Hunting and Gathering: A Lifestyle for a Small Planet

Ladule Lako LoSarah

As humans unveil new technology everyday, there are benefits and harmful aspects to the environment.  It is evident; however, that the general trend in technological advances, the environment experiences the negative externality.  Notwithstanding, alongside the harm are invaluable advantages that have shifted the human experience away from simple day to day subsistence and survival. (Of course blunt survival tactics appear where people are born into poverty or a government oppresses them into such a state.)  Nevertheless, fortunate human across the globe lack the necessity to survive and are free of Darwinian natural selection.  We (humans in the category described previously) amiably consider our way of life as the epitome of civilization, and any deviation away is sub par and primitive.  These definitions themselves, however, are more ambiguous than we would like to think. 

12,000 years ago, human populations had migrated into the majority of the inhabitable regions of the globe from Africa to Australia and the Americas.  These peoples organized into small factions and adapted to a modest lifestyle of hunting and gathering.  The essence of hunting and gathering economies is to exploit many resources lightly rather than to depend heavily on only a few.  This method of substance is primitive by our modern standards, yet it is compelling that some of these cultures thrived and enjoyed security.  They never feared starvation.  Historian Clive Pointing observed that hunting and gathering “was without doubt the most successful and flexible way of life adopted by humans and the one that caused the least damage to natural ecosystems.” 

Since people all across the globe used hunting and gathering to survive, different models appeared in various geographical regions due to local resources.  Two strong hunter gather communities were the ancient native peoples of the Pacific Northwest and the contemporary various Bushmen ethnic groups of South-West Africa.  They both have worked in unison with their environment; scholars argue that there is “closeness of fit between hunting and gathering peoples and their environments.”  Both of these models provided the populations with sufficient food while remaining in unity with the environment.  Hunting and gathering is in fact a civilized and sustainable method of living and interaction between humans and the natural environment.

The Kalahari Desert is home to a diverse population of Bushmen, most notably the !Kung.  They live from day to day by harnessing the environment’s flows of energy, opportunistically taking advantage of the living systems which surround them at any given time.   They organize in a small, personal world defined by the band, which seldom consists of more than 250 people.  There are over 84 species of edible plants on which 23 in addition to hunting 17 of 54 comestible animals.  They expend small amounts of time foraging and hunting, on the average two and a half days a week.  Their culture lacks the sense of ownership; therefore the members lack adequate incentive for working harder and longer than others.  The !Kung in fact have a “material plenty”. Tools are easy to make and are composed of natural objects which are abundant; there is no need for accumulation.  Their stable food is mongongo nut, that grows on a drought-resistant tree, is highly nutritious and stores well for over a year.   One Bushman inquired, “Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”  Nature has rewarded the !Kung with this philosophy due to abundance.

Western, modern cultures look down upon the !Kung as savage and uncivilized.  Au contraire, they have a rich culture that provides adaquate food for the group while leaving large amounts of lesure time.  In this leasure time, they partake in many culrual practices to give meaning to their lives inbetween hunting and foreging expeditions.  It has already been noted that the !Kung do not accumulate materials. Instead, their culture relies upon knowledge which is passed down as well as upon intelligence which is collected and constantly updated.  They live in an egalitarian society where the group always benefits over the indivudial.  Their religious beliefs exist in animalistic gods and goddesses, it is perhaps for this reason that they are in profound unity with their evnironments and expert animal trackets. This society, despite being “obsolete” hunter-gathers, provides its members with an adaquate life by starndards of nourishment, leaisure and culture.

The abundant Pacific North-West Coast was once home to another hunter-gather culture.  Pointing noted, “Perhaps most extraordinary development thought took place on the north-west Pacific.”  The Haida people boasted a highly developed culture by modern standards while hunting and gathering.  The marine environment provided bountiful resources of seal, sea lions and otters, and in particular the salmon that returned to rivers to spawn.  This large amount of food resulted in more effort for storing and keeping supplies rather than acquiring and hunting.  .  In aims to maintain food for the winters, they would engage in smoking meats and rendering fats to oil during the summer months.  In addition, they carefully exploited the rich redwood forest, constructing large canoes for fishing and hunting.  They meticulously used each part of the animals that they consumed, from tools to hides and blubber.  This could be linked to their cultural beliefs (which are addressed in the following paragraph).

The environment provided the peoples of this area with a large abundance of food, due to this environmental condition, the people adopted many advanced cultural practices.  These are prime examples of a natural environment shaping an early people’s culture.  This cultural practice of storing food due to the environment created an idea of property within the group.  Specialization of labor due to this abundance ensued.  With this, trade, bartering and even money appeared.  Their social structure proved to be sophisticated with villages, chiefs and tradesmen working different professions.  Naturally where there is a surplus food, cultures develop arts, the peoples of the Pacific North-West followed this constructing large, artistic totem poles to honor their ancestor whom they viewed with animalistic traits.  Common symbols were the bear and salmon that they held sacred.  This culture proved to be the most intricate society because this level of social and cultural organization is very rare in nonagricultural societies.  The environment, providing the people with immense amounts of natural resources, allowed the culture, arts, and society to flourish into exceptional standards.

These two cultures exemplified the hunter-gather lifestyle in two different models.  Compared to standards of living in many impoverished parts of the world today, these cultures prevail as better means of subsistence for a group.  In retrospect, it may be simple for modern society to deem their life inferior and primitive, yet they have established many cultural traits that prove to be advanced.  Our lifestyle appears the one that we need to question.  How sustainable is our existence today?  The !Kung have lived and co-habited with their environment for thousands of years counting and the cultures of the Pacific North-West prevailed until arrival of Europeans.  The modern everyday life seems to place us further and further from the environment in unsustainable conditions.  This ancient lifestyle of hunting and gathering lacks the characteristics of an uncivilized, brutish existence; oppositely it proved sustainable and sufficient for groups around the globe.

A !Kung male portrayed to American culture.

Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World. Pg. 20

ibid. Pg. 18

Coon, Carlton. 1971. The Hunting Peoples. Pg. 388 Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World. Pg. 20

ibid, pg. 21

Sahlins, Marshall. 2000. Culture in Practice. Part I Chapter III: “The Original Affluent Society”. Pg 95

Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World. Pg. 20

Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World. Pg. 31


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last updated 2/06/06