Subsistence Strategies: How Do People Get Food?

Mother and two children working in a field

In Cultural Anthropology, subsistence strategies are the ways that people obtain food from their environment. There are five basic subsistence strategies: foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, agriculture, and industrialism. I’ll talk a little about each of these strategies in this blog post.


An African hunter holding a bow and arrow.

Foraging involves hunting for meat, fishing for fish, and gathering wild plants. People have been foragers for most of human history, and some groups are still foragers today. Most foragers use simple tools, like digging sticks and spears. But some foragers, such as those in the Arctic, use more complex technology. Most foragers rely mainly on gathering plants. But in some places, like the Arctic once again, people rely primarily on hunting. In most places, men do the hunting and women do the gathering, but in some places, women take part in hunting. Foraging requires a lot of knowledge of the environment. For example, you need to know which plants are edible and where they can be found, and which animals you can eat and how to track them. The Ju/’hoansi foragers live in southern Africa, and they know over 150 species of edible plants and more than 40 species of edible animals!


Subsistence strategies. Pastoralist holding a baby animal.

Pastoralism involves taking care of domesticated herd animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. Here are some examples. In East Africa, pastoralists have cattle, and in North Africa they have camels. In southwestern Asia they raise sheep and goats, while in central Asia they raise yaks. Also, in the subarctic, pastoralists care for caribou and reindeer. The meat and dairy products from these animals provide food for the pastoralists. Also, most pastoralists trade their animal products with other groups of people to obtain grains and plants. There are two kinds of pastoralism: transhumant pastoralism and nomadic pastoralism. In transhumant pastoralism, the animals are moved to different pastures during the year, while the people live in a permanent village. In nomadic pastoralism, all the people move with the herds during the year–they do not have a permanent village.


Several carrots freshly pulled from the ground.

Horticulture involves growing plants with simple technology, such as digging sticks and hoes. Many horticulturists use a method called swidden cultivation. This is where people clear fields and then burn them. The ash from burning the fields acts as a fertilizer. Horticulturists use these fields for a few years, and then let them lie fallow for awhile. Most horticulturists grow several crops, and they may obtain meat through hunting or raising animals. For example, the Lua’ of northern Thailand grow rice, corn, and yams. They also obtain meat through raising pigs, water buffalo, cattle, and chickens.


Subsistence strategies. Two white horses pulling a plow.

Agriculture involves growing plants with complex technology, such as plows and draft animals. Irrigation is used, which may involve irrigation terracing. This is a method of growing crops on the slopes of hills or mountains by creating graduated terraces. Agriculture is much more labor-intensive than horticulture, and is more of an investment financially. Horticulturalists grow food for their own families, while agriculturalists grow food both for their families and also for the society. Most agriculturalists are peasants, and they contribute part of their food production to the state, through things like rent and taxes.


Subsistence strategies. A factory.

Industrialism involves the production of goods and services, rather than the production of food. In the other types of subsistence strategies, most of the people spend their days producing food. But in societies with industrialism, only a small portion of the population is involved in producing food. The rest of the people tend to work for wages. Then, the wages are used to buy food and other goods and services.

Learn More About Subsistence Strategies

What type of subsistence strategy does your culture use? Which strategy would you personally prefer to take part in? If you want to learn more about subsistence strategies, check out Palomar College’s articles at this link.

Thanks for reading!