Horticulturalists are small-scale farmers, but this should not be confused with family farming in industrial regions of the world. Horticulturalists grow not only crops, but often raise animals and gather economically useful plants. They generally produce only what they can consume themselves, a practice anthropologists refer to as subsistence farming. Horticulturalists are found in all areas of the world except the Arctic.

General Characteristics

Slash and burn agriculture.

  • Domestic crops are cultivated using hand tools, which may have been made by hand.
  • Farming is done in conjunction with foraging activities and/or trade.
  • There is limited surplus production, although as a result of modern development there may be some surplus production.
  • Groups have a staple crop around which ritual and social activity takes place. This staple varies from culture to culture, but is generally a plant that can be stored easily such as tubers, maize, rice, or wheat.
  • Production is primarily for personal use and trade.
  • The division of labor is generally by gender, although all members of the groups may be called upon to help with the crops.
  • Kin relations may are predominantly patrilineal, but occasionally may be matrilineal.
  • Status is often based on the size of family that can be supported or on how much an individual can give away to gain allies.
  • In ancient horticultural societies, the belief system was polytheistic with the primary deities focused on rain and crops. Modern horticulturists follow a variety of different belief systems, but often still have elements of the polytheistic system of old.
  • Most horticulturalists do not own the land they use to grow food; however, they claim land-use rights to it.
  • Land use is extensive as fields are often used for only a couple of years and then allowed to lie fallow from anywhere to 2-15 years. This is called shifting field agriculture.
  • Many horticulturalists practice slash-and burn agriculture whereby vegetation is cut down and burned. When it rains, nutrients from the ash seeps into the soil thereby regenerating soil fertility.
  • Permanent settlements are common.
  • Horticulturalists may practice polycropping (planting different crops in the same field).
  • Like foraging and pastoralism, if given enough land to utilize, horticulture is fairly sustainable.

The Chimbu of the central highlands of Papua New Guinea grow sweet potatoes, which are used to feed both people and domesticated pigs. The Chimbu recognize over 130 different types of sweet potatoes, each grown in its own microclimate and having its specific use. Sugarcane, bananas, taro, beans and various nuts and fruits are also grown in year-round gardens. Pigs and sweet potatoes are both important resources for food exchange. Food exchanges were used to foster reciprocal relationships among people. If an individual did not uphold the reciprocal relationship by repaying the food exchange, they would lose status within the society. Today, not only is food a part of the exchange, but money earned through the sale of coffee, vegetables and jobs.

The Chimbu reckon descent through the father's line. Traditionally, men live in communal houses away from women and children. The men's communal houses are usually placed in areas that were easily defensible. The women and children live in natal groups near their gardens where they can keep a close eye on the crops. Women are also responsible for raising pigs. Currently, the traditional patterns of residence are breaking down and nuclear families are becoming more common.



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Campbell, Shirley F. “Horticulture.” In Encyclopedia of Anthropology, Vol. 3, edited by H. James Birx, 1203-1204. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2006.

Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. Cultural Anthropology, 13th edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011.

Gezen, Lisa, and Conrad Kottak. Culture, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014.

Harris, Marvin and Oran Johnson. Cultural Anthropology, 7th edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007.

Hutchinson, Pamela Rae. “Haidas.” In Encyclopedia of Anthropology, Vol. 3, edited by H. James Birx, 1126-1134. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2006.

Jones, Kristine L. “Squelches.” In Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, Vol. 6, 2nd edition, edited by Jay Innsbruck and Erick D. Anger, 37-38. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008.

Lavenda, Robert H. and Emily A. Schultz. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology, 4th edition. Boston: McGowan Hill Higher Education, 2010.

O'Neil, Dennis. 2006. “Foraging.” Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College. Accessed October 9, 2010. http://anthro.palomar.edu/subsistence/sub_2.htm.

Rambo, Karl and Paula Brown. “Chimbu.” In Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 2: Oceania, 34-37. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

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