Complex Hunter-Gatherers

Hunter-Gatherers with Additional Strategies

A woodcut fo Ka'lina hunter-gatherers
Pierre Barrère / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Anthropologists have traditionally defined hunter-gatherers as human populations that live in small groups and that move around a lot, following the seasonal cycle of plants and animals.

Since the 1970s, however, anthropologists and archaeologists realized that many hunter-gatherers groups around the world did not fit the rigid stereotype into which they were put. For these societies, recognized in many parts of the world, anthropologists use the term “Complex Hunter-Gatherers”.

In North America, the most well-known example are the Northwest Coast groups on the North American continent.

Complex hunter-gatherers, also known as affluent foragers, have a subsistence, economic and social organization far more “complex” and interdependent than generalized hunter-gatherers. Here are some of the differences:

  • Mobility: Complex hunter-gatherers live in the same place for most of the year, or even for longer periods, in contrast to generalized hunter-gatherers who stay in one place for shorter periods and move around a lot.
  • Economy: Complex hunter-gatherers subsistence involves a large amount of food storage, whereas simple hunter-gatherers usually consume their food as soon as they harvest it. For example, among Northwest Coast populations, storage involved both meat and fish desiccation as well as creating social bonds that allowed them to have access to resources from other environments.
  • Households: Complex hunter-gatherers don’t live in small and mobile camps, but in long-term, organized households and villages. These are also clearly visible archaeologically. On the Northwest Coast, households were shared by 30 to 100 people.
  • Resources: Complex hunter-gatherers do not harvest only what is available around them, they focus on gathering specific and very productive food products and combining them with other, secondary resources. For example, in the Northwest Coast subsistence was based on salmon, but also other fish and mollusks and in smaller amounts on the forest products. Furthermore, salmon processing through desiccation involved the work of many people at the same time.
  • Technology: Both generalized and complex hunter-gatherers tend to have sophisticated tools. Complex hunter-gatherers don’t need to have light and portable objects, therefore they can invest more energy in larger and specialized tools to fish, hunt, harvest. Northwest Coast populations, for example, constructed large boats and canoes, nets, spears and harpoons, carving tools and desiccation devices.
  • Population: In North America, complex hunter-gatherers had larger populations than small size agricultural villages. Northwest Coast had among the highest population rate of North America. Villages size spanned between 100 and more than 2000 people.
  • Social hierarchy: complex hunter-gatherers had social hierarchies and even inherited leadership. These positions included prestige, social status, and sometimes power. Northwest Coast populations had two social classes: slaves and free people. Free people were divided into chiefs and elite, a lower noble group, and commoners, who were free people with no titles and therefore with no access to leadership positions. Slaves were mostly war captives. Gender was also an important social category. Noble women had often high rank status. Finally, social status was expressed through material and immaterial elements, such as luxury goods, jewels, rich textiles, but also feasts and ceremonies.


    Ames Kenneth M. and Herbert D.G. Maschner, 1999, Peoples of the Northwest Coast. Their Archaeology and Prehistory, Thames and Hudson, London