Pedagogical Soundings: Hunter-Gatherer Studies

Photo by Jennifer Jewett/USFWS, licensed under CC BY.

This installment of Pedagogical Soundings is a collaboration between the AnthroPod and Teaching Tools sections of the Cultural Anthropology website. It supplements the new AnthroBites episode on “Hunter-Gatherer Studies,” in which guest podcaster Ruthie Flynn interviews Graeme Warren, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at University College Dublin. In the episode, Flynn and Warren discuss the history of hunter-gatherer studies and contemporary approaches to studying hunter-gatherers archaeologically.

The following lesson plan is intended to bridge archaeology and sociocultural anthropology in order to encourage students to understand the history of hunter-gatherer studies and the political stakes of the field today. It is well-suited for a course about the history of anthropology, a course on methods, or a session on the political implications of anthropology. It includes mini-lectures that extend themes from the AnthroBites episode and an in-class exercise that asks students to collectively design research projects that integrate anthropology’s subfields.

This lesson plan teaches three problems in hunter-gatherer studies and demonstrates their relevance across anthropological subfields today:

  1. A brief history of hunter-gatherer studies and the problem of history for the field;
  2. Feminist sociocultural anthropology and archaeology;
  3. Contemporary Indigenous land management and sovereignty.

Below are learning goals, notes for mini-lectures, and in-class activities for each of these problems. Before class, students should listen to the AnthroBites episode and read some of the texts provided below as assigned by the instructor.

Problem 1: Research Methods and History

Learning Goals

  • Understand how the origins of hunter-gatherer studies relate to problems in early anthropology
  • Describe evolutionary anthropology and problems of historicism in anthropology
  • Recount traditionalist/revisionist debates in hunter-gatherer studies and parallels to “bounded society” debates in anthropology


Like the political philosophy that preceded them, many initial studies of hunter-gatherers used their societies as stand-ins for the earliest people and the origins of humanity, using contemporary communities as an evolutionary foil for modern society (see Myers 1988). Such ideal types of hunter-gatherer societies made them into “people without history” (Wolf 1982), casting contemporary hunter-gatherers as survivals past their time or else isolated and bounded communities.

The Kalahari debate defined hunter-gatherer studies in the 1980s, setting the traditionalists Richard Borshay Lee and Irven DeVore against the revisionists Edward Wilmsen and James Denbow. Lee and DeVore, coeditors of the popular 1968 edited volume Man the Hunter, examined hunter-gatherer societies while filtering out modern influences and separating them from their relationships with neighboring communities. In the 1980s, scholars like Wilmsen and Denbow critiqued this, arguing instead that hunter-gatherer societies should be understood in their relationships with modern societies rather than apart from them.

Today, hunter-gatherer studies has shifted toward a more historicist approach that integrates ethnographic methods (including oral histories and participant-observation) with archaeological ones. In the podcast, Warren briefly discusses these methods, noting that they must be used cautiously, since ethnographic information collected in the present does not neatly correspond to past practices.

In-Class Activity

With your students, create a research project integrating insights from the different subdisciplines of anthropology to answer questions about a hunter-gatherer society. In class, begin by brainstorming possible research questions that could be answered with a historical focus. Some sample questions: how have gendered divisions of labor changed in !Kung San society? Or, how were trade patterns between agricultural, pastoral, and hunter-gatherer societies in South Africa affected by apartheid?

After discussing research questions, determine what kinds of data might exist to answer these questions, in terms of archaeological evidence, archival evidence, and ethnohistorical evidence. Together, discuss the limitations of these methods, drawing on both the AnthroBites episode and any other readings that students were assigned.

Problem 2: Feminism and Hunter-Gatherer Studies

Learning Goals

  • Understand the main arguments of feminist hunter-gatherer studies
  • Compare goals and arguments of feminist sociocultural anthropology and feminist hunter-gatherer studies


An almost immediate reaction to the publication of Lee and DeVore’s Man The Hunter was a series of publications by feminists who questioned the male-centered models and assumptions that pervaded this work. These publications included Frances Dahlberg’s (1981) edited volume Woman the Gatherer, which sought to rectify the emphasis on male-coded activities in mainstream hunter-gatherer studies by including more information about women’s roles in hunter-gatherer societies. Other works (e.g., Slocum 1975; Tanner and Zihlman 1976; Collier and Rosaldo 1981) questioned the assumed prestige associated with masculinity at the center of Man the Hunter, arguing that scholars imposed contemporary gender roles into the past and emphasized male-coded activities like hunting as central to evolutionary development. Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector’s (1984) article “Archaeology and the Study of Gender” reviews this scholarship and has become a classic work in feminist archaeology.

In-Class Activities

Coupled with the AnthroBites episode and Pedagogical Soundings post on feminist anthropology, discuss how feminist research principles could be used to develop research design for a study of a hunter-gatherer society. Revise the research project that students developed in the above exercise to more carefully consider gender.

If your course involves substantial reading in feminist anthropologies, ask students to read one of the pieces above to consider how its methods and findings may have changed with a different feminist lens. How would a third-wave feminist critique work on hunter-gatherer societies, and how might the methods used change?

Problem 3: Contemporary Indigenous Land Management and Native Sovereignty

Learning Goals

  • Describe early hunter-gatherer studies and involvement with Indigenous communities
  • Discuss how hunter-gatherer studies can shape our understandings of Indigenous landscape management
  • Understand how Indigenous groups can collaborate with anthropologists to further their sovereign goals


The North American continent has long been a site for hunter-gatherer studies, following from Franz Boas’s classic studies with KwaKwaKa’wakw (Kwakiutl) groups in what is now British Columbia. Boas’s studies began the culturalist tradition in the United States and critiqued evolutionary assumptions in studies of hunter-gatherer societies.

Even though evolutionary assumptions were rejected by prominent figures like Boas, this did not remedy the distinction readily drawn between agrarian societies that modified their lands and hunter-gatherers who did not (Kroeber 1925). This common assumption about hunter-gatherers—that they were passive and did not modify the landscape—was used around the world to dispossess hunter-gatherers of their lands (Wilmsen 1989). Critiques of Indigenous dispossession have emerged within sociocultural anthropology (e.g. Simpson 2011, 2016; West 2017), but archaeologists have also contributed to our understanding of how hunter-gatherers not only enhanced local resources, but shaped the landscape (e.g., Blackburn and Anderson 1993; Lightfoot et al. 2013). Today, such studies offer opportunities for collaborating with Indigenous groups with the possibility of restoring native management practices.

In-Class Activities

As a class, read this article from Smithsonian Magazine about how San in South Africa instituted a researcher code of ethics for any person wishing to do research with the tribe. Similar codes of ethics exist for Native American tribes and First Nations in Canada (see, for instance, the Navajo Nation Human Research Code). Ask students to read through the code and to reflect on the research design that they began in previous exercises.

In conjunction with the AnthroBites episode and Pedagogical Soundings post on sovereignty, discuss principles of community-based research with students, placing a special emphasis on Native American sovereignty in the United States.


Blackburn, Thomas C., and Kat Anderson, eds. 1993. Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Menlo Park, Calif.: Ballena Press.

Collier, Jane F., and Michelle Z. Rosaldo. 1981. “Politics and Gender in Simple Societies.” In Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender, edited by Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, 275–329. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Conkey, Margaret W., and Janet D. Spector. 1984. “Archaeology and the Study of Gender.” Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7: 1–38.

Dahlberg, Frances, ed. 1981. Woman the Gatherer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bulletin 78, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Lee, Richard B., and Irven DeVore. 1968. Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine.

Lightfoot, Kent G., Rob Q. Cuthrell, Chuck J. Striplen, and Mark G. Hylkema. 2013. “Rethinking the Study of Landscape Management Practices among Hunter-Gatherers in North America.” American Antiquity 78, no. 2: 285–301.

Myers, Fred R. 1988. “Critical Trends in the Study of Hunter-Gatherers.” Annual Review of Anthropology 17: 261–82.

Simpson, Audra. 2011. “Settlement's Secret.” Cultural Anthropology 26 (2): 205–217.

_____. 2016. “Consent’s Revenge.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 326–33.

Slocum, Sally. 1975. “Woman the Gatherer.” In Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter, 36–50. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Tanner, Nancy, and Adrienne Zihlman. 1976. “Women in Evolution, Part One: Innovation and Selection in Human Origins.” Signs 1, no. 3: 585–608.

West, Paige. 2017. “Dispossession.” In “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen,” Theorizing the Contemporary series edited by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian, Cultural Anthropology website, June 28.

Wilmsen, Edwin N. 1989. Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.