Complex Hunter-Gatherers: Who Needs Agriculture?

Chumash Tumol Boat
These tomol boats were made by the Chumash, Pacific northwest coast complex hunter-gatherers, who built canoes from redwood planks and used them for travel on the open coastal ocean waters. Marilyn Angel Wynn / Nativestock / Getty Images Plus

The term complex hunter-gatherers (CHG) is a fairly new term that attempts to correct some ill-conceived notions of how people in the past organized their lives. Anthropologists traditionally defined hunter-gatherers as human populations that lived (and live) in small groups and that are highly mobile, following and subsisting on the seasonal cycle of plants and animals.

Key Takeaways: Complex Hunter-Gatherers (CHG)

  • Like general hunter-gathers, complex hunter-gatherers do not practice agriculture or pastoralism.
  • They can achieve the same levels of social complexity including technology, settlement practices, and social hierarchy as agricultural groups.
  • As a result, some archaeologists believe agriculture should be seen as less a significant characteristic of complexity than others.

In the 1970s, however, anthropologists and archaeologists realized that many groups who subsisted on hunting and gathering 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 is the prehistoric Northwest Coast groups on the North American continent.

Why Complex?

Complex hunter-gatherers, also known as affluent foragers, have a subsistence, economic and social organization far more “complex” and interdependent than generalized hunter-gatherers. The two types are similar: they base their economies without relying on domesticated plants and animals. 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 roles. These positions included prestige, social status, and sometimes power. Northwest Coast populations had two social classes: enslaved 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. Enslaved people 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.

Distinguishing Complexity

The term complexity is a culturally weighted one: There are about a dozen characteristics that anthropologists and archaeologists use to measure or approximate the level of sophistication achieved by a given society in the past or the present. The more research people have undertaken, and the more enlightened they become, the fuzzier the categories grow, and the whole idea of "measuring complexity" has become challenging.

One argument made by American archaeologist Jeanne Arnold and colleagues has been that one of those long-defined characteristics—the domestication of plants and animals—should no longer be the defining complexity, that complex hunter-gatherers can develop many more important indicators of complexity without agriculture. Instead, Arnold and her colleagues propose seven platforms of social dynamics to identify complexity:

  • Agency and authority
  • Social differentiation
  • Participation in communal events
  • Organization of production
  • Labor obligations
  • Articulation of ecology and subsistence
  • Territoriality and ownership

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Complex Hunter-Gatherers: Who Needs Agriculture?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2020, August 29). Complex Hunter-Gatherers: Who Needs Agriculture? Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "Complex Hunter-Gatherers: Who Needs Agriculture?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).