Intro to the Social Structure Hunters and Gatherers

Nederlandse versie

In selective adaptation to the perils of the Stone Age, human society overcame or subordinated such primate propensities as selfishness, indiscriminate sexuality, dominance and brute competition. It substituted kinship and co-operation for conflict, placed solidarity over sex, morality over might. In its earliest days it accomplished the greatest reform in history, the overthrow of human primate nature, and thereby secured the evolutionary future of the species. (Sahlins, M. D. 1960 The origin of society. Scientific American 203(3): 76–87)

Introduction and Limitations

With regard to the hunters and gatherers, I want to outline the connections between their activities that represent production, distribution, communication, social behaviour and psycho-pedagogical attitudes. My goal is to determine their capacity to take charge of their own life. In my view this depends on their political structure, a deliberative democracy.

As archaeological research provides a rather speculative and often vague picture of the social life of hunters and gatherers, I rely primarily on the anthropology of the groups of hunter-gatherers that still exist. Nomadic shepherds or primitive farmers who combine permanent cultivation with hunting and gathering have passed the stage of the Stone Age hunters and gatherers. So I do not consider their way of life. The reason for this rigour is that in my design the still existing hunters and gatherers serve as a prototype for their ancestors from the Stone Age. So I also omit these groups that were under too much pressure from the cultures around them, which does not mean that they are also interesting to study, but not in this regard. Frank Marlowe states:

“When reconstructing periods before horse domestication with data from ethnographic foragers, we can ignore the equestrian foragers. If we are interested in the period before 30,000 years ago, we might exclude the arctic foragers because it was only during the last 30,000 years that very cold areas were occupied by modern sapiens.”1

For our ancestral hunters and gatherers, as a baseline measurement, the late Pleistocene, around 100,000 years ago, is especially important. In particular, the period at the end of the late Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene, when they had reached the peak of their evolution, from about 20,000 years ago to the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago.

The problem is that there are no written sources from the hunter-gatherers themselves. They had not yet developed writing. But they did leave intriguing drawings and paintings on rocks and in caves. There is even a woman-shaped statue of our distant ancestors, which is about 40,000 years old, the Venus of Hohle Fels. The image of the Lion-man originates in the same period. The first image is an example of self-expression, the second probably refers to a mythology, to one of the stories they passed on to each other from generation to generation. The petroglyphs are the harbinger of the development of a scripture. The two oldest scriptures, the neolithic signs in China and the hieroglyphs from Egypt are based on representations of objects and not on sounds such as the modern scripture.

Paleolithic Venus Figurines, left to rigt- Venus of Hohle Fels (40.000 yrs old), Venus of Dolni Vestonice (29.000 yrs old), Venus of Willendorf (24.000 yrs old)

The first written testimony about their existence is probably to be found with the ancient Egyptians. Among the Pharaohs, a myth was circulating about “little red males.” That probably concerned the pygmies that lived in West Africa some 6,000 years ago before they were driven out. The knowledge about them was probably conveyed by the trading Fulbe who travelled back and forth along the southern side of the Sahara between East and West Africa2. Therefore we are dependent on archaeology, evolutionary biology, genetics and on the anthropological study of the still existing hunters and gatherers, who have preserved their culture without too many external influences.

The least culturally influenced peoples were the “Aboriginals” in Australia. Colonization did not affect them before 1770. Only after James Cook went ashore they came under pressure. In Asia, Africa and South America there are still many groups of hunters and gatherers whose culture is only slightly affected by the settlers. They are still encountered in the rain forests and tropical areas such as the Kalahari desert – not really a desert by the way. Sometimes they live next to agricultural cultures, but they refuse to become agriculturists. They presume to have a good life. The farmers in their neighbourhood don’t understand. They would be more than happy to use their cheap labour. Occasionally, when they need something extra, they work for a short period on those farms. But agriculture means long working days. They find that far too difficult.3.

We get a general picture of their society from Frank Marlowe, who made an overview of 478 groups all over the world4. I have opted for gender egalitarian societies of hunters and gatherers, which are still considered rare by cultural anthropologists5. The Ju / hoansi or !Kung, the Mbuti, Agta and Hazda in Africa, the Malapantaram and Polyan in India, the Aeta and Mbendjele in the Philippines, the Ache in Paragay and the Batek in Malaysia are in all cases gender egalitarian6. Yet there are more arguments to believe that our distant ancestors in the Stone Age were gender egalitarian than there were arguments against it.

About 70,000 years ago, the homo sapiens started spreading from Africa. The researchers Lev A. Zhivotovsky, Noah A. Rosenberg and Marcus W. Feldman estimate that the entire population of our ancestor at the time of the African expansion consisted of only about 2,000 individuals. The small size of this ancestral population may explain why there is so little genetic variability in human DNA compared to that of chimpanzees and other closely related species.

Since all human beings have virtually identical DNA, geneticists have to look for slight chemical variations that distinguish one population from another. One technique involves the use of “microsatellites” — short repetitive fragments of DNA whose patterns of variation differ among populations. Because microsatellites are passed from generation to generation and have a high mutation rate, they are a useful tool for estimating when two populations diverged.

In their study, the research team compared 377 microsatellite markers in DNA collected from 1,056 individuals representing 52 geographic sites in Africa, Eurasia (the Middle East, Europe, Central and South Asia), East Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Statistical analysis of the microsatellite data revealed a close genetic relationship between two hunter-gatherer populations in sub-Saharan Africa – the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo Basin and the Khoisan of Botswana and Namibia. These two populations “may represent the oldest branch of modern humans studied here,” the authors concluded.7 Both groups are gender egalitarian. Khoisan actually means not-Bantu and refers to the Ju / hoansi and the San that share the same click language.

A second reason that justifies this choice is the fact that coherence in the hunters and gatherers culture points in that direction. For example, the intense interaction and cooperation with non-relatives can only be explained by gender equality, in the opposite case it is less likely. Why cultural anthropologists still regard gender egalitarianism as rare can have various causes. The aspect can be watered down by living hunters and gatherers due to contact with or pressure from the outside world. It may also be that anthropologists, in a male-dominated culture, did not pay attention to it, even though they found that most groups were egalitarian. It is and remains a baseline measurement – see concept of this setup – and it is always a bit random.

The first field work in any case took place at a time when the hunters and gatherers had reasons to feel threatened, so that tensions could increase between themselves and between the different groups. That could produce a distorted picture. Around 1890, for example, the Batek in Malaysia were still the victims of slave traders8.

Some reserves have to be considered about field studies of contemporary hunters and gatherers as a prototype of the hunter and gatherers of the Stone Age. We are now thousands of years later. Marlowe himself mentions the technological changes that the hunters and gatherers have mastered after the Stone Age9. This may have influenced their way of life.

There are also important questions to be asked about the method of a particular anthropology, certainly if it had not yet separated itself from a colonial view of the world. Has the investigation been conducted from outside or from within? In dialogue with the group members or not? From the outside scholars often reverted to projections.

For all these reasons, additional material from interdisciplinary research, DNA research, social biological and social neurological research is a welcome contribution. Social neurology, because the traces that the hunter-gatherers have left in our brain – see the previously formulated assumption of Richard Wilkinson and others – are indeed significant and are also measured in research setups with fMRI. A fairly solid basis for evidence. An example of this is the pain response to social exclusion10. In the society of hunters and gatherers people were not only strongly connected with each other in different ways, cause and effect were also closely intertwined11.

Another annoying pebble in our shoe is also the fact that in the area where our civilization originated, the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates and around the Mediterranean Sea, there are no hunter-gatherers left. They all disappeared out the very early switch to agriculture. However, it is not the case that the original hunters and gatherers in Europe and the later farmers were different peoples. Research from both sides shows that different generations were in contact with each other. The traces of this can be found in the genetic material12.

There is no doubt that farmers have repressed hunter-gatherers in many places and it does not stop. In the Brazilian rain forest, the natives still living there are under great pressure. Their habitats are being cut down for illegal logging and to make way for industrial soybean cultivation. This is not only cruel, it is also very stupid. The forests in which they live are, apart from the oceans, the most important lung of Mother Earth. In these times of climate crisis, every square meter of forest that is cut down is one too many. That is why we want to express our support for the Articulaçao dos Povos Indigenas do Brazil (APIB), see

False views about hunter-gatherers are widely spread. A misleading view is that they did not have the same intellectual capacities as modern humans. Nothing could be further from the truth, I will return to this in detail13. Yet it annoys me that when I’m searching images of hunters and gatherers, I always get drawings of bearded tronies with thickly raised eyebrows where one still sees the angular traces of the earlier primates in the form of the drawn face. Those beards that will be right. But as our eyebrows do not grow any further, that was also not the case with the hunters and gatherers. And the shape of their faces 20 thousand years ago was the same as ours today.

Facial reconstruction of a hunter and gatherer Chan de Lindeiro in Spain


See Bibliography hunters and gatherers


1Frank W. Marlowe, Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution, 2005, p. 56.

2Rik Pinxten, 2011, p. 114.

3Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, 1973, p. 27-28

4Frank W. Marlowe, 2005.

5Kirk Endicott & Karen Endicott, 2008, p. 7-8.

6Kirk Endicott & Karen Endicott, 2008, p. 10; M. Dyble et al., 2015; Silke Felton & Heike Becker, 2001

7Lev A. Zhivotovsky, Noah A. Rosenberg and Marcus W. Feldman, Features of Evolution and Expansion of Modern Humans, Inferred from Genomewide Microsatellite Markers, 2003

8Kirk Endicott & Karen Endicott, The Headman was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia, 2008, p. 15.

9Frank W. Marlowe, 2005, p. 64-65.

10Naomi Eisenberger et al., Does Rejection Hurt?, 2003.

11Rik Pinxten, Mensen, 2011, p. 134.

12Gonzalez-Fortes and Jones et al., Paleogenomic Evidence for Multi-generational Mixing between Neolithic Farmers and Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers in the Lower Danube Basin, 2017

13Rik Pinxten, 2011, p. 171-178.