Until about 10-15,000 years ago, all humanity lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands of a dozen or more people. They were mostly kin-related and moved around a lot in search of edible plants and wild game. They followed the seasons and the animals. They lived sustainable lifestyles, living off the food in selected regions, contributing to the balance of their ecosystems in order to survive and not deplete their resources.
Men hunted and fished, while women gathered fruits, tubers, berries, nuts and seeds, as children most likely worked alongside. A very young, breastfeeding child would not be an asset on a hunt for animals or in a fishing environment. Such bands of people would be termed nomads, as they were always on the move, migrating to different geographic areas wherever they found food.
Their intense mobility made it impossible to have, or to carry, many material possessions. There was also no sense of “ownership” of any kind of property, which would be left behind. They followed animals, but did not domesticate them for their use in the fields or for beasts of burden. Man’s best friend, the dog, was most likely the first animal to be domesticated, both for pets, and as a food source.
In the beginning they depended on the environment for shelters, living in caves or other subterranean types of protection. They often joined together with other bands at different times of the year, founding communities during different seasons of the year. They lived in egalitarian societies, meaning that all adults had equal access to resources that were important for survival. Since they lived in small bands, they did not need elaborate ways of organization. They governed themselves and did not have status or live in stratified societies. Imagine a world without bureaucracy!
We can’t be exactly sure of their marriage and family relationships, but we know that families were not extremely large, for women breast-fed up to five years. Breast feeding for long periods of time limits ovulation in the female, so children were spaced several years apart. With fewer offspring, carrying capacities of hunting and gathering regions were sustainable.
There are a few small bands of hunter-gatherers still practicing their traditional ways of life. Researching and studying the few groups left that practice this lifestyle, gives us a glimpse into the past. However, those groups still classified as hunter-gatherers are not completely isolated from the modern world, so the glimpse we get of their past may not be as accurate as it could be. The following video filmed with the famed Jared Diamond, professor, author, and Pulitzer Prize winner, is just one example. This video shows how they make a living and take advantage of the resources at hand.
It is estimated that by about 15,000 years ago there were bands of hunter-gatherers throughout much of the world. As the ice melted and land bridges became available, people moved across them to explore new regions, with different plants, different animals and different kinds of people. Food-sharing around cultural hearths became a main activity.
Globalization is often stated as beginning around the 15th century, but serious migrations had begun long before that. We find the Aborigines in Australia by 40,000 years ago, and Native Americans in North America by 12,000 years ago. We know there were artists painting in French caves at least 25-30,000 years ago. These ancient peoples were all hunter-gatherers, and ancestors of all modern peoples.
These small bands of people created tools, which helped them survive in whatever environment they found themselves in. As they moved around and began to associate with other groups they shared knowledge and skills. Meeting other groups, however, often caused conflicts over food regions and hunting grounds. As time progressed tools became more sophisticated than simple arrows or stone tools. More complex tools like axes, drills, spearheads and eventually metal tools made life easier for felling trees and hunting and butchering large animals.
Archaeology tells us such people may have practiced religion, adorned themselves with shells, feathers, or other forms of adornment. They also used plants for medicinal purposes and learned to make shelters and clothing from plants as well as animal skins. They had languages that are now extinct, and they shared music and danced, and most likely founded storytelling around their campfires. Various groups around the world developed their own unique and diverse talents, using the natural resources available to them.
View this short video to see how some people of today are practicing hunting and gathering (foraging). This type of foraging might be possible for most of us, if we are willing to explore and take nature’s invitation.
In this way we see how cultural diversity develops over long periods of time, with different styles of dress, sports, music, dance, food, religion, shelters, tools and technology. We can also see how the ways of life of people congregated in a certain area or region become interconnected and interdependent. Since small bands were very migratory, we can begin to see how their small cultural communities arose and then disappeared, in some regions numerous times with numerous groups of people.