Is the Word 'Hunter-Gatherer' Offensive?

©. Ilana Strauss

Someone recently told me it suggests indigenous peoples are primitive.

Recently, I told a guy about the time I visited hunter-gatherers in the Amazon jungle, and he stopped me.

"That word is offensive," he said. "It makes me think of primitive people."

I'd never heard that complaint before. "Hunter-gatherer" is an academic word describing people who hunt and forage rather than farm. I wasn't aware of a political correctness campaign to wipe the word from the books. But ideas rarely occur in a vacuum. As skeptical as I was, I had to consider this guy's point of view; he might represent a movement.

"What word should I use?" I asked him.

"You should use their actual tribal name," he replied.

"But what if I'm talking about more than one tribe? What if I'm talking about the Waorani in the Amazon, the Spinifex in Australia and the Hazda in Africa?"

"Then just say, 'indigenous people'."

"But most indigenous people aren't hunter-gatherers."

We went in circles for a while, and I eventually realized why his argument bothered me so much. Hunter-gathers have been up against agriculturalists for thousands of years, and the conflict is still going on. This guy's political correctness was hiding that fight.

©. A hunter-gatherer I met in the Amazon jungle. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

Many people think of hunters and gatherers as prehistoric nomads. Indeed, all humans were hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years; people only started farming 10,000 years ago. But there are still plenty of hunter-gatherers around today.

For millennia, farmers have demanded more and more land for their crops, forcing hunter-gatherers to either take up farming or leave the area. Today, 40 percent of the land on earth is farmland, and companies and governments around the world continue to bribe, trick and force hunter-gatherers off their land.

This has meant the loss of natural biodiversity, and it's also meant the loss of human diversity. As a species, we're losing ancient wisdom, different perspectives and lifestyles. Hunter-gatherers are the closest we can get to humans in a natural state; agricultural societies can understand humans better by talking to hunter-gatherers.

The idea of hunter-gatherers being primitive is indeed offensive. But the problem isn't that the word has a negative connotation (as far as I know, it doesn't). The problem is that the leaders of society imagine their way of life must be superior to life in the past.

older waorani woman

© Ilana Strauss

Leaders tend to chant a mantra about their societies being the peak of civilizations. But hunting and gathering has a lot to offer. Hunter-gatherers work less than people who farm, find many researchers, and they spend their time with friends and families. Their work is more interesting — it takes more strategy to hunt a wild pig than it does to pick beans.

In fact, research suggests human brains shrunk after humans started farming. And for most of history, people in farming societies lived shorter, less healthy lives than the hunter-gatherers who came before them. It's only in the last couple centuries that the average lifespan started increasing (we invented medical care that saved babies, for example, raising the average age). That doesn't mean everyone should become a hunter-gatherer, but it does mean most people probably have much to learn from them.

But I can't talk about this trend without the word "hunter-gatherer." If the word goes away because some well-meaning group considers it offensive, then it'll be harder to draw the connection between Waoranis being bought off by oil companies and Indian hunter-gatherers being tricked off their land. Biodiversity loss, capitalism, sustainability, hunter-gatherers ... These words need to be connected, not broken apart.