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date: 04 March 2021

Hunter-Gatherer Economies in the Old World and New Worldlocked

  • Christopher Morgan, Christopher MorganUniversity of Nevada, Reno
  • Shannon Tushingham, Shannon TushinghamWashington State University
  • Raven Garvey, Raven GarveyUniversity of Michigan
  • Loukas BartonLoukas BartonUniversity of Pittsburgh
  •  and Robert L. BettingerRobert L. BettingerUniversity of California, Davis


At the global scale, conceptions of hunter-gatherer economies have changed considerably over time and these changes were strongly affected by larger trends in Western history, philosophy, science, and culture. Seen as either “savage” or “noble” at the dawn of the Enlightenment, hunter-gatherers have been regarded as everything from holdovers from a basal level of human development, to affluent, ecologically-informed foragers, and ultimately to this: an extremely diverse economic orientation entailing the fullest scope of human behavioral diversity. The only thing linking studies of hunter-gatherers over time is consequently simply the definition of the term: people whose economic mode of production centers on wild resources. When hunter-gatherers are considered outside the general realm of their shared subsistence economies, it is clear that their behavioral diversity rivals or exceeds that of other economic orientations. Hunter-gatherer behaviors range in a multivariate continuum from: a focus on mainly large fauna to broad, wild plant-based diets similar to those of agriculturalists; from extremely mobile to sedentary; from relying on simple, generalized technologies to very specialized ones; from egalitarian sharing economies to privatized competitive ones; and from nuclear family or band-level to centralized and hierarchical decision-making. It is clear, however, that hunting and gathering modes of production had to have preceded and thus given rise to agricultural ones. What research into the development of human economies shows is that transitions from one type of hunting and gathering to another, or alternatively to agricultural modes of production, can take many different evolutionary pathways. The important thing to recognize is that behaviors which were essential to the development of agriculture—landscape modification, intensive labor practices, the division of labor and the production, storage, and redistribution of surplus—were present in a range of hunter-gatherer societies beginning at least as early as the Late Pleistocene in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Whether these behaviors eventually led to the development of agriculture depended in part on the development of a less variable and CO2-rich climatic regime and atmosphere during the Holocene, but also a change in the social relations of production to allow for hoarding privatized resources. In the 20th and 21st centuries, ethnographic and archaeological research shows that modern and ancient peoples adopt or even revert to hunting and gathering after having engaged in agricultural or industrial pursuits when conditions allow and that macroeconomic perspectives often mask considerable intragroup diversity in economic decision making: the pursuits and goals of women versus men and young versus old within groups are often quite different or even at odds with one another, but often articulate to form cohesive and adaptive economic wholes. The future of hunter-gatherer research will be tested by the continued decline in traditional hunting and gathering but will also benefit from observation of people who revert to or supplement their income with wild resources. It will also draw heavily from archaeology, which holds considerable potential to document and explain the full range of human behavioral diversity, hunter-gatherer or otherwise, over the longest of timeframes and the broadest geographic scope.

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