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Framing the Issues

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The Consequences of Sedentism:
What Happens When Mobile Hunter-gathers Settle Down?

Sedentism has enormous economic, demographic, and social effects on hunter-gatherers:

Population growth:  Hunter-gatherers practice strict population control to keep their numbers in balance with scarce resources and with their need to be highly mobile. When they settle, their population immediately starts to rise as all or most of the practices to keep birth rates low are relaxed. Birth spacing becomes shorter, and nutritional levels get higher.

Community size:  Sedentary hunter-gatherer communities can grow much larger, since they no longer have to keep group size small for mobility's sake.

Diversity and risk in the Food supply:  Mobile hunter-gatherers reduce the risk of starvation by using a very diverse set of resources. Sedentary hunter-gatherers focus on a narrow range of very rich food resources. For that reason sedentary hunter-gatherers run a higher risk of starvation if any natural disaster (drought or blight) damages that narrow range of food resources

Storage:  Sedentary hunter-gatherers need to store food since they can no longer move around the landscape to forage for spatially scattered resources that become available in different places at different times of the year. Instead, they have to make locally available resources last.

Resource depletion:  Sedentary hunter-gatherers tend to over-exploit their immediate territory - creating a local "dead zone" around their villages - studies of modern day sedentary hunter-gatherers show declining hunting yields over time, and a shift to larger game, since hunters have to range further afield, so they have to become more efficient by hunting larger game. It also often means a shift to more labor-intensive communal hunting, since this guarantees high minimum levels of food.

Emerging Inequality:  Sedentary hunter-gatherers can accumulate property. Storage of food allows for wealth differences. This allows for the development of economic differences between group members and can lead to the breakdown of the egalitarian community ethic.

Disease:  sedentary communities, where everyone lives in permanent, close proximity, are much more susceptible to epidemics.

Supporting Links:

The Agricultural Revolution Student Module. Washington State University.
Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 27, 2010).

The Neolithic Revolution - How Farming Changed the World. BBC. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 27, 2010).

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