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The Agricultural Revolution in PrehistoryWhy did Foragers become Farmers?$
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Graeme Barker

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199281091

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199281091.001.0001

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Understanding Foragers

Understanding Foragers

(p.42) 2 Understanding Foragers
The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory

Graeme Barker

Oxford University Press

Hunter-gatherer or forager societies, as the names imply, have been defined first and foremost by their mode of subsistence: ‘hunting of wild animals, gathering of wild plants, and fishing, with no domestication of plants, and no domesticated animals except the dog’ (Lee and Daly, 1999: 3). Another recent survey develops this defining characteristic in the following terms: ‘the absence of direct human control over the reproduction of exploited species, and little or no control over other aspects of population ecology such as the behaviour and distribution of food resources. In essence, hunter-gatherers exercise no deliberate alteration of the gene pool of exploited resources’ (Panter-Brick et al., 2001b: 2, their italics). In addition to this primary characteristic of ‘not being farmers’, there are or have been two other very common features amongst recent and contemporary forager societies, as Lee and DeVore (1968b: 11) commented in their opening essay to the seminal Man the Hunter volume: ‘(1) they live in small groups, and (2) they move around a lot’. At the end of the Pleistocene, forager societies peopled most regions of the world, at most latitudes. By the middle of the second millennium ad, foragers still occupied a third of the globe including all of Australia and most of North America, and large tracts of South America, Africa, North, and North-East Asia. Yet in recent centuries foragers have ‘retreated precipitously in the face of the steamroller ofmodernity’ (Lee and Daly, 1999: 1), occupying only those areas where farmers simply cannot go, or where farming is so marginal as to be uneconomic (Fig. 2.1). Many societies frequently cited in archaeological textbooks as examples of forager societies today, like the !Kung-San of the Kalahari, in fact also practise cultivation or herding on a small scale, and others depend heavily on trade with neighbouring farmers for staple foods. It is extremely difficult to translate foragers’ behaviour as recorded today or in the recent past into theories of general applicability to the world’s prehistoric foraging population prior to farming. The task is all the more complicated by the remoteness of the everyday lives of foragers (present and past) from western Europeans, a remoteness that has given rise to two enduring currents in European philosophical thinking about such societies: that they are alien savages on the one hand, or innocents close to the state of nature on the other (Barnard, 1999).

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