Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

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

Hunter-Gatherer Societies

  • James G. ZerbeEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_418-1



Hunter-gatherer societies (HGS) are a type of society whose subsistence needs are met by gathering wild plant resources, hunting wild game, and fishing, without reliance on agriculture or domesticated animals except for dogs (Lee and Daly 1999).


Throughout the Pleistocene, HGS spread to occupy nearly every habitable corner on the planet and locally adapted to a diverse array of ecosystems. For approximately 95% of the time span during which human evolution occurred, people lived in HGS, that is, from the emergence of Homo sapiens until approximately 10,000 years ago (Lee and Daly 1999). Therefore, there is potential to greatly inform our understanding of human evolution by studying the social dynamics and other patterns that characterize modern HGS since their contexts are the most similar socioecological contexts which exist today to which humans have had the most time to adapt. Given this argument, it should be recognized that extant HGS are not exact models of Pleistocene HGS, but they are the best ethnographic models available and are therefore still useful. This entry will summarize important core aspects of HGS. Attention will be directed toward what could be conceptualized as modal patterns of HGS in the areas of social organization and cooperation (Hill et al. 2009, 2011; Mathew et al. 2013).

Hunter-gatherers live in social groups characterized by fission-fusion dynamics, i.e., people freely travel between subgroups in their daily foraging activities and between other bands seasonally or at much longer timescales (Lee and Daly 1999). Hunter-gatherer bands are therefore comprised of a flexible mix of individuals, with important social bonds among individuals within and between bands. Individuals co-residing in bands are connected by close and distant ties of genetic and affinal kinship, while some individuals in a band are not related at all. For example, among the !Kung and Ache, approximately 25% of individuals within a band are not related in any way (Hill et al. 2011). While, band membership is so flexible that individuals in HGS are likely to encounter many individuals during their lifetime. For the Hadza and Ache, data show that, on average, adults interact with more than 300 other same-sex adults during their lives (Hill et al. 2014).

HGS are broadly egalitarian (Lee and Daly 1999). There are no formally defined positions of social power to which individuals are ascribed by birth or with which they can act unilaterally against the wide interests of their peers (Boehm 1999). Despite this, status dynamics and leadership roles are still relevant but are muted in contrast to more complexly organized societies. Leadership is often context-specific and achieved by those who exhibit qualities that facilitate the coordinate and logistics of achieving group goals, such as knowledge, experience, intelligence, etc. (Glowacki and von Rueden 2015; Hooper et al. 2010). Achieving higher status is associated with higher measures of biological fitness across small-scale societies independent of subsistence strategy, though the effect size of this association is weaker among humans than in primates generally (von Rueden and Jaeggi 2016). While material wealth stratification is minimal or nonexistent among most HGS, disparities are observed in access to important social relationships, i.e., relational wealth, which have a greater impact on a family’s well-being than on material or embodied wealth (Smith et al. 2010). Additionally, relational wealth is moderately heritable across generations, as is the case for Ju/‘hoansi hxaro partnerships, which importantly assists individuals in surviving particular periods of intensified need and finding marriage partners (Smith et al. 2010).

HGS are also extremely cooperative (Mathew et al. 2013). They universally and intensively share food. Mathew and colleagues summarize that detailed data from three HGS indicates that major pathways of net food transfers occur from husbands to wives, from parents to dependent offspring, and to currently breeding mates from nonreproductive adults (2013). These pathways being the major features of human family organization and reproduction; pair bonded males and females who cooperate in reproduction by dividing specialization in productive strategies by sex; intergenerational resource flows from older to younger; and cooperative relationships among kin and unrelated individuals to reduce daily food variance and provide other forms of childcare (Kaplan et al. 2007). HGS also notably coordinate production activities in varying instances of large-scale collective action, e.g., building game drives, large fish weirs, and coalition formation in warfare (Allen and Jones 2014; Boyd and Silk 2014).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Institute of Human OriginsArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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  • Haley Dillon

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