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Social Sci LibreTexts

5: Subsistence (Shearn)


  • Identify the four modes of subsistence and describe the major activities associated with obtaining food in each system.
  • Explain the difference between wild and domesticated resources and how plants and animals are domesticated.
  • Explain the relationship between the subsistence system used in a society and the amount of private property or wealth differences that develop.
  • Assess the ways in which subsistence systems are linked to expectations about gender roles.
  • Categorize the social and economic characteristics associated with agriculture and describe the benefits and drawbacks of the agricultural subsistence system.
  • Analyze the ways in which the global agricultural system separates producers from consumers and contributes to wealth differences.
  • Appraise the ways in which human intervention in the environment has made it difficult to separate the “natural” from the human-influenced environment.

Finding food each day is a necessity for every person no matter where that person lives, but food is not just a matter of basic survival. Humans assign symbolic meaning to food, observing cultural norms about what is considered “good” to eat and applying taboos against the consumption of other foods. Catholics may avoid meat during Lent, for instance, while Jewish and Islamic communities forbid the consumption of certain foods such as pork. In addition to these attitudes and preferences, every society has preferred methods for preparing food and for consuming it with others. The cultural norms and attitudes surrounding food and eating are known as foodways. By studying both the subsistence system used by a society to acquire food and the foodway associated with consuming it, anthropologists gain insight into the most important daily tasks in every society.

  • 5.1: Studying Subsistence Systems
    Since the need to eat is one of the few true human universals, anthropologists have studied subsistence systems from a variety of perspectives. One way to think about the importance of food for human populations is to consider the number of calories an individual must obtain every day in order to survive. Anthropologists use the term carrying capacity to quantify the number of calories that can be extracted from a particular unit of land to support a human population.
  • 5.2: Modes of Subsistence
    Like all human systems, a society’s subsistence system is intricately linked to other aspects of culture such as kinship, politics, and religion. Although we can study these systems in isolation, it is important to remember that in the real world all aspects of culture overlap in complex ways.
  • 5.3: The Global Agriculture System
  • 5.S: Subsistence (Summary)

Thumbnail: Rice cultivation in Banyumas, Central Java. Image used with permission (CC BY-SA 3.0; Wie146).