Facts and Theories About Hunter-Gatherers

There are lots of facts and ideas about hunter-gatherers that are surprising and interesting.  Many are controversial among anthropologists, and almost anything you generalize about hunter-gatherers will be contradicted by some tribe or group somewhere.  But still, there are generalizations we can make.  And even if we are not so certain about the details of just how these groups have lived for all those thousands of years, we have learned a lot, and what we now know is very different than what most people have assumed.
1.  All hunter-gatherer groups ever studied are meat eaters (including fish, insects, and other animal flesh).  Some, particularly in warmer climates, get most of their calories from plant matter, but they still eat meat.  Groups that live in colder climates eat less plant matter, and those near the poles eat almost exclusively meat and fish.
2.  All hunter-gatherers cook their food, particularly their meat.  There are a few examples of h-g's that eat some organ meats raw, but that is a minor part of their diet.  It is becoming apparent that humans began cooking their food much earlier than we thought, as early as over a million years ago, although this all is controversial and under study.  There are many issues as to why humans cook their food and it has a lot to do with the evolution of our bodies as they are.  Good book for more information:  Catching Fire:  How Cooking Made Us Human
3.  Although they had almost no material possessions, these people enjoyed lives in many ways richer and more rewarding than ours.  Read through some more of these facts, and decide for yourself.
4.  Because their needs were so small, they needed to work far less than we do today, and had more leisure time.  The !Kung of southern Africa, for example, spent only twelve to nineteen hours per week getting food.  Young people were not expected to work until well into their twenties;  nor were people over forty or so.  They spent their leisure time eating and drinking, playing, and socializing -- in short, doing the very things we associate with affluence.  Good book for more information on this:  check out the book:  Limited Wants, Unlimited Means.
5.  Hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian.  They had no leaders at all or temporary leaders whose authority was severely constrained.  All members, men and women, old and young, were equal in power and respect.  As some groups gained more in possessions, they also became more heirarchical, and this generally happened in groups as they moved toward agricultural economies and away from foraging.
6.  These societies were also environmentally sustainable.  Although there is evidence that early hunter-gatherer groups brought some species to extinction, most groups lived thousands of years in the same area without destroying the environment.  The Aboroignines of Australia, the Hadza of Tanzania, and the !Kung had technologies and social systems that allowed them to live for tens of thousands of years with their environments, without destroying the resources that they used and needed to sustain their economies.
7.  We generally feel that forager groups gladly and willingly accepted modern culture and moved toward agriculture whenever they could.  But that is not the case.  It is rare that these people willingly moved toward modern living.  Throughout history, the hunter-gatherer way of life was ended for these people because of the aggression of the nearby agricultural or industrial societies.  Imperial conquest of resources accounted for the destruction of many of these societies over the last five hundred years.  As a Hadza individual has said, "Why should we plant when there are so many mongomongo nuts in the world?"  Good question.  They expend far less energy and less time in obtaining subsistence than do neighboring cultivators of East Africa.  More on this:  the book,   Limited Wants, Unlimited Means.
8.  Dominant economic theory tells us that man is naturally competitive and acquisitive, always wanting more and more.  And yet, with hunter-gatherer groups we see people living without these attributes, and, in fact, they have done so apparently for many tens of thousands of years.  They show us that it is our culture that makes us want to accumulate more and more, not our human nature.
9.  It is assumed that alcohol has played a very small part in the culture of hunter-gatherers, although in modern times it has infiltrated into many indigenous tribes as their own foraging culture has broken down.  Tobacco was unknown outside of the Americas until recently, although it is now sought after by many tribes.
10.  Blood pressure in the people of foraging peoples runs a bit lower than in industrialized nations (averaging 105/65).  More importantly, blood pressure does not seem to rise as these people age.
11.  Cholesterol levels are much lower than people in modern societies (averaging 125mg/dl), about the same as that for other primates, suggesting that values of this magnitude are "natural for primates generally.
12.  Obesity, hypertension, and diabetes are rare in hunter-gatherer societies.  At any given age foragers tend to be about one-third more aerobically fit than Westerners. 
13.  They almost never develop atherosclerosis, with the resulting heart attack, congestive heart failure, and sudden cardiac death.
14.  The incidence of cancer among hunter-gatherers is a difficult subject, but clearly they have benefitted from lower fat intake, lower tobacco and alcohol use, and a greater amount of fresh and natural fruits and vegetables that are not laden with agricultural and industrial chemicals.
15.  Before permanent settlements and agriculture began about 10,000 years ago, there may have been about 8 million people on earth, all of them hunter-gatherers.  By 1500 AD, about a third of the world was still populated with these people, including most of North and South America,  all of Australia, and much of Asia and Africa and the polar regions.
16.  Of the 375 to 400 million "indigenous" people in the world today, only a small percentage are hunter-gatherers.  Indigenous people refers to pastoral nomads, swidden farmers, foragers, and others  who are historically distinct, spatially rooted, non-industrial people.
17.  Sharing is central to social life.  Great excitement occurs when the hunters return with meat.  You would think those who killed the prize would get the most, for themselves and their family, but all food is shared equally.  Great effort is made to ensure that those who did the killing are not given any special praise, as that would create jealousies and tension.  Instead, with the !Kung, the man or woman who made the arrow that killed the beast is praised. 
18.  Are hunter-gatherer societies peaceful or violent?  This is a complicated subject, but from what I have read, I would conclude that they are relatively peaceful, and do all they can to avoid conflict.  Unfortunately, because it is so easy to kill with poison arrows and even a large rock thrown at someone during an angry moment, murder is somewhat common.  It varies from tribe to tribe, of course.  Overall, they suffer from the same kinds of violence we do, although, of course, huge wars and impersonal and monstrous weaponry is not available to them.  Because of so few possessions, most of the crime that we are used to is not a part of their culture............there is nothing to steal. 
19.  Because H/G's are on the move frequently insearch of wild foods, women cannot have more than one baby to carry at any one time.  They need to space their children out at least four years apart.  To do this, Jared Diamond tells us that they used lactational amenorrhea, sexual abstinance, infanticide, and abortion.  (from
Guns, Germs and Steel).
20.  How did religion begin?  The National Geographic for June 2011 has a great article about Gobleki Tepe, an archeological site in Turkey which is changing everything we thought about religion and hunter-gatherers.  It seems these people without permanent homes and few possessions maintained a huge temple for centuries.  Check it out at:  http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text