PLB143: Lecture 03

Lifestyles of the Hunters and Gatherers

© Paul Gepts 2012

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PLB143: Lecture 03 - Readings

  • Required:
  • Additional readings:
    • Anderson MK (1996) The ethnobotany of deergrass, Muhlenbergia rigens (Poaceae): its uses and fire management by California Indian tribes. Econ Bot 50: 409-422
    • Brookfield HG (1972) Intensification and desintensification in Pacific agriculture. Pacific Viewpoint 13: 30-48
    • Bye RA (1976) The ethnoecology of the Tarahumara of Chihuahua, Mexico. PhD thesis, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA
    • Bye RA (1979) Incipient domestication of mustards in northwestern Mexico. Kiva 44: 237-256.
    • Bye RA (1985) Botanical perspectives of ethnobotany of the Greater Southwest. Econ. Bot. 39: 375-386
    • Chestnut VK (1902) Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino county, California. Contr. Nat. Herb. VII: 294-422. Reprinted by Mendocino County Historical Society (1974).
    • Floyd ME (1983) Dioecy in five Pinus edulis populations in the southwestern United States. Amer. Midland Nat. 110: 405-411
    • Harlan JR (1967) A wild wheat harvest. Archaeology 20: 197-201
    • Harrington JP (1932) Tobacco among the Karuk Indians of California. Smithsonian Inst. Bureau Amer. Ethnol. Bull. 284

Hunter-Gatherers and their Predecessors

Some of our key ancestors in the human family tree are illustrated on this page of the American Museum of Natural History:

  1. Australopithecus afarensis
    • 4 million years ago
    • Adoption of an upright posture: frees its fore legs and particularly its hands to manipulate objects in its surroundings
  2. Homo habilis
    • 2.5 million years ago
    • Enlarged body and brain
    • First stone tools appeared; crude at first and consisted mainly of single face stone tools, used primarily for cutting and chopping plants and scavenging meat.
  3. Homo erectus
    • 2 million years ago to 400,000 years ago
    • Brain size:  larger than that of its predecessor; body height comparable to that of modern humans.
    • Gathering and scavenging were still the main food procurement activities.
    • First hominid species to master fire some 500,000 years ago
    • First to migrate out of Africa into Asia and - across a landbridge - Indonesia (the "Java man").
  4. Homo neanderthalensis
    • immediate predecessor of Homo sapiens in Europe, the Near East and northern Africa.
    • They lived from approximately 250,000 to 30,000 years ago.
    • Their body and brain were larger than that of modern humans.
    • Stone tool technology characterized by flakes chipped into points (triangles), burins (chisels), borers (for soft materials) and drills (for hard items).
    • They lived in small bands practicing cooperative hunting of large game animals, which may have been made possible by their language capability.
    • They may have been interested in music as shown by the discovery of a flute in some of their remains.
    • They cared for their sick and buried their dead.
    • Scrape marks on some skeletal remains made by stone tools could be signs of cannibalism or rituals for the dead.
  5. Homo sapiens
    1. Not a direct descendant of Homo neanderthalensis, but rather a more gracile, nimble and clever nephew of the latter.
    2. Originated in Africa some 50,000 years ago and also migrated to other continents. In Europe, they displaced or killed their Neanderthal predecessors.
    3. Tools of stone, bone and antlers were of standard size and shape, indicating a greater mastery of toolmaking techniques. They also made multipiece tools such as harpoons, spear-throwers and bows and arrows, suggesting that one of their major activities was the hunting of large and dangerous animal prey of the open steppe landscape associated with the last ice age.
    4. Ropes, which they used to make nets, lines and snares. They owned sown clothing, adorned themselves with jewels and buried their dead in elaborate rituals indicating a belief in an afterlife.
    5. Magnificent cave paintings and drawings in southern France and northern Spain, demonstrating both artistic inclinations and a keen sense of observation of their environment and particularly of their food sources.
    6. Approximately 15,000 years ago, as part of the "broad spectrum revolution," hunter-gatherers started focusing their attention on a broader range of food items, including small game, waterfowl, fish and wild grains. In addition, they developed special tools such as grinding tools and storage pits to deal with these foods. Whether the broad spectrum revolution took place by choice of the hunter-gatherers or out of necessity because of dwindling numbers of large game animals is still a matter of speculation.


from the American Museum of Natural History



from B. Gardner

Hunters and Gatherers -Stereotypes

  • Food supply:
    • laborious
    • precarious
  • Too ignorant and unintelligent:
    • limited knowledge of biology of plants:life cycles, reproductive biology, biochemistry
  • Pervasive (and long-standing?) image

Study of Contemporary Hunters-Gatherers

  • Contemporary populations: e.g.,
    • Australian aborigines
    • !Kung Bushmen in southern Africa
    • Inuit of northern North America

  • Caution:
    • contacts with agriculturalists ("historical particularism"): (© National Geographic Society)
    • geographic distribution
    • continued evolution

  •   Inuit of northern America (a carving of artist Eunicey Shytoo Muckpah ), etc.

Work Schedules of Hunters-Gatherers

  • !Kung Bushmen (Botswana):
    • Workday: 6 hrs.
    • 2.5 days/week for subsistence
    • Men: hunting; women: gathering
  • Australian Aborigines:
    • 2 work days followed by a holiday
  • Hayden (1981):
    • Tanaina: a few min/day
    • Hadza: 2 hrs./day
    • Bihor: all day
  • Need to add processing time: e.g.,
Acorn processing by CA Indians ,
Game processing by !Kung (Documentary Educational Resources 1996 )
  • Leisure: sleep, gambling
  • rituals, rites of passage:
    • Brookfield (1972): New Guinea agriculturalists:
      • least effort in subsistence production
      • maximize effort in production for social purposes
(from Documentary Educational Resources 1996

Is food acquisition by hunters-gatherers precarious?

Some related sites of interest

Harlan JR (1967) A wild wheat harvest (I)

  • Wild wheat:
    • Wild einkorn: Triticum monococcum subsp. boeticum : 2n = 14; A genome
    • Distribution : n. Syria, s. & w. Turkey, n. Iraq, Iran
  • Harvest:
    • hand-stripping + bag: average:2.05 kg/hreconstructed sickle: average: 2.45 kg/h
    • 46% by weight of actual grain: threshing with wooden mortar and pestle + wind winnowing
    • schedule: changes in altitude: period of 3 weeks
    • quantity: > needs for one year

  • einkorn

from Ackerbau und Viehzucht der Kelten ; see also this site: Cereal Breeding Research Darzau
  • Distribution

  • Nutritional and culinary characteristics:
    • Dishes: Roasting; Soup, porridge
    • Poor milling, baking quality
  • Changes during domestication:
    • tougher axis
    • threshing ratio: wild: 46% grain ---> cultivated einkorn: 73%
    • more adaptable
    • more productive
    • wider leaves
  • "Potential for domestication": Aegilops speltoides (2n = 14; B genome): threshing ratio: 10%
  • Conclusion:
    • Advantages of einkorn wheat:
      • more abundant and dependable production of food
      • conserves better than meat
  • Increased dependency may have led to more sedentism and planting to augment stand density

Food supply of the Coahuilla Indians (Prescott-Barrows 1900)

  • No agriculture
  • Very diversified: 3 major habitat zones: desert, mountains, eastern plains
  • Long harvesting season:
    • April: budding of agave, yucca
    • May, June: chia and other seed plants
    • June, July: wild plum
    • August: mesquite, Sambucus (elderberry)
    • September-November: piñons, acorns
  • Abundant quantities:
    • single oak tree: 200-500 kg acorns; granary: 2,500 kg = family of 6 for 1 yr.
  • Nutritionally complementary: example
    • acorns: 40% starch; 4-6% fat; 3-5% protein
    • piñon nuts: 58% fat, 28% protein

Evidence for the Biological Knowledge of Hunters & Gatherers (I)

Representations of animals (and plants)

Knowledge of  life cycles and reproductive modes of plants

  • Seed --> plant:
    • Nevada: 7/19 groups planted seeds; none domesticated
    • Paiute, Owens Valley: irrigation, planting to thicken stands of wild plants,,
  • Root --> plant:
    • Australian Aborigines:  Re-insert head of the yam  (Dioscorea sp.) plant after digging up the root; knowledge taken up in religious beliefs (drawing from Watson, L., and Dallwitz, M. J. (1995 onwards). `The Families of Flowering Plants: Descriptions and Illustrations.' )
  • Fertilization:
    • Mesopotamia (Babylon, 2,000 BC): Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera ) : dioecious: male or female
    • Importance of pollen: Ceremonies with ritual fertilization of female trees with male inflorescences
    • Wild stands: 50% male, 50% female; planted groves: reduction of male trees 1/25-30

  • Disoscorea

Some related sites of interest

  • A description of Dioscorea by Watson and Dallwitz (1995)

Karuk Indians of CA - tobacco - Harrington (1932)

  • Located in northern California: 
  • Wild plants; 1 cultivated plant: tobacco (Nicotiana bigelovii, N. attenuata):

  •   Karuk woman with tobacco plant to her left (from Harrington 1932 )
  • Word for different plant parts: branches, bark, leaves, flowers (from Angiosperm Image Gallery, Texas A & M Department of Biology Herbarium ), sepals, calyx:
    • e.g., stamens, pistils: "sticking out in the middle of every flower where seeds are going to be"
    • stamens: "flower whiskers, threads, hairs"
    • pollen: "flower dust"
  • Flowering to seed set: nine recognized stages
  • Description of germination by a Karuk:"Its seed fall to the ground. The dirt gets over them. The, after a while, when it gets rained on, the seed sprouts. Sometimes all the seeds do not grow up. They say sometimes the seed get rotten. Its sprouts are small white ones, pretty near the size of a hair. Whenever it is just peeping out, its seed is on top of it. Then they just have two leaves ..."
  • Fertilization with ashes; weeding

Southwest Indians - Piñon pine nuts (Floyd 1983, Bye 1985, Caballero 1994)

  • Indians of northern Mexico and  southwestern U.S., (from P. Hraber, University of New Mexico Biology Dept.)
  • Piñon pine nuts (Pinus edulis)
    • Reproductive biology: three stages: dioecious male (Dm)--> dioecious female (Df) --> monoecious: male + female (M)
    • Seeds: produced by dioecious (female) and monoecious:
      • percent full seeds higher in Df as in M
      • percent germination was higher in Df as in M
    • Harvest by Indians:
      • Df: piñon nuts
      • M: fuel, construction
      • Dm: left alone

Some related sites of interest

Tarahumara Indians - Brassica campestris (Bye 1979)

  • Tarahumara: Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Chihuahua (northern Mexico)
  • Introduced plant: Brassica campestris: "mustard":
  • Gathering by Tarahumara:
    • Harvested rosettes at young stage
  • Manipulation by Tarahumara
    • Removed flowering stalks to promote leaf production
    • Planted mustards in late summer - early fall: plants with leaf rosettes, no flowering stalks
    • Were aware of the effect of the environment as early as 200 yrs ago

Experimental verification

Tarahumara Indians - Wild onion - Allium sp. (Bye 1976)

  • Moist open valleys of pine-oak forest
  • Collect larger bulbs : releases smaller, lateral daughter bulbs
    • Experimental verification
  • Manipulation: plant bulbs in other places
  • Decline:
    • Mexican forest products co.: plant pines in meadows
    • introduction of (feral) pigs

Vegetation manipulation

Use of fire to promote deergrass (Anderson 1996)

  • What is deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) ?
    • Perennial bunchgrass
    • Shasta county to San Diego county
    • valley grasslands, riparian, meadows
    • somewhat shade-intolerant --> openings in chaparral, mixed conifer forests, oak woodland
  • What is it used for?
    • Principally basketmaking: bread molds, storage baskets, acorn-flour sifting trays, etc.
    • Flower stalk or culm, harvest by pulling; sorted by length and fineness; dried in sun for 1-3 weeks (shrinking); remove panicle of seeds
    • Cooking basket: 3,750 culms; gambling tray: 3,000 culms
  • Vegetation management by fire
    • Old leaves do not drop after senescence but shut off sunlight, preventing the development of new growth: leaf buds from old tillers (stems); vegetative buds from rhizomes: "If we [Diegueño] had not burned off the basket grass last year, the stalks would not be tall and thick now. "
    • Fire (and flooding or grazing)
      • removes old growth and promotes new growth
      • increase fineness and length of culms
      • increase strength and flexibility of stalks
      • lowers plant competition and increases seed germination rates
      • prevents encroachment from trees
    • Burns performed every 2-5 years, usually in fall
(from )

Evidence for the "Biochemical" Knowledge of Hunters & Gatherers

  • Need to detoxify:
    • Many plants in N. America, Australia, tropical areas: acorns, legume seeds (e.g., lima beans), solanaceous fruits, yams (Dioscorea), aroid tubers, cassava
      • heat: boiling, roasting
      • leaching: sieves, strains, cloth sacks, sand beds, i.e. no ceramics
  • Drugs: e.g., coca, tobacco
    • Alkaloids are more soluble in alkaline solutions
    • Source of alkali: lime, crushed shells, ashes of trees:
      • example: prehispanic "poporo "  of the Quimbaya culture in Colombia (from Historia del Arte Colombiano, © Salvat 1977): used to carry lime to enhance the effect of coca leaves (do not try this at home!)
  • Arrow poison: e.g., pygmies
    • 10 plants: 8 poisonous, 2 glue

Aspects of social relationships among hunters-gatherers

  • Sharing is the rule degree of sharing ~ degree of family relationship; leads to camp fragmentation
  • Territoriality:
    • Specific regions, groves, stands of plants
    • Springs, water holes
    • Private ownership: tools
  • Population control: maintain level below carrying capacity

(© National Geographic Society)

(© National Geographic Society)


  • Human evolution prior to agriculture:
    • Increase in body & brain size
    • Development of tool-making ability, fire
    • Knowledge of the environment
    • Well-fed, artistic & spiritual life
  • Food supply:
    • Generally leisurely
    • Generally abundant and varied
  • Information about plants and animals
    • Very detailed: morphology, reproduction, biochemistry
    • Management: seeding, irrigation, fire
  • Social relationships
    • Sharing v. territoriality
    • Population control

Note: the points in red are probably pre-adaptations to agriculture

Could YOU survive as a hunter-gatherer?

Take the following quiz!

Good luck!

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