Hunting and Gathering

Brian Hayden. Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Editor: Solomon H Katz. Volume 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 

Hunting and gathering, or more generally stated as foraging, can be defined as a mode of subsistence in which all food is obtained from wild resources without any reliance on domesticated plants or animals. This has been the dominant means of subsistence for 99.5 percent of the 2.5 million years of human existence. It was only in the last ten thousand years or so that people began to domesticate and produce food in some areas, while in other areas hunting and gathering continued up until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Within this time period and throughout the many different geographical regions that people inhabited, there has been tremendous variation in food consumption. We will examine some of the major geographical, cultural, and temporal trends within this great diversity, as well as some common misconceptions.

Among the most prevalent misconceptions are the following:

  1. People relying on wild foods had to work constantly in order to obtain enough to eat, and thus had no time to develop the arts of civilized life. In reality, quantification of time use among contemporary hunter-gatherers living in comparatively harsh environments has demonstrated that even these foragers spend only two to five hours a day in obtaining food, leaving far more time for leisure than “civilized” people have.
  2. Hunter-gatherers are frequently on the brink of starvation and are generally malnourished. In contrast to this view, recent studies have shown that most hunter-gatherers experience infrequent famines and are generally better nourished than neighboring or comparable agriculturalists due in part to the wider variety of foods that hunter-gatherers usually obtain and the lack of reliance on the narrow range of starch-rich plants that tend to typify agricultural and horticultural societies.
  3. Hunting was the predominant source of food for hunter-gatherers. In fact, except for Arctic and Subarctic areas, plant foods were the most abundant and reliable foods and provided most of the daily fares (see Lee and DeVore 1986, Hayden, 1981). Surprisingly, hunters in most hunter-gatherer societies only manage to kill a few large game animals (over 10 kg) per year (Hawkes et al., p. 687).
  4. Meat has a higher caloric value than vegetable foods. In fact, they are often of equal value (Eaton et al., p. 80).
  5. Meat was always hunted. However, large proportions of the meat obtained even among contemporary hunter-gatherers is scavenged from kills of other animals.
  6. Meat was the major goal of hunting. In reality, fat is much more important (Hayden, 1981; Speth and Spielmann).

One example is seen among the Australian Aborigines, who, after bringing down a kangaroo, cut open the abdominal cavity of the animal in order to determine the fat content. If there is insufficient fat on the animal, it is not eaten but left in the bush. Similar behavior is recorded in James Woodburn’s film The Hadza (1966). There are also a number of accounts of hunter-gatherers who were starving despite the fact that they were eating large amounts of very lean meat. This is sometimes referred to as “rabbit starvation” in North America since it historically involved the reliance on lean rabbits by hunter-gatherers. Fat was critically important among hunter-gatherers for proper metabolism, for obtaining essential fatty acids, and for adequate calories to maintain body temperatures during cold periods.

While animals may not have been the major staple of most hunter-gatherer diets, ethnographically they were universally highly valued far above other types of foods. Successful hunting of animals conferred great status on individuals (Hawkes et al.), and hunting was almost universally carried out by men, while women and children gathered plants and small animals such as lizards, mice, or frogs.

Evolutionary Trends

The origin of hunting is hotly debated. Wooden spears have been recovered from deposits over 400,000 years old, and reasonable arguments have been advanced for hunting going back to the Lower Paleolithic, some two million years or more ago. Other scholars argue that there was a prolonged period encompassing the Lower Paleolithic and perhaps the Middle Paleolithic, when people (proto-people) relied primarily on scavenged rather than hunted meat. There is little evidence for the use of plant foods from these early periods, but they undoubtedly played important roles in the overall subsistence diet.

Up until twenty thousand years ago or so, we must assume that all food was either eaten raw or was roasted on open fires (the initial use of fire is also disputed, but seems definitely to be in place by 400,000 years ago). Until the end of the Paleolithic, there is no evidence of boiling containers or the heating of rocks to boil liquids. Ethnographically, there appears to have been no hunter-gatherers that made any alcoholic beverages either.

It is only around twenty thousand years ago that firecracked rocks begin to appear and were probably used in boiling foods such as vegetables and the first bone soups (for extracting the bone fats). Some five to ten thousand years later, the first evidence for the systematic exploitation of a wide range of new food types appears. This includes the first evidence for grass seed use (grinders), systematic fishing (net sinkers, fishhooks, leisters, and fish remains), and semi-toxic nuts like acorns. The expansion of food resources used together with the new technological inventions that made this possible is sometimes referred to as the “Mesolithic” technology or exploitation pattern. It is this pattern that persisted in most areas of the world where hunter-gatherers survived until contemporary times.

Choice of Foods

The choice of which plant, fish, insect, bird, and animal species were to be used for food was initially constrained by the regional environments that groups lived in and by the relative abundances at different trophic levels. In the Arctic, there are simply not many plant foods available for most of the year; in deserts, there are no fish; in each environment, the nature of the plants and animals will differ somewhat, but there will always be fewer (and more dangerous) carnivores than herbivores and more plants than herbivores. It is not possible or meaningful to catalog all such variations; however, it is possible to understand hunter-gatherer choices of foods in other ways using general trends or categories.

Although there is some variation between cultures in terms of what is considered to taste good, taste is frequently an important factor in determining which species are preferred to eat. Very strong-tasting flesh tends to be avoided (e.g., crows, mutton birds, mountain sheep [at least in the Northwest of North America]). Very fibrous or woody plants are less desirable than those with more fleshy tubers or fruits. There are also many plants that are mildly toxic or produce undesirable effects when eaten in varying amounts.

Transcending these considerations, it has often been observed that species that are rich in fats, oils, starches, or sugars are avidly sought by hunter-gatherers. This appears to be due to the fact that high caloric foods are relatively rare in the wild. Wild animals are very lean during most of the year, averaging only about 4 percent fat versus the 29 percent fat content that is typical for domesticated animals (Eaton et al., p. 80). Bears are often favorite foods because they store large amounts of fat for winter hibernation; beavers are favored for the same reason. In southeastern Australia, streams were modified and canals constructed in order to capture large numbers of migrating, oil-rich eels. Elsewhere, in eastern Australia, large gatherings of people occurred in order to harvest bushel loads of oil-rich moths in their mountain mating locations. In central Australia, witchity grubs were relished for the same reason, although only a few could be obtained at a time. Honey is another insect product greatly sought after by hunter-gatherers. Starch-rich tubers, nuts, and grains were also eagerly sought. In contrast to the more vegetarian agriculturalists of later times, salt does not appear to have been a major concern for most foragers, probably because of the natural salt content in the meat that they consumed.

There were also foods sought for more special dietary purposes. While berries might not provide many calories, they were often rich in vitamins necessary for good health. Keene has shown that the need for hides, vitamin C, and calcium were major nutritional bottlenecks among some groups of hunter-gatherers and that these considerations determined which animals and how many were hunted.

Some animals and plants were also avoided due to totemic or other cultural taboos. These might vary from individual to individual and from group to group. Some groups ate their domesticated dogs, others did not; the Tasmanians ate fish in their early prehistory, but avoided fish completely in their later prehistory. It is often difficult to discern any logic or pattern to these kinds of food prohibitions.

Finally, some scholars have tried to use optimal foraging theory to model hunter-gatherers’ food choices. Winterhalder and Smith explain this theory, which postulates that resources that provide the best returns for the time and effort invested in their procurement and processing should be the most intensively used, and that all resources can be ranked relative to each other in these terms. The initial applications of this theory used caloric returns as the measure of theoretical desirability. Researchers attempted to calculate travel time, harvesting time, processing time, and caloric returns. The results did not fit the model expectations very well, but perhaps given all of the other factors that influence food choices (listed above), this may not be too surprising. In addition, risk factors probably play important roles. Food species that can be reliably obtained on a day-to-day basis may be preferred over foods that can only be obtained more sporadically, even if the reliable foods require more time and energy to obtain on average. Thus, plant foods, shellfish, and abundant small animals like lizards are sometimes the mainstays of hunter-gatherer diets while scarcer, more mobile types of food such as large game animals are eaten more episocially.

Of all the lower ranked food types requiring more effort, grass seeds constitute something of a special case. O’Connell and Hawkes observe that grass seeds are particularly inefficient sources of food in Australia, although many groups used them. It is therefore difficult to understand why they were used, and especially to understand why they only began to be used in the last fifteen thousand years or so of hunter-gatherer evolution. There are no seed grinding tools in the world archaeological record up to that time. Certainly, grass seeds contain starches, oils, and protein in desirable proportions. It is primarily the collection and processing costs that seem to have made this type of food unattractive, although some wild stands of wheat in the Near East can be harvested at the rate of one kg per hour as shown by experiments using Mesolithic type technology. One might expect the use of seeds for food to occur first in these more productive types of environments; however, it is curious that the Tasmanians never used grass seeds despite the occurrence of large seeded species similar to those in the Near East, whereas a number of Australian groups used several smaller seeded species. Various researchers have suggested that grass seeds may have begun to be used due to population pressures, or due to advances in processing and collecting technologies, or due to the emergence of prestige feasts, a topic to be pursued below.

The Effect of Food on Culture

The nature of food resources used by hunter-gatherers has many ramifications for understanding their cultures. For most simple hunter-gatherers, or “foragers,” wild food resources are scarce, fluctuating, and susceptible to overexploitation. Thus, population densities are very low (usually only supporting one person for every ten to one hundred square kilometers); group sizes are small (twenty to fifty people); the groups are nomadic (moving every few weeks to new resource areas); little if any food is stored; sharing food with others in the group is the normal (often obligatory) practice; intergroup alliances are formed to access refuges in times of famine; feasting is limited to sharing meat and fat from large desirable game animals; private ownership of resources and most other items is absent or rudimentary; borrowing is rampant; societies are comparatively egalitarian; and competitive or aggrandizing behavior is not tolerated (Hayden, 1993). This was probably the nature of most hunter-gather groups during most of the Paleolithic. In contemporary terms, the Hadza of East Africa and the Central Australian hunter-gatherers exemplify this type of adaptation.

Toward the end of the Paleolithic, and increasingly during the Mesolithic, there is evidence of dramatic changes in some of the richer environments of the world, especially along the richer riparian habitats and migration routes (whether terrestrial or marine). In the richest habitats, “complex” hunter-gatherers emerged. Population densities rose dramatically, groups became semi-sedentary or fully sedentary, storage of foods became important, new technologies appeared for obtaining and processing new species in massive quantities (especially fish, nuts, and seeds), large plant roasting pits occur for the first time (up to eight meters in diameter in the Northwest), prestige objects appear and testify to  private ownership of wealth as well as important socioeconomic differences, sharing is more limited, and debt-structured or competitive feasting emerged for the first time in human history. Northwest Coast cultures are perhaps the best examples of complex hunter-gatherers with their massive harvesting and storage of salmon, eulachon, halibut, or other fish species; their heavy use of shellfish; and their use of sea mammal blubber for feasting.

Feasting and Domestication

Above all, as documented in Dietler and Hayden, it is the use of feasting to create debts, to obtain desirable goods and services, to craft political power, to establish close social relationships, and to transform surplus food production that is perhaps the most important turning point in the history of the use of food and in the evolution of human culture. Up until the development of surplus-based feasting, which provided sociopolitical and economic benefits, all animal species, including human beings, could only use as much food as they, or their coresidents, could eat themselves. This placed an absolute ecological limit on the utility of food. However, with the advent of feasting forms that conferred major advantages on hosts (such as better alliances, more [or more desirable] spouses, and more socioeconomic/political power), a new ecological paradigm was created without parallel in the natural world up until the emergence of complex hunter-gatherers. For the first time, as much surplus foods could be used (and transformed into other desirable items or relationships) as could be produced. This created an open-ended, positive-feedback relationship between resource production and practical benefits. The more that could be produced, the greater the sociopolitical and economic advantages that could be obtained; and the greater the sociopolitical or economic advantages, the more food could be produced; and so on. It is, above all, the establishment of this kind of positive feedback relationship through feasting that has most likely created the geometrically increasing rate of population, technological complexity, and political complexity that has characterized the past fifteen thousand years.

The establishment of feasts based on surplus production, and the host’s desire to impress guests or make them beholden to him, may well have been among the factors responsible for the development of food production and the domestication of plants and animals some ten to twelve thousand years ago. Katz and Voigt have suggested, for instance, that cereal grains may have been domesticated primarily as a means of producing alcoholic beverages such as beer. In fact, there are no alcoholic beverages recorded for simple foragers, but it is possible that alcohol first began to be produced in the context of complex hunter-gatherer prestige feasting as among the Gunditjmara hunter-gatherers of southeastern Australia. On the Northwest (Pacific) Coast, there were certainly potlatches that featured starches (clover roots) and intoxicants (tobacco) as central parts of the feasts.

There are many other theories that purport to account for the development of domesticated animals and plants, such as climatic changes and population pressures. In support of the feasting and surplus model of domestication, it can be noted that among complex hunter-gatherers such as the Ainu of Japan, bear cubs were captured in the wild and raised for a year by wealthy families specifically for consumption at special prestige feasts. Moreover, domestic animals in traditional societies appear to be eaten exclusively in the context of feasts. Similarly, starchy clover roots and cinquefoil roots were tended and grown in Northwest Coast societies for use in feasting. In all these feasting contexts, the most prestigeous foods are those with high lipid, starch, or sugar contents (fish oil, blubber, bear meat, deer fat, seeds, clover roots). These are the foods that were given to the most prestigeous guests. These are the foods for which extra efforts were expended in order to produce. Rather than being forced by population pressures and famine to use foods that required great effort to produce, it may have been the importance of impressing guests at feasts that accounts for the extra efforts used to procure and prepare such low ranked but highly desirable foods as grass seeds, clover roots, and bear meat. This is especially true in complex hunter-gatherer societies where other more highly ranked foods are plentiful (e.g., in the Mesolithic/Epipaleolithic archaeological cultures of the Near East, and in the ethnographic Japanese and Northwest Coast cultures). The highly desirable foods used to impress important guests in complex hunter-gatherer feasts exhibit the same characteristics as those that were eventually domesticated and that we find in supermarkets today. The fruits are the largest, most succulent available; the vegetables are the least fibrous and highest in starches or oils; the meats have the highest fat contents. There is a world of difference between the use of foods by simple foragers and complex hunter-gatherers, and we are far more similar in our use of foods to complex hunter-gatherers than we are to the use of foods by simple foragers, even though the vast majority (99 percent) of our physical, mental, and emotional evolution occurred in the context of simple foraging.