A hunter-gatherer society exists in lands similar to that of Bavaria. There is plentiful game in the forests and glades, and there are many rivers with edible aquatic life. Smaller rivers can freeze periodically in the winter. Food preservation by smoking and salting are known. Gathered wild grains and acorns are gathered food items that might survive a winter.

The advantage of staying put is that a well built shelter from the cold could be maintained and stored foods could be kept all winter long. On the other hand, food storage is minimal for hunter gatherers; moving food via sled is relatively easy in the winter; and cold protection is primarily skins and blankets, and not dependent on well built huts (which don't really exist). The advantage to moving in the winter is that food supplies are much more limited. Moving more frequently puts less pressure on the surrounding environment.

Is it a better strategy for survival for a hunter-gatherer community in a cold winter environment to move a few times each winter, or stay put in one location?

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    Huts can be rather better built than you seem to expect... – Tim B Sep 18 at 12:53
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    Don't the Sami people (formerly knows as Lapps) fulfil all the requirements? They were hunter-gatherers (at least up to about the 15th or 16th century), they lived in the actual northern Europe (note that Germany is generally considered to be in central Europe), they knew winter very well... – AlexP Sep 18 at 13:27
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    @kingledion: The Sami started herding reindeer in the 15th/16th century, when they became subjects of kings and became acquainted with the notion of paying taxes. Before that they were hunter-gatherers, or, more specifically, fishers-trappers-hunters. They were nomadic, following their prey. But then I am nowhere knowledgeable enough to offer more than a comment :( And really no domestic animals? Not even dogs? Who doesn't have dogs? – AlexP Sep 18 at 13:38
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    @kingledion: Nice to know that Ukraine is in northern Europe... It definitely isn't mediterranean, it is clearly not Oceanic. Over here we say that this huge tract of Europe, including Belarus, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, western Russia etc., has continental temperate climate, and we believe that the (very) hot summers make it quite different from northern climate, but what do we know? – AlexP Sep 18 at 20:26
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    Could we delete the irrelevant comments about geographical minutia? :O @kingledion , the core of your question is really, why wouldn't they form shelters? Hunter-gatherers do that. – Fattie Sep 19 at 4:13

If I check what the experts do, I would say: move before winter.

And the experts in question are animals used to deal with winter.

When they migrate, they do it before winter, so that they don't have to move during harsh conditions.

When they don't migrate, they still reach more livable conditions (think boars or wolves moving to the valleys instead of staying on the mountains).

Consider that moving in winter is a high effort and high risk. Therefore you do it only if it is the lesser evil.

Summarizing:

  • Move before winter
  • If the situation is getting out of control (severe lack of resources) then consider moving to a more favorable location, else stay put.
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    Almost all animals are hunters or gatherers. Yet not all of them move. For example, bears being hunters prefer to use hibernation (i.e. move in time rather than change place) – user161005 Sep 19 at 4:53
  • No, you said animals either migrate or move to better living conditions. I'm saying many/most animals don't move at all. Some literally become entirely immobile (hibernation) for most of the winter. – ubadub Sep 19 at 5:15
  • Oh, and humans have some pretty notable differences from other animals. Also, the question is explicitly asking what hunter gatherers DO, not what they should do based on what animals do. This is basically an empirical question with only one correct answer. Something to ask an anthropologist, basically. – ubadub Sep 19 at 5:16
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    No, the key part is the answer says that animals move before winter. So, autumn comes, it starts getting chilly, you start shifting from your summer habitat to your winter habitat. It doesn't say the animals move during winter, but before in preparation. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Sep 19 at 5:43

Hunter gatherers are tied to food sources, so it would depend largely on what is available in the locale.

If you live next to the sea you would develop the skills to exploit the sea in winter and could live off nothing but meat for the duration like eskimos if need be quite comfortably.

Scottish Isles the hunter gatherers gathered and stored large amounts of resources and then overwintered in a locale.

It's actually rare even in more temperate climes for hunter gatherers to always be moving unless the is population pressure or external pressure. I can't think of any except Aboriginal Australians and even for them it was individuals who would roam off for extended periods, not the whole group.

Normally they will have several locations with semi permanent camps which they stay for periods in while they exploit and store resources. Eg, nuts in one area, deer in another for antler and skins and whatever, shellfish in another.

The winter camp would be just one of these. The only reason I can think of to normally change locales during winter is if a particular resource becomes available elsewhere partway through such as an animal migration or massing of fish or something similar.

Straying out of your area could also be dangerous, eventually you will impinge on another group and there will be conflict over resources.

Simple answer to your "either-or" question is: Yes

As others have stated, hunter gatherers were tied to food sources. Germany's prehistoric climate would have been vastly different than it is today, but suffice it to say that hunter-gatherers thrived in this region.

As you stated, for most of the hunter-gatherer period, most of mankind lived in caves or other natural shelters. What this implies (and supported by science) is that "societies" of hunter-gatherers would be made up of small, dispersed groups. These groups are often thought to always be at odds with others, but quite a bit of evidence points that there was a lot of intermixing. Also, trade was actually a factor even during this time, meaning our hunter-gatherer ancestors had it in their best interests to be friendly when possible. (don't forget, they were every bit as intelligent as we are today)

To answer your question, the best evidence I can provide is in the above link concerning a similar climate to prehistoric Germany. The Lake Baikal region has a lot of scientific literature available from this time period, but suffice it to say, there was intermixing (on a society basis at least) as various family-groups moved around between areas. The evidence points towards some groups moving and some staying.

Why this is can be complicated to answer definitively, but it can also be answered simply, at least generally: Those who stayed saw benefit in staying, those who moved saw benefit in moving. Some would have been right, some would have been wrong. But if an area can't support a large group, some are going to have to move or fight for the limited food/shelter resources. It seems most humans chose to voluntarily break off and move to find greener pastures while some would stay and keep working the existing known locations.

So basically, small family groups formed the very loose 'society' and would move around as necessary, not necessarily on a seasonal basis. Moving means burning energy, burning energy means having to find more food. As technology caught up (fire, shelter-building, better tools, eventually agriculture), their dietary budgets became such where taking risks could be allowed and true society started flourishing.

  • What do you mean by the climate being different? Wouldn't it have been pretty similar the last 10k years or so? Closer to the ice age would make for some interesting differences depending on how close the polar ice is. – JollyJoker Sep 19 at 7:29
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    I wouldn't say 'pretty similar' necessarily, but sure, much more stable than during the earlier periods of time where humans were hunter gatherers (hundreds of thousands of years ago). As the OP didn't specify a date range, I tried to speak as generically as possible over the entire time period instead of something that happened almost at the very end (and could actually be a key factor WHY hunting/gathering came to an end). And many parts of Europe were covered with considerably glacial mass during this time period as well. – ColonelPanic Sep 19 at 12:52
  • Ah, I mentally limited it to times when homo sapiens actually lived as hunter gatherers in Bavaria. No reason to do so, I guess. – JollyJoker Sep 19 at 13:39

well built huts (which don't really exist)

Why not? because this is the crux of the question. Winter shelters are not that hard to make, wattled walls and thatched roofs can keep keep the cold out quite effectively and have done so for thousands of years. This was the preferred method for borth early Europeans and pacific-northwest native Americans. and if you indeed have a bountiful area there is little reason to trek around so the winter huts become the summer basecamp/storehouses.

  • Exactly. As Dreux also explains, this is the crux of the question. – Fattie Sep 19 at 4:11
  • During a majority of the time period in question, most current science shows that the small roving bands used natural features to shelter from weather. To build a good hut, one needs proper tools, which don't really show up until much later (I guess igloos could be an exception). There is evidence of tent-like shelters (mammoth bones!) much later though, especially in areas without many natural caves. – ColonelPanic Sep 19 at 12:55

It depends on their primary food sources.

Moving has advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage is access to food and supplies that aren't present or become depleted in a fixed range. The disadvantages are the time and energy costs associated with moving, as well as increased competition for territory with other migratory groups. Especially without domesticated animals, moving also places a severe limit on the types of infrastructure that can be relied on. Structures like granaries or fishing platforms can't be transported from one settlement location to the next.

Whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages largely depends on what type of food a specific group of hunter-gatherers relies on. If building infrastructure is important for survival, staying put in the winter makes sense. If a continuous source of easily accessible food is available, but at different locations during different parts of the year, moving makes sense.

If your hunter-gatherers primarily hunt large, migratory animals, for example, then it makes a lot of sense to move before winter. So long as they stay close to their quarry, they'll have plenty of food. If the animals migrate south for the winter, or from mountainous areas into the valleys, the hunters, as well as their families, are likely to follow.

On the other hand, a hunter-gatherer society that fishes from a river for most of their food will benefit more from having access to good boat launching sites or prime fishing areas than it will from migrating to a warmer climate. Even if the fishing is seasonal, it will likely make more sense for a fishing society to stay put for the winter, and rely on stocking up heavily on food. Fishing often requires infrastructure, either in the form of boats or in the form of fishing platforms, and migrations tend to be of the "out to sea" variety, which makes following them logistically difficult.

Normally, gatherer-hunter groups that live in areas with cold winters like Germany have specialized winter semi-permanent shelters. They gather large quantities of resources and move to those locations. Even bringing resources, they sill won't probably get through the whole winter without needing more, so different groups have different ways to get food.

If they are close to water, they fish, like modern arctic tribes, if they are inside the continent they can specialize in hunting in winter conditions, like the Ainu people of Japan. With known ways to preserve food it is even easier to survive the winter. These shelters can become really complex actually, having protection against cold, using waterproofing, natural and man-made "caves" (remembering that every kilometer underground, the temperature usually increases 25-30 °C).

But in the end, it really depends on what you want, even being the common thing to do, staying in one or few shelters was not always the only option, sometimes it was possible to move to warmer areas during winter and if you are specialized enough you can even move during winter, remember, some of our ancestors lived through ice ages, not only surviving them, but even were able to migrate incredible distances in them, like the people who went to the American continent using the lower sea levels and abundance of ice plateaus. So, to summarize, the best strategy, is to move to warmer places, if not possible, stay and specialize in winter survival, but ultimately, is is perfectly possible to move even in winter times.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter-gatherer#Habitat_and_population

Most hunter-gatherers are nomadic or semi-nomadic and live in temporary settlements. Mobile communities typically construct shelters using impermanent building materials, or they may use natural rock shelters, where they are available.

Some hunter-gatherer cultures, such as the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, lived in particularly rich environments that allowed them to be sedentary or semi-sedentary.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomad#Hunter-gatherers

'Nomadic' hunter-gatherers (also known as foragers) move from campsite to campsite, following game and wild fruits and vegetables. Hunting and gathering describes our ancestors' subsistence living style.

Plants have different growing seasons, and migratory animals move with seasons. Lions in the Kalahari probably don't move south for the winter (they follow the grazing animals that follow the water), but you can bet that reindeer/caribou certainly do.

Summary

The whole point of nomadism is seasonally following the food. So...

Do hunter-gatherers move or stay put in the winter?

Well, "Most hunter-gatherers are nomadic or semi-nomadic". That means... some aren't nomadic, but most move.

  • @kingledion the whole point of nomadism is seasonally following the food. – RonJohn Sep 18 at 20:59
  • The whole point of my question is whether the nomads will follow little to no food in the winter, or store up and wait it out. – kingledion Sep 18 at 21:06
  • Well, "Most hunter-gatherers are nomadic or semi-nomadic". That means... SOME AREN'T, but most move. – RonJohn Sep 18 at 21:08

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