Hunter Gatherers - People Who Live on the Land

Who Needs to Plant Crops or Raise Animals?

19th Century Limba Arrows, Sierra Leone
19th century Limba arrows held by Mamadou Mansaray, town chief of Bafodia, Sierra Leone (West Africa). John Atherton

Hunter gatherers, with or without a dash, is the term used by anthropologists and archaeologists to describe a specific kind of lifestyle: simply, hunter-gatherers hunt game and collect plant foods (called foraging) rather than grow or tend crops. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was what all human beings followed from the Upper Paleolithic of some 20,000 years ago, until the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.

Not every group of us on the planet embraced agriculture and pastoralism, and there are still small, relatively isolated groups today who practice hunting and gathering to one extent or another.

Shared Characteristics

Hunter-gatherer societies vary in many respects: how much they relied (or rely) on hunting for game versus foraging for plants; how often they moved; how egalitarian their society was. Hunter-gatherer societies of the past and present do have some shared characteristics. In a paper for the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University, which has collected ethnographic studies from all types of human societies for decades and ought to know, Carol Ember defines hunter-gatherers as fully or semi-nomadic people who live in small communities with low population densities, do not have specialized political officers, have little defines hunter-gatherers as fully or semi-nomadic people who live in small communities with low population densities, do not have specialized political officers, have little status differentiation, and divide up required tasks by gender and age.

Remember, though, that agriculture and pastoralism weren't handed to humans by some extraterrestrial force: the people who began the process of domesticating plants and animals were hunter-gatherers. Full-time hunter-gatherers domesticated dogs, and also maize, broomcorn millet and wheat. They also invented pottery, shrines, and religion, and living in communities.

The question is probably best expressed as which came first, domesticated crop or domesticated farmer?

Living Hunter-Gatherer Groups

Up until about a hundred years ago, hunter-gatherer societies were unknown and unbothered by the rest of us. But in the early 20th century, Western anthropologists became aware of and interested in the groups. Today, there are very few (if any) groups who are unconnected to modern society, taking advantage of modern tools, clothing, and foods, being followed by research scientists and becoming susceptible to modern diseases. Despite that contact, there are still groups who get at least a major portion of their subsistence by hunting wild game and gathering wild plants.

Some living hunter-gatherer groups include: Ache (Paraguay), Aka (Central African Republic and Republic of the Congo), Baka (Gabon and Cameroon), Batek (Malaysia), Efe (Democratic Republic of the Congo), G/Wi San (Botswana), Lengua (Paraguay), Mbuti (eastern Congo), Nukak (Colombia), !Kung (Namibia), Toba/Qom (Argentina), Palanan Agta (Phillippines), Ju/'hoansi or Dobe (Namibia).

Hadza Hunter-Gatherers

Arguably, the Hadza of eastern Africa are the most studied living hunter-gatherer groups today.

Currently, there are about 1,000 people who call themselves Hadza, although only about 250 are still full-time hunter-gatherers. They live in a savanna-woodland habitat of about 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) around Lake Eyasi in northern Tanzania--where some of our most ancient hominid ancestors also lived. They live in mobile camps of about 30 individuals per camp. The Hadza move their campsites about once every 6 weeks ​and camp membership changes as people move in and out.

The Hadza diet is made up of honey, meat, berries, baobab fruit, tubers and in one region, marula nuts. The men search for animals, honey and sometimes fruit; Hadza women and children specialize in tubers. The men typically go hunting every day, spending between two and six hours hunting alone or in small groups.

They hunt birds and small mammals using bow and arrow; hunting large game is assisted with poisoned arrows. The men always carry a bow and arrow with them, even if they're out to get honey, just in case something turns up.

Recent Studies

Based on a quick peek into Google Scholar, there are thousands of studies published each year about hunter-gatherers. How do those scholars keep up? Some recent studies I looked at (listed below) have discussed systematic sharing, or the lack of it, among hunter-gatherer groups; responses to the ebola crisis; handedness (hunter-gatherers are predominantly right-handed); color naming (Hadza hunter gatherers have fewer consistent color names but a larger set of idiosyncratic or less common color categories; gut metabolism; tobacco use; anger research; and pottery use by Jomon hunter-gatherers.

As researchers have learned more about hunter-gatherer groups, they've come to recognize that there are groups who have some characteristics of agricultural communities: they live in settled communities, or have gardens when they tend crops, and some of them have social hierarchies, with chiefs and commoners. Those types of groups are referred to as Complex Hunter-Gatherers.


The Human Relations Area Files is an excellent place for conducting research on ethnographic studies on hunter-gatherers (or really any human society, past or present). See Carol R. Ember's paper linked below.