Literature Review: Theory in Subsistence Behaviour

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23/09/19 Psychology Reference this

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Literature Review: Theory in Subsistence Behaviour

Since at least 2.5 million years ago, hominids have subsisted on some form or combination of plant and animal foods (Stiner et al. 2000: 39). The procurement, processing, and utilisation of these can provide us with a wealth of information about subsistence (and even broader categories of) behaviour, and thus a number of theories have grown around this sphere of knowledge, the predominant one being optimal foraging theory (OFT). Most accounts of these early stages of human evolution assume that the practice of hunting and scavenging large animals arose and became widely utilised for an extended period of time because of the nutritional advantages it afforded (Hawkes et al. 1991: 243). The same assumption is still at the basis of conventional explanations for human subsistence strategies at the end of the Pleistocene (Hawkes et al. 1991: 243). This review aims to discuss six papers which use theory to examine subsistence behaviour in relation to hominids. These papers are divided between those published in the 1980s and 1990s, and those published in the 2000s, in the hope that this will help illuminate how OFT and its sister theories have developed over the years. The papers are also left unintegrated in order to make it easier to see the theories that informed and points within each paper as well as how they affected the research.

1980s and 1990s

In their 1982 paper, Hawkes, Hill, and O’Connell agreed with anthropologist Marvin Harris’s 1977 and 1979 view that modern hunters forage plants in spite of the fact that they “cost” more (in terms of energy used procuring them) than meat, predominantly because meat is scarce (379). It is also argued that hunter-gatherer subsistence patterns could be explained solely using the cost/benefit terms prevalent in OFT models, which is supported by an analysis of foraging habits among the Ache people of eastern Paraguay (Hawkes et al. 1982: 379). A consideration of how these same OFT principles may be used to explain the combination of plant and animal foods taken by the !Kung people is also made (Hawkes et al. 1982: 379). Hawkes et al. are cognisant of the assumptions inherent to OFT models, stating that they assume people will continue to use or begin to use foraging techniques which afford them greater returns (nutrients) per cost (energy and time required), and that they will stop using techniques that decrease returns or do not offer the same value (1982: 387). An optimal diet model, developed predominantly by Charnov and Orians in the early 1970s, is considered in relation to the Ache case study, which the authors also acknowledge relies somewhat on the assumption of an environment in which resources are randomly distributed (Hawkes et al. 1982: 391). The context of the Ache analysed in this paper, however, disputes this: If the resources used by the Ache were encountered randomly, foragers would take the items whenever they encountered them, but when hunters search for meat, they ignore the many palm trees they pass (Hawkes et al. 1982: 391). They also consider the optimal patch choice model, which is used here to predict that in places (patches) where resources are differentially distributed, the foragers will operate on the patch which offers the best energy return for the time and energy spent there and spent processing the resources gained from that patch (Hawkes et al. 1982: 391). This model, when applied to the Ache, does account for their exploitation of certain resources which the optimal diet model does not (Hawkes et al. 1982: 394). In light of this conclusion, this paper highlights the importance of using a variety of OFT derived models tailored to different contexts.

In 1986, building on previous work by O’Connell and Hawkes based on OFT relating to Aboriginal subsistence behaviour in Australia, Pate examined the different effects drought conditions had on plants in the Western Desert of Australia, in order to demonstrate what he deemed the necessity of considering issues of the availability of plant food before applying OFT to hunter-gatherer contexts (95). He argued that based on his research, Ngatatjara (an Aborigine group) subsistence behaviour directly contradicted the 1981 prediction of O’Connell and Hawkes, in that their hypothesis concerning the addition of lower-ranked seeds to Aboriginal diet rests on the assumption that drought decreases the availability of higher ranked (in terms of profitability in relation to energy) resources, but the empirical evidence from the Western Desert shows the opposite to be true- many plant resources, such as the wild fig, are not affected by drought (Pate 1986: 98-105). The correspondence of changes in dietary breadth to changes predicted by OFT models is explained as an adaptational response to unpredictable rainfall (Pate 1986: 95). Pate concludes that although considerations of how much energy would be utilised and gained in obtaining and consuming food resources may play a part in how these resources are chosen, their significance in the decision-making process should be assessed within their specific environmental context (1986: 111). 

In 1991, Hawkes, O’Connell, and Blurton Jones examined the assumption that large mammal hunting and scavenging are more economically (meaning nutritionally and in terms of the ratio of energy and time spent to nutritional profit) advantageous to hominid foragers, in light of data collected from a Hadza community in northern Tanzania (243). Their research gathered experimental data which measured the nutritional income Hadza hunters would earn if they took small game as opposed to and including big game (Hawkes et al. 1991: 243). As in the 1982 paper, they use the optimal diet model to predict which resources a forager selects from those that are available given the goal of maximising nutrients acquired (Hawkes et al. 1991: 85).  This data, in addition to observations, showed that hunting large game did maximise the average daily nutritional income, but success rates in these hunts were low (Hawkes et al. 1991: 243). This is somewhat in contrast to the aforementioned Ache and !Kung, who maximise their average daily meat acquisition by including small game, whereas Hadza hunters do this by specializing in large game despite the risk (Hawkes et al. 1991: 247; Hawkes et al. 1982).



The 2000 research paper authored by Stiner, Munro, and Surovell aimed to evaluate the trends in small-game use from the early middle Palaeolithic through the Epipalaeolithic in northern Israel and western Italy, as well as explore the human demographic implications of these trends using predator-prey simulation modelling (40). The authors use Kent Flannery’s broad spectrum revolution (BSR) hypothesis and classic foraging theory ( specifically diet breadth as used by Stephens and Krebs in 1986) as departure points for this research (Stiner et al. 2000: 40). They are, however, critical of the use of taxonomy focused analyses in broad spectrum studies (Stiner et al. 2000: 42). They also assume that ostrich eggshell remains in Israel indicate that they were once eaten (Stiner et al. 2000: 45). Their research findings were that early middle Palaeolithic populations were exceptionally small and highly dispersed, and that the first major population growth pulse in the eastern Mediterranean probably occurred before the end of the Palaeolithic (Stiner et al. 2000: 39). Furthermore, subsequent demographic pulses reshaped conditions of selection that operated on human subsistence ecology, technology, and society (Stiner et al. 2000: 39). These findings are consistent with Flannery’s BSR hypothesis, but ranking small prey in terms of the work of capture proved more effective in this study than previously published taxonomic diversity analyses (Stiner et al. 2000: 39).

In 2002 Nagaoka used faunal data from the Shag River Mouth site in New Zealand to illustrate how methodological advances in OFT have resulted in a better understanding of the processes of subsistence change in southern New Zealand (84). Using these advances, Nagaoka aims to create a more extensive and empirical picture of subsistence change in New Zealand (2002: 86). This research builds on previous work done in the area, which provided some of the earliest examples of the application of OFT/ models to archaeological contexts (Nagaoka 2002: 84). Anderson’s 1981 study on the exploitation of prehistoric shell middens in New Zealand in particular is mentioned, which precipitated an increasing number of studies for the next twenty years which focused on documenting the effects of resource depression (Nagaoka 2002: 84). The Shag River Mouth assemblage was analysed using foraging theory models, the prey choice model in particular, to create  predictions concerning subsistence change (Nagaoka 2002: 86). This model assumes that prey are distributed consistently so each prey type has an equal chance of being encountered, but in real life situations prey is often clumped together and thus encounters are not random (86). Thus, patches (similar to those used by Hawkes et al. in their aforementioned 1982 paper) must be defined in order to create this consistency of distribution, after which the prey choice predictions can then be applied to each patch (Nagaoka 2002: 87). Nagaoka divides her assemblage into three patches based on location (2002: 87). Indices that summarize the abundance of differently ranked taxa in a single value, which can then be plotted and used to statistically test the relation of these to changes across time, are also used (Nagaoka 2002: 88). Patch choice models are further used to help explain changes in transport and cutcherry decisions, by scaling down what is considered a patch so that individual, harvested prey items are considered patches (Nagaoka 2002: 93). These models are applied to the largest taxa, and therefore the most likely to have been butchered and transported, moas and seals (Nagaoka 2002: 94).

In his 2012 paper, Dusseldorp uses optimal foraging theory to test whether the visibility or non-visibility of a certain species can be explained with economic reasoning rather than by the hunting proficiency of those exploiting the species, in relation to Pleistocene bone assemblages (1). Two case studies are used in this paper to illuminate how OFT may be used to understand foraging theories: an investigation of the role of dangerous prey during the Middle Stone Age (MSA) in South Africa and the influence of climate change on the foraging strategies of Neanderthals in Europe (Dusseldorp 2012: 3). Dusseldorp uses OFT to provide a methodology to compare bone assemblages which have been deposited under different climatic conditions, in particular those assemblages from Europe (2012: 15). It is also noted that the main assumption which informs OFT models is that the evolutionary fitness of an individual is tied to its ability to forage successfully, and that when observing foraging strategies it is often assumed that these are the best solutions to the problems the foragers face and that the goal is the maximisation of the amount of calories obtained- both assumptions that were noted by Hawkes et al. as well (Dusseldorp 2012: 3; 1982). Assemblages from only two sites in north western Europe are used in this study because it is difficult to find sites with characteristics which allow for the successful application of OFT models (Dusseldorp 2012: 18-22). This research concluded that MSA hunters were capable of exploiting large and dangerous prey in spite of the risks associated with them, and that more middle Palaeolithic sites need to researched in spite of the difficulties in applying OFT, as there are a number of them which show promising evidence of the specialized exploitation of one species (Dusseldorp 2012: 28-9).

The literature mentioned in this review has aimed to provide a basic overview of how OFT models and models/theories derived from this have been utilised in research focused on the subsistence behaviour of early hominids and humans in general from different parts of the world, divided into those papers from the 1980s and 1990s and those from the 2000s. This review is by no means meant to be extensive in terms of the entire body of work in this sub-field of archaeology, but an effort has been made to include papers written by key players or papers which have built upon these in some way. As highlighted by the criticisms and assumption of OFT mentioned in these papers, there is still a wealth of research that could be done on the application of OFT theory-based models to archaeological contexts.


  • Dusseldorp, G.L. 2012. Studying prehistoric hunting proficiency: applying optimal foraging theory to the Middle Palaeolithic and Middle Stone Age. Quaternary International 252: 3 – 15.
  • Hawkes, K., Hill, K. & O’Connell, J.F. 1982. Why hunters gather: optimal foraging and the Ache of eastern Paraguay. American Ethnological Society 9: 379 – 398.
  • Hawkes, K., O’Connell, J.F. & Blurton Jones, N.G. 1991. Hunting income patterns among the Hadza: big game, common foods, foraging goals and the evolution of the human diet. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 334: 243 – 251.
  • Nagaoka, L. 2002. Explaining subsistence change in southern New Zealand using foraging theory models. World Archaeology 34: 84 – 102.
  • Pate, D. 1986. The effects of drought on Ngatatjara plant use: an evaluation of optimal foraging theory. Human Ecology 14: 95 – 115.
  • Stiner, M.C., Munro, N.D. & Surovell, T.A. 2000. The tortoise and the hare: small-game use, the broad-spectrum revolution, and Palaeolithic demography. Current Anthropology 41: 39 – 73.

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