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date: 23 January 2022

New Approaches in the Study of Hunter-Gatherers

Abstract and Keywords

Interest in hunter-gatherers has grown exponentially over recent decades. Several important trends can now be identified: firstly, the cumulative growth in data and information from all geographic areas, with some of the longer records spanning the archaeology, history, and recent ethnography of hunter-gatherers; secondly, that foragers in some regions have been the focus of integrated long-term research efforts; other groups and regions await more coordinated programmes of research; finally, that many foundational debates within hunter-gatherer studies have undergone rapid transformation, matched by major diversification in theoretical perspectives and a reorientation in many of the basic concerns of enquiry. The chapters in this final section of the handbook aim to examine some of the emerging themes that appear likely to guide future research efforts. This introductory chapter provides a critical review of these more recent research developments, setting them within a wider intellectual context.

Keywords: hunter-gatherer, evolutionary approaches, interpretive approaches, technology, archaeogenetics, landscape, personhood, gender, religion, subsistence, indigenous

Introduction and Aims

The opening part of the handbook examined the different analytical perspectives that structured early understandings of foraging societies and later led to the increasingly diverse range of research efforts now focusing on hunter-gatherer societies. These overarching theoretical frameworks ranged from early forms of social evolutionary thinking, the rise of adaptive and ecological approaches, through to the historical and humanist perspectives that are now becoming increasingly important. Other chapters examined the central role played by ethnoarchaeology in the consolidation of hunter-gatherer studies as a fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavour, as well as the long-term research efforts that have been directed towards understanding gender roles in forager societies.

The core parts of the handbook (Parts II–VI) primarily consist of critical review essays covering the extensive thematic and regionally focused research literatures on the archaeology, ethnohistory, and modern anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies. More generally, all these chapters highlight the dynamic character of forager societies and their long-term histories, and together serve to underline the major contributions played by hunter-gatherers in the rise of many important cultural developments, as well as major economic transformations such as the transition to farming. Chapters covering more recent periods also highlight the cultural resilience of foragers operating in a range of historical culture-contact situations, and finally, demonstrate the ongoing viability and deep cultural significance of a foraging way of life in many parts of the contemporary world.

Chapters in this concluding part provide both detailed updates on some of the older and better-established ecological and evolutionary approaches, as well as a series of ‘position statements’ on some of the newer and more recently emerging themes in hunter-gatherer research. At one level, the range and sheer breadth of materials and ideas covered by these chapters serves further to track the relentless diversification of research away from the earlier unifying focus on seeking common, cross-cultural patterns, and studying hunting and (p. 1094) gathering as a distinctive type of existence. However, at another level, intellectual diversification need not necessarily entail a one-way process of fragmentation, and several new research themes now appear to be emerging as the focus for renewed efforts at coordinated interdisciplinary research. The goal of this introductory chapter is to set these contemporary developments within a broader intellectual context, and to provide some general concluding reflection on where the field might be moving next.

General Developments in Hunter-Gatherer Research

Looking across all the chapters in this handbook, and also out over the wider hunter-gatherer research literature, several important developments can be identified:

  1. 1. Exponential growth in basic information on hunter-gatherers: forager societies past and present have been the focus of enormous research efforts over recent decades, generating detailed regional datasets pertaining to the archaeology, ethnohistory, and modern anthropology of hunter-gatherers. In many world regions, extended hunter-gatherer archaeological sequences continue well into the Holocene; in a few areas there is a relatively continuous record of hunter-gatherer societies stretching from prehistory through to historical and modern ethnographic periods. Some of these datasets and extended sequences have already been the focus of sustained analysis and interpretation; in other regions, the data exist but deeper synthesis is lacking. Traditionally the focus has been on either ethnographic fieldwork or archaeological excavation, but much more could also be done to expand the use of ethnohistoric sources in the study of hunter-gatherers. These generally detail earlier culture-contact dynamics between local foragers and expanding states, empires, and settler groups, both in the New World and also in many parts of the Old World, such as Japan, Russia, and Fennoscandia, where historical archives and taxation records detailing the lifeways of northern hunter-gatherers often extend back many centuries.

  2. 2. Continued diversification in theoretical approaches: this fragmentation within the core focus of hunter-gatherer studies has been a cumulative process—from the unifying concerns of early social evolutionary thinking through to the cross-cultural analysis of typical ‘nomadic style’ hunter-gatherer societies in the Man the hunter era, while more recent research on hunter-gatherers has addressed a baffling range of themes and topics, occasionally from opposing theoretical standpoints. The 1980s appear to be the primary ‘tipping point’ in this fragmentation process, with intensive debates about the role of history and culture-contact among modern hunter-gatherers (the Kalahari Debate), as well as the emergence of post-processual critiques and eventually the rise of interpretive research agendas in archaeology, which have led to a range of new questions being addressed. Tremendous diversity in themes and approaches now characterizes hunter-gatherer research, with clear intellectual continuity in some distinctive research streams, but also signs of convergence and (p. 1095) renewed integration among others. All specialists now readily agree that enormous variability characterizes forager lifeways and their long-term histories, but how best to describe, interpret, and explain this variability remains a topic of intense debate.

  3. 3. Increasing engagement with indigenous communities: many chapters in this handbook have touched on the narrowing gap between academic researchers, policy-makers, contemporary foragers, and other ‘descendant communities’ whose lifeways and cultural heritage are the focus of anthropological and archaeological research. Ethnographic field research amongst hunter-gatherer groups played an important role in increasing public awareness of the appalling treatment of indigenous peoples and the violation of their human rights by various nation states and interest groups, with environmental destruction and loss of traditional rights being some of the most pressing concerns. Historians have also shifted increasingly towards exploring the experiences of hunter-gatherers and other indigenous peoples in the colonization and settlement and nation-building projects in many parts of the world. Finally, archaeologists are also making efforts to ensure that their work is more inclusive and relevant to local communities. The older situation is now in a state of fundamental shift, with growing momentum towards greater engagement and mutual accommodation at all levels, and now generally involving anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, policy-makers, indigenous populations, and descendant communities.

In sum, what emerges from this brief overview is that hunter-gatherer societies, their belief systems, subsistence strategies, and long-term histories can now be investigated in unprecedented detail, and from a wide range of different theoretical perspectives. At the same time, there is growing obligation to ensure that these essentially academic research efforts are made more inclusive, morally responsible, and also more relevant to the members of the different communities that make up modern global society. The fact that these interlocking academic opportunities and ethical obligations have become central to the entire hunter-gatherer research project makes deeper critical understanding of the different theoretical frameworks all the more important. These approaches will structure both research efforts and can also guide community engagement efforts.

Organization of the Part VII

To maintain historical coherence and flow, the chapters in this final part of the handbook are organized into three broad groupings: (a) chapters tracing recent developments in some of the adaptive, ecological, and evolutionary approaches that were central to earlier hunter-gatherer research. These chapters illustrate the impact that modern evolutionary theory is having on hunter-gatherer research, and also illustrate how different these approaches are to earlier forms of evolutionary thinking—these important distinctions are examined in more detail below; (b) chapters that introduce a range of newer and more interpretive themes that are making more recent contributions to hunter-gatherer studies, each chapter generally taking the form of a ‘position statement’. All these approaches fit in a relatively straightforward manner into Cannon’s broadly interpretive research agenda (Part I), and in emphasizing symbolism, local cultural meanings, and subjective human experience are (p. 1096) useful in providing a counter-balance to the overarching emphasis on ecology and adaptation that have long tended to dominate hunter-gatherer research (see Garvey and Bettinger, Part I); (c) the part ends with two chapters that revisit broad but potentially integrative research themes—the analysis of gender roles and subsistence studies. Both topics were central to the emergence of modern hunter-gatherer studies, but these final chapters provide an inspiring end to this part of the handbook by highlighting the extensive recent progress in both these fields, as well as the extent to which further exploration of these themes can serve as a catalyst for a new era of more integrative interdisciplinary research and synthesis.

Continuity and Change in ‘Adaptive’ and Evolutionary Approaches

Contributions by Kelly, Eerkens et al., and Černý and Pereira all work broadly within the scientific, adaptive, and evolutionary paradigm that helped establish modern hunter-gatherer studies in the mid-twentieth century, but, importantly, also highlight the extent to which these approaches have undergone major change, primarily involving the application of modern evolutionary theory to hunter-gatherer research. These developments are examined in some detail, especially the important distinctions between different forms of evolutionary thinking, which are often mistakenly lumped together.

Explaining Variability in Hunter-Gatherer Technology

Kelly’s chapter on technology provides the most direct bridge between earlier hunter-gatherer research traditions and some of these more recent research avenues. According to nineteenth-century (progressive) social evolutionary thinkers, hunter-gatherers were largely defined by their lack of technology. Indeed, up until the 1960s, many anthropologists still regarded hunter-gatherers as being locked in the relentless demands of the daily food quest, which left little time for the development of more elaborate technologies. These older assumptions underwent a fundamental shift during the Man the hunter era. Through discussion of a range of evidence from forager populations around the world, it became clear that many hunter-gatherers have acquired extensive environmental knowledge which equips them with a deep confidence in their ability to procure food as and when they need it. Re-cast as the ‘original affluent society’ (Sahlins 1968; 1972), hunter-gatherers were now regarded as being able to make strategic choices, that is, they need to make daily, even minute-by-minute, decisions about how best to spend their time or where their efforts could be most productively focused. According to this new perspective, it was the operation of these cumulative decision-making processes that eventually generated wider patterns in subsistence, mobility, and social life (for example, as hunter-gatherers sought the most effective ways of positioning themselves in relation to available resources during the different seasons of the year).

It was not long before these perspectives were being directed at understanding better how hunter-gatherers made decisions about their technology, especially the range of equipment (p. 1097) they needed to procure food. Clearly, important decisions were being made about trade-offs between accumulating tools, objects, and other possessions, and the extent to which they could be carried if later there was a decision to move on to a new area. More generally, researchers began to focus on the organizational dynamics of hunter-gatherer technologies, asking when, where, and why is technology worth the cost of manufacture, maintenance, and transport? Attention was also directed at specific details of tool-kit design, but also at identifying larger-scale global patterning in forager food-getting technologies and tool-kits, and the range of causal factors that might account for them.

Much of this early work on variability in hunter-gatherer tool-kits was framed within an adaptive and cross-cultural comparative framework that seeks first to identify, and then explain, general patterns in the way in which hunter-gatherers organized their technology in different environmental settings. A range of causal variables was eventually identified, and has been subjected to debate over the following decades, with risk being one of the major conditioning factors: hunter-gatherers in riskier environments, such as the Arctic, tend to exhibit more complex technologies, as the implications of coming back to camp empty-handed are much more severe here. Riskier environments like these also make technological innovation more worthwhile, as people in these settings also have the most to gain from effort invested in developing new technologies.

More broadly, Kelly illustrates the powerful insights that can be gained by applying a human behavioural ecology (HBE) perspective to the study of variability in hunter-gatherer technology. This applies a modern evolutionary perspective (see below) to the study of human behaviour in specific ecological contexts, and aims to quantify the different kinds of costs and benefits that arise from alternative strategies of action, most usually those associated with subsistence, as these have the most direct impact on human adaptation and long-term survival. There is a now a major research literature applying this kind of approach to general forager subsistence behaviour, but Kelly also draws on HBE to explore how technology plays an important and often transformational role in hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies. New technologies, such as mass-capture facilities, require major upfront investment but can dramatically transform capture rates and processing costs, leading to long-term shifts in adaptive strategies. In other settings, shifts, for example, from more specialized hunting to broader-based plant and shellfish economies can suddenly make the production and use of other technologies such as clay cooking containers and grinding tools much more worthwhile. Clearly, as well as studying ethnographic patterning in technology, insights derived from HBE can be a useful framework for trying to understand the mechanisms behind some of the major prehistoric changes in hunter-gatherer subsistence and technology, such as the widespread shift towards aquatic economies and later towards reliance on domesticated plants in the earlier Holocene, along with the coeval dispersal of new kinds of fishing kit, pottery cooking containers, and grinding equipment. All these developments must have involved major shifts in the costs and pay-offs associated with the uptake and use of new technologies in different kinds of subsistence strategy.

Kelly also argues that the role of technology needs to be studied within a wider behavioural context—there is, of course, much more to new technology than its immediate efficiency in acquiring foods at minimal cost or lowest risk; fresh technologies also need to be incorporated into a wider set of strategies, and within these, need to improve the efficiency of overall production before becoming useful. In looking at the broader role of technologies in society, Kelly concludes that their usage should also be regarded as being ‘embedded’ (p. 1098) within social webs and local gender roles, which in turn give technology a deeper meaning and significance within local hunter-gatherer cultures, all forming general themes that are picked up on and explored in more detail by several of the later ‘interpretive’ chapters (see below).

Evolutionary Thinking and Hunter-Gatherer Research

Kelly’s chapter employs an HBE approach to the study of hunter-gatherer technology and behaviour, part of a wider set of ‘modern’ evolutionary approaches now being deployed widely in hunter-gatherer research (also see Garvey and Bettinger, Part I). As noted above, it is worth situating these more recent developments within a broader intellectual context—evolutionary thinking has a long history in hunter-gatherer research, but it is important to note that there are important, and indeed fundamental, differences between late nineteenth-century social evolutionary thinking, which basically mapped different kinds of society into ascending stages of progress (see Barnard, Part I), and the mid-twentieth-century neo-evolutionary perspectives of Childe, White, and Steward. Childe, for example, was interested in using archaeological evidence in order to reconstruct how humanity had passed through major thresholds such as the ‘Neolithic revolution’—the prehistoric transition to farming. White was interested in developing more abstract schemata that arranged different kinds of society according to the contrasting ways in which they used improvements in technology to capture ever higher levels of energy from the environment. Steward’s cultural ecology focused most specifically on hunter-gatherer bands, and championed an alternative, more multilinear form of evolution, which examined the role of ecology and technology in guiding different forms of adaptation and social structure. It was Steward’s cultural ecology that triggered renewed interest in hunter-gatherer adaptive strategies, and resulted in him being regarded as one of the founders of hunter-gatherer studies (see the main introduction to this handbook, and Garvey and Bettinger, Part I).

Over the following decades, evolutionary thinking in archaeology and anthropology has changed enormously yet again, and many of these ‘modern’ evolutionary approaches are now being applied to the wider study of human culture and behaviour, and also in many cases to the study of hunter-gatherer populations. Most of these more recent developments can ultimately be traced back to the Neo-Darwinian modern evolutionary synthesis in biology, which combined the process of natural selection with understanding of genetic heredity within a coherent modern theory of evolution. The application of HBE approaches to hunter-gatherer studies from the 1970s and 1980s was an early example of some of these modern evolutionary perspectives being applied to the study of forager subsistence behaviour, and has since generated a major research literature applying a kind of optimal foraging approach; similar applications characterized related work on hunter-gatherer technology (see above).

A more recent variant of modern evolutionary thinking is ‘cultural transmission theory’ (CTT) or ‘dual inheritance theory’ (DIT), which is seeing increasing application in archaeology and anthropology, and frames the materials presented in the next two chapters in this part (Eerkens et al.; Černý and Pereira). CTT/DIT focuses on the ways in which potentially useful cultural information can persist between generations due to the highly developed mechanisms for social learning that are possessed by humans. The approach starts with the observation that humans are unique among even closely related species in having to rely in daily life to such an enormous extent on information acquired from other individuals through teaching, (p. 1099) imitation, and other forms of social learning—this is cultural transmission. For example, seal hunters in the Arctic can only exist there because they can draw on information—bodies of knowledge, technologies, and strategies—that have been built up over many generations and gradually refined and adjusted in the form of long-term cultural traditions. For example, novice hunters can acquire these older stocks of knowledge through parental teaching and imitation, but can also adapt and change them through later personal experience, or by copying other hunters they observe later in life. Humans rely more than any other species on acquiring these accumulated stocks of cultural knowledge, whether in basic subsistence activities, or in the acquisition of language, craft traditions, or in mastering other kinds of cultural practice. In fact, this deep reliance on cumulative culture, whether in language, technology, or other aspects of behaviour is what makes humans unique (Richerson and Boyd 2005).

Importantly, however, CTT/DIT also emphasizes that humans in fact have two distinct systems of information transmission, one cultural (through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social learning) and the other genetic (through biological reproduction). In some ways, these inheritance processes are broadly similar (children tend to learn a lot of basic cultural knowledge from their biological parents, so that genetic and cultural information is passed down via similar routes), but they also have some fundamental differences which make cultural transmission exhibit some unique dynamics (children can only acquire their genes from their biological parents but can learn new cultural information from a whole array of non-related individuals—this means that cultural information can potentially spread very quickly through a population within a single generation, following transmission routes that are unique to culture). As a result of these important similarities and differences, both genetic and cultural inheritance systems can be argued to exhibit Darwinian evolutionary processes of ‘descent with modification’, with each having its own unique dynamics due to the differences noted above. Evolution, when used in this modern Darwinian sense, refers to this process of replicating through time—but also cumulatively editing—stocks of information, either genetic or cultural.

CTT/DIT can therefore be useful at three possible levels: (1) it draws general analogies between the transmission of genetic and cultural information, which can provide new ways of thinking about the ways in which long-term cultural traditions persist but also change through time; (2) biologists have made enormous progress in devising powerful quantitative analytical models, methods, and theories for the analysis of genetic evolution; with the right kinds of data, some of these approaches could be applied to the study of cultural transmission; (3) as seen above, genetic and cultural information can be passed on in similar but also fundamentally different ways; with appropriate genetic and cultural information (e.g. on the genetic traits, languages, or material-culture traditions maintained by different populations), it is possible to examine the extent to which genetic, linguistic, and cultural histories have potentially mapped onto one another through time, generating deep insights into the tangled cultural and biological histories of different world populations.

The next two chapters in this part illustrate how modern evolutionary approaches are being applied to the study of hunter-gatherer technological traditions and also to the reconstruction of the genetic histories of different forager populations in Africa. In this way, all three chapters in this particular grouping illustrate the ways in which the broadly adaptive and evolutionary paradigm in hunter-gatherer research has changed fundamentally in recent decades. At the same time, the research has retained its general commitment to rigorous scientific and quantitative approaches, albeit around a renewed interest in studying (p. 1100) social learning and cultural traditions, as well as the interconnected cultural, linguistic, and genetic histories of hunter-gatherer populations.

Hunter-Gatherers, Social Learning, and Cultural Transmission Theory

In their chapter, Eerkens et al. outline some possible archaeological applications of cultural transmission theory (CTT) to the study of hunter-gatherer material-culture traditions. They go to lengths to note that the use of cultural transmission theory is not specific to the study of hunter-gatherers, and that it can be applied to any kind of population that exhibits social learning and cultural inheritance. However, they argue that certain patterns and processes of cultural transmission may tend to predominate in many hunter-gatherer settings due to a range of factors, such as similarities in population size and density, information content and complexity, and common forms of forager social organization.

Their second important point is that archaeology is the only discipline that can directly study cultural transmission processes over long time periods. In this sense, hunter-gatherer sequences are also important because they form some of the longest cultural records on the planet, but require specific ways of studying how cultural traditions are replicated through analysis of the surviving material remains. Here, Eerkens et al. suggest that CTT can be particularly used to interpret and make predictions about these extended archaeological records. Indeed, they argue that the strength of studying cultural transmission in archaeology is the ability to make predictions about variation and diversity in material culture over large areas and extended periods of time. However, to accomplish these goals, scholars need large and geographically diverse suites of data.

They illustrate how cultural transmission can be studied in the archaeological record with two contrasting case studies. The first looks more at broad variation in artefacts across geographic space, and examines 5,000 hunter-gatherer projectile points from 40 sites across the Great Basin, in total spanning a seven-thousand-year time period. Their quantitative analysis lends preliminary support to the argument that there will be greater overall variation in projectile point traits when hunter-gatherers are organized into smaller group sizes than when they are living in larger groupings—this is because stylistic information is able to spread around other members of the group more easily when foragers are living in larger size groups, thereby serving to reduce overall variation in the assemblage.

Their second case study examines change in material culture through time, and they look at predictions about the uptake of new technologies. They hypothesize a general pattern in the spread of new technologies: rapid innovation and diversification characterize early stages as new technologies are first adopted; this is followed by a gradual winnowing out of this variation and a slowing in the general speed of innovation as specific types of artefact that best fit local requirements catch on and eventually become well-established within the population. They apply this model to the hunter-gatherers of southern Owens Valley in south-eastern California who began experimenting with ceramic technologies around 1200 years ago, and who adopted the technology more widely after 700 years ago. By modelling of vessel thickness and mica content of the clay pastes over time Eerkens et al. are able to explore the process of uptake of this new ceramic technology. Their analyses demonstrate the existence of changes over time, but crucially, that the rate of change was faster earlier in (p. 1101) the adoption process than later, all of which confirms their hypothesis that new innovations are subjected to intensive experimentation and adjustment in early phases of adoption, but then settle down into more standardized formats once they have caught on.

More generally, this chapter illustrates how application of DIT/CTT to prehistoric hunter-gatherer material culture relies heavily on the availability of large, relatively high- resolution datasets, and that it deploys a model-based, hypothesis-testing approach with a heavy reliance on quantitative methods to rigorously test even relatively simple ideas and relationships. Similar approaches are required when applying CTT to the analysis of ethnographic or ethnohistoric datasets of hunter-gatherer material culture to test related questions about the ways in which these technological traditions evolve, and the extent to which they map onto local language history (Jordan and Shennan 2003; 2009; Jordan and O’Neill 2010). If research into hunter-gatherer cultural transmission has grown over recent years, so too have genetic studies of hunter-gatherer populations and their long-term histories.

Investigating the Genetic History of Hunter-Gatherer Populations

In addition to the development of new kinds of culture evolutionary theory, some of the most important and far-reaching developments have been linked to the development of molecular genetic methods in evolutionary biology. These approaches can also be used to shed new light on human origins, demographic histories, and general human genetic variability, as well as specific migrations and particular histories of contact between groups and geographic regions. The chapter on ‘archaeogenetics’ by Černý and Pereira considers just some of this growing body of research, which again is not limited to the study of hunter-gatherers per se, but opens out some exciting new prospects for the study of forager groups and their population histories.

Basically, there are two contrasting approaches in archaeogenetics: (a) ancient DNA (aDNA)—this involves extraction of information directly from preserved human materials such as bones and teeth, which are routinely recovered during excavations. Theoretically, this approach has enormous potential, but there are substantial problems with contamination of ancient samples due to modern handling. Authentication of results remains extremely difficult, though substantive progress is now being made; (b) modern DNAthe second approach involves recovering DNA directly from individuals in living populations in order to map the genetic variability of these populations—this information can then be used to reconstruct the deeper demographic history of the population, for example, identifying phases of expansion, contraction, as well as gene flows and admixtures.

This is a rapidly expanding research frontier, and Černý and Pereira focus their chapter on recent archaeogenetic research in Africa using DNA samples recovered from modern hunter-gatherer populations. Most of this work has been directed at understanding processes extending over very different spatial and temporal scales. Larger-scale studies have focused on exploring the evolution of modern humans within Africa, the subsequent sequence of migrations out into other parts of the world, as well as details of return migrations back into Africa. In this way, these larger-scale studies provide a background to the more localized study of demographic histories of forager populations still living within Africa; often the genetic patterning raises further questions about gender roles and (p. 1102) inter-group marriage practices. Overall, archaeogenetic research generates additional lines of evidence that can be integrated into studies of hunter-gatherer diet, health, reproductive strategies, and demography; it can also be used to the reconstruct genetic histories of culture-contact between different populations, including interactions between different groups of foragers or between foragers and farmers.

Summary: Modern Evolutionary Approaches

These three chapters illustrate some of the main patterns of continuity and change in evolutionary and adaptive research over recent decades. Modern evolutionary methods and theory are now making a wide contribution to hunter-gatherer research, part of a raft of approaches that provide a means for studying the interlocking cultural and genetic histories of populations within a single framework. Some have gone so far as to argue that a culture-evolutionary framework will one day unite the general study of human biological and cultural diversity (Mesoudi et al. 2006; and see Ingold 2007), though this prediction may be rather premature.

New ‘Interpretive’ Directions in Hunter-Gatherer Research

The next set of chapters is united by a central concern with developing more particularistic insights into specific cultural contexts—all can usefully be grouped under Cannon’s historical, humanist, and broadly ‘interpretive’ paradigm (see Part I). This general approach does not aim to define models or rigorously test hypotheses; instead, the chapters identify useful themes, concepts, or approaches that can be used as heuristic frameworks to carefully work through data, illuminate subjective cultural meanings, and generate interpretive insights into the significance and experience of local lifeways. Many of these approaches are somewhat new to hunter-gatherer research, which has generally concerned itself with studying adaptation and behaviour, rather than symbolism and social action, but most draw on much older and relatively mainstream approaches in anthropology. In contrast to the complex distinctions between different forms of evolutionary thinking (see above), all these chapters are united by a shared and relatively self-explanatory concern with developing rich and contingent interpretive insights into specific cultural contexts. As most of these approaches are relatively new, most chapters take the form of ‘position statements’ and tend to start out with a critique of older ‘adaptive’ perspectives that were central to earlier hunter-gatherer research, enabling them to develop an ‘alternative’ set of perspectives, which are illustrated with both archaeological and ethnographic case studies.

Hunter-Gatherer Mobility and Landscape

David et al. outline an alternative approach to the study of hunter-gatherer mobility, arguing that processual archaeologists tended to frame mobility studies within models built on (p. 1103) assumptions that adaptive processes formed the primary drivers structuring forager behaviour (for example, the need to adjust mobility and settlement patterns in order to cope with seasonality and resource variability). In contrast, David et al. argue that the significance of the landscape is linked to the ways in which it is encountered through journeying and movement, highlighting the importance of human experience of places and pathways, which are in turn grounded within historical contexts. In this way, mobility should not only be understood as only a simple, functional, and rather predictable human response to particular environmental challenges, but should also be seen as being caught up with other more spiritual and personal motivations. One means of exploring these other aspects of mobility is through sustained reflection on perceptions of landscape among modern indigenous communities; a series of insights, analytical perspectives, and suggestions for further landscape work is illustrated by ethnographic insights from hunter-gatherers in Papua New Guinea. In general, then, this particular approach to the study of hunter-gatherer landscapes forms an extension of a much broader interpretive and historical approach to the study of landscape (see e.g. David and Thomas 2008).

Exploring Hunter-Gatherer Personhood

Finlay examines how the study of personhood is emerging as a new topic in hunter-gatherer research. This general theme has been inspired primarily by anthropological research in Melanesia (e.g. Strathern 1988), and basically examines the cultural significance attached to being a human person within different cultural and historical settings. Usually, it forms an entry point into exploring more localized and contextual forms of negotiated personal identity, as caught up in the lived experience of human existence. Recent work employing the personhood concept has included archaeological case studies, many of which have examined hunter-gatherer societies (e.g. Conneller 2004; Fowler 2004). However, Finlay also argues that the concept of personhood has enormous potential for furthering our general understandings of hunter-gatherers and their world views, both in the archaeological past and also the anthropological present. For example, personhood can only be fully understood in relation to many other aspects of culture, such as other gender identities, animals, material culture, and the landscape. In fact, the construction and significance of personhood is absolutely central to understanding the symbolic construction of local cultures because it articulates so closely with everything else in the world. Finally, Finlay argues that personhood also needs to be studied in relation to contextual life-histories, that is, expanded beyond rather fixed notions of personhood, and extended to embrace the study of how children become drawn into local cultural traditions and social identities, acquiring different kinds of personhood at each of these different life stages (and see Jarvenpa and Brumbach, this volume, and below).

New Approaches to Hunter-Gatherer Material Culture

Cobb discusses how archaeologists and anthropologists have approached and interpreted the study of material culture, broadly defined. She argues that processual approaches to technology (see, for example, the chapter by Kelly, Part VII, and discussions above) are embedded within a particular understanding of the world, one which follows a Cartesian division of matter and society, or at its most basic level, culture versus nature. Cobb follows (p. 1104) other anthropologists (most notably Ingold 2000) in outlining an alternative approach that instead focuses on the capacity for material culture to convey meaning and to be caught up with the production and expression of local social identities, and she goes on to explore themes of enskillment, performative practice, identity, and personhood within broader landscape/taskscape settings. Cobb also argues for the need to better understand the embedded social choices that are caught up in the production, use, and deposition of artefacts, illustrating her insights with archaeological case studies from hunter-gatherer societies. Her general conclusion is that the creation and use of materials, objects, and artefacts are central to the process of cultural reproduction and are not simply a means for adapting to the environment—instead, they help create and rework people’s identities and their sense of place in the world.

Exploring Variability in Hunter-Gatherer Ritual and Religion

Adaptation and ecology have been central themes in hunter-gatherer research. This led to major advances in understanding, but left other more social and symbolic dimensions of hunter-gatherer behaviour relatively under-researched. Whitley’s chapter is therefore important, because it starts to redress a long-standing imbalance in the focus of research into foragers and their lifeways. In seeking to develop the broader theme of an archaeology of religion, Whitley suggests that ethnographic insights are important because they provide a useful framework for exploring variability in hunter-gatherer ritual, religious, and associated social life, ultimately generating ideas and insights with which the archaeological record of hunter-gatherer religion can more productively be approached. Whitley employs native Californian ethnography as the subject matter for his primary case study, and highlights the enormous variability in local ritual events and religious practices among the many different hunter-gatherer groups inhabiting this region. Clearly, belief permeates all aspects of local life, but some rituals find their primary expression in spectacular group events, although the structure and significance of these larger gatherings is also highly variable, but can be broadly categorized into a range of fundamentally different kinds of rituals and ceremonies.

Whitley then goes on to detail how evidence for prehistoric religion can also be identified in the archaeological record: rock art studies have traditionally been the one area of research which has seen considerable focus, but this focus now needs to be expanded to incorporate other kinds of evidence. However, addressing this task is challenging as there has been so little ethnoarchaeological field research into hunter-gatherer religion (see Lane, Part I), and so Whitley again highlights the importance of using ethnography to describe and establish a known range of variation with which to approach and ‘calibrate’ the prehistoric evidence. This integrated ethnographic–archaeological approach, then, offers exciting ways of exploring both contemporary and also prehistoric hunter-gatherer belief systems in different parts of the world, and adds a useful counterbalance to more established adaptive and ecologically oriented approaches.

Summary: Interpretive Perspectives on Hunter-Gatherers

Recent years have seen several new interpretive themes enter into the current range of hunter-gatherer research, though none of these concepts (personhood, materiality) or subjects (p. 1105) (landscape, religion) is necessarily limited to the study of hunter-gatherers per se, and could equally apply to a range of other cultural or economic settings. Given the dominance of ecological and adaptive approaches, all look set to make increasingly important contributions to the study of hunter-gatherers, especially when combined with other broadly interpretive frameworks, and directed at relatively well-studied and high-resolution archaeological sequences.

Unlike modern evolutionary theory, which has a more explicit theoretical framework and associated set of methods, these new interpretive interests form a looser and more flexible grouping (but see Cannon, Part I, for an excellent general summary of this general perspective). What unites them is a shared concern with developing a more explicitly social and symbolic exploration of hunter-gatherer lifeways, as well as the ways in which these vary across different historical and cultural settings. In this way, their overarching goal is to enhance particularistic and often relativistic understanding of the subjective significance of local, lived experience in different historical contexts: no specific models are formulated or tested, no cross-cultural patterns are generally identified, and no higher-level generalizations are sought. Paradoxically, in seeking to extend this kind of a particularistic research agenda to the study of foragers, the focus on studying hunter-gatherers as a specific kind of society becomes, in the end, a rather incidental concern (see Pluciennik, Part I). More generally, then, these new and more explicitly interpretive themes highlight the healthy ongoing diversification of current hunter-gatherer research into a wide array of additional topics, directions, and approaches. However, in celebrating the uniqueness of particular cultural settings, they implicitly undermine the older unifying endeavour of studying hunter-gatherers as a specific kind of society that can be defined precisely by its distinctive subsistence base.

Integrative Research Themes: Gender, Identity, Subsistence, and Foodways

If the seven preceding chapters can be organized into two broadly divergent ‘evolutionary’ and ‘interpretive’ research streams, illustrating that major fault lines in basic theory, emphasis, and approach still run through the heart of current hunter-gatherer research, the two final chapters demonstrate the opposite trend, and illustrate how the inherently interdisciplinary nature of hunter-gatherer research often renders these evolutionary versus interpretive divisions rather artificial. In fact, these final case studies illustrate how a sustained focus on exploring central themes such as gender and identity, diet, subsistence, and foodways can actually serve to galvanize research efforts and provide a means to integrate recent developments in both method and theory around a renewed quest for gaining deeper insights into the dynamism and variability of specific hunting and gathering societies. Both chapters also make widespread use of archaeological, ethnographic, and also ethnoarchaeological research, all of which demonstrates that the field of hunter-gatherer studies has always been a fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavour that operates comfortably between archaeology, anthropology, and many other related disciplines. It is perhaps this highly-integrated and thematically-oriented kind of research programme that signals the best way forwards, and will perhaps continue to define hunter-gatherer studies as a distinct area of enquiry in (p. 1106) the future. This targeted and thematic approach also enables a raft of new methods, ideas, perspectives, and theoretical frameworks to be combined in order to understand specific local contexts and particular cultural sequences.

Researching Hunter-Gatherer Gender and Identity

Jarvenpa and Brumbach critically evaluate recent research on gender dynamics in hunter-gatherer societies. In fact, gender is the oldest and most fundamental dimension of human experience and identity, and gender studies has been a central topic in hunter-gatherer research since the Man the hunter era (see Sterling, Part I). This chapter adopts a forward-looking perspective, and revisits some of the long-standing debates about the roles of men, women, and ‘third’ genders, highlighting some of the major research biases in the study of gender that still need to be addressed. More generally, their coordinated programme of comparative ethnoarchaeological research underlines the extreme flexibility of gender roles in almost all areas of activity, and also enables them to explore the ways in which gender is expressed and negotiated through subsistence work but also via access to sacred sites and cosmological power.

Against an enduring focus on the role of men in acts of hunting and killing, they emphasize the central role played by women in the processing, storage, and redistribution of these resources, which in fact places them at the epicentre of community cultural reproduction and social life, and, if anything, serves to marginalize male hunters. Evidence is also drawn from osteological analyses of prehistoric skeletons, underlining the fact that gender studies are interdisciplinary and can also draw on scientific methods, and study the health, work patterns, diet, and evolutionary biology of different genders, as well as deploying more interpretive approaches and concepts such as personhood, identity, landscape, ritual practice, all reviewed above—the key point is that gender and identity are contextually variable, and that understanding the full details and causality of that variability cannot be constrained by a subscription to a single body of theory or general approach. This chapter is packed with insight and areas for future research and critical synthesis, all of which highlight that exploring gender and identity from multiple perspectives and approaches is destined to remain both a central—and actively integrating theme—within future hunter-gatherer studies.

Exploring Hunter-Gatherer Diet, Subsistence, and Foodways

The chapter by Schulting provides a useful end point to the handbook, and steers discussion back full circle to the fundamentally important topics of diet, subsistence, and food. In fact, what hunter-gatherers eat and how they procure, prepare, and share food have all been central topics since Man the hunter. Going even further back into the nineteenth century and beyond, hunter-gatherers were defined by social evolutionary thinkers as a distinct kind of society primarily because of what they ate (wild foods) and how they acquired it (foraging).

Although taking an older and well-established research theme as its starting point, Schulting’s chapter is important because it traces in a very precise and detailed manner just how far hunter-gatherer studies have evolved and changed in relation to this most central of all research themes—the hunting and gathering economy. Like Jarvenpa and Brumbach’s chapter, this study also highlights that despite major theoretical and (p. 1107) methodological diversification over recent years, overarching themes such as subsistence and diet can still serve to unite hunter-gatherer studies around a common research endeavour, one that now increasingly seeks to understand local variability and specific cultural context. This enables the research to draw easily on different disciplines and integrate approaches, methods, and theory from diverse sources in the pursuit of deeper and often more particularistic insights.

In this way, investigating diet and subsistence is central to understanding what makes hunter-gatherer populations all so very similar, but yet each so very distinct. But in the end, subsistence studies—like a focus on gender—lead off into an exploration of a wide range of other interlocking factors. Both new theoretical approaches and recent bioarchaeological developments in methods to study diet, health, and mobility of populations can play a role here, as well as organic-food-residue analysis to study the role of technologies like pottery in food processing and storage activities, as well as longer-term transformations in forager diets. Perhaps the most important general point to emerge from this detailed treatment is that archaeologists and anthropologists cannot understand the full significance of food in terms of calories alone. The creation and sharing of food are in fact central to cultural and biological reproduction in hunter-gatherer societies, and also feature highly in socio-political dynamics and negotiations of identity and expressions of world view. This promises to be an exciting research frontier and a renewed focus on understanding the full cultural significance of food will also serve to maintain the status of hunter-gatherer studies as a fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavour.


The different parts of this handbook have explored an enormously wide range of different geographic regions, time periods, and thematic research literatures. It is clear that hunter-gatherer studies have changed dramatically over recent decades, quickly outgrowing their initial concerns and early analytical frameworks such as social evolutionary thinking and, more recently, cultural ecology. While the concept of a ‘hunter-gatherer’ remains difficult to define, it still serves as a useful shorthand, and also as an important point of departure into a diverse and vibrant field of interdisciplinary research and scholarship.

Where next? In this final part alone, many new theoretical and methodological developments—ranging from archaeogenetics and cultural transmission theory through to interpretive perspectives on the cultural significance of personhood, mobility, landscape, and materiality—have been explored, and many have yet to be subject to a more sustained and perhaps more comparative kind of application beyond a few isolated regions or narrow time periods. There is clearly much future research and critical synthesis that still awaits. Other integrating themes such as the study of gender and subsistence also appear likely to play a useful role in bringing together the enormous progress that has been made in developing new methods and interpretive theory, especially if these efforts can be focused on addressing specific questions within particular regional sequences.

Understanding exactly how local hunter-gatherers have been caught up in specific regional trajectories of change, especially during the Holocene and through to the historic and ethnographic periods, is also emerging as a particularly integrating focus for interdisciplinary analysis, but one that requires large-scale coordinated and perhaps also explicitly (p. 1108) comparative programmes of research. Likewise, in areas and sequences with the right kinds of archaeological, human osteological, historic, and ethnographic data, reconstructing the detailed biographic life histories of specific individuals and populations caught up within these trajectories of long-term change now appears to be increasingly feasible (Weber and Zvelebil 2012). In fact, this appears to be one of the most productive areas in which the most modern scientific methods (e.g. integrated stable isotope analyses of diet and mobility, aDNA research, and osteoarchaeological studies) can be combined with new theoretical and interpretive perspectives (e.g. on personhood, gender, identity, mortuary practice and its landscape settings). In addition, much more work could also be done within regional sequences in trying to link short-term phases of climate and environmental change that are now increasingly being recognized with the identification of hunter-gatherer cultural responses, spanning both cultural flexibility and community resilience through to regional abandonment and collapse. Finally, all of this research activity also needs to proceed within a wider context defined by greater proactive engagement with indigenous peoples and descendant communities.

This raises a final important point. If intellectual diversification is a sign of a vibrant research field then hunter-gatherer studies have clearly outgrown their early formulations. The increasing identification and targeted exploration of unifying research themes like gender, subsistence, and understanding the roles of specific individuals in long-term culture change, now generate unparalleled opportunities to study the flexibility and resilience of humanity’s oldest adaptation, especially through archaeological research. But importantly, this research can—and should—now be conducted in ways that have greater relevance for current foragers, descendant communities, and for the wider global public.


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