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Hunting and gathering can be defined as a method of procuring food from the environment through the gathering of edible plants and hunting wild game, including fish. For most of human history, human beings survived by foraging and hunting. It was only about 8,000-10,000 years ago when the domestication of animals and agriculture became a major source of food that people began to abandon a hunter-gatherer style of life. Archaeological evidence has greatly advanced our knowledge of hunter-gatherer communities in antiquity. Ethnographic and historical studies provide information about the way of life of both historic and contemporary hunter-gatherers. Hunting and gathering was the only way humans survived for more than a million years until the end of the Paleolithic period (Old Stone Age). During the era of hunting and gathering, humans depended on the year-round supply of wild edible plants and animals that they hunted with rudimentary stone tools and weapons. The roots of culture are attributed to hunter-gatherers who roamed in small bands hunting and foraging over considerable territory.
Contemporary hunter-gatherer societies tend to be relatively mobile, dependent on the ability of a given natural environment to provide sufficient resources. Where resources are scarce, the bands might only contain 10-20 individuals. Where resources are abundant, the bands might be larger, comprising 100 people or more, and may form semi-permanent settlements. Often, hunter-gatherers shelters are constructed of impermanent building materials such as grass and leaves in rain forest environments, or they may seek caves for shelter in drier and mountainous environments.
Hunter-gatherer communities have simple, nonhierarchical, egalitarian social systems. It has been suggested that egalitarianism was one of several central characteristics of nomadic hunting and gathering societies, since mobility precluded the accumulation of material possessions for any one single member in the band. However, in areas where resources were plentiful, making a more permanent way of life possible, the simple social structure gave way to a more hierarchical social organization.
Furthermore, clear evidence exists concerning the sexual division of labor among hunter-gatherer groups. Females were primarily assigned the foodgathering chore, which resulted in their developing a keen sense for and the greatest familiarity with nutritive plants such as wild fruits and vegetables. Hunting activities became the domain of men. Furthermore the idea that hunter-gatherers lived a “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short life” constantly at the mercy of the environment has been refuted by recent studies. For example, studies of the San people (Bushmen) in South Africa indicate that hunter-gatherer bands live well on the equivalent of a two and half day workweek, which gave them plenty of time to develop skills in working flint and bone tools, in developing regionally distinctive art and sculptures, and in making decorative beads and shells for personal adornment and trade.
Hunting and gathering is not completely gone in contemporary society. Many people, particularly in the developing world, continue to obtain food through gathering of wild edible plants and hunting wild meat. Although perhaps only a few thousand persons worldwide, some societies continue to entirely depend on this system for their subsistence. Usually these are found in isolated and remote pockets of the world such as the interior of New Guinea, interior and inaccessible parts of Southeast Asia, the Amazon tropical rain forest, small and isolated portions of tropical and arid Africa, parts of northern Australia, and parts of the Arctic regions. As a result of the now-global reliance upon agriculture, the few contemporary cultures that practice hunting and gathering usually live in areas seen as undesirable for agricultural use. For many of these peoples, their lifestyle is being modified or lost by contacts with the outside world. Intrusion of modern material goods such as plastics, metal, and clothing into their societies has made them part of the modern market economy and resulted in the erosion of their primitive way of life.
- Robert L. Bettinger, Hunter-Gatherers: Archaeological and Evolutionary Theory (Plenum Press, 1991);
- Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World (North Point Press, 2001);
- Jerome Fellmann, Arthur Getis, and Judith Getis, Human Geography: Landscapes of Human Activities (McGraw Hill, 2007);
- Robert L. Kelly, The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways (Smithsonian Institution, 1995);
- John E. Pfeiffer, The Emergence of Man (Harper & Row Publishers, 1972).