Hunter-gatherer is an anthropological term in reference to a way of life led by certain societies based on the exploitation of wild plants and animals. Consequently, hunter-gatherers are relatively mobile, and groups of hunter-gatherers have fluid boundaries and composition. Typically, men hunt and women gather.
All archeological evidence to date suggests that prior to ten or fifteen thousand years ago, all human beings were hunter-gatherers. Today hunter-gatherer groups are found in the Arctic, tropical rainforests, and deserts where other forms of subsistence production are impossible or too costly. In most cases these groups do not have a continuous history of hunting and gathering; in many cases their ancestors were farmers who were pushed into marginal areas as a result of migrations and wars. It is estimated that in only a few decades there will be no more such communities.
The vast majority of hunter gatherer societies are nomadic. It is very difficult to be settled as the resources of one region will usually be quickly exhausted. There are exceptions, however. The Haida of what is now British Columbia lived in such as rich environment that they could remain sedentary.
Hunter-gathers tend to have very low population densities. One acre of land that is farmed can support sixty to a hundred more people than one that is left uncultivated.
Hunter-gatherer societies also tend to have only low level social structures. There is often a chief, but even they are forced to participate in collecting food. There is rarely surplus food, and since they are nomadic little ability to store any surplus. Thus independent leaders, bureaucrants, or artisans are rarely supported by hunter-gathering societies.
The line between agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies is not clear cut. Many hunter-gatherers would consciously manipulate the landscape through cutting or burning unuseful plants while encouraging those they could consume. Most agricultural people continued to do some hunting and gathering. Some would farm during the temperate months and they hunt during the winter. Still today many in developed countries will go hunting for and food and for amusement.
There are some modern social movements related to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle:
- freeganism involves gathering of discarded food in the context of an urban environment
- gleaning involves the gathering of food that traditional farmers have left behind in their fields
- sport hunting and sport fishing are recreational activities practiced by people who get the majority of their food by modern means (see also: fox hunt, safari)
- primitivism, which strives for the return to a pre-industrial and pre-agricultural society