. The degree of nomadism demanded by a successful adaptation to local conditions guides the particular form the technology will take and affects the sociopolitical organization of the group.

Social structure

In an examination of the different aspects of social structure of all hunters and gatherers, the only truly common element that emerges at the moment is the uniformly dominant and pervasive environmental factor. Otherwise the picture is one of great diversity; the range in material culture has already been cited, and a similar range exists in social organization at the family level. Steward (1955) and Service (1962) argue cogently for the hypothesis that hunting and gathering bands are by nature patrilineal, but this is by no means true of all contemporary societies. Except in the cases of the Birhor and the Australian aborigines, the constant movement of the group leads to a very fluid band composition, which is neither clearly patrilineal nor patrilocal.

Where hunting, primarily a male occupation, is the dominant activity, there is a tendency for such bands to be grouped around the men and for men who have grown up together and who know one another’s ways (that is, “brothers”) to form nuclear hunting units. This gives the appearance of patrilocality and patrilineality, but apart from the two cases cited above there is nowhere a clear reflection of any unilineal descent system in the over-all social structure. Even the kinship terminology does not reflect it, such terminology frequently being generational and thus having greater economic than lineal significance.

The size of the bands necessarily fluctuates according to the nature of food supply, and among nearly all hunting bands there seems to be a constant process of fission and fusion, for economic reasons, that again militates against any effective, corporate unilineal descent system.

It is not clearly established that hunting is always the major subsistence activity (see, e.g., Service 1966). Even when it has more economic importance, which is by no means in all cases, it does not necessarily carry greater prestige than gathering. It can probably be said that in most hunting and gathering societies the woman occupies a position of prestige equal to that of the man and is recognized as being equally important in domestic and economic life. It would indeed be impossible to find a convincing argument showing the advantage of patrilineality and patrilocality over any other descent system or residence pattern that would apply to all hunters and gatherers.

Marriage practices among hunters and gatherers do not reveal any singleness of mind or purpose with respect to line or residence. In most cases marriage is to a person outside one’s own economic unit, but among the Canadian Eskimo the preference seems to be to marry within that unit. The incest restrictions are variously and often vaguely stated, being most formalized among the aborigines and the Birhor. The Birhor residential unit, or tanda, cuts directly across clan lines, however.

The extent to which the nuclear family maintains regular residential association with related families varies considerably. Even among the Canadian Eskimo, who with the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians and the Jaghi Birhor are probably the most settled of hunters and gatherers, there are continuous fluctuations in the composition of each settlement.

Economic organization

Although it might be said that the nuclear family is the primary economic unit among all hunters and gatherers, the degree to which such families group together for economic activities varies considerably. Among the Congo pygmies, those who hunt with bow and arrow spend most of the year in small units of three nuclear families, coming together as a larger band only once or twice. In the same rain forest, those who use a hunting net spend most of the year in bands of fifteen or twenty (up to thirty and no less than seven) nuclear families, splitting up for the two months of the honey season. In both cases the technology determines the most advantageous size of the economic unit.

Generally the size of the economic unit also varies according to local conditions of abundance or scarcity. The grouping process described above can be seen, for example, among the Blackfoot and the Washo Indians, who are forced to combine once a year for vital seasonal economic activity, but who spend the rest of the year in small, semiisolated bands.

Preservation of food. Although there is knowledge of preservation of food among some groups, the major characteristic of a hunting and gathering economy is its diurnal nature. Even the Jaghi Birhor, who live in semipermanent villages and engage in trade, have no agriculture and hunt every day. Many hunters do not preserve meat for their own use but may do so for trade. The Eskimo and many North American Indians, however, preserve and store food against seasonal shortage or emergency.

Division of labor. Hunting is generally the province of men and gathering that of women and children, but for the most part hunting and gathering are jointly cooperative activities. Women may actually help their menfolk on the hunt, as among the Yamana and the Mbuti, or they may hunt smaller game on their own when opportunity provides. Where hunting is particularly arduous, as among some Eskimo, the women may restrict their activities to gathering and to looking after the household. But whether or not specific activities are shared, the economy undeniably depends on close cooperation between men and women. Even the aged and infirm are sometimes found a place in the economy, being left to guard the camp and look after young children or given tasks such as the manufacture of baskets, twine, and cloth.

Distribution. Although the distribution of produce does not always follow set lines, there appears always to be a stated obligation to share food within the same residential unit, related or otherwise. It is particularly striking that among wealth-producing hunters, such as the Blackfoot and the Kwakiutl, there are institutionalized means of distributing the wealth.

The cooperative nature of the economy and the egalitarian distribution of produce are perhaps a response to the basic insecurity of a diurnal economy. This also militates against the formation of exclusive groups, kinship or otherwise. In fact, a great deal of the fluctuation that takes place among hunting bands effectively acts as a means of establishing reciprocal rights and obligations to be called upon in times of need.

Political organization

The diurnal and immediate nature of the economy, correlated with cooperativeness and egalitarianism, is reflected in the political system. In the same way that the environment plays a large part in determining the nature of the economy and technology, so does it affect the political structure. Territoriality is determined to a large extent by natural barriers, such as hills, rivers, and ravines, but also by the migratory habits of the game. It is in the nature of a band to be self-sufficient, and in regions where the game and vegetable supply is abundant, as in the African rain forest, there is no need for trespass and each band remains happily distinct from its neighbors.

Authority. Except for the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians and the Birhor, there are no recognizable systems of chieftainship. With the Birhor such leadership is ritually based, and not necessarily hereditary, and it exists only at a local, not a tribal, level. There is an annual holiday at which the various neighboring clan groups unite for a joint hunt, but this temporary amalgamation has no single leader. Among the Indians of the Great Plains, similarly, local leadership is not necessarily hereditary but largely charismatic, resting on personal attributes. The Washo provide an example of hunters who have specific leaders for specific communal hunts, such as the rabbit hunt or the antelope hunt. The Siriono also boast chiefs. But nowhere do we find a clear-cut secular authority backed by power.

With the nuclear family as an effective economic unit in itself, there is no band leadership of anything but a charismatic and therefore temporary nature. Hunting issues tend to be decided by the younger men, who are the most active hunters. When hunting is combined with gathering the women also have a voice in determining where and how the hunt should take place. Older men and women are sometimes called upon to settle disputes and are usually relied on to determine the suitability of proposed marriages because of their knowledge of family and individual relationships.

Law and government. There are no true legal systems among hunters and gatherers, any more than there is true government. Sometimes, however, religious societies act as overseers of the law. Each issue is more usually settled as it arises by all who are concerned and who are present at the time. Ridicule and ostracism are the usual “punishments” among most contemporary hunters and gatherers. In exceptional cases, where personal property is of more significance, systems of fines have been introduced by rational administrators. The purpose of the fines is still not retributive but rather restorative. The prime concern of all sanctions is the maintenance of the delicate equilibrium that enables a hunting and gathering band to pursue its essentially cooperative, egalitarian economy.

Formal government would destroy the egalitarian nature of the society, and, lacking egalitarianism, the cooperative effort would collapse. The terms “cooperative effort” and “egalitarianism” are not intended to imply value judgments; they are merely necessities. It would be rare to meet a hunter who did not try to keep the best part of his catch for himself, but it would be far more rare to find a hunter who refused to share with one who had nothing. There is often an acute awareness among hunters that one day they themselves might need assistance, and old age is an ever-present reminder of the dependence of one human being upon another.

In such a society, individual authority and individual responsibility are unwanted and avoided in secular affairs. The so-called chief, or leader, generally is totally without individual power. At most he merely represents the commonly accepted tradition of behavior—the power lies in the tradition, not in the chief.

Religious life

In the absence of formal government, religious belief helps support a sense of law and order. It also helps provide a feeling of unity that stretches far beyond the only really effective unit, the hunting band, and within that band it heightens the already strong sense of economic dependence.

A religious sense, then, is generally highly developed among hunters and gatherers, but ritual performance again varies widely. At one extreme are the elaborate totemic rites of the Australian aborigines and the complex ceremonies of some American Indians, and at the other are the simple community songs of the Mbuti or the Yamana. Where curers or shamans exist they are not associated with a formal church but are believed to be able to divine the future through their dreams and thus avert evil. They are, in a sense, mere functionaries performing a task for which they have shown themselves to be fitted.

Religious thought is concerned primarily with the presence of spiritual powers over which the living have no direct control and secondarily with the problem of life after death. Depending as immediately as they do upon the environment, which supplies them with the necessities of life, hunters and gatherers tend to identify themselves closely with it. When ritual dances and songs exist, they express this identification. A good example of this relationship is apparent in the Mbuti, who address and refer to the forest as both “mother” and “father.”

Values. As a result of their close dependence upon and intimate ritual relationship with the environment, hunters and gatherers must be profoundly influenced in their attitude to others by the relationship those others establish with the same environment. Hence the enormous latent hostility between the hunting Mbuti and the village cultivators who live in the same forest; hence also the sharp division the Lele (Congo) make between their lives as hunters and their lives as farmers. It is certainly this sense of identity, grown out of generations of close daily contact with the world around them, that persuades the Kalahari Bushmen to pursue their nomadic existence in the face of extraordinary hardships rather than throw their lot in with a people obviously not in tune with their world. Cultivation itself, in that it physically assaults the land, can become an act of desecration and profanity in the eyes of a hunter.

Religious life, then, is closely associated with all other aspects of the life of the hunter and gatherer and supplies the order that would otherwise have to be provided by formal institutions. And it is in his religious life that he expresses his widest sense of identity. The spectacular giraffe dances of the Bushmen, the Eskimo poetry to Sedna, goddess of the sea, and the Mbuti songs to the god. of the forest all convey something of the amazing strength of unity that can exist in these loosely organized societies. Their very survival is sufficient testimony to the effectiveness of their informal structure and the directness of their response to the environment in which they have to live.

Colin M. Turnbull

[Directly related is the entrySocial Structure.]


Birket-Smith, Kaj (1927) 1959 The Eskimos. Rev. & enl. ed. London: Methuen. → First published in Danish.

Douglas, Mary 1954 The Lele of Kasai. Pages 1-26 in International African Institute, African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples. Edited by Daryll Forde. Oxford Univ. Press.

Drucker, Philip 1955 Indians of the Northwest Coast. American Museum of Natural History, Handbook No. 10. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ewers, John C. 1955 The Horse in Blackfoot Culture: With Comparative Material From Other Western Tribes. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 159. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Gusinde, Martin (1937) 1961 The Yamana: The Life and Thought of the Water Nomads of Cape Horn. 5 vols. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files. → First published in German in 1937 as Volume 2 of Die Feuerland Indianer.

Hobhouse, Leonard T.; Wheeler, Gerald C; and Ginsberg, Morris (1915) 1930 The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation. London School of Economics and Political Science Monographs on Sociology, No. 3. London: Chapman.

Holmberg, Allan R. 1950 Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia. Institute of Social Anthropology, Publication No. 10. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. → Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State as a project of the Interdepartmental Committee on Scientific and Cultural Cooperation.

Lowie, Robert H. 1939 Ethnographic Notes on the Washo. Volume 36, pages 301-352 in California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Lowie, Robert H. 1954 Indians of the Plains. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Handbook No. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Man, Edward H. (1883) 1932 On the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands. 2d printing. London: Royal Anthropological Institute.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922) 1948 The Andaman Islanders. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Rradcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1931 The Social Organization of Australian Tribes. Melbourne: Macmillan.

Roy, Sarat Chandra 1925 The Birhors: A Little-known Jungle Tribe of Chota Nagpur. Ranchi (India).

Service, Elman R. 1958 A Profile of Primitive Culture. New York: Harper.

Service, Elman R. 1962 Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Random House.

Service, Elman R. 1966 The Hunters. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Spencer, Baldwin; and Gillen, F. J. 1899 The Native Tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan.

Spencer, Baldwin; and Gillen, F. J. 1927 The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Steward, Julian H. (1946-1959) 1963 Handbook of South American Indians. 7 vols. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 143. New York: Cooper Square.

Steward, Julian H. 1955 Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Turnbull, Colin M. 1960a The Elima: A Premarital Festival Among the Bambuti Pygmies. Zaïre: Belgian African Review 14:175-192.

Turnbull, Colin M. 1960b The Molimo: A Men’s Religious Association Among the Ituri Bambuti. Zaïre: Belgian African Review 14:307-340.

Turnbull, Colin M. 1961 The Forest People. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Turnbull, Colin M. 1965 Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies. New York: Natural History Press.

Weyer, Edward M. (1932) 1962 Tfte Eskimos: Their Environment and Folkways. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press.

Wissler, Clark 1910 Material Culture of the Blackfoot Indians. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 5, part 1. New York: The Museum.

Wissler, Clark 1912 Social Organization and Ritualistic Ceremonies of the Blackfoot Indians. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 7. New York: The Museum. → Part 1 of this book was first published in 1911 as Social Life of the Blackfoot Indians.

Hunting and Gathering

views updated May 29 2018


HUNTING AND GATHERING. Hunting and gathering, or more generally stated as foraging, can be defined as a mode of subsistence in which all food is obtained from wild resources without any reliance on domesticated plants or animals. This has been the dominant means of subsistence for 99.5 percent of the 2.5 million years of human existence. It was only in the last ten thousand years or so that people began to domesticate and produce food in some areas, while in other areas hunting and gathering continued up until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Within this time period and throughout the many different geographical regions that people inhabited, there has been tremendous variation in food consumption. We will examine some of the major geographical, cultural, and temporal trends within this great diversity, as well as some common misconceptions.

Among the most prevalent misconceptions are the following:

  1. People relying on wild foods had to work constantly in order to obtain enough to eat, and thus had no time to develop the arts of civilized life. In reality, quantification of time use among contemporary hunter-gatherers living in comparatively harsh environments has demonstrated that even these foragers spend only two to five hours a day in obtaining food, leaving far more time for leisure than "civilized" people have.
  2. Hunter-gatherers are frequently on the brink of starvation and are generally malnourished. In contrast to this view, recent studies have shown that most hunter-gatherers experience infrequent famines and are generally better nourished than neighboring or comparable agriculturalists due in part to the wider variety of foods that hunter-gatherers usually obtain and the lack of reliance on the narrow range of starch-rich plants that tend to typify agricultural and horticultural societies.
  3. Hunting was the predominant source of food for hunter-gatherers. In fact, except for Arctic and Subarctic areas, plant foods were the most abundant and reliable foods and provided most of the daily fares (see Lee and DeVore 1986, Hayden, 1981). Surprisingly, hunters in most hunter-gatherer societies only manage to kill a few large game animals (over 10 kg) per year (Hawkes et al., p. 687).
  4. Meat has a higher caloric value than vegetable foods. In fact, they are often of equal value (Eaton et al., p. 80).
  5. Meat was always hunted. However, large proportions of the meat obtained even among contemporary hunter-gatherers is scavenged from kills of other animals.
  6. Meat was the major goal of hunting. In reality, fat is much more important (Hayden, 1981; Speth and Spielmann).

One example is seen among the Australian Aborigines, who, after bringing down a kangaroo, cut open the abdominal cavity of the animal in order to determine the fat content. If there is insufficient fat on the animal, it is not eaten but left in the bush. Similar behavior is recorded in James Woodburn's film The Hadza (1966). There are also a number of accounts of hunter-gatherers who were starving despite the fact that they were eating large amounts of very lean meat. This is sometimes referred to as "rabbit starvation" in North America since it historically involved the reliance on lean rabbits by hunter-gatherers. Fat was critically important among hunter-gatherers for proper metabolism, for obtaining essential fatty acids, and for adequate calories to maintain body temperatures during cold periods.

While animals may not have been the major staple of most hunter-gatherer diets, ethnographically they were universally highly valued far above other types of foods. Successful hunting of animals conferred great status on individuals (Hawkes et al.), and hunting was almost universally carried out by men, while women and children gathered plants and small animals such as lizards, mice, or frogs.

Evolutionary Trends

The origin of hunting is hotly debated. Wooden spears have been recovered from deposits over 400,000 years old, and reasonable arguments have been advanced for hunting going back to the Lower Paleolithic, some two million years or more ago. Other scholars argue that there was a prolonged period encompassing the Lower Paleolithic and perhaps the Middle Paleolithic, when people (proto-people) relied primarily on scavenged rather than hunted meat. There is little evidence for the use of plant foods from these early periods, but they undoubtedly played important roles in the overall subsistence diet.

Up until twenty thousand years ago or so, we must assume that all food was either eaten raw or was roasted on open fires (the initial use of fire is also disputed, but seems definitely to be in place by 400,000 years ago). Until the end of the Paleolithic, there is no evidence of boiling containers or the heating of rocks to boil liquids. Ethnographically, there appears to have been no hunter-gatherers that made any alcoholic beverages either.

It is only around twenty thousand years ago that firecracked rocks begin to appear and were probably used in boiling foods such as vegetables and the first bone soups (for extracting the bone fats). Some five to ten thousand years later, the first evidence for the systematic exploitation of a wide range of new food types appears. This includes the first evidence for grass seed use (grinders), systematic fishing (net sinkers, fishhooks, leisters, and fish remains), and semi-toxic nuts like acorns. The expansion of food resources used together with the new technological inventions that made this possible is sometimes referred to as the "Mesolithic" technology or exploitation pattern. It is this pattern that persisted in most areas of the world where hunter-gatherers survived until contemporary times.

Choice of Foods

The choice of which plant, fish, insect, bird, and animal species were to be used for food was initially constrained by the regional environments that groups lived in and by the relative abundances at different trophic levels. In the Arctic, there are simply not many plant foods available for most of the year; in deserts, there are no fish; in each environment, the nature of the plants and animals will differ somewhat, but there will always be fewer (and more dangerous) carnivores than herbivores and more plants than herbivores. It is not possible or meaningful to catalog all such variations; however, it is possible to understand hunter-gatherer choices of foods in other ways using general trends or categories.

Although there is some variation between cultures in terms of what is considered to taste good, taste is frequently an important factor in determining which species are preferred to eat. Very strong-tasting flesh tends to be avoided (e.g., crows, mutton birds, mountain sheep [at least in the Northwest of North America]). Very fibrous or woody plants are less desirable than those with more fleshy tubers or fruits. There are also many plants that are mildly toxic or produce undesirable effects when eaten in varying amounts.

Transcending these considerations, it has often been observed that species that are rich in fats, oils, starches, or sugars are avidly sought by hunter-gatherers. This appears to be due to the fact that high caloric foods are relatively rare in the wild. Wild animals are very lean during most of the year, averaging only about 4 percent fat versus the 29 percent fat content that is typical for domesticated animals (Eaton et al., p. 80). Bears are often favorite foods because they store large amounts of fat for winter hibernation; beavers are favored for the same reason. In southeastern Australia, streams were modified and canals constructed in order to capture large numbers of migrating, oil-rich eels. Elsewhere, in eastern Australia, large gatherings of people occurred in order to harvest bushel loads of oil-rich moths in their mountain mating locations. In central Australia, witchity grubs were relished for the same reason, although only a few could be obtained at a time. Honey is another insect product greatly sought after by hunter-gatherers. Starch-rich tubers, nuts, and grains were also eagerly sought. In contrast to the more vegetarian agriculturalists of later times, salt does not appear to have been a major concern for most foragers, probably because of the natural salt content in the meat that they consumed.

There were also foods sought for more special dietary purposes. While berries might not provide many calories, they were often rich in vitamins necessary for good health. Keene has shown that the need for hides, vitamin C, and calcium were major nutritional bottlenecks among some groups of hunter-gatherers and that these considerations determined which animals and how many were hunted.

Some animals and plants were also avoided due to totemic or other cultural taboos. These might vary from individual to individual and from group to group. Some groups ate their domesticated dogs, others did not; the Tasmanians ate fish in their early prehistory, but avoided fish completely in their later prehistory. It is often difficult to discern any logic or pattern to these kinds of food prohibitions.

Finally, some scholars have tried to use optimal foraging theory to model hunter-gatherers' food choices. Winterhalder and Smith explain this theory, which postulates that resources that provide the best returns for the time and effort invested in their procurement and processing should be the most intensively used, and that all resources can be ranked relative to each other in these terms. The initial applications of this theory used caloric returns as the measure of theoretical desirability. Researchers attempted to calculate travel time, harvesting time, processing time, and caloric returns. The results did not fit the model expectations very well, but perhaps given all of the other factors that influence food choices (listed above), this may not be too surprising. In addition, risk factors probably play important roles. Food species that can be reliably obtained on a day-to-day basis may be preferred over foods that can only be obtained more sporadically, even if the reliable foods require more time and energy to obtain on average. Thus, plant foods, shellfish, and abundant small animals like lizards are sometimes the mainstays of hunter-gatherer diets while scarcer, more mobile types of food such as large game animals are eaten more episocially.

Of all the lower ranked food types requiring more effort, grass seeds constitute something of a special case. O'Connell and Hawkes observe that grass seeds are particularly inefficient sources of food in Australia, although many groups used them. It is therefore difficult to understand why they were used, and especially to understand why they only began to be used in the last fifteen thousand years or so of hunter-gatherer evolution. There are no seed grinding tools in the world archaeological record up to that time. Certainly, grass seeds contain starches, oils, and protein in desirable proportions. It is primarily the collection and processing costs that seem to have made this type of food unattractive, although some wild stands of wheat in the Near East can be harvested at the rate of one kg per hour as shown by experiments using Mesolithic type technology. One might expect the use of seeds for food to occur first in these more productive types of environments; however, it is curious that the Tasmanians never used grass seeds despite the occurrence of large seeded species similar to those in the Near East, whereas a number of Australian groups used several smaller seeded species. Various researchers have suggested that grass seeds may have begun to be used due to population pressures, or due to advances in processing and collecting technologies, or due to the emergence of prestige feasts, a topic to be pursued below.

The Effect of Food on Culture

The nature of food resources used by hunter-gatherers has many ramifications for understanding their cultures. For most simple hunter-gatherers, or "foragers," wild food resources are scarce, fluctuating, and susceptible to overexploitation. Thus, population densities are very low (usually only supporting one person for every ten to one hundred square kilometers); group sizes are small (twenty to fifty people); the groups are nomadic (moving every few weeks to new resource areas); little if any food is stored; sharing food with others in the group is the normal (often obligatory) practice; intergroup alliances are formed to access refuges in times of famine; feasting is limited to sharing meat and fat from large desirable game animals; private ownership of resources and most other items is absent or rudimentary; borrowing is rampant; societies are comparatively egalitarian; and competitive or aggrandizing behavior is not tolerated (Hayden, 1993). This was probably the nature of most hunter-gather groups during most of the Paleolithic. In contemporary terms, the Hadza of East Africa and the Central Australian hunter-gatherers exemplify this type of adaptation.

Toward the end of the Paleolithic, and increasingly during the Mesolithic, there is evidence of dramatic changes in some of the richer environments of the world, especially along the richer riparian habitats and migration routes (whether terrestrial or marine). In the richest habitats, "complex" hunter-gatherers emerged. Population densities rose dramatically, groups became semi-sedentary or fully sedentary, storage of foods became important, new technologies appeared for obtaining and processing new species in massive quantities (especially fish, nuts, and seeds), large plant roasting pits occur for the first time (up to eight meters in diameter in the Northwest), prestige objects appear and testify to private ownership of wealth as well as important socioeconomic differences, sharing is more limited, and debt-structured or competitive feasting emerged for the first time in human history. Northwest Coast cultures are perhaps the best examples of complex hunter-gatherers with their massive harvesting and storage of salmon, eulachon, halibut, or other fish species; their heavy use of shellfish; and their use of sea mammal blubber for feasting.

Feasting and Domestication

Above all, as documented in Dietler and Hayden, it is the use of feasting to create debts, to obtain desirable goods and services, to craft political power, to establish close social relationships, and to transform surplus food production that is perhaps the most important turning point in the history of the use of food and in the evolution of human culture. Up until the development of surplus-based feasting, which provided sociopolitical and economic benefits, all animal species, including human beings, could only use as much food as they, or their coresidents, could eat themselves. This placed an absolute ecological limit on the utility of food. However, with the advent of feasting forms that conferred major advantages on hosts (such as better alliances, more [or more desirable] spouses, and more socioeconomic/political power), a new ecological paradigm was created without parallel in the natural world up until the emergence of complex hunter-gatherers. For the first time, as much surplus foods could be used (and transformed into other desirable items or relationships) as could be produced. This created an open-ended, positive-feedback relationship between resource production and practical benefits. The more that could be produced, the greater the sociopolitical and economic advantages that could be obtained; and the greater the sociopolitical or economic advantages, the more food could be produced; and so on. It is, above all, the establishment of this kind of positive feedback relationship through feasting that has most likely created the geometrically increasing rate of population, technological complexity, and political complexity that has characterized the past fifteen thousand years.

The establishment of feasts based on surplus production, and the host's desire to impress guests or make them beholden to him, may well have been among the factors responsible for the development of food production and the domestication of plants and animals some ten to twelve thousand years ago. Katz and Voigt have suggested, for instance, that cereal grains may have been domesticated primarily as a means of producing alcoholic beverages such as beer. In fact, there are no alcoholic beverages recorded for simple foragers, but it is possible that alcohol first began to be produced in the context of complex hunter-gatherer prestige feasting as among the Gunditjmara hunter-gatherers of southeastern Australia. On the Northwest (Pacific) Coast, there were certainly potlatches that featured starches (clover roots) and intoxicants (tobacco) as central parts of the feasts.

There are many other theories that purport to account for the development of domesticated animals and plants, such as climatic changes and population pressures. In support of the feasting and surplus model of domestication, it can be noted that among complex hunter-gatherers such as the Ainu of Japan, bear cubs were captured in the wild and raised for a year by wealthy families specifically for consumption at special prestige feasts. Moreover, domestic animals in traditional societies appear to be eaten exclusively in the context of feasts. Similarly, starchy clover roots and cinquefoil roots were tended and grown in Northwest Coast societies for use in feasting. In all these feasting contexts, the most prestigeous foods are those with high lipid, starch, or sugar contents (fish oil, blubber, bear meat, deer fat, seeds, clover roots). These are the foods that were given to the most prestigeous guests. These are the foods for which extra efforts were expended in order to produce. Rather than being forced by population pressures and famine to use foods that required great effort to produce, it may have been the importance of impressing guests at feasts that accounts for the extra efforts used to procure and prepare such low ranked but highly desirable foods as grass seeds, clover roots, and bear meat. This is especially true in complex hunter-gatherer societies where other more highly ranked foods are plentiful (e.g., in the Mesolithic/Epipaleolithic archaeological cultures of the Near East, and in the ethnographic Japanese and Northwest Coast cultures). The highly desirable foods used to impress important guests in complex hunter-gatherer feasts exhibit the same characteristics as those that were eventually domesticated and that we find in supermarkets today. The fruits are the largest, most succulent available; the vegetables are the least fibrous and highest in starches or oils; the meats have the highest fat contents. There is a world of difference between the use of foods by simple foragers and complex hunter-gatherers, and we are far more similar in our use of foods to complex hunter-gatherers than we are to the use of foods by simple foragers, even though the vast majority (99 percent) of our physical, mental, and emotional evolution occurred in the context of simple foraging.

See also Agriculture, Origins of; Anthropology and Food; Evolution; Game; Mammals; Prehistoric Societies: Food Foragers .


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Eaton, S. Boyd, Marjorie Shostack, and Melvin Konner. The Paleolithic Prescription. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Hawkes, Kristen, James O'Connell, and Nichoas Blurton Jones. "Hunting and Nuclear Families." Current Anthropology 42 (2001): 681709.

Hayden, Brian. "The Cultural Capacities of Neandertals: A Review and Re-evaluation." Journal of Human Evolution 24(1993): 113146.

Hayden, Brian. "Subsistence and Ecological Adaptations of Modern Hunter-Gatherers." In Omnivorous Primates. Edited by Robert Harding and Geza Teleki. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Katz, Solomon, and Mary Voigt. "Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in Human Diet." Expedition 28, no. 2 (1986): 2334.

Kelly, Robert. The Foraging Spectrum. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Keene, Arthur. "Optimal Foraging in a Nonmarginal Environment: A Model of Prehistoric Subsistence Strategies in Michigan." In Hunter-gatherer Foraging Strategies. Edited by Bruce Winterhalder and Eric Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Lee, Richard, and Irven DeVore, eds. Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine, 1968.

O'Connell, James, and Kristen Hawkes. "Alyawara Plant Use and Optimal Foraging Theory." In Hunter-Gatherer Foraging Straegies. Edited by Bruce Winterhalder and Eric Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Speth, John, and Kathrine Spielmann. "Energy Source, Protein Metabolism, and Hunter-gatherer Subsistence Strategies." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 2 (1983): 131.

Winterhalder, Bruce, and Eric Smith, eds. Hunter-Gatherer Foraging Stratgegies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Brian Hayden

hunting and gathering

views updated May 11 2018

hunting and gathering Practice of small societies in which members subsist by hunting and by collecting plants rather than by agriculture. The groups are always small bands and have sophisticated kinship and ritualistic systems. Today, hunting-gathering societies are most numerous in lowland South America and parts of Africa. See also nomad

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