Photo by Florent Vergnes/AFP/Getty


Societies of perpetual movement

Why do hunter-gatherers refuse to be sedentary? New answers are emerging from the depths of the Congolese rainforest

by Cecilia Padilla-Iglesias + BIO

Photo by Florent Vergnes/AFP/Getty

We moved in a line, led by four men who searched the rainforest as they walked, barefoot. At the head of the snake, one of our guides cut narrow tunnels through the foliage with a machete. Two others followed, carrying large containers with the drinking water and food we would need for the week ahead. And at the end of the procession, the last guide made sure another researcher and I did not fall behind or get lost amid the maze of trees. We were exhausted. We had found nothing after seven hours of cutting through vegetation and wading through water and mud. I had lost count of the number of times we had turned back on a path or stopped to discuss alternative routes.

The men were looking for their home. It was a home that did not stay still but roved across the rainforest of the Likouala region as their community moved through the Northern Part of the Republic of Congo. Being members of the Mbendjele BaYaka, one of the few remaining mobile hunter-gatherer groups in the world today, these men had neither permanent houses nor private possessions. This, they told us, made the search challenging, even for insiders like themselves.

Less than a year ago, we had walked these same muddy trails, travelling each day to a temporary Mbendjele BaYaka settlement in the Congo rainforest. Back then, the settlement buzzed with children’s laughter. Women organised expeditions to gather firewood or helped collect payo (a bush mango) with the men who hadn’t left camp to try their luck catching an antelope. Gathered yams were piled next to leafy huts, and smoke (meant to keep poisonous ants away) rose toward the canopy.

A typical but temporary camp settlement. Photo by Edward Parker/Alamy

Now, in March 2023, the camp where we had spent so much time was little more than an empty forest clearing. As we passed through it, we saw abandoned possessions and residences: spears, woven mats and baskets, and huts with only a few leaves remaining in their roofs. The Mbendjele BaYaka had moved on with barely anything they had made during their stay. They had simply gotten up one day and walked into the rainforest. Where had they gone? That was the immediate question we were asking with our four guides as we left the abandoned camp, but we also sought answers to more elusive dilemmas. Why had these peoples deliberately chosen a life of almost-perpetual motion? Why did they refuse to settle down, even in the 21st century, despite pressures and incentives to abandon their mobile way of life?

These questions are not new. Since at least the 1960s, hunter-gatherers – from the !Kung San peoples of the Kalahari to Indigenous Gidjingali communities in Australia – have helped anthropologists find answers, which have forced major revisions to accepted ideas about progress and human evolution. Perhaps the most important of these revisions took place in 1966, far from the rainforests of the Congo Basin, when a group of ethnographers, archaeologists and biological anthropologists, including Marshall Sahlins, George Peter Murdock and Julian Steward, gathered at the University of Chicago for a symposium called Man the Hunter.

Organised by the anthropologists Richard Borshay Lee and Irven DeVore, the symposium was the first time such a group had come together to share insights from their observational fieldwork among socially and politically diverse hunter-gatherer populations. The symposium helped revolutionise knowledge about the evolution of our species, overturning previous assumptions about the nature of hunter-gatherer societies and offering a new story of social evolution.

Previous research on these societies from the 18th and 19th centuries had often portrayed them as primitive leftovers from a less developed past, who struggled to gather resources during their short, difficult lives. This early research supported an array of racist ideas about human evolution and emboldened forms of social Darwinism that were used to justify a view of hunter-gatherers as less than human, which helped lay the ‘moral’ ground for the displacement and colonisation of hunter-gatherer populations around the world.

It pushed back against the idea that contemporary hunter-gatherers could barely sustain themselves

At the symposium in 1966, the gathered scholars claimed hunter-gatherer societies were not simply primitive, nor were they caught in a constant struggle to gather adequate resources. Some, Sahlins claimed, might even be considered ‘affluent’. Settling into an agricultural way of life did not always guarantee material improvements, and hunter-gatherers sometimes enjoyed more leisure time, more varied diets and fewer health concerns than settled societies. As Lee and DeVore would later put it, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is ‘the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved’. However, though many old ideas were challenged during the symposium, the new story of social evolution that emerged from Man the Hunter still carried echoes of older ideas. Settling was still understood to be a form of social progress.

Our species, the story suggested, was once composed exclusively of small, mobile and egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers made up of around 25-50 closely related persons, with the precise sizes determined by the resources available in the environments they inhabited. Band membership, while fluid, would have been dominated by close ties of kinship. Humans lived this way until the advent of agriculture around 11,000 years ago when we started cultivating food, domesticating crops and animals, and accumulating livestock. By doing so, we became sedentary. That is, people stopped moving because they had found a subsistence system that allowed them to stay in the same place.

As successful agricultural communities started thriving and expanding worldwide, local hunter-gatherers were forced to adapt. Some were absorbed into agricultural communities, others were displaced to environments unsuitable for agriculture or slowly driven to extinction. The symposium pushed back against the idea that contemporary hunter-gatherers were barely able to sustain themselves, or just eking out a meagre existence in a life that was brutal and full of struggle. Instead, Man the Hunter ushered in a wave of revisionism. This was later taken to one extreme by Jared Diamond, who claimed in a controversial article – ‘The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race’ (1987) – that the adoption of agriculture was ‘a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.’ Based on research from the symposium and the work of other anthropologists, Diamond claimed: ‘With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.’ Why, then, did settled societies become so dominant if they weren’t always beneficial?

According to the Man the Hunter story, the answer has to do with the advantages of social complexity. ‘Farming could support many more people than hunting,’ wrote Diamond, ‘albeit with a poorer quality of life.’ Supporting many more people has its benefits, including an accelerated accumulation of culture, with more social institutions, and more complex political and economic systems. According to the Man the Hunter story, simple, small bands of hunter-gatherers were inevitably overtaken by large and complex settled societies that practised agriculture. From this perspective, ‘simple’ hunter-gatherers are, again, vestiges of humanity’s past. They might enjoy some advantages, the Man the Hunter story goes, but because they live in small, mobile bands, they will forever lack the benefits of a large complex society.

This story of social evolution is now more than half a century old. Today, it endures through the work of Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari and other researchers who, though they may treat hunter-gatherers with respect, still claim that settling down is a form of progress, leading toward more social complexity, with accompanying political and economic advantages. And so, agriculture is still seen as a checkpoint on a one-way road to progress and the development of large societies. This remains a familiar story. It is also wrong.

They remain mobile so they can participate in large and complex societies

New research among hunter-gatherer societies is revealing that the social networks these populations create through mobility might be larger than ever expected. These networks, defined by movement, may also be responsible for the emergence of some characteristics thought to set humans apart from our closest nonhuman primate relatives. The movement of hunter-gatherers may explain the emergence of complex, cumulative culture and our ability to maintain high levels of genetic diversity, even when population sizes drop to very, very low numbers. Far from representing an obsolete mode of living, mobility may hold the key to the continuing survival of these populations, despite pressures to settle. These societies are not the remnants of an outdated, ancient way of life from the distant past. For many hunter-gatherers living in the 21st century, staying mobile is a deliberate choice because it enables large and complex societies – societies that look more like mobile constellations than villages or cities.

So, how did the Man the Hunter story get it wrong? A primary problem is that most of the researchers who participated in the symposium had spent short periods of time living among a single group of hunter-gatherers. They also limited fieldwork to the small camps or settlements where these people temporarily resided. Though researchers collected detailed accounts of daily events, even down to the caloric intake of individuals, they were limited by a settlement-bounded view of the potential extent of hunter-gatherers’ social worlds.

In the 21st century, hunter-gatherers continue to choose a life of almost-perpetual motion not only so they can find resources. They remain mobile so they can participate in large and complex societies distributed across territories that rival the size of Earth’s largest cities. This is the story I hoped the Mbendjele BaYaka could help me tell. This is why I had come to a Congolese rainforest, looking for traces of those who refuse to settle in a sedentary world.

The four Mbendjele BaYaka men who guided us explained that the temporary camps we had previously visited had been inhabited only during the rainy season. The specific locations of these camps were strategically selected, they said, to help with the hunting of small game. The rainy season had now passed, and we were arriving at the end of the fishing season, called kombi, which lasts for around two months, typically from January to February. With the change in season, most Mbendjele BaYaka families had temporarily relocated near the region’s main river, the Motaba.

One afternoon, as we were about to give up our quest and find a place to set up our tents for another night, we found the new camp. It was small: just four huts in a forest clearing, each made from banana leaves covering a structure of tree branches. At the camp, we found that changing settlement locations every few months was just one of many rhythms that Mbendjele BaYaka mobility follows.

Even after reaching the fishing season camps, locating the individuals we wanted to interview became difficult because, each morning, long before the sun rose, people would empty out of the camp to fish, hunt or forage for firewood, seeds, wild tubers or the green manioc leaves necessary for saka saka, a local delicacy made with peanut paste and the oil from palm nuts. These trips could last from a few hours to a few weeks, and could take foragers far from their camps. This made encounters extremely unpredictable, and we had to wake up long before sunrise to catch individuals before they headed off to forage; or wait late into the evening for them to return; or even spend several days hoping they would eventually come back.

We planned to speak to everyone in each camp we visited but, after a week or so of waiting, we sometimes had to give up. Studying mobile societies, it turns out, is not straightforward. When we did finally meet someone we hoped to talk with, we would ask them questions about how they spent their days, their travels, their relationships with their family and wider communities. We were interested in patterns of movement, but often an interview would head in other directions, too. Sometimes we were given caterpillars, honeycomb, yams and other forest delicacies to try. Sometimes we were taught foraging techniques.

Central Africa has the largest population of mobile hunter-gatherers worldwide

At the fishing-season camps, beside the Motaba, in the Likouala region, we were at the heart of the route once followed by one of the largest expansions of farming populations in the world. These agriculturalist populations spread across and eventually dominated the African continent, which had previously been inhabited only by mobile hunter-gatherers. In central Africa today, there are still many hunter-gatherer groups, but this is not the case elsewhere in Africa. In the Congo Basin, only 20 or so cultural groups still practise hunting and gathering as their primary means of subsistence. The Mbendjele BaYaka are one of these groups.

The Congo River Basin in Central Africa is thought to have experienced its agricultural revolution around 5,000 years ago, though there is evidence that people may have cultivated crops and even begun accumulating resources (as remains of potsherds in the region suggest) a few thousand years earlier. From the highlands of Cameroon, the ancestors of today’s Bantu language speakers started moving eastwards and southwards until they eventually settled throughout the continent, bringing domesticated crops, languages, cultural practices, large-scale permanent settlements, and new notions such as property rights and the defence of territory.

The story of social evolution put forward by researchers during the 20th century suggests that the arrival of these farmers – with their superior technology, means of production and social organisation – overpowered the local hunter-gatherers, pushing them from their homeland, and causing their societies to collapse. However, the Mbendjele BaYaka and other hunter-gatherers have endured, and Central Africa has the largest population of mobile hunter-gatherers worldwide.

Today, an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 people subsist mainly from hunting and gathering across the Congo Basin, despite strong government efforts, beginning in the 1950s across Central Africa, resulting in many being settled into villages or absorbed into the surrounding market economies. These hunter-gatherers often change residence, are mostly egalitarian, and practise sharing not as a choice but an obligation. Although they are in regular contact with surrounding farming populations, to the point that they even speak their languages, and exchange objects, food and other forest products with them for market goods, they have managed to maintain their way of life for hundreds of thousands of years.

In the 2020s, they continue to live in small temporary camps comprising five to 10 huts made from manioc and plantain leaves that are home to around 10 to 50 individuals. It is sometimes assumed that these temporary camps are explained by displacement: hunter-gatherers are forced into this way of living by the expansion of farming territories. However, Central African hunter-gatherers have lived in very similar ways for more than 100,000 years. Despite dominant narratives about human evolution, these small bands have managed to continue their way of life into the 21st century. And even though they are sometimes surrounded by settled societies, they have chosen not to transition to agriculture, not to accumulate goods, not to live in larger groups, and not avoid the difficulties of staying mobile.

According to the traditional story of human evolution, the emergence of agriculture triggers an inevitable cascade of events, including sedentarisation, population booms and hierarchical social structures. As agriculture practices spread across Africa, the cultivation of crops allowed societies to accumulate resources and eliminate the uncertainty that accompanies foraging. As a result, populations soared: more mouths could be fed once a society stopped relying on the unpredictability of finding food in the wild. On the surface, settling appears to offer a safer, more reliable and more desirable way of living. This makes it hard to accept that some people simply may not have wanted an agriculturalist lifestyle. It makes it easy to believe that progress moves only in one direction.

However, the adoption of agriculture was not a definitive, one-way transition. Many societies ‘experimented’ with agriculture without becoming fully reliant on it. In other cases, societies that were at one stage fully reliant on agriculture later returned to hunting and gathering. Perhaps one of the most interesting examples is that of the Numic-speaking hunter-gatherer groups of the Great Basin (including California), such as the Shoshone. These groups, who were biological and linguistic descendants of the original maize-cultivators in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, completely abandoned their agricultural lifestyle around 1,000 years ago. Not only that, but their abandonment of agriculture seems to have facilitated their rapid spread across the Colorado Plateau, potentially pointing at the adaptive nature of a hunting and gathering lifestyle.

The time and energy farming required could be dedicated to food collection, craft production, rituals or storytelling

Even in the Fertile Crescent, where agricultural societies are believed to have first settled, there is a yawning 3,000-year chasm between the earliest evidence of cultivated wild cereals and the appearance of the first domesticated crops. This gap becomes even more striking when repeated experiments have shown that, under simulated Neolithic conditions, crops could be reliably domesticated (by selecting and cultivating key mutations across different generations of plants) in as little as 20 to 30 years. Why did foragers, living in an area so prone to agriculture, take 3,000 years to accomplish a 30-year endeavour? Perhaps the inevitable one-way cascade generated by agriculture is neither inevitable nor one-way. Perhaps settled agriculture was not always the more desirable route to ‘progress’. Throughout our evolutionary history, human societies have often pondered the pros and cons of adopting a fully agriculturalist lifestyle. And, sometimes, those societies chose to remain mobile.

There is evidence that the early cultivation of crops by foragers worldwide (including those from the Fertile Crescent) looked more like a seasonal strategy than an agricultural revolution. These foragers may have been taking advantage of moments when the soil was fertile following the seasonal flooding of lakes and rivers. Unlike ‘serious’ farming, which would have involved intensive soil maintenance, weed clearance, threshing and winnowing after harvesting, this opportunistic strategy allowed people to grow seeds only when the ground was naturally fertile. The time and energy farming required could instead be dedicated to wild food collection, craft production, rituals or storytelling. Moreover, given that a flood plain might produce fertile ground one year but not the next, engaging in this type of seasonal crop cultivation provided little incentive for communities to settle down in a particular location, or to monopolise a specific piece of land by establishing a bounded territory. In other words, it is likely that hunter-gatherer communities, then and today, rejected sedentism not because they were incapable of adopting agricultural practices but because they wanted to remain mobile. This seems to have been the approach adopted by hunter-gatherers in Central Africa.

The arrival of farmers in the region, and their seasonal cultivation of yams, palm nuts, manioc and other crops, led to sometimes-extreme cultural transitions for local hunter-gatherers involving new relationships, languages, forms of exchange and practices. Nonetheless, though these broader cultural transitions were widespread, many hunter-gatherer communities continued living as they always had. What’s more, new genetics research shows that most small-scale hunter-gatherer groups continued to thrive after the arrival of farmers, rather than being driven to the verge of extinction – even when they were surrounded by large agricultural communities. What role, if any, did mobility play in their success? Was movement just a byproduct of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle or something more fundamental?

Today, hunter-gatherers tend to live in temporary camps of 10 to 50 people that are scattered around the landscape. The size of these camps is perhaps why archaeologists and anthropologists believed hunter-gatherer societies were small groups composed mainly of related families who shared the resources they foraged or hunted. The systematic sharing of food was seen as one way of mitigating the dangers associated with an inability to accumulate resources. And the movement of these groups was merely seen as an inevitable consequence of this – a result of living in uncertain environments and not accumulating resources. According to this explanation, hunter-gatherers moved only because food ran out.

As a consequence, most research on hunter-gatherer mobility has focused on the ways that resource depletion and other ecological conditions determine movement. This research considers how often and how far small bands of hunter-gatherers would have needed to move to reach more plentiful environments for foraging. But this explanation fails to account for all the observable dynamics in most hunter-gatherer societies. Yes, the Mbendjele BaYaka do move camps when resources start becoming scarce, or when the season changes. They also routinely undertake long trips lasting multiple days and hundreds of kilometres to hunt or fish without changing their camp of residence. And some trips have nothing to do with resources. Mbendjele BaYaka may leave their camp to search for spouses, establish friendships or participate in large commemoration ceremonies called eboka, where people sing together and purchase mokondi masanas (rituals centred around forest spirits) from one another – in fact, the longest trips taken by Mbendjele BaYaka are to participate in such ceremonies as well as to visit distant family members.

Movement was never just a means of finding food, but of finding one another across entire continents

This is not a new phenomenon. Jacques Lalouel, a doctor and anthropologist who worked with the BaYaka in the 1940s and ’50s, reports meeting individuals who had returned from 800 km round trips. Genetic and anthropological research from our group has found this kind of social interaction at even deeper time-scales: despite having lived separated from one another for thousands of years, multiple hunter-gatherer communities from the Congo Basin regularly intermixed and exchanged cultural items, such as musical instruments, thousands of years before farming expansions started taking place in the region. Based on this evidence, the Mbendjele BaYaka and other groups in the Congo Basin did not simply move because food ran out. They moved because they were part a mobile society that was large, complex and distributed.

There is evidence of similar dynamics among hunter-gatherers in other parts of Africa, too. In 2022, a comparison of ostrich eggshell bead variations between eastern and southern Africa revealed a 50,000-year-old exchange network connecting these two regions, involving people travelling hundreds of kilometres to exchange beads and other objects with one another. Similar systems have also existed among hunter-gatherers in other parts of the world, such as Aboriginal Australians or the Wendat societies from North America. It seems that, throughout our evolutionary history, movement was never just a means of finding food, but of finding one another across entire continents.

In 2014, researchers quantified the number of people known by two hunter-gatherer groups: the Hadza of Tanzania and the Aché of Paraguay. These studies report that individuals from these populations knew others living between 80 and 150 km apart, and that these individuals visited each other’s camps to participate in collective rituals, hunt together, share food and news, and learn from one another. This movement resulted in the creation of large social networks, distributed across a vast territory.

The researchers estimated that the average Hadza or Aché adult learned tool-making techniques directly from around 300 role models throughout their lifetime. The large number of role models among hunter-gatherers, the researchers suggested, may explain one of the characteristics that set humans apart from other species: our incredible ability to innovate and accumulate complex culture at a dizzying pace requires a high number of role models. Note that, among our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, the number of role models drops to 20. By having access to many more role models, humans may have had a greater chance of encountering other people who had developed significantly better or more efficient cultural traits. Through these role models, individuals could learn new traits and build upon them, making progressive improvements. In comparison, chimpanzees, having only 20 role models and fewer individuals to learn from, would struggle to maintain new traits, let alone improve on them through time. The Mbendjele BaYaka have stressed the importance of mobility for the transmission of knowledge. Learning subsistence innovations or new uses for medicinal plants is vital for surviving in the harsh rainforest environments they move through.

The emergence and propulsion of complex culture was not the only reason why hunter-gatherers have stayed mobile. Another crucial reason is to look for spouses from different regions, with populations often having explicit rules prohibiting marriage between people from the same community. This is no different for the Mbendjele BaYaka. During adolescence, mobility is especially pronounced as individuals are expected to take long trips to find spouses from a sufficiently distant place outside the local community. Genetic studies of both contemporary and prehistoric hunter-gatherers has revealed that this practice was likely important throughout the history of our species because it reduced the risks of inbreeding when population densities dropped to low numbers. Throughout our evolutionary history, as abrupt climatic changes led to severe population declines, this practice would have ensured the resilience of human groups.

The considerable free time that mobile hunter-gatherers enjoy might be seen as a benefit in itself

Mobility may have been a primary tool for creating the extensive social networks required to make the hunter-gatherer lifestyle – and even Homo sapiens themselves – culturally and biologically viable. Though staying mobile may have been a helpful strategy to ensure the success and resilience of our species in its early days, what advantages does a hunter-gatherer lifestyle offer today? Mbendjele BaYaka live in close contact with farming populations, and most of them even cultivate their own fields from time to time. It would be so easy for these hunter-gatherers to adopt more involved agriculture practices and settle down, like so many other mobile groups have done. And yet, they choose not to.

Between 2013 and 2014, a team of researchers from University College London lived with Agta hunter-gatherers on a northern coastline in the Philippines. The government there has recently attempted to settle these mobile groups, like similar programmes in the Congo Basin, by providing people with monetary incentives to stay put. While some Agta communities still engage exclusively in hunting and gathering, others have become more sedentary by dividing their time between foraging and rice farming. The London researchers set out to investigate what happened to the Agta communities that were becoming sedentary, and the findings have helped to explain some of the complexities that come with becoming sedentary.

As predicted by traditional models of social evolution that suggest populations increase after settling, researchers found that sedentism and participation in cultivation led to much higher fertility rates, allowing groups to sustain higher population densities. However, the outcomes were not all positive. Echoing what archaeologists have noted for early agriculturalist societies, higher population densities and sedentarisation among the Agta facilitated the spread of viruses, bacteria and other parasitic infections, which translated into higher disease and mortality rates, especially in children. The researchers also found that people who adopted farming worked around 10 hours longer each week, compared with their foraging neighbours. This increase in workload was particularly pronounced among settled Agta women, who were drawn away from domestic activities to work in the fields, giving them having half as much leisure time as women in foraging communities. The considerable free time that mobile hunter-gatherers like the Agta enjoy might be seen as a benefit in itself. It could also explain how these communities were able to pass on numerous skills and knowledge within their lifetimes and across generations while travelling across vast distances.

Settling doesn’t always pay off. One size doesn’t fit all, and neither does one lifestyle. What is clear, however, is that humans have never stopped moving. And this movement has allowed small bands of hunter-gatherers to forge large, complex societies across continents, despite what traditional models of human evolution suggest. Settled agriculture is not a checkpoint on a one-way road to progress. Mobile societies have always been part of our success as a species, and they continue to structure our story, even today as 21st-century hunter-gatherers choose a mobile way of life. But for the Mbendjele BaYaka in the rainforests of the Congo Basin, mobility is not only a mode of living. It defines an entire cosmology of perpetual movement.

‘Suppose somebody dies,’ an elderly Mbendjele healer named Phata explained to his anthropologist friend Jerome Lewis in 1997. ‘Their body goes into the earth. Dead people do not come out again.’ In the ground, your body changes, Phata said. ‘But your spirit, it goes walking, it goes walking, it goes walking, it goes walking.’