Hunter Gatherer Research

Can hunter-gatherers ever ‘get to know’ their prey?

The role of environmental experiences and daily interactions in the formation of human–nonhuman relationships in the British Mesolithic and beyond

Hunter Gatherer Research (2018), 4, (2), 193–226.


A growing interest in the ‘animal’ has produced a wealth of studies that move beyond characterisations of nonhumans as materials or objects, to explore their active roles in human lives. Archaeology has produced new accounts of complex social human–nonhuman relationships in the past, emerging through meaningful interactions, engagements and experiences. However, some anthropologists and archaeologists argue that only the close and continual human–nonhuman contact afforded in pastoral settings allows humans to come to understand nonhumans as sentient intentional ‘persons’, and to develop meaningful multispecies relationships. This has important implications for how archaeology interprets human–nonhuman relationships in past hunter-gatherer groups, and the material treatment of nonhumans manifest within the archaeological record.

This paper challenges the assertion that hunter-gatherers cannot come to know nonhumans as ‘persons’. Using archaeological evidence from the British Mesolithic, this paper will consider human understanding of nonhumans as emerging through the material, physical and sensorial experiences and encounters that are the result of humans and nonhuman living within shared environments, which ultimately offered the opportunity to understand specific nonhumans as sentient and intentional ‘persons’. However, this paper does not argue hunter-gatherer relations with nonhumans are analogous with those in pastoral settings. Instead, it argues that approaches which use the conditions of pastoral settings to ‘measure’ hunter-gatherer human–nonhuman relationships, and conceive them as somehow ‘less’, fail to consider these relationships in their own terms. They are not ‘less’. Instead, they are inherently different, and it is necessary to focus on the specificities to enhance future accounts of hunter-gatherer human–nonhuman relationships.

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Author details

Overton, Nick J