Hunter-gatherers live in small groups known as local bands. These are groups of about 25 to 50 men, women, and children who cooperate with each other in the quest for subsistence. Each local band is a more or less politically autonomous and economically self-sufficient unit. However, many local bands are usually connected by ties of intermarriage into a much larger cultural unit, sometimes known as a tribe. A tribe is a network of bands all of whose members share the same cultural patterns and speak the same language. Furthermore, the composition of each local band is constantly shifting, with people frequently moving from one band to another. Such movement may arise from marriage or from a need to create a more even balance between population size and the food supply.
How do hunter-gatherers divide their time between hunting and gathering? Some years ago Richard Lee (1968) estimated that contemporary hunting and gathering societies derive approximately two-thirds of their diet from gathered foods of all sorts, holding that this figure closely corresponds to the subsistence activities of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. This idea has come to be widely accepted by social scientists, even to the extent that the suggestion has been made that such societies might be more appropriately named “gatherer-hunter” societies.
However, a closer look suggests a rather different picture. Carol Ember (1978), using a sample of 181 contemporary hunter-gatherer societies drawn from the Ethnographic Atlas (Murdock, 1967), a larger and more inclusive sample than the one used by Lee, has shown that hunter-gatherers are rather evenly divided in their emphasis on the activities of gathering, hunting, and fishing. Gathering is the most important activity in 30 percent of the societies, hunting most important in 25 percent,