Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Hunter-Gatherer Societies as Sources of Data in Evolutionary Psychology

  • Darcia NarvaezEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3580-1


Walk Away Gift Economy Mobile Forager Forager Society Hunting Large Game 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Small-band hunter-gatherer societies or nomadic foragers are “immediate-return” societies who lack significant possessions, do not cultivate plants, domesticate animals, or hoard food, in contrast to delayed-return societies who do one or more of these things.


Often, people confuse nonmodern types of societies as if they were all the same. The differences among small-band hunter-gatherers, complex hunter-gatherers, tribes, and chiefdoms are quite important. All but the first cultivate plants or domesticate animals, activities that lead to hierarchy and inequality, and typically represent sedentary, patriarchal societies prone to violent management of conflict.

Nomadic foragers are distinctive. Nomadic foraging bands are similar in structure wherever they have been found all over the world (Lee and Daly 2005). They represent the type of society in which humanity spent 99% of its history before agricultural settlement. Nomadic foraging is not merely a subsistence mode but also represents a long-term evolutionary inheritance of social patterns based on equality, cooperation, and partnership. Many groups have persisted to the present day. The collected set of ethnographies from nomadic foraging societies are relevant to understanding humanity’s psychological and social evolutionary legacies (e.g., Kelly 1995; Lee and Daly 2005; Woodburn 1982).

Which Hunter-Gatherers?

Nomadic foraging bands have been ethnographically described for all major world regions. Some bands still exist but they have become increasingly rare in recent centuries and decades due to ecological destruction of their habitats, land grabs, epidemics, and even extermination campaigns. The data from which this discussion is drawn include individual ethnographies (for review see Lee and Daly 2005), studies that systematically sample nomadic forager societies (e.g., Fry 2006; Fry and Söderberg 2013) and comparative forager studies (e.g., Kelly 1995; Woodburn 1982). The focus is on the recurring patterns across foraging societies, from different continents and habitats.

There are several reasons that examining data from mobile groups is useful for social science. First, as noted, most of humanity’s evolutionary past was spent in this kind of nomadic foraging society. Thus we can take it as not just an economic subsistence form of life but a stable form of living. Fry (2006) summarized the recurring demographic features reported for dozens of mobile forager societies worldwide. Recurring patterns include small size (25–50 individuals on average) and low population densities, mobility with flexibility and fluctuations in group composition, and interconnections among bands (especially among those that speak the same or similar languages). Territory is loosely defined among groups. Bilateral systems of descent (maternal and paternal) are emphasized.

Second, all over the world nomadic foragers show recurring patterns of behavior and orientations. Nomadic foraging data offers a glimpse into multiple baselines for human societies: (1) they provide humanity’s evolved nest to their young; (2) they demonstrate similar cultures and personalities which likely are related to evolved nest provision, including (3) alternative ways of dealing with conflict; (4) they display a human nature and worldview distinctive from the modern.

The Evolved Nest

Evolutionary systems theory identifies humanity’s multiple evolutionary inheritances, which includes genes but also a developmental niche for the young (Oyama 2000). Nomadic foragers provide the evolved niche, which is similar to that of social mammals who emerged over 30 million years ago (Konner 2005). As for all animals, the human nest matches up with the maturational schedule of the young, shaping the wellbeing and nature of offspring through ongoing constructive interactionism. Nomadic foraging data provide a window on the evolved nest and its effects (aka, hunter-gatherer childhood model, Konner 2005). The human nest has been described by anthropologists as a set of recurring patterns among nomadic foragers (Hewlett and Lamb 2005). For young children, the evolved nest includes soothing perinatal experiences (no separation of baby from mother, no painful procedures); responsiveness to infant needs to prevent distress; extensive on-request breastfeeding (2–8 years; 4 years on average); extensive positive (no negative) touch and holding; positive climate and social support for the mother, the child, and the dyad, including multiple responsive familiar caregivers; and self-directed social play. Transdisciplinary studies demonstrate that each of these nest components has measurable neurobiological effects on the child’s personality and trajectory for health, wellbeing, and sociality (e.g., Narvaez et al. 2013). A supportive community nest continues past early childhood as can be surmised by the characteristics of flexible communalism described below. In adulthood, nomadic foragers demonstrate similar cultures and personalities which likely are due to similar early life experiences or evolved nest provision.

Culture and Personality

What kind of cultural patterns do the nomadic foraging data show? The data show a human predilection for peaceful living through fostering prosocial behavior, using nonviolent rather than violent conflict management approaches, including a lack of warfare (Fry 2006). They emphasize cooperation with high egalitarianism, including between genders. Hunting large game is primarily a male activity and gathering primarily a female activity, though these are not exclusive, and each group makes decisions for their realms of activity. There is minimal leadership and no overarching authority within or among groups; in fact they eschew authoritarian leadership. Individuals are highly autonomous while highly communal. Group decision making is by consensus. There is little material property and minimal private ownership of resources. Generosity and reciprocal sharing are expected within and between groups. Band members practice sexual freedom, tend to find spouses in other groups, and can change partners when so desired. Multilocality, rather than patrilocality, is typical among mobile hunter-gatherers (Dyble et al. 2015, p. 798).

What values do they exhibit? Reciprocity of generosity and sharing are expected within and between groups, even those at some distance. No one goes hungry unless all do. The ties of friendship, kinship, marriage, and gift exchange bind individuals and groups together. Landscape resources are shared. This may be especially important because of the fact that groups are ephemeral – membership is always changing in a fission-fusion pattern. In fact, it is speculated that because of evolutionary pressures “co-residence with unrelated individuals set the selection environment for the evolution of hypercooperation and prosociality. …This social system may have allowed hunter-gatherers to extend their social networks, buffering environmental risk and promoting levels of information exchange required for cumulative culture” (Dyble et al. 2015, p. 798). Also valued are humility, respectful behavior, and nonaggression (Boehm 1999; Fry 2006; Woodburn 1982). They live leisurely with limited wants and self-restraint. Overall, they display a partnership orientation to social life, characterized by egalitarianism and respect for individual autonomy but also high communalism.

How are these values cultivated and enforced? The evolved nest, described earlier, is the way to establish self-regulation and sociality. As they grow up, children observe and imitate the typical ways to interact which include self-restraint, patience, and helpfulness. In everyday life, conversation and banter are used to keep people in line. Prosociality is expected but rewarded with reputation. On the other hand, rough humor is used to minimize the ego inflation of a successful hunter or of someone who is demonstrating greed or is less than generous. In extreme cases, group members may expel (thief; regular troublemaker) or even execute (recidivist killers) offenders.

Dealing with Conflict

One of the most common mistaken assumptions about humanity’s past regards aggression. Nomadic forager data shed light on humanity’s predilection for violence. From nomadic forager data, we can surmise that our ancestors tended to avoid lethal aggression, favored nonviolent cooperation and avoidance during conflict, and used social control mechanisms to maintain a peaceful social life (Fry 2006). Nonviolent conflict resolution includes such techniques as avoidance (physical or emotional), toleration, negotiation, and settlement (ibid). The typical response among foragers is to walk away, foment a discussion, or enter into group contests such as song duels or wrestling. Disputes are typically personal (e.g., two jealous men), and sometimes lead to homicide but most often do not.

With the definition of warfare as lethal aggression between different communities, war is a highly rare occurrence among foragers according to extensive analysis (Fry and Söderberg 2013). It must be remembered that foragers have few possessions to fight about, egalitarianisms is the norm, population density is low, and there are no military leaders. At the same time, reciprocal exchange practices and ties of kinship and friendship are very strong. It is the latter that increase survival challenges.

Human Nature and Worldview

Nomadic foraging data offer a glimpse into human capacities of development and offer a glimpse into the type of worldview that develops in ancestral conditions of living close to the earth with basic needs met through the evolved nest and ongoing social support.

Nomadic foraging data offer a contrast to the view of human nature as “economic man” – an acquisitive, calculating, and competitive creature always looking for self-advantage. Along with selfish exploitation, economic theory assumes scarcity in the world and that some will be rich and others poor; work and production, at the expense of leisure, are necessary to eat. These features are contrary to nomadic foraging data where generosity is a dominant value, the world is considered to be full of abundance; work and socializing go together; and no one is coerced to do anything in order to share in the group’s food. Following nature’s gift economy of giving and taking, nomadic foragers practice communal sharing, whether of food or possessions.


Nomadic foraging data have often been ignored, minimized, or collapsed into prehistory, perhaps because they challenge received views of human prehistory and human nature. The data challenge views of human nature as selfish, aggressive, and competitive. In contrast to modern views of humanity and its past, nomadic foragers are fiercely egalitarian, even among genders and ages, with high autonomy and communality and an emphasis on generosity. The social patterns shared across mobile societies include reciprocal social networks across vast distances, peaceful exchange, and restraint in conflict resolution.

Nomadic foraging was the form of living for all humanity until recent millennia. As it is the original form of social life, nomadic foraging represents the social and developmental circumstances reflective of humanity’s evolution. Data from societies that live largely like humanity’s 99% allows researchers a glimpse into deep history. Similar features occur among widely disparate mobile foragers around the world, suggesting a stable form of social organization. Comparative studies with moderns, whose characteristics represent civilization’s effects, can be informative about how much humans are shaped by early experience and by social lifestyles.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Notre DameNotre DameUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Gary L Brase
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Psychological SciencesKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA