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Until about 10,000 years ago, humans of all cultures were foragers who gathered their food from the natural environment. Although purely foraging societies no longer exist, some peoples involved to varying degrees in economies and political systems still rely on foraging lifeways. The study of modern foragers can provide historians with knowledge, albeit limited, about the diversity of human experience.
Anthropologists call human groups who subsist by collecting foods from the natural environment foragers. Unlike food producers—groups who subsist by herding, gardening, or farming—foragers grow little or no food of their own. They hunt animals, fish, and gather plants, reptiles, insects, and other foodstuffs. Because their primary forms of food acquisition are hunting and gathering, they are also commonly referred to as hunter-gatherers or collectors.
For the 2–3 million years of human existence up to about ten thousand years ago, all humans were foragers, and therefore all cultures were foraging cultures. Foraging began to be replaced by herding and farming in western Asia about ten thousand years ago, and since then the percentage of humans who are foragers and cultures that are foraging cultures has steadily declined. In the modern era (since about 1750) foraging has been the primary subsistence strategy of only a very small percentage of people on Earth. As foraging peoples have come into contact with or under the rule of nation-states, many have disappeared, been absorbed into the dominant culture, or been reduced to a marginal existence on the fringes of society. Dominance by modern nation-states is now so complete that in 2010 there are no purely foraging cultures, and there probably have not been any for several decades. Sensational claims in the media of the discovery of Stone Age peoples, such as the Tasaday of the Philippines in 1971, have proven on closer examination to be false or exaggerated. Those peoples that have continued to rely on foraging lifeways in recent times have rarely lived entirely independently and have been involved to varying degrees in local, regional, national, and global economies and political systems.
If modern foragers are so few in number and have minimal political and economic significance, why are they important in world history? They have drawn and continue to draw attention that far exceeds their numbers because they are viewed as surviving representatives of the foraging (Paleolithic) era, from whom it is often assumed that we can learn about the human past. Unfortunately, while the study of modern foragers can and does inform about the diversity of the human experience, much recent research suggests that there are narrow limits to what can be learned about our foraging ancestors from the ways of life of foragers in the present.
Distribution and Lifeways of Modern Foragers
In modern times foragers have lived on every continent except Europe, although their distribution has typically been limited to specific regions. In North America, modern-era foragers included the Inuit peoples of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, the desert peoples of the American West; and the forest peoples of the northwest coast, the Great Basin, and the subarctic regions. In South America foragers were encountered in Amazonia, the Grand Chaco, and Tierra del Fuego. In Africa there were two major dispersals—in the tropical rainforests of central Africa and in the Kalahari Desert in the southwest. In Asia, foragers were found in the rain forests of the south and southeast (in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines) and in Arctic Siberia. Finally, in the Pacific, the aboriginal peoples of Australia were foragers. Among the foragers who have drawn considerable anthropological and popular attention are the Mbuti and Efe of central Africa, the San of Botswana, the Andaman Islanders in the Andaman Sea, the Copper Eskimos in Alaska, the Chukchi in Siberia, the Ache of Paraguay, the Yir Yoront and Tiwi in Australia, and the Semang and related groups in Malaysia.
Anthropologists now recognize that foraging societies are similar to one another in many ways, but they also differ in significant ways. The key difference is one of scale, with some groups being small and having a relatively simple social and political organization, while other groups are more complex, with larger populations and more specialized and differentiated social and political systems. To some extent, this variation is best viewed as a continuum, from simple to complex or, as it is sometimes labeled, from classic foragers to affluent foragers. Some of the better-known foragers fall at the classic end of the continuum; these include the Mbuti, San, Inuit, and many Australian Aborigines. Among those at the affluent end of the continuum were the Ainu of Japan, the Tlingit and several other cultures of the Pacific Northwest, the Tiwi, and several native peoples of central and northern California.
Classic foragers lived traditionally in small, migratory bands of less than a hundred people. They moved about to seek the best living conditions and to acquire food. Movement was not random, but was based on experience and knowledge of nature. The basic social group was the nuclear family of a father, mother, and their children. Bands were formed by groups of related families and grew or shrank in size in accord with available natural resources such as water, game, and plant foods. Social relations were based on ties of kinship, friendship, and trading partnerships. Exchange was based on reciprocity, and in the absence of personal property, sharing was the rule. The division of labor was based on sex and age, with women usually doing all or most of the gathering of plants and other foodstuffs, water, and firewood and caring for the children. Men did the hunting, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups, and were usually responsible for dividing the products of the hunt and for trading with other groups. Food was consumed soon after it was obtained. Conflict was resolved through gossip, physical fights, public ridicule, and ostracism. Leadership was fluid, generally going to the person best at the task, although men with much kin support or with oratorical skills might occupy a position of informal leadership. In some cultures animism and shamanism were the religious systems, with the environment often seen as uncertain and even hostile. Religious ritual generally centered on influencing the supernatural world of spirits and other forces to look and act benevolently toward the human world.
The key difference between classic and affluent foragers was that the latter lived in richer environments and thus were able not only to collect but also to process and store food for future use. The Tlingit gathered salmon and other fish in large quantities from spawning streams, and Native American groups in northern California gathered acorns and processed them into flour. Affluent foragers also developed more sophisticated technology to exploit the environment. The rich environment and steady supply of food led to other differences from classic foragers. Affluent foraging communities were larger and permanent or semipermanent. There was more personal property, and there was occupational specialization, with some people acting as leaders, some specializing in crafts, such as canoe making, and some acting as religious specialists. Social status based on wealth, personal abilities, and family status was the rule, and individual families were defined in terms of their place in larger lineages or clans. Leaders of these larger kin groups were usually men who were socially adept at managing kin relations and marrying off or marrying in women to create kin networks loyal to them. The economic system was based on trade, not only of goods but also of personal services. As with classic foragers, conflict was not unknown, and relations with neighboring groups were often hostile.
Impact of the Outside World
The impact of the outside world, and especially of Western colonists on modern-era foragers, has been shaped to a significant extent by several stereotypes of foragers. Perhaps the earliest stereotype, adhered to by many colonial officials, soldiers, and missionaries, was that foragers were primitive savages who were intellectually and morally inferior to the colonizers and who needed to be civilized and converted to Christianity. This view empowered colonial officials and their agents to take land and other resources, enslave foragers, relocate them, force them to convert to Christianity, remove their children for education in white-controlled schools, and enmesh them in a market economy. It also empowered scientists to study them as objects, to acquire, store, and exhibit forager material culture in museums, and in some cases to exhibit the foragers themselves or bones of their ancestors.
In many cases, what the colonists most wanted was the valuable natural resources found in the traditional territories of foragers. Those resources included sea mammals, fish, animal fur, minerals, trees, and the land itself for use in farming or ranching. Given their small numbers and lack of sophistication, foragers were rarely able to offer much resistance, and many individuals and groups disappeared either through extinction or assimilation. Perhaps the most notorious case was the purposeful hunting down and killing of the Tasmanians by agents of the British Empire, which left no pureblood Tasmanians on Earth by the twentieth century. As destructive as colonial actions were, the infectious diseases that colonialists brought with them were equally or more destructive. It is not hard to understand, therefore, why the foraging lifeway has disappeared as a distinct type of culture.
A version of the noble savage stereotype, which developed in the 1960s, was the near opposite, with foragers idealized and romanticized as Earth’s first environmentalists, living in harmony with nature. Because their numbers were small, it is true that by and large foragers have left a much smaller ecological footprint on the Earth than have food producers. But it also true that affluent foragers often heavily exploited the environment and sometimes used wasteful techniques, such as driving animals over cliffs or netting enormous numbers of fish, to obtain what they wanted. In addition, since many modern-era foragers lived in economically marginal environments, they tended to view the environment as an uncertain and even hostile place.
Since the 1960s, as part of the broader indigenous rights movement, some foragers have used public opinion and the political and legal system to regain some rights, including political representation, control or ownership of some of their traditional territory and natural resources, and the return of their material culture and remains of their ancestors. Among the success stories are the growing indigenous rights movement in post–Soviet Union Siberia, protected areas set aside for groups in Brazil, legislation in the United States mandating the return of remains and material culture to Native Americans, the establishment of the Inuit homeland of Nunavut in northern Canada, and the legal recognition of land rights for Aboriginal peoples in Australia.
Learning from Modern Foragers
Anthropologists now generally agree that foragers in the modern era cannot be considered living guides to the lifeways of foragers of the past. This is the case for several reasons. First, no presently existing foraging society is a simple survival from the past. Rather, every society has its own history and has changed over time. Second, some contemporary foraging societies were not always foragers. For them foraging is a recent adaptation to the environment and represents a devolution from a former lifeway based on gardening or farming. Third, nearly all foragers of the modern era live in harsh environments—deserts, tropical forests, the Arctic north—while foragers in the past lived in a wider range of environments, some of which were less hostile to human existence.
Fourth, most foragers of the modern era did and do not live in isolation. Rather, they have had extensive and long-term exchange relations with other foragers and nonforagers. For example, many aboriginal groups in Australia were directly or indirectly involved in trade with the Chinese and Malay for hundreds of years. Some Bushmen groups in southwest Africa have lived a symbiotic existence for over a thousand years with neighboring Bantu-speaking farmers and herders. After Western contact, foragers in North America and Siberia were quickly drawn into the fur trade. And some anthropologists argue that tropical forest foragers such as the Mbuti in the Congo have always had trade relations with neighboring farmers.
Fifth, in the twentieth century all foragers that were not already so involved have come under the political control of nation-states and become part of local, regional, national, and global economic exchange networks. For example, forest products such as soap produced by foragers in Amazonia, bark art created by Australian aboriginals, and soapstone sculpture by Inuit peoples are all marketed internationally.
Despite these limiting factors, there is some recent research that suggests that we can learn something about the human past from modern foragers if we are careful about what questions we ask and what information we use to answer those questions. For example, the lifeways and adaptations of modern foragers do tell use something about how humans adapt and have adapted to different and changing environments. Social relations among foragers tell us something about conflict and cooperation and the significance of kin relations in human evolution. Forager worldviews and religious beliefs tell us something about human cognitive processes. Finally, comparison of foragers with other primates can tell us something about the life course of prehistoric humans and the evolutionary processes that shaped the human journey. Research on these and other questions is in its early stages and may well produce noteworthy findings.
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