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6.2: Foraging

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    “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongos in the world?” -/Xashe, !Kung forager[3]

    Foraging is a mode of subsistence defined by its reliance on wild plant and animal food resources already available in the environment rather than on domesticated species that have been altered by human intervention. Foragers use a remarkable variety of practices to procure meals. Hunting for animal protein is central to the foraging lifestyle and foragers capture and consume a wide variety of animals, from squirrels caught with a bow and arrow or blow dart to buffalo once killed by the dozens in communal hunts. Fishing for marine resources forms the basis for acquiring protein in many foraging communities and includes a range of practices from exploiting coastal shellfish and crab, to harvesting offshore resources such as deep-sea fish and marine mammals such as whales and seals. Augmenting the protein from hunting or fishing, gathered wild plant resources, such as fruits, nuts, roots, tubers, and berries typically provide a large percentage of the calories that go into any meal. Gathering requires expert knowledge of where plant resources can be found, when they will be best to harvest, and how to prepare them for consumption. Foraging is the only immediate return subsistence system.

    Definition: foraging

    A subsistence system that relies on wild plant and animal food resources. This system is sometimes called “hunting and gathering.”

    Foraging societies tend to have what is called a broad spectrum diet: a diet based on a wide range of resources. Many of the foods regularly eaten by foragers, such as insects and worms, would not necessarily be considered edible by many people in the United States. For example, many people do not know that earthworms are a good source of iron and high-quality protein, roughly equivalent to eggs, but that is exactly what anthropologists learned by studying the diet of foraging societies in Venezuela.[4] Foragers are scientists of their own ecosystems, having acquired extensive knowledge of the natural world through experience that allows them to exploit many kinds of food resources. The Aché, a foraging group living in the subtropical rainforest in Paraguay, eat 33 different kinds of mammals, more than 15 species of fish, the adult forms of 5 insects, 10 types of larvae, and at least 14 kinds of honey. This is in addition to finding and collecting 40 species of plants.[5] The !Kung foragers, who live in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, treasure the mongongo nut, which is tasty, high in protein, and abundant for most of the year, but they also hunt giraffes, six species of antelope, and many kinds of smaller game like porcupine.[6]

    Definition: broad spectrum diet

    A diet based on a wide range of food resources.

    In general, foraging societies are small, with low population densities of less than 5 people per square mile. Large families and communities are not necessarily desirable since more mouths to feed can equate to increased pressure to find food. Another factor that contributes to a lower population density is the fact that it is more difficult for the young and the elderly to participate in food procurement. Children only gradually acquire the skills necessary to successfully find food and generally do not make significant contributions to the group until their teenage years. Likewise, elders who can no longer produce enough food themselves expect to be cared for by others.[7]

    One important hallmark of foraging societies is their egalitarian social structure. Stark differences in wealth, which characterize many societies, are rare in foraging communities. One reason for this is that foragers have a different perspective on private property. Foraging societies tend to move their camps frequently to exploit various resources, so holding on to a lot of personal possessions or “wealth” is impractical. Foragers also place a high cultural value on generosity. Sharing of food and other resources is a social norm and a measure of a person’s goodness. Those who resist sharing what they have with others will be ridiculed, or could even become social outcasts.[8] Over the long term, daily habits of giving and receiving reinforce social equality. This practice is also an important survival strategy that helps groups get through times of food scarcity.

    Though foragers have high levels of social equality, not everyone is treated exactly the same. Gender inequality exists in many communities and develops from the fact that work among foragers is often divided along gender lines. Some jobs, such as hunting large animals, belong to men whose success in hunting gives them high levels of respect and prestige. While women do hunt in many communities and often contribute the majority of the group’s food through gathering, their work tends not to be as socially prestigious.[9] Likewise, elders in foraging communities tend to command respect and enjoy a higher social status, particularly if they have skills in healing or ritual activities.


    Nomadic lifestyles are the norm for most foragers, but there have been some societies that have broken this rule and developed large-scale sedentary societies. This was possible in areas with abundant natural resources, most often fish. Historically, fishing formed the foundation of large-scale foraging societies in Peru, the Pacific Northwest (the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw), and Florida (the Calusa). These societies all developed advanced fishing technologies that provided enough food surplus that some people could stop participating in food procurement activities.

    The Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw of the Pacific Northwest provide an excellent example. In that region, the salmon that spawn in the rivers are so abundant that they could support sedentary populations of a size that would normally be associated with intensive agriculture. Because there was a surplus of food, some members of society were able to pursue other full-time occupations or specializations such as working as artisans or even becoming “chiefs.” This led to wealth differences and social inequality that would not normally be found in a foraging community. Conscious of the corrosive effect of wealth and status differences on their community, the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw developed a tradition of potlatch, a kind of “extreme gift-giving” to neutralize some of these tensions.


    In 1651, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes became one of the first scholars to comment on foragers, describing their lifestyle as “nasty, brutish, and short.” We now realize that his viewpoint was colored by ethnocentrism and, more specifically, Eurocentrism. Hobbes, as well as many scholars that came after him, viewed Western societies as the pinnacle of social evolution and viewed less technologically advanced societies as deficient, antiquated, or primitive, a perspective that persisted well into the twentieth century.

    In the 1960s, the anthropological perspective on foragers changed when Marshall Sahlins suggested that these communities were “the original affluent society.” He argued that foragers had an idyllic life, in which only a small percentage of the day was spent “working,” or acquiring resources, and most of the day was spent in leisure and socializing, leading to stronger community and family bonds:

    Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter’s—in which all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.[10]

    Today anthropologists recognize that foraging, far from being primitive, is one of the most effective and dynamic subsistence systems humans have ever developed, yet Sahlins’ conception of the original affluent society is overly romantic. Foraging is a challenging lifestyle; some groups spend up to 70 hours per week collecting food. The amount of leisure time and relative comfort of the foraging lifestyle vary significantly based on differences in the availability of food and environmental conditions.[11]

    Contemporary studies of foraging also recognize that foragers have rarely lived in isolation. Throughout the world, foragers have lived near farming populations for hundreds or even thousands of years. Conflicts and competition for resources with non-foraging societies have characterized the foraging experience and foragers, with their relatively small population size and limited technology, have often been on the losing end of these confrontations. Government policies containing foragers to small “reservation” areas or forcing them to settle in towns have had catastrophic effects on foragers, as has the destruction through agricultural and industrial development of the ecosystems on which many groups once depended. A sad worldwide pattern of exploitation and marginalization is the reason that many foragers today live in dwindling communities in marginal ecological zones.[12]

    The Built Environment and Domesticated Landscapes

    None of us live in a natural environment. Current research on the causes of global climate change have demonstrated that humans are having a profound effect on the Earth and its ecosystems, but it would be a mistake to conclude that human effects on the environment are a recent development. Humans have been making environmental alterations for a long time and we have been engaged in a process of domesticating the planet for several thousand years. For this reason, no part of the planet can really be considered 100 percent “natural.” When anthropologists study subsistence, they gain a window into the ways in which cultures have co-evolved with their environments, a field of study known as historical ecology. Analysis of the ways in which cultures and the environment are mutually interconnected, demonstrates that there is no way to separate the “natural” world from the human-influenced world, or what anthropologists refer to as the built environment.

    Definition: historical ecology

    The study of how human cultures have developed over time as a result of interactions with the environment.

    Definition: built environment

    Spaces that are human-made, including cultivated land as well as buildings.

    This can be seen by considering the historical ecology of the Nukak, a group of foragers who live in the Amazon rainforest near the headwaters of the Rio Negro along the southern border between Colombia and Venezuela and whose subsistence demonstrates the blurry line between foraging and agriculture and “natural” and “domesticated.” The Nukak are a small linguistic and ethnic group who are part of the larger culture known as Makú. The Nukak were the last among the Makú to be contacted by the outside world and perhaps owing to this fact, they practice the most “traditional” way of life. The Nukak were not known to the public at large until 1988, when a group of 41 individuals came in contact with a school in the rural town of Calamar, in southeastern Colombia.

    The Nukak are a highly mobile group of foragers who make an average of between 70 and 80 residential moves a year. The frequency of their moves changes seasonally: infrequent short-distance moves in the wet season, and more frequent long-distance moves occurring in the dry season. Anthropologist Gustavo Politis, who spent years living with the Nukak, observed that the Nukak will never occupy the same camp twice, even if they are moving to an area where an old camp is still in good shape. When they establish a camp, they remove all the light brush and some of the medium-sized trees, leaving a few medium-sized trees and all the large trees intact.

    Due to the selective nature of the forest clearing, a habitat, which can most readily be described as a “wild orchard,” is produced. This wild orchard offers nearly perfect conditions for the germination and growth of seeds because the large trees provide enough shade to prevent the invasion of vines and shrubs. As the Nukak use the camp and consume fruit they have gathered, they discard the uneaten portions, including the seeds. Significantly, the kinds of fruit the Nukak tend to eat in their camps are the ones that have hard outer seed cases. Once discarded in a Nukak campsite, these seeds have a higher chance of germinating and growing in the abandoned camp than they do in other parts of the rainforest. The result is that Nukak territory is peppered with wild orchards that have high concentrations of edible plants, and the forest reflects a pattern of human intervention long after the Nukak have departed.[13]

    The Nukak are an important case study in the Amazon for a number of reasons. They are a testament to the ability of small foraging groups to domesticate landscapes in active ways that greatly increase the productivity of the environment. They do this even though they are not “farmers” and will not always utilize the resources they help create. In addition, the Nukak demonstrate that no place in the Amazon can be considered pristine if a group such as the Nukak have ever lived there. The same can be said for the rest of the planet.

    The Domestication of the Dog and Cooperative Hunting

    Although the transition from foraging to agriculture is often described as the Agricultural Revolution, archaeological evidence suggests this change took a long time. The earliest species humans chose to domesticate were often not staple crops such as wheat, corn, rice, or cows, but utilitarian species. For instance, bottle gourds were domesticated for use as water containers before the invention of pottery. Dogs were domesticated as early as 15,000 years ago in eastern Asia from their wild ancestor the wolf. Although it is unlikely that dogs were an important source of food, they did play a role in subsistence by aiding humans who relied on hunting the Ice Age megafauna such as wooly mammoths. Dogs played such a critical role in hunting that some archaeologists believe they may have contributed to the eventual extinction of the woolly mammoths.[14] Dogs were also valued for their role as watchdogs capable of protecting the community from predators and invaders.

    Image of a woolly mammoth, a species possibly hunted to extinction in North America
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The woolly mammoth was hunted to extinction in North America at the end of the last ice age. It is likely that dogs played a critical role in hunting these and other large game animals.


    Politis, Gustavo. Nukak: Ethnoarchaeology of an Amazonian People. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007.

    Sahlins, Marshall. “The Original Affluent Society.” In Stone Age Economics, edited by Marshall Sahlins, 1–39. London: Tavistock, 1972.


    1. Richard B. Lee, “What Hunters Do for a Living, or, How to Make Out on Scarce Resources,” in Man the Hunter, ed. Richard Lee and Irven DeVore (Chicago: Aldine, 1968), 33.
    2. Maurizio G.Paoletti, E. Buscardo, DJ Vanderjagt, A Pastuszyn, L Pizzoferrato, YS Huang, et al., “Nutrient Content of Earthworms Consumed by Ye’Kuana Amerindians of the Alto Orinoco of Venezuela,” Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 270 (2003): 249–257.
    3. Kristen Hawkes, Kim Hill and James F. O’Connell, “Why Hunters Gather: Optimal Foraging and the Aché of Eastern Paraguay,” American Ethnologist 9 (1982):379–398.
    4. Richard Lee, The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
    5. For more information about intergenerational dynamics among foragers see Kathryn Keith “Childhood Learning and the Distribution of Knowledge in Foraging Societies,” Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 15 (2005): 27–40 and Harriet G. Rosenberg, “Complaint Discourse, Aging, and Caregiving among the !Kung San of Botswana,” in The Cultural Context of Aging, ed. Jay Sokolovsky (New York: Bergin and Garvey, 1990)19–41. The quotation is from Rosenberg page 29.
    6. For a discussion of generosity and sharing in foraging communities see Lorna Marshall, “Sharing, Talking, and Giving: Relief of Social Tensions among !Kung Bushmen,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 31(1961):231–249 and Lester Hiatt, “Traditional Attitudes to Land Resources,” in Aboriginal Sites, Rites and Resource Development, ed. R. M. Berndt (Perth: University of Western Australia Press. 1982) 13–26.
    7. Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds. Man the Hunter (New York: Aldine, 1968).
    8. Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society,” in Stone Age Economics, ed. Marshall Sahlins (London: Tavistock, 1972) 1–39.
    9. Kristen Hawkes and James F. O’Connell, “Affluent Hunters? Some Comments in Light of the Alyawara Case,” American Anthropologist 83(1981): 622–626.
    10. See for example Robert J. Gordon, The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000).
    11. Gustavo Politis, Nukak: Ethnoarchaeology of an Amazonian People (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007).
    1. Adapted From

    "Subsistence" by Isaac Shearn, Community College of Baltimore County. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

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