AnthroBites: Hunter-Gatherer Research

AnthroBites is a series from the AnthroPod team, designed to make anthropology more digestible. Each episode tackles a key concept, text, or theme, and breaks it down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.

Our guest for this episode is Graeme Warren, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at University College Dublin (UCD). In this episode, Warren speaks to guest contributor Ruthie Flynn about the evolution and interdisciplinary nature of hunter-gatherer studies and its impact on anthropology at large.

Further Resources

Key Figures and Texts Mentioned in this Episode

Learn More about Hunter-Gatherer Research


AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, experiences in the field, and current events. This episode was produced by guest contributor Ruthie Flynn. Special thanks to Siobhan McGuirk for her role as Executive Producer. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at [email protected]

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Music: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear.


Ruthie Flynn: So the first place we can go to is, of course, the infamous question: what is a hunter-gatherer?

Graeme Warren: This isn’t a question I find straightforward at all. It’s perhaps a question that, given what I do and given how I describe myself as a specialist in hunter-gatherer archaeology, I should have a better or more polished answer to. But it is a term that has a particular history. The term is often now considered to have arrived out of the ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; an attempt by which people described and explained ideas around human diversity, and in particular the idea that in these early writings about the development and transformation of human societies over time, the term hunter-gatherer provides some sort of origin point from which we developed civilization or a political structure. And often then, the hunter-gatherer is seen as being very different from the ideals of the settled Western, agricultural, land-owning, white, upper-class male, effectively. So, there is that background to it.

If you grew up in different intellectual traditions, then different terms and different approaches will be used. So, in social anthropology they focus on class relations rather than simply hunting and gathering. There’s this tension that lies at the base of the term—at one level, it seems very easy to say that a hunter-gatherer is someone who hunts and gathers; they don’t use domesticated plants or animals and they just rely on wild food, overall. And that’s fine, but that’s not very interesting in and of itself. What we really want to be learning is how hunter-gatherers live, how they organize their society, how they organize their subsistence, their worldview.

And the issue that we’ve realized over the years is that there’s no simple connection between a mode of subsistence and particular forms of social organization. There are some patterns, some generalizations—some people believe in those more than other people—but there’s not a one-to-one match of those sorts of things. It’s tricky to come up with a robust kind of definition; some people think of hunter-gatherer as being a useful heuristic term or a useful way of thinking about human diversity. But it’s very hard to definitively link and define what these things are. And this still plays out! In the ISHGR Journal over the last few years, we’ve seen some debates play out on whether or not a particular group actually are hunter-gatherers and whether or not they should be included in the pages of the journal. It’s an ongoing, persistent problem of definition.

RF: I wanted to start off as introducing you, not only as a senior lecturer at UCD’s Archaeology Department, but also an editor of the Hunter Gatherer Research Journal which is connected on an institutional level to ISHGR (International Society of Hunter Gatherer Research). What are the goals of these organizations?

GW: Absolutely. So ISHGR is the International Society of Hunter Gatherer Research, which is seeking to promote, develop, and sustain a community of hunter-gatherer researchers. In particular, they assist in maintaining the CHAGS [Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies] conferences, which originated with the famous “Man the Hunter” conference in 1966. They ran on after that but fell into something of a hiatus in the early 2000s. They have since been re-energized with the assistance of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2010, with the upcoming conference being held in Penang, Malaysia this summer. That will be CHAGS XII. So CHAGS and ISHGR really exist to support and nurture the wide networks of hunter-gatherer research.

RF: And as an archaeologist, do you find major differences in theory and in practice in studying hunter-gatherers in archaeology rather than in anthropology?

GW: Yes there are, there are inevitable differences. Perhaps in part because of the nature of the data that we deal with, the resolution of that data—the reliance on material data on one hand, and the reliance on being able to speak to people on the other hand are the key distinctions between the disciplines. We have to hope that they can speak to each other. You can learn to navigate the differences and try to make sense of the tensions between the different approaches. In particular, with the anthropological approach to hunting and gathering societies, we are reliant on the present. We cannot reach back into deep time without the insights of archaeology. So if we want to understand hunting and gathering throughout time and space, we have to use archaeological approaches to understand what may be widespread among hunters and gatherers, or what may be recent developments overall. So, the two disciplines need to work together.

Often, archaeologists have been a bit lazy—that’s a slightly harsh term—but the way in which we use analogies and make comparisons between hunter-gatherers in the past and in the present is sometimes a little simplistic. We run the risk then of simply taking the observations of contemporary or near-contemporary hunter-gatherers and imposing them back into the past, so we turn the past into the mirror.

RF: Right, exactly. So, regarding the fieldwork, I wanted to get your perspective on the problem areas of hunter-gatherer studies, especially in the modern world.

GW: I can’t speak with authority on the problem of studying modern-day hunter gatherers. That’s not been my focus. My primary research has been in areas where (sadly) hunter-gatherers are long gone. So there would be better people to talk to you about that. But in terms of archaeology, there’s an enormous range of challenges and opportunities out there, in terms of fieldwork. It tends to be the case, still, that in many parts of the world, the archaeology of hunter-gatherers has particular challenges around the ephemerality of some of the evidence that’s left. In the areas I work in, for example, in Northwest Europe and in Britain, often the soils themselves are ten thousand years old, so if the evidence has undergone soil transformation, any structural features can be hard to identify. There is often very little surface expression of these sites. So actually finding them can be incredibly challenging.

My most recent substantial fieldwork project is in the Cairn Gorm Mountains of Scotland, it’s a huge area covered in peat. The sites we found there were identified by a footpath worker who was maintaining the paths people were walking on; he happened to notice two or four pieces of flint and had the wherewithal to realize that he shouldn’t dig there, they must indicate human activity. And thus we were able to conduct a series of fieldwork seasons, excavate the site, and identify a small hunter-gatherer house. We would never have been able to do that without that footpath worker. He had a sharp mind to realize that those flint pieces might have indicated something potentially significant. Regardless of the theoretical model or what you might want to find out about hunter-gatherers, often simply finding the sites can be challenging.

RF: Yes, especially when working with artifacts that are so old and at some level very ambiguous.

GW: Yes, because in many parts of the world, the material record is limited because of the difficulty of finding good context for organic material culture. We know that much of the items in the material culture of hunter-gatherers would have been made of wood or leather or bone, and those items only rarely survive in the archaeological record. So when we do have that material present in sites, we end up with this remarkable, rich record. Again, in a Northwest European context, a great example would be Starr Car, which has given us repeated insight into aspects of hunter-gatherer life because we have a broader scope of material. But that’s not always the case.

RF: Right, and in the same vein, I’d love for you to tell us the impact of hunter-gatherer research. Why should we still care?

GW: The study of hunter-gatherers, if we accept that this is kind of a made-up thing, then what we are talking about here is the study of humanity, which is a useful thing to be doing—and the diversity of humanity, the range of ways through which human groups organize themselves. And the range of ways we can understand that organization and whether that organization has regularities or patterns. Are there links between particular forms of subsistence and particular forms of living, are there links between particular environments and particular patterns of subsistence? Again, some folks might be more inclined to make those types of generalizations and explore those types of generalizations, and try to deal with the narratives on a slightly bigger scale. Others are more interested in local detail and the variation on that detail, and that’s fine too. I’ve always liked the definition of anthropology as being “the comparative study of common sense.” And trying to use these insights into different forms of study into hunting and gathering groups prompts questions that are often taken for granted. Hunter and gatherers have somehow always had this role of being held up as our origins, giving us insight into (and this is a problematic term) the natural state of humanity.

Take one example: hunter-gatherers are often associated with comparatively little competitive hierarchical structure, they are described as being egalitarian. Well, is that the origin point for humanity? Is that the starting point from which we have developed institutions of different types of inequality? The researchers of hunter-gatherers keep on getting caught up in these questions. We have a session at CHAGS this summer looking at the relationship of anarchistic theory and hunter gatherers, and one of the papers that has been contributed to that session is looking at how the primitivist movement in North America is seeing people move away from urban life and into the natural landscape, drawing on observations of how hunter-gatherers lived as inspiration for their movement away from civilization. So that’s a really interesting twist. Our observations about the nature of hunting and gathering societies, including our claims that there’s a deep-time perspective of these (which, of course, these aren’t all certainties) are now being used as inspiration for the present and the ways in which people live.

Really, it’s about understanding the diversity of human organization, and depending on how wide you want to take that, that includes a huge diversity of human lives which is important to study. And, from that, the importance of things like CHAGS and ISHGR is that if you are interested in studying human diversity, you have to be interdisciplinary. You have to work in networks; you have to learn from other people. We spoke a little bit about archaeology and anthropology, but we’ve also got genetics, linguistics, we’ve got physical anthropology, we’ve got contemporary hunting and gathering groups, the struggles and difficulties that we face because they are often living in very marginalized situations. So no one discipline and no one person, no one perspective can engage with all of that. So you need to have collaboration. You need to have cooperation, you need to have to be able to bounce and spark ideas off of each other. Some of that nowadays happens through social media, and that’s great, but some of that also happens when you meet, when you talk to people, perhaps at a conference or over glasses afterwards. But you build the networks, you build the opportunities to develop these insights. That’s why ISHGR is important, why CHAGS is important.