Subsistence Strategies: Definition & Types

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

There are five main subsistence strategies. These strategies relate to each other as they build from tiny societies to full populations. This lesson reviews these five strategies of subsistence.

What Is Subsistence?

Imagine you wake up one day and find that you and your family are the last humans on the planet. What would you do? Your first concern might be safety, but if you found that you were quite safe, and there was plenty of fresh water, your mind may turn to acquiring food for your family. How will you continue to subsist?

Subsistence means to support life. For example, subsistence farming literally means farming for the purpose of supporting life. We learn in school that early man lived a lifestyle of subsistence.

It is easy to imagine that different geographical and cultural areas will create different strategies to support their own way of life. These various strategies are called subsistence strategies, or methods used to support life. They consist of foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, agriculture, and industrialism. In our scenario, you will need to choose one of these subsistence strategies to support your family. Let's review each of these subsistence strategies in detail.


Foraging is the process of gathering food from uncultivated plants or undomesticated animals. You can think of it as a ''Hunter/Gatherer'' type of lifestyle. A foraging subsistence strategy requires large amounts of edible plant growth to sustain itself and plentiful prey to hunt for meat. Foragers need to live a nomadic lifestyle. They must move constantly to follow the growing season in different geographical regions and the migration patterns of their animal-based food source. This subsistence strategy only supports small groups due to the limited food source in each area, the need to constantly move, and the need to find shelter from the environment. In a foraging subsistence, people in the same foraging group maintain a bond of sharing equally with each other. Is this the subsistence strategy for you?


In contrast to foraging, pastoralism requires the domestication of animals as a food source. This subsistence strategy is currently used in many African cultures, Norway, Sudan, and other areas of the world. Pastoralism does not depend on the ability to grow crops, and those that employ pastoralism supplement their food source with naturally-grown vegetation.

Typically, the domesticated animals in a pastoralism subsistence strategy are sheep, cows, and goats, although camels and reindeer can also be used depending on the geographic area. While they do not constantly move long distances like a typical nomad might, people practicing pastoralism tend to have a transhumance existence as they move from pasture to pasture to feed their domesticated livestock. Pastoralism groups tend to be small due to the lack of purposefully grown food to sustain large numbers of people. Where foragers share everything with each other, we see that pastoralism is a subsistence strategy that begins to collect and own for individual wealth. Animals can be given and sold, especially in marriage.


Horticulture is a subsistence strategy that intentionally cultivates plants for personal use. The distinguishing aspect of horticulture is that no extensive technology is used in the cultivation of produce. The intent is not to grow an abundance of food but to grow enough food to sustain life within the group.

To preserve soil health, horticulture groups or villages spread over large areas in order to practice crop rotation. Crop rotation consists of rotating crop types through a series of fields during each growing season with at least one field left to rest in each cycle. Without crop rotation, the soil would be depleted of all of its nutrients and would decrease the productivity of the field.

Because horticulture societies cultivate crops, they cannot live nomadic lifestyles. They can support more people than the previous strategies but cannot support large populations. In order to supplement their crops, they still need access to game animals. Because they must stay in one place to look after the crops, horticulture societies are sedentary, living in permanent or semi-permanent villages. Constructing more permanent living structures gives these people more advantages over extreme weather challenges.

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