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Subsistence usually refers to obtaining the primary necessities for survival that may include water, medicine, clothing, and shelter as well as food. Typically, subsistence societies are traditional, small-scale, self-sufficient, rural and nonindustrial. Although such societies concentrate on the basic needs of the individual, household, and community, they may also engage in limited trade.

Geographer C. Daryll Forde, anthropologists Clark Wissler and Julian H. Steward, and many others have studied traditional indigenous subsistence economies since at least the early 20th century. Classic cases include those by Steward on Shoshoni and Paiute foragers (hunter-gatherers) in the western desert of the United States, Richard K. Nelson on Koyukon hunters in Alaskan forests, Fikret Berkes on Cree hunters and fishers in the eastern subarctic of Canada, Bernard Nietschmann on Miskito ...

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