Collecting, also referred to as “gathering” or “foraging,” is a broad anthropological term used to describe a food production strategy. Collectors rely on identifying and harvesting native plants and animals rather than engaging in agriculture or animal husbandry. Collectors migrate in small extended-family bands within fixed boundaries or home ranges in search of food and water. They are successfully adapted to their local environments due to highly detailed knowledge of plant and animal life in particular regions and their sensitivity to the carrying capacities of these resources. Collectors gather only what they need for a few days at a time. If food becomes scarce in an area, due to seasonal variation or weather conditions, the band moves, sometimes over a great distance.
Collectors have few material possessions, which vary according to the resources they gather. Some live in deserts and subsist on the roots and wild plants gathered by women and the wild animals hunted by the men. Some live in forests, where women collect nuts, berries, and other wild plants and the men hunt wild animals and fish. Some live on plains and subsist on wild grains, fruits, and vegetables. Others live near ocean waters, which supply fish and other aquatic animals. These resources define the materials from which collectors build their temporary shelters and make their clothing. Natural resources also define the nature of the food production technologies developed by collector cultures. This includes simple hunting, fishing, grinding, and cooking tools and techniques.
The social organization of collector cultures is simple. Small bands of 100 or less people control their populations in response to local natural resources. This ensures that resources will not be overused and that people will not suffer starvation. All collector cultures are characterized by a gendered division of labor. The temporary base camp is the center of daily food processing and sharing. Collectors are egalitarian and view the accumulation of wealth as unnecessary, if not actually undesirable. Reciprocity, which is the exchange of goods and services to benefit all in need, is a key element of a collector culture. Members of band societies learn to live and cooperative with one another and their environment in order to survive. They are led, as least spiritually, by a shaman.
Among the best-known collector groups of the modern world are the Aborigines of Australia and the Inuit peoples of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and northern Siberia. The San (Bushmen) of Botswana, Namibia, and southern Angola formerly subsisted as collectors until their territories were taken from them and their resources destroyed. There are many lesser-known groups of collectors or former collectors in all geographic regions of the world. They find it increasingly difficult to live by their traditional collecting strategies. The pressure from governments and settled neighbors to surrender their lands for commercial development makes it necessary for them to adapt to new social and natural environments. In the process of modifying their traditional food production strategies, collectors sometimes join political movements with others who struggle against overwhelming political and economic forces. Despite romantic support of their causes, their numbers are small, and their cultural survival is threatened.
Anthropologists study collectors to understand the detailed knowledge they have of marginal environments. Despite their simple lives, collectors are well fed, generally healthy, free of stress, and comfortable. Anthropologists argue that collectors represent the most sustainable and successful of all human adaptive strategies. They can teach complex societies much about the long-term benefits of living simply.
- Bodley, J. H. (1997). Cultural anthropology: Tribes, states, and the global system. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
- Jorgensen, J. G. (1990). Oil age Esfe’mos.Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Wilson, D. J. (1999). Indigenous South Americans of the past and present. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.