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Social and Cultural Traits of Foraging Societies

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  • 0:01 Definition of Terms
  • 1:33 Community Size
  • 2:47 Lack of Structure
  • 4:09 Societies that Fish
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high History and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in Education.

This lesson will explain foraging societies. It will focus on their small communities, their nomadic lifestyles, and their relative lack of political structure and social stratification.

Definition of Terms

When I was a young girl, my friends and I would spend hours playing in the woods that bordered our property. One of our favorite games was to pretend we'd been lost for years with only the forest to feed us. We'd pick berries from trees and collect dandelion leaves and grasses, pretending to make them into stew over our very fake fires.

Without being able to give it a name, we were pretending to be foragers, people who survive on the collection of naturally occurring resources, specifically wild plants and animals. In today's lesson, we're going to take a closer look at foragers, people groups who, unlike my friends and I who'd go home for dinner at the end of the day, actually do hunt and gather for their survival.

Studying foragers, also known as hunter-gatherers, can be a difficult task because there are very few of them remaining. Like most other societies, many have progressed to include things like farming. Also, because the ones that do exist tend to live in such differing climates - for instance, the Outback of Australia versus the North American Arctic - it's pretty hard to nail down common cultural traits. For this reason, today's lesson will definitely speak in general terms as we talk about the traits many foragers seem to share.

Also, as in the tradition of anthropological study, we'll use the present tense when discussing these societies, even though a few of them have definitely changed over the years. In other words, we'll use words like 'are' and 'do' instead of 'were' and 'did.'

Community Size

For starters, we'll talk about community size. Most foraging or hunter-gathering communities tend to be small. They also tend to be found in rather sparsely populated areas. According to many anthropologists, this is true because smaller communities are simply easier to feed. Also, living in a sparsely populated area helps to keep competition for food rather low.

In crazy, overly simplified terms, we can sort of liken their small communities and thinly populated areas to an Easter egg hunt. No one wants to go on an Easter egg hunt where there are hundreds and hundreds of kids hunting in a very small territory for just a few candy-filled eggs. No way! We want to go to one where there are lots of eggs and very few kids. This way, it will make it much easier to ensure our baskets get full!

Adding to their small populations, most foraging societies tend to be nomadic in lifestyle. In other words, they tend to have no fixed home and move from place to place in search of food and water. Excellent examples of this are the Ngatatjara, the Aboriginal people of the Australian desert, who move about in very small groups, seeking active water holes.

Lack of Structure

Another shared trait of many foraging societies comes by way of their political structure. To put it rather simply, they really don't have much of a structure at all. Unlike Western governmental systems, they have no set political offices or positions. Due to the size of their groups and their constant moving around, the need for such things is minimal.

Added to this, they usually do not recognize individual property rights since there's really not a lot of need for set rules and regulations when it comes to the land. Again using the oversimplified metaphor of our Easter egg hunt, there really aren't lots of rules. Everyone just goes out and tries to pick up what they can find. No one says, 'Hey this is my plot of land!' They just keep working to fill their baskets.

Making things even simpler, most foraging societies do not entertain the idea of social class. Everyone is simply working toward the same goal, finding food. Division of labor isn't decided based on things like education or status; instead, it is usually linked to gender and age. Young men are usually trained by the older men to do the hunting and the fishing, while young women tend to learn to gather and cook by watching their mothers. Great examples of this are the Inuit of the Arctic. Also known to us as 'Eskimos,' the men of this culture fish for large game, while the women do the butchering and cooking of the catch.

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