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A hunter-gatherer society is in anthropological terms one whose predominant method of subsistence involves the direct procurement of edible plants and animals from the wild, using foraging and hunting, without significant recourse to the domestication of either. The demarcation between hunter-gatherers and other societies which rely on more managed techniques such as agriculturalism and pastoralism is not a clean one, as many societies typically utilise a range of strategies to obtain the foodstuffs required to sustain their community.

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Historical context
Habitat and population
Methods of study
Common characteristics
Problems with generalizing
Symbolic culture
Modern context

Historical context - Contents

The hunter-gatherer economy was employed by all human societies up towards the end of the Palaeolithic period. The transition into the subsequent Neolithic period is chiefly defined by the development of nascent agricultural practices. The spread of agriculture originated in several different areas and periods, starting from approximately 12,000 years ago, and it proceeded at different rates. Many groups continued to practice hunter-gatherer ways of life, although their numbers have progressively declined as a result of pressure from growing agricultural communities. In many instances territories which were formerly unrestricted to hunter-gatherers were encroached upon by the farming settlements of early agrarian communities. In the resulting competition for land use, hunter-gatherer societies either adopted these practices or relocated to other areas. Since the colonial period, genocide has been another common way for colonizers to gain possession of hunter-gatherer territories. The few contemporary hunter-gatherer groups which exist today usually live in areas seen as undesirable for agricultural use.

Habitat and population - Contents

Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be relatively mobile, given their reliance upon the ability of a given natural environment to provide sufficient resources in order to sustain their population, and the variable availability of these resources owing to local climatic and seasonal conditions. Their population densities tend to be lower than those of agriculturalists, since cultivated land is capable of sustaining population densities 60–100 times greater than land left uncultivated. Individual bands tend to be small in number, but these may gather together seasonally to temporarily form a larger group.Hunter-gatherer settlements may be either permanently or temporarily based, or some combination of the two, depending in part upon the range of territory the community needs to cover. Shelter constructions typically use impermanent building materials, particularly when the community leads a nomadic existence. Natural rock shelters may also be used, where they are available.

Methods of study - Contents

Archaeological evidence must be used to learn about prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and ethnographic studies, as well as historical information, provide information about living or historic hunter-gatherers. When possible, archaeology and ethnography have been combined, since the 1960s, under the name ethnoarchaeology, to provide more insight into the hunter-gatherer past. The new sciences of evolutionary biology and paleoethnobotany are also providing insights.

Common characteristics - Contents

Hunter-gatherer societies also tend to have non- hierarchical social structures, but this is not always the case. Some are more nomadic or mobile usually in environments with fewer resources, and they generally are not able to store surplus food. Thus, full-time leaders, bureaucrats, or artisans are rarely supported by these societies. Others, such as the Haida of present-day British Columbia, lived in such a rich environment that they could remain sedentary, and other groups that live in the North American northwest coast can similarly remain sedentary for a majority of the year. These groups demonstrate more hierarchical social organization.Common perception is that men hunt and women gather, but this is a generalization.At the 1966 "Man the Hunter" conference, anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore suggested that egalitarianism was one of several central characteristics of nomadic hunting and gathering societies because mobility requires minimization of material possessions throughout a population; therefore, there was no surplus of resources to be accumulated by any single member. Other characteristics Lee and DeVore proposed were flux in territorial boundaries as well as in demographic composition. At the same conference, Marshall Sahlins presented a paper entitled, " Notes on the Original Affluent Society," in which he challenged the popular view of hunter-gatherers living lives "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," as Thomas Hobbes had put it in 1651. According to Sahlins, ethnographic data indicated that hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of industrial society, and they still ate well. Their "affluence" came from the idea that they are satisfied with very little in the material sense. This, he said, constituted a Zen economy.One way to divide hunter-gatherer groups is by their return systems. James Woodburn uses the categories "immediate return" hunter-gatherers for egalitarian and "delayed return" for nonegalitarian. Immediate return foragers consume their food within a day or two after they procure it. Delayed return foragers store the surplus food (Kelly, 31). Karl Marx theorised that hunter-gatherers would have used primitive communism and anarcho-primitivists elaborate the mechanics further by asserting it would have been a gift economy, although this would not have applied for all hunter-gatherer societies.

Problems with generalizing - Contents

The line between agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies is not clear cut. Many hunter-gatherers consciously manipulate the landscape through cutting or burning undesirable plants while encouraging desirable ones, some even going to the extent of slash-and-burn to create habitat for game animals. Some agriculturalists also hunt and gather (e.g. farming during the frost-free season and hunting during the winter). Still today many in developed countries will go hunting but only for leisure usually.

Symbolic culture - Contents

Examples of the relatively few hunter-gatherer symbolic systems that have survived are ochre remains, Mousterian paired markings, the hand prints and stencils of Arnhem Land, the markings of Koonalda Cave in Australia, and cave painting. These appear to be more ritualistic than practical. (Many of them constitute rock art.) We have little idea of what the more fleeting symbols used in communicating across a hunting territory looked like, although the 8,000-6,500 year old European Vinca script may give us a tantalising glipse of what such marks may have looked like.The archaeological evidence for multi-hole flutes dating from 36,000 years ago suggests that music and musical systems must have been known among many prehistoric hunter-gatherers (see Everything Science). A possibly older flute has been found, but its identity is not accepted in some leading archaeological and academic circles -- but is accepted by others. See Divje Babe page for fuller discussion of the debate. It seems widely accepted by the public or scienctific lay community. (See Is this bone a Neanderthal flute?). The 50,000 year old Moussterian flute is in Slovenia, and is considered a national treasure and point of interest for visitors. In the West, various paleoanthropological chat lists and musicology lists continue to debate the matter as of 2006. Noted musicians have made models, played them publicly at conventions and scientific gatherings. The finder, Ivan Turk and others still consider it a flute, and its hole spacings are uniquely consistent with the spacing found on a simple do-re-mi diatonic flute. Several authors with new books over the past years have accepted it as the oldest known musical instrument.Some conclusions may be drawn from historic and modern hunter-gatherers: body decoration, singing, and storytelling were likely forms of prehistoric hunter-gatherer cultural expression (in everyday life or the performance of rituals). There is some archaeological evidence for complex forms of sewing using pattern-cutting, as well as strong archaeological evidence for stone carving and etchings on bone. It is unlikely that we will ever know all of the aspects of prehistoric hunter-gatherer culture.

Modern context - Contents

It has recently been claimed that, in most cases, these groups do not have a continuous history of hunting and gathering, and that in many cases their ancestors were agriculturalists who were pushed into marginal areas as a result of migrations and wars. These theories imply that, because the "pure hunter-gatherer" "disappeared" not long after colonial contact began (see European Colonization of Africa, European colonization of the Americas, European Colonization of Australia), nothing can be learned about prehistoric hunter-gatherers from studies of modern ones (Kelly, 24-29); however, specialists who study hunter-gatherer ecology (see Cultural ecology) vehemently disagree.There are contemporary hunter-gatherer peoples whose contact with external societies, and whose way of life continues with very little external influence. One such group are the Pila Nguru or the Spinifex People of Western Australia, whose habitat in the Great Victoria Desert has proved unsuitable for European agriculture (and even pastoralism). Another are the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, who live on North Sentinel Island and to date have maintained their independent existence, repelling attempts to engage with and contact them.

Social movements
There are some modern social movements related to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle:
  • freeganism involves gathering of discarded food in the context of an urban environment
  • gleaning involves the gathering of food that traditional farmers have left behind in their fields
  • anarcho-primitivism, which strives for the abolishment of civilization and the return to a life in the wild
  • paleolithic diet, which strives to achieve a diet similar to that of ancient hunter-gatherer groups.
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