At the most fundamental level, subsistence means survival: eating food, drinking water, obtaining clothing and shelter, and reproducing. The term generally denotes a mode of life in which production is engaged in for the primary purpose of consumption. The Alaska state legislature, in the 1978 Subsistence Act, defined subsistence as "customary and traditional uses" of fish and game for food, clothing, and other specific needs. Whether the term is used in the broad or narrow sense, the fruits of subsistence labor go to meet the needs of the family or community, rather than entering a local trade or larger market economy. Continued access to territory for the purpose of acquiring foods, medicines, raw materials, and other goods is necessary in order for a community to maintain a subsistence way of life. Hunter-gatherer societies past and present have lived off the land by tracking wild herds, picking berries, and catching fish. Shifting cultivation, also known as swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture, is a principal means of subsistence in many parts of the world: clearing and burning fields, planting genetically diversified crops in rotation, and allowing fields to lie fallow in rotation, in order for the soil to replenish its fertility. The increasing pressures of population, agriculture, and development threaten surviving traditional modes of economic life whose sustainability remains dependent on ecological factors.

The term hunter-gatherers describes societies in which the principal modes of sustenance are hunting, fishing, or collecting wild plant foods and fungi. Few African peoples survive today as hunter-gatherers compared with the ancient past, when for millennia hunter-gatherers lived over much of the African continent. Much of our information about African hunter-gatherer societies of the remote past is based on observing the activities of more recent practitioners. In southern Africa, hunting and gathering were virtually the only means of subsistence until about 3,000 years ago. Nomads tracked game animals and fresh sources of food, carrying their mobile settlements with them. Subsistence producers eventually, however, had nearly all of their land and livelihood co-opted by pastoralists, gardeners, and agriculturalists. Those bands who remained were gradually assimilated into neighboring peoples. The Khoisan people in the arid Kalahari region are the largest African group still practicing a hunter-gatherer way of life. They are the heirs to an ecosystem that has provided continuous subsistence for at least 9,000 years. What is today a desertlike environment went through wetter periods over the past 11,000 years, and pockets of water moisture remain below the surface of the sand. Drought-resistant grasses, fruit trees, and thorn bushes draw on this moisture and provide fodder for herds of large game. In the Okavango swamplands of the northern Kalahari, fishing rather than game hunting was the principal subsistence activity.

By 10,000 years ago African hunter-gatherers had successfully developed tools and microlithic blade technology for acquiring food. Axes, projectile points, and traps were used in forest areas in the Middle and Later Stone Ages. In the savanna, Later Stone Age hunters were expert at lethal weaponry, killing animals with bow and arrow, finely carved multipronged spears, and poisons. Small, roving bands of hunters tracked and felled large prey species of hoofed mammals. Small game was caught in snares and traps or hunted with dogs and clubs, and reptiles and bird eggs provided a dietary supplement. Bones were used to make tools, ornaments, and weapons, while hides were fashioned into clothing and carrying bags. Contemporary hunter-gatherers obtain more than half of their nutrition from gathered foods. Even though plants are subject to seasonal unavailability and climatic cycles, they are more reliable and plentiful food sources than game animals. Men probably covered great distances on hunting trips, while women were the primary gatherers and care-givers for children. They used carrying bags to

A hunter from the Q/wi clan, hunting springhares in the Qhanzi District of Botswana. The hunter-gatherer culture of the Kalahari has been largely destroyed by loss of territory, reductions of wild plants and game, and assimilation of hunter-gather clans into cultures established by colonial settlers. (Peter Johnson/CORBIS)

A hunter from the Q/wi clan, hunting springhares in the Qhanzi District of Botswana. The hunter-gatherer culture of the Kalahari has been largely destroyed by loss of territory, reductions of wild plants and game, and assimilation of hunter-gather clans into cultures established by colonial settlers. (Peter Johnson/CORBIS)

collect fruits, and sharpened sticks to dig up tubers and roots; they also caught highly nourishing termites, caterpillars, and locusts.

Early bands of hunter-gatherers lived in small, mobile groups of kin, allowing them to survive by adapting to environmental conditions. Khoisan hunter-gatherers have lived in the Kalahari Desert for thousands of years, coming in contact with herders and farmers for the past two millennia. They hunted antelopes, birds, and small game, but meat was only a small part of their diet; the principal foods were gathered plants such as the sour plum and baobab fruit, or the mongongo nut in areas where the !Kung lived. In the dry south, water was extracted from groundroots and melons, and sucked from the earth through a straw during the winter drought season. Meat was divided and distributed to the community by the hunter making the kill, who gained prestige and status through his successful actions. The more abundant edible plants were shared with close kin.

The hunter-gatherer culture in the Kalahari has been largely destroyed by the loss of territory to outsiders, colonial settlers hunting natives like animals, assimilation and dependency, poverty, and disease. Only a small number of Khoisan continue to subsist principally through hunting and gathering; about 95 percent of modern Khoisan people are herders or farmers. Small land parcels in Namibia and Botswana are reserved for Khoisan hunter-gatherers, although the future of their territory remains very much uncertain.

Assessments of the socioeconomic value of biodiversity have tended to focus on three aspects of interactions between human soci eties and the ecosystems of which they are a part: ecological functions such as conservation and climate regulation, commercial use such as resource extraction, and subsistence values—the provision of goods for local consumption, independent of translocal market economies. The latter has been the most undervalued and ignored by researchers and policy-makers alike. Although the role of subsistence production in industrialized society is economically and nutritionally marginal or even negligible, for local and indigenous populations in tropical rain forests, Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra, and other rural ecosystems it remains an important part of the regular diet, small-scale, nonmarket-oriented economy, medicinal healing practices, and traditional ways of life. One study in the 1980s found that hunting remained an indispensable source of protein for people living in sixty-two developing countries (Secrett, 1986, cited in Shiva et al., 1991, p. 26). In some places such as areas of the Russian north, subsistence production has actually increased in the past decade as a crucial supplemental source of provision in economies of scarcity. Many other people remain dependent to a large extent on the continued ability to produce food, firewood or other fuels, and medicines for their own use. The rights and resources of sustainable practices are threatened by shrinking habitat, species loss, fluctuating yields and harvests attributable to global climate change, governmental regulation of land use and hunting and fishing rights, large-scale development projects imported by multinational corporations and transnational organizations, and the rise of intellectual property laws that define genetic diversity as a patentable laboratory process but exclude or fail to recognize the contributions of farmers, growers, and breeders over the centuries.

The preservation of indigenous knowledge for subsistence cultivators to build on an existing base of diversified agricultural production is known as extension. The goal is to create alternatives to eliminating diversified agricultural production and replacing it, either with cash crops or with monoculture varieties of high-yield grains that deplete the soil's fertility and whose genetic uniformity renders them susceptible to insects and disease. Agronomists and commercial technicians often look at small-scale subsistence producers as obstacles to development. Clashes in cultural value systems, and asymmetrical socieconomic power and control over resources, lead to conflicts over policy matters when the economic projects of modernization may be at odds with the way of life and environmental practices of marginalized rural indigenous minorities.

Scientists and aid workers are finding that local indigenous knowledge is often the most valuable resource for improving subsistence techniques. Sharland (in Warren et al., 1995), for example, reports that before civil war disrupted local subsistence patterns in the 1990s, the Moru people of southern Sudan practiced shifting cultivation, farming a staple crop of sorghum mixed with other grains to provide the mainstay of their diet, selling or bartering surplus produce and vegetables. They also raised some livestock, keeping poultry at the household level, and supplemented their intake with wild foods (from tubers to insects), hunting, fishing, and gathering honey in the bush. The local cultivation repertoire included traditional techniques of preparing mild poisons from forest fruits and bulbs to repel termite infestations, and protecting groundnuts from marauding foxes with bitter infusions of mahogany bark. The particular environmental knowledge and plant terminology of women, who are the primary agriculturalists in Moru society, helped outside scientific advisors identify pests and crop diseases, as well as effective countermeasures. Data from India and South America similarly show a wealth of ecological information in local practices, beyond those identified by outside scientists and researchers.

In Alaska the discovery of oil on the North Slope led to a push for the settlement of native land claims, so that the Alaska pipeline could be built. Under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska native people were organized into regional and village corporations holding title to more than 44 million acres; in exchange all aboriginal land claims were extinguished, including hunting and fishing rights. The 1978 Subsistence Act established the priority of hunting and fishing by rural, mostly native residents over sport hunting and other uses of wildlife. The distinction between management for subsistence and sustainability, and potential depletion through commercial development and the unregulated activities of tourists and sportsmen, is a contested point in Alaska today. There is a need for supplementary cash income to drive the subsistence mechanism in the present age. In order to live a subsistence way of life successfully in modern Alaska, people need to buy snowmobiles and kerosene. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act defined subsistence uses to include handicraft production using nonedible wildlife products, if the animals were hunted for consumption, for barter and customary trade. The act made provisions allowing for a federal takeover of wildlife management. This possibility, which would remove state control over local subsistence activities, is opposed by many native Alaskans on the grounds that it would leave the native corporations without a voice in the management of fish and game on traditional lands, threatening the survival of the rural subsistence way of life.

See also: Conservation, Definition and History; Cultural Survival, Revival, and Preservation; Ethno-science; Indigenous Conservation; Land Use


Kim, Ke Chung, and Robert D. Weaver, eds. 1994-Biodiversity and Landscapes: A Paradox of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Lee, Richard B-, and Irven DeVore, eds. 1976. Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and Their Neighbors. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Maffi, Luisa, ed. 2001. On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge and the Environment. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press; Moody, Roger, ed. 1993. The Indigenous Voice: Visions and Realities. Rev. 2d ed. Utrecht: International; Shiva, Vandana, et al. 1991. Biodiversity: Social & Ecological Perspectives. London: Zed; Warren, D. Michael, L. Jan Slikkerveer, and David Brokensha. 1995. The Cultural Dimension of Development: Indigenous Knowledge Systems. London: Intermediate Technology.

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