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This edition: Subsistence Systems

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Episode Details

Regardless of language, geographic location or culture, the question is the same: “What are we going to eat today?” The response depends upon the subsistence system used by those asking the question. This lesson focuses on three types of subsistence patterns: foraging, horticultural/ agricultural, and pastoralism. The Ju/’hoansi live in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. They are a prime example of the hunter/gatherer–foraging subsistence system. Their understanding of the ecosystem in which they live and their ability to adapt have led to their survival both as foragers and now as a more sedentary group. While foragers have little control over the availability of natural resources, they can ensure their survival by living within the carrying capacity of the environment. In contrast, people in food-producing societies control the production of either plants or animals. Food-producing societies tend to be sedentary; they live in larger groups than foragers and have more complex social and political structures. The most common form of horticulture is slash-and-burn cultivation, which relies on human power and has limited productivity yield. Another subsistence system is pastoralism, the managing of herds of animals. Many pastoralist societies live at such high altitudes that little agricultural activity can occur. The Yolmo of Nepal, featured in the video, have crossbred cows with male yaks to produce zomo, a hybrid cattle species that is biologically adapted to live at high altitudes. Since life is so precarious, the Yolmo must exploit the seasonal environments and supplement their diet and economy by practicing horticulture at the lower altitudes. Many pastoral groups practice transhumance, the seasonal migration of herds and people in order to maximize grazing opportunities. Common to all subsistence systems is the need for water. Who controls the water is at the heart of human survival. In the postindustrial era, traditional subsistence activities have been relegated to hobbies, such as hunting, fishing, and berry-picking. The next time you ask, “What’s for dinner?” think about what it took to get food to your table.