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Transition from Hunting and Gathering to Sedentism

Transition from Hunting and Gathering to Sedentism Free Essay

According to the universally accepted opinion, hunting and gathering were the most ancient evolutional stage of economy. However, some communities of hunters and gatherers have successfully survived until our time. An unprejudiced approach shows that foraging and agriculture are different economic strategies, and each of them is efficient under certain circumstances. Social and economic reasons cause the transition of nomadic foragers to sedentary farming, but favorable biogeographical conditions are the basic prerequisite.

Wrong Assumptions about the Reasons for Transition to Sedentism

Back in the early history of humanity, all people lived from hunting and gathering. The so-called Neolithic Revolution around 10,000 B.C. achieved domestication of plants and animals, invention of tools, and development of cultivation techniques. It facilitated quick growth of human population, emergence of specialists not engaged in food production, and acceleration of technological progress (Lee & Daly, 1999)

A tendency to regard foraging as an evolutionary stage has several reasons. First, industrial and agricultural societies considered nomadic foraging lifestyle to be pre-historic and uncivilized. Second, traditional approach regards foraging cultures as poor ones, which reflects the comparative level of welfare but not the actual level of affluence. Thus, some anthropologists believe that the transition to sedentism occurred to increase stock of products and allot more time for leisure (Sahlins, 1972).

Until 1500 AD, killing animals for food was a prevailing activity as hunting communities occupied one-third of the globe (Lee & Daly, 1999). Nevertheless, some hunting and gathering societies, such as the Arctic Inuit, Australian Aborigines, the San people of Kalahari, as well as other groups, practice the Paleolithic lifestyle even in our time. The mere existence of such communities nowadays proves the efficiency of foraging economies, at least for certain geographical conditions. Moreover, Sahlins (1972) argues that their level of comfort is higher than that in agricultural and industrial societies due to the low standards of living.

The accumulation of material resources or per capita income is an irrelevant criterion for assessment of welfare of hunting-gathering societies. Sahlins (1972) proves that the balance of means and needs should judge hunting-gathering economies. Thus, the Bushmen of Kalahari, as well as other foraging communities, enjoy “a kind of material plenty” that is characterized by availability of food and other resources they need (Sahlins, 1972). Moreover, since hunters lead a nomadic lifestyle, traveling from one resource to another and accumulation of material goods reduces their mobility and hence adaptation possibilities. Therefore, possession of items is not a sign of welfare in hunting and gathering communities.

The desire for an easier lifestyle is also not a satisfactory explanation. The assumption that hunters and gatherers spend all their time in search of food is wrong. In fact, the able members of such communities, for example, the Dobe section of Kung Bushmen researched by Lee, work approximately two and a half working days per week, which is much less than tillers have to work (Sahlins, 1972). They spend the remaining time on leisure activities, such as entertaining, visiting, and dancing. Hence, the Kung demonstrate a “characteristic Paleolithic rhythm of a day or two on, a day or two off – the latter passed desultorily in camp” (Sahlins, 1972).

The Reasons for Transition to Sedentism

With all the benefits of hunting and gathering that provided enough resources and enough leisure, it is important to find a valid explanation why some communities switch to agriculture and sedentism.

Hibbs and Olsson (2004) believe that the reasons lie in the initial biogeographic conditions of the Late Paleolithic. They consider that the size of the Eurasian continent, its vast Mediterranean zone, richness and variety of flora and fauna, and its east-west spatial orientation were advantageous for domestication of plants and animals and development of agriculture. For this reason, the transition to sedentary lifestyle occurred in Eurasia earlier than elsewhere. The Neolithic shift to agricultural production and animal husbandry happened between 8,500 and 2,500 B.C. (Hibbs & Olson, 2004). It is worth mentioning that both developments were intentional strategies (Zeder, 2006). Compared with foraging, sedentism provided the possibility to produce more goods, create and preserve surplus, feed more people, and assign people for other specialized activities. Animal domestication also changed the lifestyle of people. The aim of this process was to tame a companion, potential prey, or a beast of burden (Zeder, 2012). Once new technologies developed locally, natural corridors of the continent enabled the dispersal and exchange of ideas.

Hibbs and Olson (2004) come to a set of conclusions about the determinants of technological progress. First, geographic location is the key factor that determined the biogeographic suitability of the region for human activities in prehistory. Second, richer biogeographic conditions facilitated the transition to settled agriculture and further technological and economic development. The foci of sedentism depended on the variety and availability of domesticable wild animals and heavy-seeded edible grasses. Third, geography and initial biogeography remain important factors even after the development of political structures and institutions (Hibbs & Olson, 2004). Modification of natural and social conditions, such as the change in availability of resources or introduction of new technologies can certainly cause the change of the subsistence strategy (Layton et al., 1991).

Case Studies

Archaeological findings help to understand the preconditions and reasons for transition from hunting-gathering to settled agriculture. Both cases prove the importance of initial biogeographical conditions for the change.

Natufian Culture

Sedentary Natufian culture appeared around 13,000 or 12,800 B.P. in Central Levant. Up to that time, small mobile bands of hunters-gatherers had settled the region. The excavations show that they lived from farming and used foraging as a secondary strategy. Natufians lived in pit-houses; so all their camps were located in woodland rich in oak and pistachio. The undergrowth yielded plenty of cereals, and additionally the population hunted different species of gazelle and ibex. They collected seeds from April to June and fruit from September to November (Bar-Yosef, 1998).

The biogeographical conditions of the Levant were favorable for the appearance of and agricultural society. It is 50-350 km wide and 1,100 km long Mediterranean zone in the Middle East consisting of a narrow coastal plane, two parallel mountain ranges, a rift valley between them, and an eastward sloping plateau. In the Early Neolith, the region was fertile, with abundance of oak woodland providing the widest range of forage and game. The precipitation amount was from 400 to 1,200 mm a year (Bar-Yosef, 1998).

Natufian sites range in size from 15 to 1,000 sq m and are rich in artifacts. Apart from the domestic structures, some constructions were used for ritual purposes. There are also some storage places such as a paved bin in Hayonim Terrace and plastered pits in Ain Mallaha. Natufians produced bone and stone tools, basketry, figurines, and decorations of bones, marine shells, greenstone, and malachite. Excavations revealed a large amount of bedrock mortars, portable mortars, various bowls, pestles, cupholes, and mullers. Special tools utilized by people of that epoch included picks and sickle blades. Sickles with bone or wooden handles were used for harvesting cereals. Anthropologists assume that Natufians adopted these tools, because they needed to intensify harvesting wild grasses (Bar-Yosef, 1998).

The climatic crisis of Younger Dryas that occurred around 11,000-10,300 B.P. caused a decline of the Natufian culture. Decreasing precipitation caused lower yields of fruits and grasses, so game became less abundant as well. Natufians exhausted food resources and had to adapt to the change by either improving hunting techniques or adopting a mobile lifestyle (Bar-Yosef, 1998).

Neolithic Culture of Levant

Generations after the decline of Natufians – a new sedentary culture appeared in the same area. New farmers were descendents of Natufians that adopted social and technological changes. The population used the favorable biogeographical conditions of the Mediterranean zone. Neolithic sites are distributed along the so-called Levantine Corridor that stretches along the Mediterranean, between the coastal ridge on the west and steppe areas on the east and the south. One of the Neolithic entities that appeared between 10,300 and 9,300 B.P. in the Jordan Valley is called Sultanian. Its main sites are Jericho, Gilgal, Netiv Hagdud, Gesher, and others. Neolithic settlements were several times larger than Natufian villages.

Excavations of the Neolithic sites show that people lived in pit-houses with stone foundation, used mud bricks, applied fire cracked rocks for cooking, and participated in communal constructions such as the walls and the tower of Jericho. Unlike Natufian sites, each village had a silo in the form of small stone-built bins or larger built-up mud-brick constructions. The people grew domesticated barley and wheat, and they also used to store grain.

Though Sultanians were descendents of the Natifian culture, archaeological excavations display new techniques and artifacts. Neolithic people made blades for sickles and other cutting objects, they improved arrow points and used perforators, axes-adzes, and polished celts. Numerous pounding tools, including slabs with cupholes, hand stones, and rounded shallow grinding bowls were used for grinding cereals.


In summary, foraging and agriculture are different subsistence strategies that can exist separately or complementarily. The transition from hunting-gathering to settled agriculture occurred in some communities with the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. The origins of farming appeared in geographically favorable regions, such as the Mediterranean ones, that offered good climatic conditions and abundance of plants and animal species. Therefore, favorable initial biogeography is a necessary prerequisite for transition. Further reasons for a shift to another lifestyle are the changes in social and economic life.

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