Accessibility statement

Hunting and Gathering Societies

and the Upper Palaeolithic World


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. All hunting and gathering societies are different, however nonetheless there are some common elements which appear to unite mobile nomadic hunting and gathering groups and may provide us with some insights into hunting and gathering communities in the distant past. There are however many kinds of distinctions not only within broad types of hunting and gathering societies, as well as distinctive cultural and historical contexts which structure people’s behaviours and beliefs.

In this course we focus on how ethnographic research can contribute to our understanding of past hunter-gatherers, with a particular focus on the upper Palaeolithic. 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 (week two) we consider the background to modern hunter-gatherers, and how we can use them to make analogies with past hunting and gathering societies. In PART TWO (weeks three to six) we focus on the upper Palaeolithic, and 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 in more depth as a source of novel insights and analogies. In this last part of the course you will each present on your selected ethnographically documented group, and particular issue.

A key aim this module is to give you a chance to develop confidence in using ethnographic analogies as well as your own new perspective or interpretation, based on insights from modern hunter gatherers, of some key issue within upper Palaeolithic archaeology. We hope to not only develop a particular perspective on archaeologically documented hunter-gatherers, but also gain insights into a fast disappearing way of life which structures who we are today and casts our own societies within a different light. 

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

Some useful volumes covering either overviews or specific topics hunting and gathering societies can be found on the reading tab

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