What are Hunter Gatherers? By Jim Snee

One thing that persistently, and understandably, annoys people is the use of jargon. In this archaeology is as guilty of that as the next discipline, and it is sometimes useful to examine the phrases we routinely use to make sure that everyone understands them. It should go without saying that we know what they mean when we use them.


However, this is often not the case. More often than most of us would like to admit.

Hunter gatherers, is a classic example. “People in Britain at this time were still hunters and gatherers who made use of wild plants and animals.” Says the website on one august heritage organisation, and who am I to argue. But look deeper into that short statement and there are a lot of assumptions and value judgements, that it may well be time to let go of.

Film and television have a significant impact on the way in which people perceive the past. In the case of the prehistoric, most people’s mental image of the era has more to do with films like One Million Years BC than archaeology or history.

In this version of prehistory, set in southern California, bearded men go out hunting long-extinct wild animals while the women either daintily fish in the sea or go out with baskets and gather the ripe fruits that grow abundantly on every bush and tree. In archaeology, we often call this the “happy valley” reconstruction. It certainly never happened in northern England when glaciers were still perched on the northern hills. And there were definitely no dinosaurs of any kind wandering around at the time.

But where has this idea come from? Unfortunately, it is yet another attitude that comes from our colonial past. In Britain, up until the end of the medieval period, hunting and gathering was considered a legitimate way of supplementing the food supply. In the post-medieval period, enclosure of land and changes to agriculture changed this. Hunting was a pastime reserved for landowners and those of the lower classes who engaged in it were prosecuted as poachers and either deported or hanged. At the same time, Britain was creating colonies of settlers, both at home and overseas. Moral justification for this was often based on a narrative of superior intelligence, culture and technology. In this narrative, living by hunting was primitive, unskilled and lazy, farming was civilised, skilled and good hard work.

Echoes of this can be seen in the website statement above; people were still hunter gatherers. It puts me in mind of my old school reports and I half expect it to be followed by the phrase “must try harder.”

The fact is, however, that regarding hunting and gathering as a lesser mode of providing food and raw materials is a cultural judgement. Hunters are by no means unskilled and they are certainly not lazy. Studies of predators of all kinds show that hunting is not a random or opportunist act. It is planned and there is a strategy. A successful hunter has to have skill, knowledge, and a social group.

So, what were the Lincolnshire hunter gatherers doing? In a group, they would carefully stalk their prey, which at the time were wild horses and reindeer. Simply running after the herds would have been a waste of energy. I’ve never personally tried running after a horse, but I am reliably informed that the horse usually wins. To be successful, our Palaeolithic hunters would have had to get close enough to a wild animal to bring it down with the first spear thrust or throw. If that failed the animal would bolt. This is where the social group comes in. If the first attack fails, the other members of the group represented the possibility of additional attacks. Working as a group greatly increased the chance of success.

The hunters would have had expert knowledge of their landscape, and the changes that take place through the seasons. Hunters would not simply go out hoping to find an animal to kill. They would plan a hunt knowing what animals were available and selecting their prey on the basis of desire or need. For example, a tutor of mine was once told by a hunter in Canada that bear is not the first choice of prey if you want meat, but if you are looking for warm winter furs, it is the best animal to go to.

Gathering would work in a similar way. Not only do you have to know what plants are usable and which are not, but you also have to know where and when they grow and when they are ripe. In the arctic tundra-like environment of ancient Lincolnshire, the berries would have been hardy low growing types like cowberry and bilberry. Gathering them wouldn’t be a matter of wandering around hoping to pick some up. It takes time to pick berries in useable quantities and the gatherers would have to be systematic. They would also need a lightweight container to carry their food in. Artic grasses, at the right time of year, would have provided a material that could be woven into baskets and bags. But at other times the grasses would have provided edible seeds. Even mosses would have been gathered as lamp wicks or perhaps other uses. Sphagnum moss, for example, makes an excellent wound dressing.

If that wasn’t skill and knowledge enough, there is also the question of preserving food for winter. Meat would be buried in the ground to pickle and would be retrieved when the snows came. Fruits would have been sun-dried or mixed with fat to preserve them for the winter. Hardly the feast and fast approach that we normally imagine.

So the Palaeolithic hunter gatherers of Lincolnshire were clever people. They worked in groups and they planned ahead based on extensive knowledge of where they lived.

We have a phrase that refers to a territory that you have extensive knowledge of – Home. Next time I will look at what home could have meant for our prehistoric ancestors.