Hunter-Gatherers (Explaining Human Culture)

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Exercise ID: 1.22
Class size: Any
Level: III
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Single subject specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: Hunter-gatherers
Region selection: pre-selected
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Set by teacher
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable:

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? Yes
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Carol R. Ember, Human Relations Area Files

These exercises are designed to accompany the Explaining Human Culture: Hunter-Gatherers module which gives a general picture of what we have learned from cross-cultural research on hunter-gatherers, or more precisely, what we think we know, and to point out some of the things we do not yet know. The first set are Level I exercises; the second set Level II.

Level I

1. Read a few culture summaries of  some of the best known hunter-gatherer societies in eHRAF World Cultures: the Copper Inuit, the Mbuti, and the San.  Note that subsistence patterns, particularly for the Copper Inuit have changed over time.

Instructions: See the Browse Cultures section of the Practical Guide to Using eHRAF to find out how to locate the culture summaries.

2. Typical characteristics of hunter-gatherers are identified in this module, but not all hunter-gatherers fit these general patterns.

2.1. Based on the three culture summaries, do the Copper Inuit, the Mbuti, and the San, seem to fit these patterns?

2.2. Most hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, but for an example of a socially stratified, trading forager society, see the culture summary of the Chinookans of the Lower Columbia River.

2.3. Compare and contrast an egalitarian hunting-gathering group, such as the San, and the class structure of the Chinookans of the Lower Columbia River. Read the reports on social stratification (or the lack thereof) in the following eHRAF World Cultures texts (2.3.1 and 2.3.2).

2.3.1 For the San, read Jiro Tanaka, The San hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari: a study in ecological anthropology, pp. 93 and 107;

Instructions: To get to a particular document, go to the tab Browse Documents, put in the surname of the first author and click on the document you want. Click on the Page List down arrow  in the upper right corner and click on the page you want.

2.3.2.  For the Chinookans of the Lower Columbia River, read Verne Frederick Ray, Lower Chinook ethnographic notes, p. 48.

3. Men usually do the hunting, but for a description of women hunters, see the description of Chipewayans by Hetty Jo Brumbach and Robert Jarvenpa, Ethnoarchaeology of subsistence space and gender: a subarctic Dene casep. 418.

4.  The ethnographic record of warfare among the San illustrates the risks of inferring that current data also applies to an earlier time. Before the 1950s, this hunter-gatherer group was known to have engaged in frequent warfare. See Viktor Lebzelter and Richard Neuse Lebzelter, Native cultures in southwest and south Africa: Vol. 2, p. 30, 120, and 144. Yet post-1950 and 1960, the San are described as peaceful–see Patricia Draper, !Kung women: contrasts in sexual egalitarianism in foraging and sedentary contexts, pp. 86, 104.

5. In New Guinea, foragers with a high dependence on fishing tend to have higher population density and large settlements. It is not clear if this is generally true elsewhere. For a foraging society outside of New Guinea that has a high dependence on fishing, more complexity, and large settlements, see the Tlingit culture summary. Also, George Thornton Emmons, The Tlingit Indians, p. 102 and Frederica De Laguna, The story of a Tlingit community: a problem in the relationship between archaeological, ethnological and historical methods, p. 59.

Level II

Group Assignments:

1. Have each member of the class read cultural summaries from 2-4 hunting and gathering societies and report on how well they seem to fit some of the general patterns described in this module. (Note: It is possible that the cultural summary will not contain all the information needed on the following:

  • are fully or semi-nomadic.
  • live in small communities.
  • have little wealth differentiation.
  • usually divide labor by gender, with women gathering wild plants and men fishing and almost always doing the hunting.

Instructions: Click here to find a sortable list of cultures that depended mostly on hunting and gathering. The list of cultures can be divided amongst the class. See the  Browse Cultures section of the Practical Guide to Using eHRAF to find out how to locate the culture summaries for particular cultures.

2.  Have the class tally up how many fit these patterns and how many do not.

Group Assignments (Level II–more difficult)

Follow the exercise above to choose hunting and gathering cultures, but this time have the students try to find the information in the eHRAF ethnographic texts using Advanced Search rather than just reading culture summaries.

1. Identify the subject categories to use in the search (hints: the subject category “community structure” might address a couple of these attributes; some of the narrower terms under the subject “social stratification” might be useful for wealth differentiation). Read the Advanced Search section in the Practical Guide to Using eHRAF.

2. After choosing a subject, choose the desired cultures. Execute the search.

Instructions: There are usually multiple documents in eHRAF. For this exercise, it is best to choose more comprehensive ethnographic works, preferably those describing an earlier time period before substantial change in subsistence.

3. Read the full paragraphs to find pertinent information. Abstract relevant paragraphs (including the author, title and page number) and summarize. In reporting the results, identify the time frame.