The Reality of Hunter-Gatherers


Part I: Hunter-Gatherer Anthropology

1: The Hobbesian View, Agriculture and the Rise of the State

2: Egalitarianism

3: Social Relations and Immediate-Return Versus Delayed-Return Economies

4: Territoriality, Property and Mobility

5: Economics and Subsistence

6: A Variety of Further Ethnographic Findings

7: Infanticide: A Sad Note

Part II: Hunter-Gatherer Psychology

8: Hunter-Gatherer Consciousness: Paradox

9: Psychology: Infancy, Ego and Death

A Working Definition of Hunting-Gathering

Lee and Daly (1999) define foraging, which is considered synonymous with the term we will be using -- hunting and gathering -- as "subsistence based on hunting of wild animals, gathering of wild plant foods, and fishing, with no domestication of plants, and no domesticated animals except the dog." This is, indeed, the most general and succinct way to begin to define hunting and gathering, an approach that surely has some shortcomings (as I discuss below), but that, combined with the following, is quite sufficient despite its simplicity.

          As contrasted with their civilized counterparts, hunter-gatherers (hgs) relinquish any notion of control, either over other people or their environment. They do not interfere with the reproduction of crucial species nor the distribution of food resources, and they famously do not interfere in the affairs of other hgs, respecting individual autonomy as much as any people that has ever existed. Unlike agricultural or pastoralist groups, there is no intentional alteration of the gene pool of any species of animal or plant with which they are in contact (Panter-Brick et al. 2001).

          Clearly, such a definition can be problematic. Contemporary hgs have been found to practice a mixed subsistence -- for example, gardening in tropical South America, reindeer herding in northern Asia, and trading in southeast Asia and parts of Africa (Lee and Daly 1999). Furthermore, in practice things can be ambiguous, such as the notion of 'wild' and 'cultivated' sago palms in Indonesia (Ellen 1988) or 'wild' and 'domestic' pigs in Papua New Guinea (Rosman and Rubel 1989). In such cases, 'cultivation' or 'domestication' does not entail genetic alteration. Such practices may make things more complicated, but they do not detract in any significant way from the working definition I have put forward.

          Other notable attributes of hunting and gathering that we can consider to add to and refine the definition, and which will be explored in greater depth later on, are the following: little personal property and an egalitarian social system; sporadic gatherings of bands and much mobility of individuals between bands; a fluid organization involving no territorial rights; no food storage; and no group being strongly attached to a particular area (Rowley-Conwy 2001).

          This will be a starting point for what follows, which is an attempt to more fully define what it means to be a hunter-gatherer. Hopefully this will provide enough initial insight to proceed constructively and with sufficient attention to detail.

Hunter-Gatherers in Pre-Twentieth Century Thought

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

Copyright ©2016-17 J.A. Heffernan. Material may be used freely and printed without special permission, although some works cited are under copyright. Feel free to email to