Social scientists report that humans have employed hunting as a subsistence strategy for at least 90 percent of Homo sapiens' history. The anthropologists Richard Lee and Richard Daly conceptualize hunting, the pursuit and killing of other animals, as one component of "foraging," a broader complex of subsistence activities that also includes the "gathering of wild plant foods, and fishing" (Lee and Daly 1999, p. 3). Hunting entails searching for and killing (or, on occasion, capturing and confining) a wild, unconfined animal. While humans hunt and kill animals primarily as a source of food, they also hunt in order to neutralize a threat (i.e., a tiger or leopard that preys on people), to remove a pest (i.e., rodents or birds that consume agricultural products), or to eliminate a competitor (i.e., predators that kill game animals).

As a human activity, hunting is magnified in its significance by a deceptively simple feature: the evasiveness or resistance exhibited routinely by prey. Because of the behavioral challenges that it presents, hunting has had far-reaching consequences for key aspects of human social, psychological, and cultural life. Since the mid-1960s, for example, anthropologists have argued that hunting may have been a powerful and fundamental force shaping the very nature of cooperation and sharing among early humans.

One such claim involves what the behavioral ecologist Bruce Winterhalder calls the "risk reduction hypothesis." The failure rate of hunters is notoriously high. Even among experienced, highly skilled subsistence hunters who pursue big game animals, any one hunt is much more likely to result in failure than in success. Studying the Hadza of Tanzania in 1993, the anthropologist Kristen Hawkes reported that when hunting big game, Hadza men failed to make a kill 97 of every 100 days that they hunted. When a large game animal is killed, it often represents a "windfall" in excess of what any one hunter and his or her immediate family can consume. These circumstances promote reciprocity and sharing among hunters. By sharing the meat provided by a successful kill, a hunter effectively "buys insurance" against failure in future hunts. When, in the future, he or she fails to kill prey, other successful hunters with whom meat has been shared previously will reciprocate and provide meat to the unsuccessful hunter. The science writer Matt Ridley argues that the cooperation and reciprocity associated with hunting may help constitute the basis of systems of moral and ethical culture. In short, hunting is an activity that promotes cooperation and sharing because it entails the pursuit of a highly valued resource, access to which is unpredictable and risky.

Anthropologists report that while both men and women hunt, in the vast majority of human societies this activity is predominantly male. Yet, it is not self-evident why males are more likely to hunt than females. Scholarly interpretations of the 1990s link hunting to sexual activity and rewards. While the matter is debated among social scientists, some researchers argue that males are motivated to hunt not only because of the food they acquire but because of the social esteem and increased sexual opportunities enjoyed by successful hunters.

The extrinsic rewards of a successful hunt may provide clues about why hunting is intrinsically exciting and satisfying to many people, especially males. To the extent that a behavior confers significant survival and reproductive advantages, evolutionary psychologists like Leda Cosmides and John Tooby suggest that humans are likely to evolve specialized psychological mechanisms that promote such behavior. Accordingly, if hunting yields highly valued protein in the form of meat, promotes stable patterns of cooperation and exchange, and provides males with a currency that they can exchange for sex, it is reasonable to surmise that human males may have evolved psychological attributes that make hunting highly intrinsically satisfying and rewarding to them, whatever the accompanying risks. While this line of reasoning appears promising and compelling to evolutionary minded social and behavioral scientists, it may be too early to conclude that humans are psychologically equipped with specialized mental mechanisms that are the product of humans' Pleistocene history as hunters.

Despite the demise of the hunter-gatherer era about 12,000 years ago, hunting has maintained great significance in many human cultures. In A View To a Death in the Morning (1993), Matt Cartmill traces the symbolism and imagery of the hunt from the hunting-gathering era, through the agrarian era, and into modern, industrial times. Cartmill

Hunting, once reserved for socialites in the early twentieth century, has become popular sport for all classes.  BETTMANN/CORBIS
Hunting, once reserved for socialites in the early twentieth century, has become popular sport for all classes.
sees the symbolism of the hunt as rich with information about how human beings understand and assess their place in nature. In the Greco-Roman world, hunting was elevated to cosmological significance in the form of deities such as Apollo and Artemis/Diana. In later European art, literature, and philosophy, hunting themes became freighted with complex meanings about class relations and social justice. In contemporary industrial societies such as the United States, media products such as the animated film Bambi are said to express a view of nature in general and animals in particular as good, and humanity as evil, or at least "dubious." Thus, writers like Cartmill see the human significance of hunting in the post–hunter-gatherer era as primarily semiotic, as pertaining to the symbolization of humanity and its relation to nature, and to itself.

In contemporary Western societies like the United States and Great Britain, it is conflict over the moral meanings attending hunting that has made it the focal point of intense and protracted political debate. Members of animal rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Friends of Animals vilify hunting. They also denounce hunters whom they see as arrogant and insensitive for engaging in an activity that is described as "recreational" or "sporting," and necessitates the death of a "sentient," nonhuman animal. Yet many hunters themselves impose entirely different meanings on the hunt, and some, such as the naturalist Paul Shepard, even assign it spiritual significance, construing it as an activity that expresses a deep and profound reverence toward nature and living things. It is unlikely that these divergent views will be reconciled in the near future. If humans are, in fact, possessed of an evolved psychology that derives from a hunting-gathering past, it has yet to be determined if this evolved psychology and the contours of modernity are somehow reconcilable or, rather, are fundamentally incommensurable.

Finally, hunters and recreational shooters in modern societies like the United States have played a significant role in wildlife conservation. As members of various hunting and shooting organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the National Rifle Association, hunting enthusiasts have generated billions of dollars that have supported various types of game management programs, habitat protection and restoration, and conservation education. Some of this money takes the form of direct contributions to such programs, and other monies are generated indirectly by taxes on hunting equipment purchases and various license, tag, permit, and stamp fees. One of the oldest and most important among such hunting-based revenue sources is the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act), and it has distributed more than $3.8 billion to state fish and wildlife agencies since it became law. Thus, somewhat ironically, modern hunters contribute significantly to the survival of the very species whose individual members they hunt and kill.

See also: Death System


Cartmill, Matt. A View To a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. "The Psychological Foundations of Culture." In Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Endicott, Karen L. "Gender Relations in Hunter-Gatherer Societies." In Richard B. Lee and Richard Daly eds., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hawkes, Kristen. "Why Hunter-Gatherers Work: An Ancient Version of the Problem of Public Goods." Current Anthropology 34 (1993):341–351.

Hawkes, Kristen. "Why Do Men Hunt? Benefits for Risky Choices." In Elizabeth Cashdan ed., Risk and Uncertainty in Tribal and Peasant Economies. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.

Hill, Kim, and Hillard Kaplan. "On Why Male Foragers Hunt and Share Food." Current Anthropology 34 (1993):701–706.

Lee, Richard B., and Richard Daly, eds. "Foragers and Others." In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ridley, Matt. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Viking, 1996.

Shepard, Paul. The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.

Winterhalder, Bruce. "Diet Choice, Risk, and Food Sharing in a Stochastic Environment." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 5 (1986):369–392.


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