Subsistence and Commercial Activities. It is probable that Santals originally were hunters and gatherers, as their near relatives and neighbors, the Birhors, still are. Their knowledge of plants and animals is reflected in their pharmacopoeia (see below). In hunting technology, their past is evidenced by the use of some eighty varieties of traps. Later, their main economic base shifted to slash-and-burn agriculture and husbandry. Today, wet rice is grown in terraced fields; on the plains, irrigation by canals and ditches is used. Several varieties of rice are grown along with some sixteen varieties of millet. Leguminous vegetables, fruit, mustard, groundnut (in Orissa), cotton, and tobacco are important crops. The Santals keep cattle, goats, and poultry and are nonvegetarian. Fishing is important whenever they have access to rivers and ponds. The economy of the Santals is biased toward consumption, but they sell or barter (in Bihar) goats, poultry, fish, rice and rice beer, millet, groundnut, mustard seed, vegetables, and fruits when a surplus is available.
Migrant labor plays an important role; many Santals have migrated to work in plantations, mines, and industries. In Bengal, some are gardeners or domestic servants. A small educated elite includes politicians, lawyers, doctors, and engineers, while considerable numbers of Santal women work as nurses. Seasonal or temporary migration is particularly important for women, who are working in construction or mining.
Industrial Arts. Santals are expert at wood carving, but this craft, like ironwork, is declining both in quality and importance. Such products were mainly made for their own ceremonial use. Basketwork, weaving of mats, and manufacture of dishes and cups from sal leaves ( Shorea robusta ) are crafts still of commercial importance, as are rope making and the manufacture of string beds ( charpay ). Santal woodwork formerly included the building of impressive carts and advanced wooden utensils. They still make a large number of musical instruments. While industrial arts have declined, beautiful artifacts are still found, cherished as private heirlooms. Santal women also brew rice beer and alcohol, made from mohua flowers ( Madhuca indica ).
Trade. Santals sell their products for cash or barter at tribal markets; rice money was still in use in Bihar in the 1970s. Some trade is also done with Hindu villages and towns, mainly the marketing of agricultural and craft products. Women dominate this trade, while the main male preserve is the sale of goats and cattle.
Division of Labor. Hunting was always a male activity, gathering activities being dominated by women. In agriculture, men plow and sow, while women transplant and weed; division of labor by gender extends through most agricultural work. Boys and young men herd the cattle; women do the milking, collect the dung, and collect fuel in general. Poultry is tended by women, who also catch freshwater crabs, shrimps, etc. in the ponds; fishing by boat or with large land nets is done by the men. Women, as noted, dominate most trade. Ironwork, woodworking, and rope making are male activities; basketwork, weaving, and leafwork are done by women. Ritual specialists are traditionally male; women are formally excluded from such activities.
Land Tenure. Traditionally land was held by usufruct, for slash-and-burn agriculture. With the introduction of wet rice cultivation, local descent groups descended from the clans of the original settlers divided village lands between themselves. The village priest got an additional allotment. The British introduced individual holdings ( ryotwari ). Members of subclans, not represented among the village founders, were originally landless and are still accorded inferior status.