Hunting & Gathering Societies Research Paper Starter

Hunting & Gathering Societies

This article presents an overview on hunting and gathering perspectives, beginning with an introductory section that highlights mutual traits shared by hunters-gatherers. Subsequently, a comprehensive table that depicts demographic trends is provided, followed by a first-hand account of an anthropologist's experience amid a Venezuelan, foraging society. A discussion of the transitional conversion from hunting-gathering norms to agricultural predominance is followed by contemporary affiliations that exist between the two groups (i.e., hunters-gatherers and farmers). The linguistic dynamics of the Dani, Pirahã, "click language" communities, and Ra¯ute people are discussed. Finally, family patterns that relate to individualistic vs. collectivist values, as well as communal sleeping arrangements are addressed.

Societies > Hunting & Gathering Societies


Of the numerous past and present hunting-gathering communities, there are both distinguishing qualities inherent to each group as well as thematic patterns that categorically connect them together. A distinct trait that is common among hunting-gathering societies is that they reflect an egalitarian structure (Kiernan, 1999; Shultziner, 2005), as opposed to one that is hierarchical in nature. Such an organization shuns the dominance of a governing alpha-male presence that is apparent in stratified societies, and instead incorporates protective barriers to stave off oppressive strides that would otherwise be directed at vulnerable members. Additionally, group decisions are arrived at through the act of consensus, as opposed to the individualistic power that is bestowed upon a leader who makes sole determinations.

Characteristics of the Hunter-Gatherers

The burden of responsibility for obtaining food sources lies primarily on spry, healthy adults; children and elderly may make minor contributions, but are primarily cared for by competent adults in the group (Macionis, 2001). In fact, Cowgill and Holmes (1972) describe the reverence that hunting-gathering societies extend toward their elder members, due to an appreciation of the acquired wisdom derived throughout the course of their lives, and how such acumen can enhance ceremonial rituals. Modern societies, in contrast, are less inclined to engage in such ceremonies, and therefore discount the knowledge that elderly citizens have attained throughout the years, since such erudition cannot be productively applied toward ritualistic use. Moreover, modernization tends to correlate with higher levels of mobility, thus decreasing the physical presence of extended, and therefore elderly, family members.

Another hallmark of hunting-gathering communities is their communal nature. Collaboration and upholding the needs of the group, in lieu of self-serving pursuits, characterize hunting-gathering societies. This philosophical ideal manifests in the process of food distribution. When each hunter embarks upon a hunting expedition that yields food, he equally shares his edible proceeds with the group at large, without preserving a larger portion for himself or his immediate family (Bower, 1998; Hawkes, 1993; Wilson, 1998). This system not only benefits the extended community, but also ensures that even after a poor hunt in which little is brought back, food is guaranteed.

Cooperative childcare patterns exist in most hunting-gathering societies, whereby a variety of non-related members (i.e., alloparents) serve to rear each child (Ivey, 2000). Unrelated alloparents reciprocally reap benefits in exchange for their childcare duties, such as an enhanced access to food and social/mating networks, as well as preparation for parenting skills that they might eventually undertake as parents themselves.

Developmental rites-of-passage are a shared component that each hunting-gathering community observes, although the actual procedures vary between groups. For example, girls and boys in certain African bands (i.e., Khoisan and Hadza) adopt opposing gender-related biological constraints through initiation rituals in which girls don mock male genitalia and weaponry while boys assume feminine (i.e., "menstruant") personas, which suggest their belief that sex organs, and corresponding gender ideologies, are not fixed constructs but that with which one psychologically consents (Power & Watts, 1997). A coming-of-age sacrament among Brazilian Xicrin men that ignites their transition from boys to warriors revolves around attacking a wasp's nest and enduring a wrathful retaliation (Cunningham, 2004). Genital mutilation is a painfully dangerous and externally controversial rite common within certain Kenyan communities, which illustrates a boy's entrance into potential war-torn territory and a girl's demonstration of purity (McKinley, 1996). The execution of facial lacerations and/or tattoos that accompany various Sudanese rituals are additional examples that exemplify the bodily transformations that often coincide with age-specific ceremonies (Lainof & Elsea, 2004). An instance that illuminates a formal procedure devoid of self-injurious inflictions is the Iria, which is practiced by teenage girls of the Okrika region of Nigeria, during which time they consume high caloric foods that help them acquire more curvaceous physiques, sing songs, and distance themselves from the water spirits to whom they had grown attached throughout their childhood (Delaney, 1995).

Hunting-Gathering Demographics

Although there is not an official census bureau that tracks current and historical statistics surrounding hunting-gathering communities, Stiles (2003) provides a comprehensive overview of contemporary estimated demographics, based upon the scholarly accounts of archaeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. Ninety-nine percent of the chronological strides undertaken by human beings primarily consist of a collective hunter-gatherer history. At approximately 10,000 BCE, human sustenance relied solely upon hunting-gathering lifestyles, which began to shift between 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, during which time social patterns became more hierarchical, civilized, and resources that were farm-based began to emerge. It was estimated by Stiles in 2003 that there are approximately 1.3 million hunter-gatherers in the world, who find membership in roughly 235 to 265 tribal communities. However, only 170,000 to 218,000 of these people practice the lifestyle, and less than 11,000 are uninfluenced by the outside world.

Twenty-First Century Trends

Greaves (2007) immersed himself within a Venezuelan hunting-and-gathering community in order to obtain a firsthand ethnoarchaelogical account of contemporary Yaruro, or Pumé, lifestyles. Ethnoarchaeology is the sociological study of contemporary cultures in order to glean insight into how their ancestors lived. Greaves was able to examine two subsets of the Pumé people: River Pumé, who permanently reside in villages alongside major rivers and consume local commodities to supplement their hunting-and-gathering methods, and the more transient Savanna Pumé who scavenge wild animals and vegetation and are therefore independent of neighboring municipalities. The Venezuelan desert climate includes a semi-annual wet season, composed of steady and frequent rainfall during which Savanna Pumé men hunt large game such as deer and anteaters, as well as moderately sized lizards and armadillo, while women actively unearth roots and assorted foliage. Contrary to its name, the corresponding dry season is a fertile period through which Savanna Pumé are supplied an abundance of fish, as well as seasonally ripened mangos.

In order to acquire insight into Pumé hunting styles, as well as food and migratory patterns, Greaves set forth revelations surrounding the applications of tool usage. He created cogent, thoughtful hypotheses based on logical premises, and tested them against the experiential, hands-on realities that the Pumé faced. At times he encountered discrepancies between the intellectual theories that he proposed and the Pumé's practical life experiences. For example, he had posited that long-range hunting trips would naturally yield more game, and at the commencement of such journeys it would behoove the Pumé to bring a plethora of tools to ready themselves for the variety of animals that would be encountered. In reality, the Pumé tended to pack light on longer hunting expeditions, in that they brought fewer tools that served multipurpose functions. Likewise, on fishing excursions, the Pumé could accurately estimate the amount of time they should allot toward congregating at bodies of water (e.g., lagoons, creeks), as they seemed intuitively equipped with an ability to assess the benefits attached to a "patient" linger, or more commonly, repositioning to an alternate site. Thus, the longer trips tended to equate with more movement, but did not necessarily bear more goods. In contrast, for the women who labored in the grasslands by relentlessly digging up roots, for which they needed minimal equipment (e.g., a digging stick and basket), Greaves found a direct correlation between the amount of time tendered toward their manual efforts and the produce that they reaped.

Transitions to Agriculture & Farming

Some theorists ("Noble or Savage?" 2007) speculate whether the onset of agriculture 12,000 years ago was progressive or corrosive to the trajectory of human evolution. Compared with contemporary health issues and nutritional consumption, as well as the physical stature of modern man, historical hunters-and-gatherers maintained strapping physiques that were robust and built to endure incessant and strenuous bouts of physicality. In contrast, the life of a farmer corresponded with an attenuated body frame that was condensed by six inches, protein and vitamin deficient diets, and an increase in related illnesses.

An additional hindrance that afflicted the transition from a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle to that which was agricultural in nature was the rapid eradication of natural resources such as deforestation (Tucker, 2008). Labor-intensive hours that were devoted toward crop maintenance, which differentiated from the 14-hour workweeks of hunter-gatherers, resulted in bodily deterioration and fatigue. Hunting-and-gathering duties were sanctioned into specific gender appropriate tasks: male hunters and female gatherers (Balme & Bowdler, 2006; Marlowe, 2007), which "enabled them to eat both meat and veg [sic], a clever trick because it combines quality with reliability" ("Noble or Savage?" 2007, par. 4). More importantly, the division of labor translated into an egalitarian community in which people undertook different roles that were equally respected. On the other hand, the inception of agriculture ignited an assumption that the farmer was master of his particular domain, with hired or enslaved underlings that established a chain-of-command hierarchy.

Coexistence Today

Spielman and Eder (1994) describe the interdependency between contemporary hunting-and gathering African and southern/ southeastern Asian societies to neighboring farm communities. A range from mutual reciprocity to unbalanced one-sidedness was observed with regard to several provisional necessities, including basic food staples. During these exchanges, hunter-gatherers provide animal protein to urbanized communities whose reception toward such carnage varies between gratitude and repulsion. Though hunter-gatherers are more apt to rely on farmers for carbohydrate-rich contributions, there are additional attributes that each side necessitates from the other. Hunters-and-gatherers exchange forest-grown commodities such as honey, ivory, and herbs as well as ornamental animal adornments (e.g., buffalo horns), aesthetic merchandise (e.g., pottery), and weaponry.

Services rendered between the two groups include navigational tours by hunter-gatherer guides, which allow gentrified groups the ability to traverse through the deep thickets of natural habitation, utilizing safe and efficient strategies. Likewise, farmers often employ hunting-gathering groups to help tend to their land. Because the social norms and communication standards between these two distinct groups are highly incongruous, one might naturally surmise that the conflicting units either find comparable middle-ground territory, or one group concedes to the domination of the other. In the dynamic between farmers and hunter-gatherers, the latter pattern tends to occur, in which the hunting-gathering society adheres to the linguistics and customs of their farming...

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