Gathering / Hunting Societies
include all cultural groups, past and present, that subsist exclusively on noncultivated foodstuffs. They do not raise animals or practice agriculture but depend on collecting wild plants, fishing, hunting, and a variety of intermediate food-procuring activities. Because the terms "hunting" and "gathering" do not fully describe the variety of food-collecting activities that these groups engage in, and because of the cultural bias that associates hunting with males and gathering with females, some anthropologists have suggested the term "forager" as a more accurate label for this type of society.
Both prehistoric and modern foraging bands have several characteristics in common, although there are exceptions to these generalizations. Most are small, with a maximum of 50 individuals. They are generally nomadic and move within a prescribed territory in order to exploit the area's resources. They are considered to be egalitarian, meaning that there is no ranking of individuals within the band, and no band member, male or female, can dominate another. This last feature is a behavior observed in several modern foraging societies; therefore, we cannot be sure that prehistoric peoples were also egalitarian.
The assumption in most traditional studies of foraging bands has been that women are inferior to men. Males were seen as the major protagonists in humanity's past, with women having a secondary or incidental role. This bias led anthropologists and archaeologists alike to focus on the hunting activities of band societies as exclusively a male activity, while underestimating the importance of gathering, which is generally assumed to be a female activity. Women were thought to have little power within the group, based on their low status as gatherers and mothers.
Feminist anthropologists saw the danger of the man-the-hunter myth in its underlying support of the "natural" inferiority of women. Their studies and a move toward a more objective viewpoint in ethnographic studies led to a shift away from the male orientation to a more balanced view of gender roles. A new picture of band societies that is beginning to emerge includes a realization of the importance of plant collection in the subsistence strategies of many past and present societies. However, it is also important to understand the enormous variation in gender roles that is possible among foraging peoples. Many cultures may not assign hunting and gathering tasks based on gender, and these tasks need not be an indication of status.
Prehistoric Gatherer-Hunters
For most of human history, people have practiced a foraging way of life. Our earliest ancestors, who lived 2 million years ago, during the Lower Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), collected wild plants, insects, and small animals. They left no evidence of large-scale hunting activity and probably scavenged meat from the remains of larger carnivores' meals. Because there is so little evidence of variation in tools and in food-procuring techniques, it seems reasonable to assume that hunting and gathering were not specialized activities until later in human evolution. Females and males probably took part in all these activities, with little regard to gender-assigned roles.
With the emergence of the first member of the human species, the Neanderthal, 125,000 years ago, there is growing evidence that human society was becoming more complex. Neanderthals made more sophisticated tools and buried their dead. There is still no evidence that anyone had higher status within the group, however, or that men dominated women.
The beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, about 35,000 years ago, marks the appearance of modern humans: Homo sapiens. This period coincided with the drier, colder climatic conditions of the late Pleistocene. Vast areas of Europe were covered with grasslands, upon which roamed reindeer, mammoth, bison, horse, and woolly rhino. Archaeological research reveals that the number of sites increased dramatically at this time, as did the complexity of society. There were more specialized tools for working wood and bone and for making clothing.
Spectacular cave paintings and carvings appear during this period, including the first representations of the human figure, often called the "Venus" figurines. It was traditionally assumed that these figures were fertility or sexual symbols and were made by men, but it is equally possible that they were made by women. Interestingly, they appear when, for the first time in human history, there was a rapid rise in population. Women were having more children and may have encouraged fecundity by weaning their children at an increasingly earlier age.
The late Paleolithic people of Eurasia were dependent to a great degree on hunting, but this is no reason to assume that women did not enjoy equal status. The usual technique for hunting the grazing herds was to organize animal drives, in which animals were driven into ravines or into artificial enclosures to be killed. These drives required the entire community's cooperation, and ethnographic studies indicate that women and men could have had similar roles in this operation.
Archaeologists have held firmly to their conception that all prehistoric people were hunters. This must be seen as an intrinsic problem in the nature of the archaeological record. Animal food leaves a greater amount of waste in the form of bone, which is well preserved in most soils. Plant foods leave less waste and are poorly preserved. Stone tools may be interpreted as hunting and butchering implements, although they may actually have been used for plant harvesting and preparation. Also, many tools may have been made of wood or other perishable substances and, hence, not survive as well as stone, which would also skew the bias toward hunting. There is even speculation that the most indispensable tool of a foraging culture would have been the carrying pouch, used to carry foodstuffs and children. These, too, being made of skins or plant fibers, would have perished long ago.
The hunters of the Eurasian plains were only one type of society during the Late Paleolithic, albeit the most intensively studied. Other groups, in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, were practicing more intensive food-collecting techniques that would eventually lead to the emergence of plant and animal domestication and the growth of stratified society.
Modern Gathering and Hunting Societies
There is no culture group living today that has not been deeply affected by modern Western society. However, there are small bands of people who still practice a "Stone Age" economy, getting most of their food by foraging. These groups have been investigated in an effort to understand our human ancestors. Modern foragers, however, have had as long a history as any present-day society and therefore cannot be considered to behave like prehistoric people.
Women's status in these societies is extremely variable, and anthropologists have had a difficult time interpreting gender roles objectively. Most anthropologists have been male and have tended to bias their studies toward male activities, interviewing only the men of the band. Anthropological research is now focusing on the entire experience of the community of women, men, children, and the elderly. The outcome of such research shows that women's status in these groups often cannot be described in our culture's terms and that our ideas of power and aggression may be inadequate to understand the experiences of people in other societies.
The !Kung of the Kalihari Desert in Botswana are often used as an example of a typical hunting and gathering community. The men traditionally hunt with poisoned arrows, while the women collect nuts, roots, and fruits. Eighty percent of the !Kung diet is provided by the women. Females and males enjoy equivalent status within the group structure. Their economy is based on sharing and cooperation, and anthropologists have postulated that prehistoric humans were similar to the !Kung. Although this is a simplistic approach to understanding prehistoric behavior, the !Kung do offer an alternative to Western society's biased attitude toward male/female roles.
The Agta Negritos of the Philippines, a present-day tribal people, are an example of a culture whose women and men share all subsistence activities. Most interestingly, the women of a number of Agta tribes hunt large game with bows, arrows, and hunting dogs. The women are prevented from hunting only during late pregnancy and the first few months after giving birth. Teenagers and women with older children are the most frequent hunters. The women space their children to allow for maximum mobility. They maintain that they keep their birthrate down through the use of herbal contraceptives.
By studying these ethnographic examples and by questioning the assumptions that have been made about female and male roles in prehistory, it becomes possible to understand that Western society's traditionally low view of women's status is by no means universal. If the study of human culture has one thing to teach us, it is that human behavior and culture allow for adaptation and that gender roles are not determined by biological laws but can be changed.
Frances Dahlberg (ed.), Woman the Gatherer (New Haven, Conn., 1981); Margaret Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory, vol. 4 (Norman, Okla., 1989); Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey (eds.), Engendering Archaeology (Oxford, 1991).
Citation: Contributor last name, contributor first name. "Gathering / Hunting Societies." In Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney. Greenwood Press, 2002. today's date <>