How did our ancestors live? Foraging, Horticulture, Pastoralism



Foraging is the oldest form of livelihood of mankind, in fact, it is a trait that we share with our primate ancestors. But in modern time, foraging has been reduced to remote tribes living in tropical forests, mountains and tundra environments where another livelihood is difficult to maintain or has not been introduced to yet. Such example would be the many foraging tribes of undiscovered America where they thrived before the Europeans arrived.

Foraging is considered a labor extensive process with anthropologists estimating that foragers works only around five hours a week. Their diet consists of fruits, roots, nuts and small or occasionally larger animals. Foraging requires deep understanding of their surrounding environment. This understanding is passed down generation to generation. There are clear gender roles in foraging tribes with women collecting safer items like fruits and roots while the men go hunting for meat in small groups. Foraging requires vast uninterrupted areas which are often rich in minerals, expensive materials and other natural resources used in the modern world and exploration of these lands by the outside world leads to contact with local foragers which causes interruption and eventually brings end to their foraging lifestyle.

Foragers don’t own any private place or property rather they use the term ‘use rights’ for some resources such as waterholes. Outsiders are often welcomed and offered foods with exception from the North Sentinelese island tribe of the Andaman Islands. However, foragers in circumpolar regions like Alaska, have pet dogs which are very important for their livelihood and beside helping people transport, hunt and navigate, pet dogs provide emotional support which is very important in the ice-cold environment. Dogs are also a great topic of socializing among these tribe members as they often discuss health and wellbeing of their beloved pet with other tribe members.

If given enough area and left alone, foraging is a very sustainable livelihood. Main reason of this sustainability is that demand of resource in a foraging tribe is significantly less compared too other modes of livelihood. Foragers live with minimal needs and are satisfied with whatever they collect from their surroundings and never overuse or destroy natural order. In this way, they spend less time foraging and more time resting, story telling and other social activities. They also enjoyed good health and led a peaceful life.

Foragers in Africa

Even though in ancient times foraging was the only mode of livelihood around the world who were known as hunter gatherers, in modern times their number has been reduced to around 250,000. Many governments are now protecting foragers by leaving them alone in their land while some are trying to exploit the natural resources thus destroying this old culture.


Horticulture is slightly modern mode of livelihood compared to foraging. Horticulture is a method of small-scale domesticated plant and vegetable production in gardens using homemade tools and techniques. Most of the times these garden crops are supplemented by foraging and trading with pastoralists for animal products like milk, fur and meat. Horticulture is an old method of livelihood still practiced in small numbers of communities across the world specially in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, south America, central America, south Asia, south-east Asia and Caribbean islands. Crops that are produced using horticulture consists of yams, corn, beans, grain such as millet and sorghum and different types of roots all of these are rich in protein, minerals and vitamins. This method is dependent on rain as the main source of water and horticulturists use hand-held tools such as digging stick, carrying baskets and hoe. Plots used in horticulture ranges from 1 to 2.5 acres which is enough to feed a family of 5 to 8 for a season. Horticulturists must use rotation method in their field in order to keep the fertility and integrity of the plot. This rotation method also gives the plot enough time to regenerate. Horticulture is also known as shifting cultivation.

Horticulture societies show less population density as like foraging, it is also a labor extensive method and most of the work is done by members of the family. However, horticulture requires more energy and worktime then foraging because unlike foragers, who only collect from nature, horticulturists must prepare the soil, plant seed, water and take care of their fields and finally harvest. Anthropologists have divided horticulture into 5 parts- Clearing, Planting, Weeding, harvesting and fallowing. The person first clears an area of the forest cutting down trees and burning down weeds, the ashes works as fertilizer. Then they loosen up the soil by using digging stick and plants a crop scattering its seed by hand or by placing slips of plant one by one. A very little weeding is required in this process as the ash covering and growing conditions prevent weed growth. They harvest and collect their crop when it is ripe. This is the most labor-intensive process of this method. Fallowing is the rotation method discussed earlier.

Gender and age are the key factors while distributing labor in this method. A clear difference can be seen between the role of men and women in this process with men doing most work and women only helping men when planting seed and harvesting crop. However, food processing is done by women of the village usually forming smaller groups and working together. This is the common labor distribution in horticulture with some exception where the gender roles are changed however, children work more in this mode of livelihood then other ones discussed. Their jobs include looking after the field, watering and weeding when necessary.

Permanent land ownership does not exist in horticultural communities and they take use rights more formally then foragers. A family can clear an area in the forest and claim the crops and vegetables grown there but they cannot claim ownership of the land they cleared.

Horticulture is a well sustained system because of fallowing. Fallowing gives enough time to regenerate the plot used in cultivation while creating new plots for future use. Fallowing also keeps the quality of the soil. So, if enough land is available for fallowing long enough for soil to recover its natural form, horticulture is a sustainable system.


At the largest livestock market in Bamako, animals for sale and slaughter including trypanosomiosis resistant humpless Ndama cattle and humped Zebu.

Pastoralism is the mode of livelihood that involves herding domesticated animals and using their products such as meat, milk, leather and fur. Meat and milk made up 50 percent of their diet. It has been around for a long time in places like Middle East, Africa, Europe and Central Asia. In the western hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans, the only indigenous animal herder lived in the Americas was the Llama herders of Andean region. Later when Europeans bought cattle, sheep and pig, they became popular herd animal in the Americas too. Where the rainfall is unpredictable and limited, pastoralism is the most successful mode of livelihood. Six major herd animals around the world are sheep, goat, cattle, horse, donkey and camel. Three animal has isolated herders which are yaks in the Tibetan high altitudes, reindeers in northern sub-Arctic regions and Llamas in the high lands of south America. Pastoralists often have links with horticulturists and other farmer groups as they do not grow any crops themselves. They often trade their animal-based products for food grains, tools and manufactured items like cooking pot. Like foraging and horticulture, pastoralism is also an extensive strategy. However, the main concern for a pastoralist is to find fresh pasture and water for their animal.

Pastoralist do not have any permanent home, but they live with their herd in tents and move around with their herd looking for fresh food.

Pastoralist have gender-based rules too with men being the primary herder and women looking after the household and children. Even though they do not own any land property, their main asset is their animals which they trade among themselves and other member of the tribe for other goods. If there are enough space for migration, pastoralism is a sustainable system covering the relative lushness of Iran to harsh environment of Mongolia.

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