Hunting and Gathering Societies


Module leader: Penny Spikins


Modern ethnographically documented societies can give us a fascinating insight into lifestyles, relationships and world view of peoples who live by hunting and gathering. 

In this course we focus on how ethnographic research can contribute to our understanding of past hunter-gatherers living in Ice Age Europe. We will discuss key issues in the interpretation of Upper Palaeolithic societies, and critically appraise and further develop the contribution that ethnographic analogies can make to our understanding. We focus on key debates within the upper Palaeolithic –  the origins and dispersal of modern humans, the dynamics behind social relationships, the meaning of Upper Palaeolithic art and interpretations of egalitarianism and of violence. We then consider detailed examples of recent hunter-gatherers and the potential for expanding existing interpretations through further ethnographic parallels.

You will prepare presentations which you present in seminars as a basis for our discussion. In PART ONE (weeks two and three) we consider the background to modern hunter-gatherers, and how we can use them to make analogies with past hunting and gathering societies, and then focus on the Upper Palaeolithic. In PART TWO (weeks three to six) we consider particular issues in Upper Palaeolithic archaeology and the potential for ethnographically documented societies to be used to address these isssues. In PART THREE we consider particular ethnographically documented societies as analogies. In part three you will each present on your selected ethnographically documented group (as this presentation will involve more independant research than your others and using library books and you may wish to start this seminar preparation over the Christmas break). 

We will also go on a fieldtrip to see Upper Palaeolithic cave art at Creswell Crags

Research aim:

  • To provide an understanding of the nature of hunter-gatherer lifestyles, and how studies of hunter-gatherers can contribute to interpretations about past societies, with a particular focus on the Upper Palaeolithic.

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this module students should:

  • have developed an understanding of key characteristics of hunter-gatherer societies
  • have developed an understanding of how hunter-gatherer studies contribute to interpretations in Early Prehistory
  • have developed a critical awareness of archaeological and anthropological approaches to hunter-gatherer societies