For roughly 90% of history, humans were foragers who used simple technology to gather, fish, and hunt wild food resources. Today only about a quarter million people living in marginal environments, e.g., deserts, the Arctic and topical forests, forage as their primary subsistence strategy. While studying foraging societies allows anthropologists to understand their cultures in their own right, the data from these studies provides us with an avenue to understanding past cultures.
While the resources foraging groups utilize vary depending on the environment, there are some common characteristics among foragers:
- Foragers generally make their own tools using materials available in the local environment, however, through the process of development and increasing contact with other groups of people, machine made tools are making their way into foraging societies.
- There is a high degree of mobility as the group may follow migrating herds or seasonally available resources.
- Group size and population density is small so as not to surpass the carrying capacity of the environment.
- Resource use is extensive and temporary. In other words, foragers may use a wide-variety of resources over a large territory; however, they leave enough resources so that the area can regenerate. Once the resources reach a certain level, the group moves on.
- Permanent settlements are rare.
- Production is for personal use or to share and trade.
- The division of labor tends to be divided by age and gender.
- Kin relations are usually reckoned on both the mother and father’s side.
- There is usually no concept of personal ownership, particularly of land.
- If left to follow traditional patterns, foraging as a subsistence strategy is highly sustainable.
Types of Foraging Groups
Aquatic: Aquatic foragers, like the Ou Haadas, or the Haida, who live in the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia, Canada, and Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, United States, rely primarily on resources from water. At the time of contact with Europeans, the Haidu utilized a wide variety of foods from the surrounding waters, including salmon, halibut, crabs, scallops, sea cucumber, sea lion, otters, and seaweed. They also hunted for land mammals like bear and deer and gathered wild plants such as rhubarb, fern, and berries.
Pedestrian: As the name implies, pedestrian foragers get their food by collecting on foot. The !Kung San are more properly known as the Zhu|õasi. They live in the Kalahari desert are one example of a pedestrian foraging group. The Zhu|õasi use about 100 species of animals and over 150 species of plants, although not all are used for food. The primary food source is the mongongo nut that is high in protein. The Zhu|õasi eat their way out of areas, starting with their favorite food and then the less desirable food. Once the resources get low, the group will move to a new area. The Zhu|õasi also move seasonally as resources become available. During the rainy season, the Zhu|õasi live in small groups of 2-3 families. In the dry season, large camps of 20-40 people are established near permanent water sources.
Equestrian: Equestrian foragers are the most rare type of foraging group, being identified only the Great Plains of North America and the pampas and steppes of South America. This type of foraging strategy emerged after contact with European settlers who reintroduced the horse to the Americas. The Aonikenks live on the Patagonian Steppes of South America. The Aonikenks, also called the Tehuelche or people of the south, hunted guanaco, an indigenous camelid, in seasonal rounds. They also ate rhea (sometimes referred to as the South American ostrich), roots, and seeds.
Bonvillain, Nancy. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010.
Campbell, Shirley F. “Horticulture.” In Encyclopedia of Anthropology, Vol. 3, edited by H. James Birx, 1203-1204. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2006.
Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. Cultural Anthropology, 13th edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011.
Gezen, Lisa, and Conrad Kottak. Culture, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014.
Harris, Marvin and Oran Johnson. Cultural Anthropology, 7th edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007.
Hutchinson, Pamela Rae. “Haidas.” In Encyclopedia of Anthropology, Vol. 3, edited by H. James Birx, 1126-1134. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2006.
Jones, Kristine L. “Squelches.” In Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, Vol. 6, 2nd edition, edited by Jay Innsbruck and Erick D. Anger, 37-38. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008.
Lavenda, Robert H. and Emily A. Schultz. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology, 4th edition. Boston: McGowan Hill Higher Education, 2010.
O’Neil, Dennis. 2006. “Foraging.” Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College. Accessed October 9, 2010.http://anthro.palomar.edu/subsistence/sub_2.htm.
Rambo, Karl and Paula Brown. “Chimbu.” In Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 2: Oceania, 34-37. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.