CHAPTER 23. HUNTING AND GATHERING SOCIETIES

The type of society developed by early humans is known as hunting and gathering societies. This type of society, however, existed long before humans came on the scene. Compared to the other animals, man developed greater social cooperation in the hunt and in gathering, but certainly this is just a matter of degree rather than of kind.

Among humans there are still societies today that are of the hunting and gathering type in some of the more isolated areas of the earth. These societies tend to be small (often consisting of perhaps five or six family units), and have only limited occupational specialization. With respect to technology, hunting and gathering societies are the most primitive of all human societies. The tools that exist are made of wood, stone, bone, and other natural materials. Some tribes have not even mastered fire.

A common misconception is that the lives of these people are very hard ones. Precisely because their needs are simple, these people often have to work only two or three hours a day. Scholars have estimated that in some of these societies a family can gather enough wild cereal grain in three weeks to feed itself for a year. (This may be the reason for the references in the Bible to a past Eden.) This, however, is subject to a great deal of difference by ecology. For instance, the Ache Indian men of Paraguay spend 6.7 hours per day in subsistence activities (Hill and Hurtado 1989). They spend about 4.5 hours resting, socializing, or engaging in light activities. The women spend 8 hours in light work or childcare, and almost 4 hours in subsistence activities and moving camp.

Many of the differences among hunting and gathering societies are due to ecological variations. An example is provided by Julian Steward (19 ) in his Socio-political Groups. He studied the Western Shoshoni of Nevada and their Ute and Paiute neighbors. The Paiute practice of communal ownership of land was possible because their soils were fertile and provided sufficient plant and animal life to sustain a stable human population. In contrast, the territory occupied by the Western Shoshoni and Utes was much less fertile and highly erratic in its yield. This uncertain economic way of life compelled these latter groups to be somewhat nomadic, thereby precluding any system of land ownership.

In fact, there are few "typical" patterns in hunter-gatherer societies. Instead, they vary considerably in their diet, food- sharing, work patterns, childcare, and marriage systems. Hill and Hurtado (1989) write that in anthropology the approach increasingly taken is that of behavioral ecology, that is, the study of behavior from an evolutionary perspective. The two anthropologists did a study of the Ache Indians of Paraguay, consisting of four independent groups. Each day the villagers set out together. The men and women and children later split up, with the men hunting and the women gathering. At the end of the day they come together to prepare the food. Most of the food is communally shared. Stressing ecology, the authors found that food-sharing patterns were largely the result of the daily variance of major food types acquired, and this depends a great deal of ecology. For those foragers able to store food, they expected to find less food-sharing.

Most readers want to know whether or not women ever dominated any of the numerous hunting and gathering societies. To help answer this question, four levels in these societies can be distinguished. These levels vary primarily as the result of the type of biome in which the people found themselves.

The first level consists of such peoples as the Hadza of Tanzania and the Paliyans of southwest India, who eat little meat and derive most of their food from plants. They usually gather and eat parts of plants on the same day they collect the vegetation. They also eat the food individually rather than share it communally. These societies tend to be relatively egalitarian in matters of sex.

Also very egalitarian are those societies, such as the BaMbuti, where there is some degree of cooperation between men and women in the act of hunting. Their hunts usually involve chasing prey into nets. Here men and women are able to choose their own spouses, as well as to separate if so desired.

Still egalitarian, but less so, are those societies where hunting supplies close to 50 percent of the diet. Woodburn (1982) found the !Kung to be egalitarian even though meat constitutes 30 to 40 percent meat of their diet. These people often have to make long treks in order to obtain their meat sources. In this type of society the man with the greatest status is he who is the most skillful hunter. Consequently, men are more definitely set apart from women.

Then there are the less egalitarian societies, typified by the Eskimos. These people eat only meat, which the men exclusively catch. Here the sex roles are marked by a lower degree of equality. The men often treat the women as sex objects with the latter having little power over their own destinies.

Leakey (19 ) maintains that the status of women in hunting and gathering societies is inversely proportional to the amount of meat in their diet and the amount of involvement of men in the hunt. And, of course, the amount of meat depends on the type of biome the society inhabits. Nevertheless, regardless of the variability in hunting and gathering societies, the biological difference in size between men and women has meant that there has never been more than a rough equality between men and women in these societies.

Religion in Hunting and Gathering Societies

In this anti-racist trilogy, the emphasis has been on how ideas reflect and reinforce the self-interests of people. This is no different for religion. We will see how the religions varied over time, reflecting the changing nature of the technological levels of the societies.

An interesting question is why did religion arise among primitive humans. Certainly the world must have been a frightening place, and humans were anxious to reduce their fears of natural phenomena. While it is the fear that most theorists emphasize, early religion also sanctified the social rules developed in these societies.

The relative egalitarianism of hunting and gathering societies compared to societies to develop later is reflected in their religions, which are characterized by polytheism. There are gods for virtually every imaginable phenomena, such as rain, sunshine, trees, rabbits, and sickness. (Note that in polytheism all the gods are roughly equal to one another.)

 

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