Hunter-gatherer types, hunting and environmentalism

One of the paradoxical things I discovered when I was researching the hunter-gatherer (vs. farmer-herder) type hypothesis, is that hunter-gatherer types are the ones who are least likely to hunt or support hunting for fun or trophy hunting. On the contrary, you will find most animal activists among hunter-gatherer types. Recently Queen guitarist Brian May (INTP, hunter type) said of his fellow guitar icon Eric Clapton (ISPF, pastoralist type):

“I love Eric Clapton, he’s my hero, but he has very different views from me in many ways. He’s a person who thinks it’s OK to shoot animals for fun, so we have our disagreements.”

I totally side with Brian May here. I don’t think it’s ok to kill for fun. The people who do support trophy hunting are quick to point out that it’s a remnant of our hunter-gatherer past to have this killer instinct. As plausible as this may sound, it isn’t true. Hunter-gatherers are only killed for survival, never for fun. And they certainly wouldn’t dig the fun in trophy hunting. I found my initial hunch corroborated by Louis Liebenberg who spent many years among San hunters-gatherers.

Many “trophy” hunters argue that it is the skill of the hunt they enjoy, not the killing and that hunting is a “natural” activity since “man has always been a hunter”. When one compares trophy hunting with traditional subsistence hunting, however, these arguments prove to be fallacies. Compared to hunting with the traditional bow and arrow, it does not require much skill to shoot an animal with a powerful rifle fitted with a telescopic sight. The only skill involved is the actual tracking down of the quarry, and this is usually done by a hired tracker, not the “trophy” hunter. The attitudes of “trophy” hunters also contrast sharply with those of hunter-gatherers. The very essence of hunting a “trophy” is one of boastfulness. (One need only look at the way they pose alongside their “kills” for photographs. ) In contrast, the successful hunter in a hunter-gatherer community was expected to show humility and gentleness. (The Art of Tracking, the Origin of Science, 1991)

An important part of trophy hunting is showing off the trophy. Hunter-gatherers have a tradition that is called “shaming the meat”, i.e. they downplay the importance of a kill. This ritual is an important part of their egalitarianism, as there is a potential danger that the most successful hunters may start to feel superior. A “trophy” really only makes sense in a non-egalitarian social system that is based on rank.

What about the supposed hunter-gatherer “killer instinct” then? Hunter-gatherer types are the ones who most deeply feel for animals. I, for example, feel terrified when dog owners yell at their animal or even hurt it physically in order to show dominance. One may argue that dogs are hierarchical animals and will follow an alpha or superior animal only. While this may be true, I still feel more comfortable thinking of dogs as “friends’ ‘ rather than being beneath me in a dominance hierarchy. Hunters certainly wouldn’t be as faint-hearted as me, or would they? Liebenberg writes:

I once asked a !Xo tracker what his feelings were towards animals. He explained that although he does have sympathetic feelings for the animals he kills, he, as a hunter, must eat. He does not feel sorry for an adult antelope, because it is food and it knows that it must avoid hunters. But if a juvenile antelope is caught in his snare, he feels very sad, because it is still very small and does not know anything. His feelings of sympathy even extended to arthropods. He explained that if he sees a beetle with one broken leg, he will feel sorry for it. One morning after he had killed a gemsbok site. With a rather sad expression on his face, he explained that it was the spoor of the killed gemsbok’s companion. He further maintained that because they grew up together, the gemsbok would always come back to that spot to look for its lost companion.

Well, !Xo seems even more faint-hearted than me as I do not empathize much with arthropods (but I did when I was a child). The question is, why should hunter-gatherers feel more sorry for animals than farmers and herders? I can think of three main reasons:

  • Hunters must be able to empathize with their prey in order to be better at tracking it
  • Hunter-gatherers have a more universalist kind of altruism than farmer-herders (who are more in-group social) which even extends to animals
  • Hunter-gatherers were the original conservationists as that helped them survive

While the second point is my own hypothesis, Liebenberg provides evidence for the other two points:

/Dzau /Dzaku of Grootlaagte and independently !Nam!kabe Molote of Lone Tree in Botswana explained to me a conservation ethic practised by Kalahari hunter-gatherers. During periods of drought plant foods would be scarce. If a particular plant was scarce, they would not exploit it, but leave it so that the population can grow back again. This meant that they had to hunt more animals to survive. In addition to animals dying due to the drought, hunters would have killed more animals, thereby reducing animal populations. After the first good rains, when plant foods recovered, they would then stop hunting to allow animal populations to recover. (The Origin of Science, 2021)

Sustainability may therefore be a part of hunter-gatherer instincts. Of course, that doesn’t mean that farmer and herder types can’t be environmentalists. Most people do care about the world they leave to their children (at least I hope so). However, I am quite sure that you will find hunter-gatherer types overrepresented among environmentalists.

So, what about that “killer instinct”? Well, hunter-types do love to kill, but only in shooter games. And they love to use their tracking skills in solving puzzles. These two skills combined make sure that hunter types regularly win e-sports competitions. Again here I am quite sure, if the champions of video games are asked about their opinion on shooting animals, most of them would not feel comfortable with the idea.

Originally published at on October 13, 2021.