Hunting and gathering societies (Anthropology)

Hunter-gatherers as a social category

Hunting and gathering societies in the contemporary world are relatively few in number, yet they have commanded an intense interest through the history of anthropology, and in recent years have become the centre of a major controversy. Peoples like the San (Bushmen) of Southern Africa and the Pygmies of the Central African forests, their technologies small-scale and their social organizations strikingly egalitarian, were long held to exemplify a pristine form of human society — the way of life of humans everywhere until the dawn of pastor-alism and agriculture around 12,000 years ago. But since the 1980s the validity of this evolutionary picture has been called into question. Much may be learned by reviewing the issues that touch on this debate.

First, the label ‘hunter-gatherer society’ implies that we are dealing with a correspondence between a type of social organization and a type of economy: that people who rely for subsistence on undomesticated plants and animals inevitably organize themselves in a distinctive fashion. However, it is now clear that, perhaps for millenia, most hunter-gatherers have been engaged in activities other than hunting and gathering, such as trading with agricultural and pastoral neighbours or even practising a small amount of cultivation or animal rearing themselves. Hunters and gatherers in India and Southeast Asia, their populations small and their forest locations often remote, are classic examples, but the Pygmies, San and the pockets of hunter-gatherers in the tropical and temperate regions of the Americas would fall under this stricture as well. Only the Australian Aborigines, the Inuit (Eskimo) and some native groups in northern North America were traditionally independent from other types of economy; but even here this has changed dramatically in recent decades because of these peoples’ heavy involvement in a Westernized monetary economy. These varying circumstances have led some anthropologists to argue that it is the total regional system, of which the hunting and gathering economy may be only a part, which should be the focus of study. And, more radically, other anthropologists surmise that the egalitarian social organizations of such peoples as the San may be the result of their dealings — normally politically disadvantaged dealings — with their agricultural and pastoral neighbours (Wilmsen 1989).


A second major concern attends to the fact that some contemporary hunter-gatherers have quite complex social organizations. For example the Northwest Coast Indians of the coastal and island areas of western Canada and southern Alaska display social stratification (nobles, commoners and slaves), competition for rank among both individuals and local groups, and descent groups which exercise corporate control over delimited tracts of resources such as fishing stations, hunting grounds, and berrying areas. Such social features are conspicuously absent among egalitarian peoples like the San, Inuit and Pygmies, among whom interpersonal competition and hierarchy are strongly muted, and whose social groups, often rather amorphous collections of kin, merely associate themselves with areas of territory and may not claim rights of ownership. A further complication is the case of the Australian Aborigines. Many Australians live in semi-desert environments similar to the San, yet unlike the San they display marked hierarchies in relations between men and women and between elders and youth; they also manifest quite complex social subdivisions which are articulated by marriage alliances requiring one’s spouse to be selected from a particular category of kin. Archaeological studies on hunter-gatherers concentrating on the Palaeolithic period strongly suggest that when the entire human population lived by hunting and gathering, relatively complex social organizations would have been prevalent. Thus the contemporary Northwest Coast Indians, pursuing a semi-sedentary lifestyle in a relatively temperate environment, may better exemplify the form of early hunter-gatherers than the San, Pygmies or Inuit, who are confined to nomadic hunting and gathering in more extreme environments.

This, in turn, is not an entirely satisfactory position. In the first place, the complex hunter-gatherers are themselves not likely to exemplify the ‘original’ human society about which anthropologists keenly speculate when considering the emergence of a distinctively human social organization from a (non-human) primate past; they will have evolved from a simpler social organization. Second, there is the example of the Inuit and of such peoples as the Hadza of northern Tanzania where, before the colonial period, outsiders appear to have had minimal impact on the hunting and gathering way of life. These societies have egalitarian social organizations comparable with the San. This suggests that egalitarian arrangements among hunter-gatherers are highly versatile: they are adaptive in the context of pressure from outsiders and they are also viable in circumstances when hunter-gatherers stand alone (Kent 1992). In sum, it may be argued that the first human societies, from which all others evolved, were indeed ‘simple’, egalitarian ones.

The culture of hunter-gatherers

Nurit Bird-David, in a series of stimulating articles (e.g. 1992a; 1992b), has argued that hunter-gatherers have a highly distinctive ethos, which influences their social pose even when they are involved in non-hunting activities. She bases her argument on the Nayaka, a South Indian hunting and gathering people, but maintains that the fundamental principles of Nayaka culture are shared among such varied hunter-gatherers as the Inuit, San, Pygmies, Australian Aborigines and the Indian groups of the North American coniferous forests (for example, the Cree of Ontario and Quebec). Bird-David demonstrates that in all these hunter-gatherer societies people conceive of the relation between humans and the environment as one of very close kinship. The environment is imbued with spirits (which exercise control over animals, the weather, health, good fortune, and so on) and these relate to humans as parents to children or husbands to wives. The result is that hunter-gatherers view their relationship with the environment as one of trust, confident that the environment will provide for their material needs. An exemplification of this is the Inuit belief that the spirit world is inherently benevolent, dispatching animals to the waiting hunter from the sky or from underwater lairs. The hunter’s important duty is to take the animals when they appear and to offer them respect, by the performance of small rituals acknowledging their generosity; these ensure the release of the animals’ souls and their return to the spiritual domain whence they came. Here the important supplementary belief is that when hunting brings no success it is because the spirits, angered by human misdemeanour (such as failure to observe religious edicts), have withheld the animals from human view.

In the contemporary world, hunter-gatherers engage not just with a natural environment but also with governments and entrepreneurs, and they participate in commercial enterprises, such as trapping, craft work and wage labour; government transfer payments may also importantly contribute to their cash wealth. However, Bird-David argues that hunter-gatherers strike up a distinctive attitude to these opportunities, not differentiating them from the natural environment. Such opportunities offer resources that may be ‘procured’, and the hunter-gatherers, confident that these resources will be made available, do not endeavour to seize control of them, or invest in them, as agriculturalists or pastoralists might do. In short, in relation to the present-day situation of employment and welfare state, their culture constrains hunter-gatherers to behave in a highly flexible and partial way, moving from wage work to hunting to securing welfare benefits, in much the same strategic fashion as traditional hunter-gatherers would seasonally move from hunting locale to hunting locale, taking advantage of different plants and animals as and when they became available.


Bird-David’s interpretation is useful and original and offers an important insight into the way family-type metaphors are at the root of hunter-gatherer culture. But it is doubtful that it fully explicates hunter-gatherer behaviour in the contemporary world. This is especially so with regard to northern North America and Australia where Indians, Inuit and Aborigines are engaged in vigorous political disputes with governments, multinationals and the wider, mainstream society, about ‘native rights’ and ‘land claims’. Here with partial success hunter-gatherers have upheld the entitlement of ‘original peoples’ to benefit from economic exploitation originating from the outside, including mining and hydroelectric production, and to exercise managerial responsibility over their lands. An intrinsic dimension of such aggressive political activity is the hunter-gatherers’ insistence that their way of life — their hunting and gathering way of life — be defended, and that ‘native’ control over their homelands should be discharged in a distinctively ‘native’ fashion. The complexion this puts on the position of hunter-gatherers relative to their culture is not the somewhat passive one that Bird-David evokes, but one where people are actively manipulating, controlling and even inventing their culture on behalf of down-to-earth political and economic ends. In this way hunter-gatherers are seen not as prisoners of their past but active agents for whom, in present times, culture may be mobilized as a symbol of solidarity.

Social structure and ideology

The range of social structures exhibited by hunter-gatherers, from the past through to the present day, may be best addressed by analysis which examines the structures’ essential features, the corresponding ideologies, and the factors which precipitate change from one structure to another. A good example is "Woodburn’s distinction (1982) between ‘immediate-return’ and ‘delayed return’ hunter-gatherer societies, which grasps the difference between egalitarian and more complex hunter-gatherer social structures in terms of different types of social bonding implicated by differing technological and economic constraints. From another perspective, discussion of egalitarian hunter-gatherers often makes much of the unrestricted access to territory and ungarnered resources which uniquely seems central to their cultures. Thus "Ingold (1986) notes that in these societies the prevalent food sharing among members of the community replays the fact that the means of subsistence are held in common, and that this differs from more complex societies where sharing amounts to the giving up of that which is first personally owned. Other writers have attended to the essential instability of egalitarianism and how ‘immediate-return’ hunter-gatherers must work to sustain it, for example by employing joking, teasing, put-downs and other ‘levelling mechanisms’ against those who might seek to translate superior ability (e.g. in hunting) into higher status. Meanwhile, the attempt to grasp what precipitates the emergence of the more complex social structures has resulted in a variety of proposals ranging from the development of systems of food storage, the intensification of control over women, and the emergence of notions of ownership associated with the conservation of resources. Among the Australian Aborigines, more complex social structures may be connected with large-scale initiation ceremonies such as do not generally occur among egalitarian hunter-gatherers.

Peoples with flexible, egalitarian social structures commonly subscribe to religions which embrace shamanistic principles, and hunter-gatherers are no "exception. In shamanism, direct contact by humans with the spirit domain, usually in order to relieve misfortune, is achieved through soul loss, and this is normally discharged by a specialist — the shaman — whose techniques of ecstasy and trance have been refined through a long period of apprenticeship. Shamanism, a religion marked by social unpredictability, seems less compatible with complex social structures with their more rigidly organized social groupings. Thus Australian Aboriginal religion, once thought to exemplify the elementary religion, revolves around totemic beliefs which are connected with the existence of discrete social subdivisions, including descent groups. Among the Northwest Coast Indians there are closed religious ‘societies’ into which young men are initiated, and inter-group ranking celebrated by ceremonial potlatch feasting.

In more recent times many hunter-gatherer peoples have come to subscribe to world religions such as Christianity, melding indigenous beliefs with new, and radically different, concepts and notions. Underpinning such religious change may be the heterogeneous economic values to which many contemporary hunter-gatherers now subscribe and the serious disruptions in the indigenous economy wrought by colonial contact. Thus Tanner (1979) shows, in the case of the Cree Indians, that merging both subsistence and commercial economic concerns can pose enormous ideological dilemmas, which may be rationalized through selectively, and situationally, upholding beliefs from more than one religious tradition. This sort of analysis will increasingly be required to grasp the changing circumstances of hunter-gatherers throughout the world.

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