Carol R. EmberJune 1, 2020


The hunter-gatherer means of life is of major interest to anthropologists since dependence on wild food resources was the means humans got food because that the vast stretch of human history. Cross-cultural researchers focus on examining patterns throughout societies and try to answer questions such as: What are current hunter-gatherers normally like? just how do they different from food producers? exactly how do hunter-gatherer societies vary and what may explain their variability? In this amendment summary, we focus on what cross-cultural researchers have found about hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

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Table that ContentsHow and Why do Hunter-Gatherers Vary?
Hunter-Gatherers (Foragers)

In the pursuit to define human culture, anthropologists have paid a great deal of fist to recent hunter-gatherer, or forager, societies. A major reason because that this emphasis has been the widely held id that understanding of hunter-gatherer societies can open a home window into understanding early human cultures. After ~ all, that is argued that for the huge stretch of human history, world lived by foraging for wild plants and also animals. Indeed, no until around 10 thousand years earlier did societies in Southwest Asia (the famed Fertile Crescent) start to cultivate and domesticate plants and animals. Food production took over to together an degree that, in the past couple of hundred years, just an estimated 5 million human being have subsisted by foraging. However while the numbers of current hunter-gatherers may be relatively small, that does not average that food production inevitably i do not care the leading economic strategy. Plenty of such societies proceed to forage (Kramer and also Greaves 2016, 15).

Two san hunter-gatherers starting a fire through the friction created by rubbing a stick. Pictured in Deception Valley, Botswana, in 2005.

What can we infer around our far-off ancestors by looking in ~ a couple of well-known hunter-gatherer societies of current times? To draw reliable inferences, us would require to believe that pockets the human society could exist unchanged over tens of thousands of years—that hunter-gatherers go not learn from experience, innovate, or it is adapted to changes in their natural and also social environments. Even a cursory look in ~ the ethnographic record, however, expose that plenty of foraging societies have changed substantially end time. Both in the archaeological record and an ext recently, hunter-gatherers have actually not only connected with food producers with trade and other exchanges, however many have actually also included cultivated plants to their economic climates that combine well foraging wild sources (Kramer and also Greaves 2016, 16). Moreover, recent hunter-gatherer societies share some traits yet are likewise quite various from one another.

How have the right to we draw much better inferences about the past? Cross-cultural researchers ask how and why hunter-gatherer cultures vary. By understanding what conditions predict variation and additionally using the paleoanthropological document to make educated guesses around past conditions in a certain place, anthropologists may have a far better chance that inferring what hunter-gatherers that the past were favor (Hitchcock and also Beisele 2000, 5; Ember 1978; Marlowe 2005).

Because cultures change through time, we cannot just project ethnographic data from the existing to the past

Below us summarize the cross-cultural literary works in the last fifty percent century on hunter-gatherers. We generally restrict the conversation to statistically sustained hypotheses based on samples the 10 or more cultures. We additionally discuss what is not yet known and also questions that invite further research.

But before we rotate to what we understand from cross-cultural research, let us very first talk briefly around the hatchet “hunter-gatherers”. Hunter-gatherers has end up being the commonly-used term for people who depend mostly on food arsenal or foraging because that wild resources. Foraged wild sources are obtained by a selection of methods consisting of gathering plants, collecting shellfish or other tiny fauna, hunting, scavenging, and also fishing. This is in contrast to food production, where civilization rely top top cultivating tamed plants and breeding and raising domesticated animals for food. Unfortunately, the typical term hunter-gatherers overrates the importance of hunting, downplays gathering, and also ignores fishing. Yet, in one cross-cultural sample of hunter-gatherers (foragers), fishing appeared to be the many important task in 38 percent of the societies, collection was following at 30 percent, and also hunting was the least crucial at 25 percent (Ember 1978). So, if us were gift fair, such societies need to be dubbed “fisher-gatherer-hunters” or, more simply, “foragers.” But since the term “hunter-gatherers” is so widely used, us will usage it here.

Copper Inuit spearing salmon in ~ Nulahugyuk Creek, Northwest regions (Nunavut), 1916.What We have actually Learned

We know around hunter-gatherers of current times indigenous anthropologists who have actually lived and also worked v hunting and also gathering groups. Several of the recent and frequently discussed cases are the Mbuti of the Ituri woodland (central Africa), the san of the Kalahari Desert (southern Africa) and the Copper Inuit that the Arctic (North America). These hunter-gatherers live in environments that are not conducive come agriculture. 

What room Hunter-Gatherers of recent Times usually Like?

Based ~ above the ethnographic data and cross-cultural comparisons, that is widely embraced (Textor 1967; service 1979; Murdock and Provost 1973) that current hunter-gatherer societies generally

are completely or semi-nomadic.

live in small communities.

have low populace densities.

do not have specialized political officials.

have little wealth differentiation.

are economically devoted only by age and also gender.

usually divide labor by gender, v women collection wild plants and men fishing and nearly always doing the hunting. 

Complex Hunter-Gatherers 

Not all hunter-gatherers conform to this list of traits. In fact, ethnographers of societies in the Pacific coastline of north America (largely northwestern U.S. And southwestern Canada) have offered us a very different picture. These hunting-gathering societies, plenty of of whom depended largely on fishing in their timeless economies, had larger communities, stationary villages, and social inequality. For a lengthy time, numerous scholars believed of them as anomalous hunter-gatherers. But the picture is rapidly changing, mostly as a an outcome of historical research ~ above the top Paleolithic period, prior to the development of agriculture. Throughout this duration hunter-gatherers in many locations of the globe appear to have arisen inequality. Such complicated hunter-gatherers were uncovered in north America in the internal Northwest Plateau, the Canadian Arctic, and also the American Southeast, and in southern America, the Caribbean, Japan, components of Australia, north Eurasia, and the Middle east (Sassaman 2004, 228). Excavators infer inequality from the visibility of prestige items such together ornamental jewelry, or major differences in burials indicative the “rich” and “poor” people (Hayden and Villeneuve 2011, 124–6).

Complex hunter-gatherer societies, in contrast to much easier hunter-gatherers normally have the adhering to traits (Hayden and also Villeneuve 2011, 334–35):

higher population densities (.2 to 10 people per square mile)

fully sedentary or seasonally sedentary communities

more complicated sociopolitical company primarily based on economic production

significant socioeconomic differences

some private ownership of resources and individual storage

competitive displays and feasts

elites shot to control access to the supernatural

while nearly all hunter-gatherers have some type of huge system, complicated hunter gatherer groups usually exhibit some solstice monitoring or calendars. 

Tlingit chef Charles Jones Shakes, pictured at residence in Wrangell, Alaska, with an array of his possessions, ca. 1907. The Tlingit, a culture dependent ~ above fishing, exemplify the ordered structure of complicated hunter-gatherer societies.Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods

In a number of ways, childhood in hunter-gatherer societies appears to be much more relaxed and easy-going contrasted with most food-producers. And, hunter-gatherer children show up to receive much more warmth and also affection from parental (Rohner 1975, 97–105). 

Children in hunting and also gathering societies normally have fewer chores assigned to them, such as subsistence work and baby-tending, contrasted with other societies (Ember and Cunnar 2015). This method that kids have an ext time come play and explore their environment. Yet play does not mean that kids are no learning around subsistence. In fact, lot of their play involves playing at doing what adult do—boys often “hunt” with miniature bows and also arrows and also girls generally “gather” and also “cook.” In some hunter-gatherer groups, a lot of real work-related goes on with these activities. Because that example, Crittenden and colleagues (2013) report that amongst the Hadza the Tanzania, youngsters 5 year of age and younger may be getting half their food on their own and by 6 years of age, 75 percent of their food. At 3, boys obtain their first small bow and arrow and hunt for small animals. Maybe to the amazement of plenty of parents in north America, youngsters as young as 4 develop fires and also cook meals ~ above their own in your childhood groups. Youngsters in many hunter-gatherer groups do not perform as much as the Hadza though, perhaps since other settings in other areas are an ext dangerous. Threats may incorporate the visibility of big predators, little water, or couple of recognizable functions to aid children discover their way back home. Children likewise learn much more directly native parents once they companion them ~ above trips—watching, participating once they can, and receiving explicit instruction. Searching is one of the most challenging skills to learn and usually requires more direct indict (Lew-Levy et al. 2017). 

Hadza children on average hunt and also gather about half their food; these kids pictured over are cooking their meal.

Sharing with others is commonly agreed come be crucial hunter-gatherer worth which parents start to instill as early on as infancy; later on this teaching is taken increase by enlarge children. In some groups, to teach to share starts as at an early stage as 6 weeks come 6 month (Lew-Levy et al. 2018).

Why are hunter-gatherer parents generally more affectionate? Ronald Rohner’s (1975, 97–105) research says that warm toward children is much more likely once a mommy has aid in childcare. In the instance of hunter-gatherers, fathers are usually much an ext engaged in infant treatment compared come food-producing fathers (Marlowe 2000; Hewlett and also Macfarlan 2010). If fathers or various other caretakers carry out help, mothers might be less stressed (Rohner 1975). Fathers providing aid is consistent with the fact that hunter-gatherer husbands and wives are much more likely to engage in all kinds of tasks together—eating together, functioning together, and sleeping together (Hewlett and Macfarlan 2010). Recreation time might also aid explain an ext affection expressed toward children. Recreation time usually decreases with enhancing societal complexity, and parents with little recreation time may be an ext irritable and also short-tempered (Ember and also Ember 2019, 60).

Of course, the fact that hunter-gatherer kids have an ext time come play go not median that parents room not energetic teachers. In a examine of hunter-gatherer society learning, Garfield, Garfield and Hewlett (2016) report that teaching by parental or the enlarge generation is the main form of learning about subsistence. Parents do much more teaching in early on childhood; other elders do an ext in later childhood. Teaching spiritual beliefs and also practices is more common in adolescence and is regularly undertaken by the bigger community.

Some research says that hunter-gatherers place various emphases ~ above valued traits for kids to acquire. Compared to food producers, hunter-gatherers are much less likely to tension obedience and responsibility in child training and also are much more likely to tension independence, self-reliance, and accomplishment (Barry, Child, and Bacon (1959); Hendrix (1985) finds the high searching is specifically associated through high achievement). Why? Barry, Child, and also Bacon argue that kid training is adaptive for various subsistence needs. Food producers depend on food buildup for the long-run, and also mistakes do in subsistence are very risky. In contrast, if hunter-gatherers do mistakes, the results are short-lived, yet gains in inventiveness could carry out long-term benefits.

Other Hunter-Gatherer DifferencesAre Hunter-Gatherers much more Peaceful 보다 Food Producers?

It is commonly agreed that, contrasted to food producers, hunter-gatherers fight less (Ember and Ember 1997). But why? possibly it is due to the fact that in comparison to food producers, hunter-gatherers are less prone to source unpredictability, famines, and food shortages (Textor 1967; Ember and also Ember 1997, 10; Berbesque et al. 2014). And resource unpredictability is a major predictor of boosted warfare in the ethnographic document (Ember and also Ember 1992, 1997).

All periods happily gathered together, san men, women, and children, pictured in Botswana in 2011.

But fighting less than food producer does no necessarily mean that hunter-gatherers are frequently peaceful. Because that example, Ember (1978) report that many hunter-gatherers engaged in war at the very least every 2 years. But one more study found that warfare was rare or missing among many hunter-gatherers (Lenski and also Lenski 1978; reported in Nolan 2003). 

Why space there these inconsistent answers come the question around the peacefulness of hunter-gatherers?

How we define terms will influence the outcome of a cross-cultural study. When questioning if hunter-gatherers are commonly peaceful, for example, researchers will certainly get different results depending on what they median by peaceful, exactly how they specify hunter-gatherers, and also whether they have actually excluded societies required to prevent fighting (that is, pacified) by colonial powers or national federal governments in your analyses.

Most researchers comparison war and also peace. If the researcher views peace as the absence of war, climate the prize to even if it is hunter-gatherers are more peaceful than food producers counts on the definition of war. Anthropologists agree that war in smaller-scale societies needs to be defined differently from battle in nation-states the have armed forces and large numbers the casualties. Also, within-community or purely individual acts of violence are practically always differentiated from warfare. However, over there is controversy around what to speak to different varieties of socially organized violence in between communities. Because that example, fried food (2006, 88, 172–74) go not take into consideration feuding between communities warfare, but Ember and also Ember (1992) do.

In the warfare section below, we discuss predictors of sport in warfare among hunter-gatherers.

How and Why do Hunter-Gatherers Vary?

Hunter-gatherers vary in countless ways, yet cross-cultural study has focused on sport in the setting and species of subsistence, contributions to the diet by gender, marital residence, the degree of nomadism, and the frequency and form of warfare.

Variation in Environment and Subsistence Practices

Hunting often tends to be men’s work, together it is among the Hadza that Tanzania pictured above.

Division Of labor By Gender

Marital Residence

Amongst hunter-gatherers, just how much males and also females add to major production predicts rule of marital residence—more specifically, when male donation is high, patrilocal residence is likely; once not that high, matrilocal residence is likely. 



What We carry out Not Know

Why do some foraging societies share much more than others? Is meat consistently shared more than plants? walk sharing different by gender?

How different are foragers through a tiny agriculture native those who absence agriculture?

Are foragers v horses more like pastoralists 보다 foragers doing not have horses?

How do complex hunter-gatherers differ from simpler hunter-gatherers in the means we have disputed here—child-rearing values, marital residence, subsistence strategies, department of labor, etc.

What predicts the introduction of hunter-gatherer complexity? 

Exercises making use of world Cultures

Explore some messages in civilization Cultures individually or as component of class assignments. Watch the Teaching exercise 1.22 for suggestions.


Photo Credits: mountain firestarters, picture by Ian sewell CC by 2.5. Copper Inuit spearing salmon, photo by Diamond Jenness accessible in the Canadian Museum of history collection, CC through 4.0. Tlingit chief in Alaska, picture by Dmitry Pichugin via Shutterstock, college of Washington Libraries, distinct Collections Division. Hadza children around a fire, via EcoPrint/Shutterstock. Mountain gathered together, photograph by AinoTuominen via pixabay. Hadza v bow and arrow, picture by alexstrachan via pixabay. 


The review should be cited as:

Carol R. Ember. 2020. “Hunter-Gatherers” in C. R. Ember, ed. Explaining human Culture. Human relationships Area Files,, accessed .

GlossaryBilocal residence

A pattern in i beg your pardon married couples live through or close to the wife’s or the husband’s parents with about equal frequency 

Ethnographic record 

What is recognized from descriptions composed by observers, commonly anthropologists, who have actually lived in and also carried out fieldwork top top a culture in the present and recent past

Matrilocal residence

A pattern in i m sorry couples typically live v or close to the wife’s parents

Multilocal residence

A sample in i m sorry married couples may be bilocal or unilocal through a frequent alternative 

Patrilocal residence

A sample in which married couples generally live v or near the husband’s parents

Unilocal residence

A sample in i m sorry married couples live through or close to one specified collection of loved ones (patrilocal, matrilocal, or avunculocal)

Additional Cross-Cultural researches of Hunter-Gatherers 

Collard, Mark, Briggs Buchanan, Michael J. O’Brien, and also Jonathan Scholnick. (2013). Risk, mobility or population size? motorists of technological richness among contact-period western phibìc American hunter–gatherers. Philosophical Transactions that the Royal culture B: biological Sciences 368, no. 1630: 20120412.

Freeman, Jacob, and John M. Anderies. (2015). The socioecology the hunter–gatherer territory size." Journal the Anthropological Archaeology 39: 110-123.

Halperin, Rhonda H. (1980). Ecology and also mode the production: Seasonal variation and also the division of job by sex amongst hunter-gatherers. Journal the Anthropological Research 36, 379-399.

Korotayev, Andrey V. & Alexander A. Kazankov (2003). Determinants of sex-related freedom amongst foragers in cross-cultural perspective. Cross-Cultural Research 37: 29-61.

Langley, Michelle, and Mirani Litster. (2018). Is it ritual? Or is it children?: distinguishing consequences of play from routine actions in the prehistoric archaeological record. Current Anthropology 59(5):616-643).

Lozoff, Betsy and Gary Brittenham (1979). Child care: Cache or carry. The journal of Pediatrics 95, 478-483.

Marlowe, candid W. (2003). The mating system of foragers in the conventional cross-cultural sample. Cross-Cultural Research 37, 282-306.

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Thompson, Barton. (2016). Sense of place amongst hunter-gatherers. Cross-Cultural Research 50, no. 4 (2016): 283-324.