In anthropology, the hunter-gatherer way of life is that led by certain societies of the Neolithic Era based on the exploitation of wild plants and animals. Consequently, hunter-gatherers are relatively mobile, and groups of hunter-gatherers have fluid boundaries and composition. Typically, men hunt and women gather and hunt small game.
An older term commonly used is hunter-trappers or farmer-trappers instead of "gatherer". The reason was presumably and foremost an earlier usage of the term in Scandinavian countries, and secondly to signify a paleolithic economy since there are many holes in the ground making complex trap systems to catch elks, reindeer, etc. However, this usage is beginning to be replaced with gatherer.
All archeological evidence to date suggests that prior to twelve thousand years ago, all human beings were hunter-gatherers. Today hunter-gatherer groups are found in the Arctic, tropical rainforests, and deserts where other forms of subsistence production are impossible or too costly. In most cases these groups do not have a continuous history of hunting and gathering; in many cases their ancestors were farmers who were pushed into marginal areas as a result of migrations and wars. It is estimated that in only a few decades there will be no more such communities.
The vast majority of hunter gatherer societies are nomadic. It is very difficult to be settled as the resources of one region will usually be quickly exhausted. There are exceptions, however. The Haida of what is now British Columbia lived in such a rich environment that they could remain sedentary.
Hunter-gathers tend to have very low population densities. In climates that can support agriculture, farmland can support population densities 60–100 times greater than land left uncultivated.
Hunter-gatherer societies also tend to have non-hierarchical social structures. There is rarely surplus food, and since they are nomadic little ability to store any surplus. Thus full-time leaders, bureaucrats, or artisans are rarely supported by hunter-gathering societies.
The line between agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies is not clear cut. Many hunter-gatherers would consciously manipulate the landscape through cutting or burning unuseful plants while encouraging those they could consume. Most agricultural people continued to do some hunting and gathering. Some would farm during the temperate months and they hunt during the winter. Still today many in developed countries will go hunting for food and for amusement.
There are some modern social movements related to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle:
- freeganism involves gathering of discarded food in the context of an urban environment
- gleaning involves the gathering of food that traditional farmers have left behind in their fields
- sport hunting and sport fishing are recreational activities practiced by people who get the majority of their food by modern means (see also: fox hunt, safari)
- primitivism, which strives for the return to a pre-industrial and pre-agricultural society