Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle in Prehistoric Times

Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle in Prehistoric Times

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a prominent mode of subsistence during prehistoric times, represents an ancient socio-economic system practiced by human populations before the advent of agriculture and sedentary civilizations. Rooted in the principles of foraging and resource acquisition, this mode of existence entailed a decentralized and nomadic lifestyle characterized by the reliance on hunting, fishing, and gathering activities to sustain essential sustenance and meet the diverse needs of small, kin-based groups.1

What is Hunter-Gatherer?

“Hunter-gatherer” is a term used to describe a subsistence strategy and way of life adopted by human societies in prehistoric times. It involves the gathering of wild plant resources and the hunting of wild animals for sustenance.

The term is also sometimes used as “hunter-gatherer-fisherman” or “hunter-gatherer-storager”.2

The Origins of Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

The origins of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can be traced back to the Paleolithic period, also known as the Old Stone Age. During this vast timespan, spanning millions of years, early human species began to evolve from being primarily herbivorous to incorporating animal protein into their diets. The utilization of tools, such as sharpened stones and bone implements, allowed for improved hunting and butchering techniques, enhancing ability to exploit animal resources efficiently.

Hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the Cave of Altamira (Spain)
The hunting scene in the Cave of Altamira is believed to be at least 14,000 years old.
Photo: UNESCO ©️CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
American archaeologist Lewis Roberts Binford argued that early humans obtained their food through scavenging rather than hunting.3

In the Paleolithic period, humans were nomadic in nature, following animal herds and moving to areas abundant in edible plants. This nomadic behavior was crucial for their survival as it allowed them to avoid depleting local resources and adapt to changing environmental conditions. Mobility was facilitated by lightweight and portable belongings, enabling quick relocation and minimizing their ecological impact on any specific region.

The Mesolithic period, often referred to as the Middle Stone Age, witnessed further advancements in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Humans developed more sophisticated tools, such as microliths, which were small stone flakes used as arrowheads and blades. These tools greatly enhanced their ability to hunt, contributing to increased efficiency and success rates in acquiring food resources.

As the Mesolithic period progressed, hunter-gatherer communities began to exploit a wider range of environments, including coastal regions and river valleys. Coastal areas offered an abundance of marine resources, such as fish, shellfish, and seabirds, while river valleys provided opportunities for freshwater fishing and gathering wild plants. This expansion into diverse ecosystems allowed hunter-gatherers to diversify their diet and exploit the specific resources each environment had to offer.

Map of hunter-gatherers in 2000 BC
The yellow regions on the map represent the territories inhabited by hunter-gatherer communities around 2000 BCE. (Please click on the image to view the map in full size.)
Photo: Wikimedia

With the onset of the Neolithic period, a significant shift occurred as some human communities transitioned from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to early agricultural practices. This shift marked the beginning of the agricultural revolution, leading to the development of sedentary farming communities. However, it is important to note that hunter-gatherer societies continued to persist throughout the Neolithic and even into the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages.

Characteristics of Hunter-Gatherer Societies

Hunter-gatherer societies in prehistoric times exhibited several distinguishing characteristics.

Egalitarianism: Hunter-gatherer societies often lacked rigid social hierarchies and exhibited a relatively egalitarian distribution of resources and power. Decisions were made collectively, and leadership roles were often temporary and based on individuals’ skills and knowledge.4

Small-scale communities: Hunter-gatherer groups tended to be small in size, consisting of extended family units or bands of closely related individuals. This social structure facilitated cooperation and resource sharing within the group.

Broad subsistence base: Hunter-gatherers relied on a diverse range of food sources, including hunting mammals, fishing, gathering wild plants, and even insect consumption. This diversified approach to subsistence reduced the risk of food shortages and increased resilience to environmental fluctuations.

Food SourcesExamples
AnimalsDeer, bison, rabbits, birds, fish
PlantsFruits, nuts, seeds, roots, tubers
ShellfishMussels, clams, oysters
OthersWild honey, wild mushrooms

Oral traditions and knowledge transmission: Due to the absence of a writing system, hunter-gatherer societies relied heavily on oral traditions to transmit knowledge across generations. This included knowledge about hunting techniques, plant identification, and navigation within their environment.

Flexible and adaptive cultural practices: Hunter-gatherers developed a flexible set of cultural practices that allowed them to adapt to changing environmental conditions. They possessed an intimate understanding of their surroundings and employed a trial-and-error approach to discovering effective strategies for survival.

Limited material possessions: Hunter-gatherers maintained a relatively low level of material possessions, as their nomadic lifestyle necessitated portability. Tools and resources were carefully selected and utilized efficiently, ensuring minimal burden during movement.

Mobility: Hunter-gatherers were typically nomadic or semi-nomadic, moving in response to seasonal changes and the availability of resources.5

Why Were Hunter-Gatherers Nomadic?
Hunter-gatherers adopted a nomadic lifestyle for several reasons. Firstly, their mobility allowed them to locate and exploit seasonally abundant resources. By moving to different areas, they could access fresh hunting grounds and gather ripe fruits, nuts, and tubers as they became available. Secondly, the availability of water sources played a significant role in their nomadic patterns. Water attracted game animals and diverse plant life, making these areas prime locations for temporary settlements. Thirdly, environmental factors, such as climate change, influenced the nomadic nature of hunter-gatherers. They would adapt and move to areas with more favorable conditions as temperatures fluctuated and ecosystems shifted.

Hunting Techniques and Tools in Prehistoric Times

In prehistoric societies, hunting played a crucial role in the survival and sustenance of hunter-gatherer groups. The success of hunting relied heavily on the techniques and tools employed by these early humans. The main objective of hunting was to secure food resources and ensure the survival of the community. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers utilized a range of strategies and tools, adapting to different environments and prey species.

Hunter-gatherer lifestyle (hand axes)
Hand Axes (Lower Paleolithic)
Photo: Didier Descouens (Wikimedia)
Collection: Muséum de Toulouse ©️CC BY-SA 4.0

One common hunting technique used by prehistoric societies was “persistence hunting”. This involved pursuing prey over long distances until the animal became exhausted and could be easily captured. “Persistence hunting” required great physical endurance and tracking skills. Another technique employed by hunter-gatherers was “ambush hunting”. This involved hiding or camouflaging oneself to surprise the prey and make a successful kill.6

Tools used for hunting varied depending on the time period and geographical region. In early prehistoric times, hunters primarily used simple handheld tools such as spears, javelins, and throwing sticks. These tools were crafted from materials like wood, bone, or stone, and were effective for close-range attacks. As prehistoric societies advanced, they began to develop more sophisticated tools, such as the atlatl (spear-thrower) and the bow and arrow. These innovations allowed for greater accuracy and range, enabling hunters to take down prey from a safer distance.

The use of hunting tools was not limited to weapons alone. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers also utilized traps to capture smaller game. Pitfalls, for example, were dug into the ground and concealed with branches or leaves. Once an animal fell into the pit, it would be easier to kill and retrieve. Another common trapping method involved constructing nets or enclosures to entangle or corral animals, making them easier to catch.

Tool/WeaponDescription
AwlUsed for piercing holes in leather, wood, or other materials
AxeUsed for cutting wood and butchering animals
Stone KnifeUsed for butchering animals and plants
SpearUsed for killing large animals
Bow and ArrowUsed for hunting and defense
Fishing NetUsed for catching fish
Digging StickUsed for digging roots and tubers
BasketUsed for collecting and carrying food
FlintUsed for starting fires
Bone NeedleUsed for sewing clothing and nets
HarpoonUsed for hunting large aquatic animals
Fish SpearUsed for fishing
SlingshotUsed to launch small stones or projectiles

Shelter and Settlement Patterns of Hunter-Gatherers

Hunter-gatherer groups in prehistoric times were nomadic, constantly moving in search of food resources and suitable environments. As such, their shelter and settlement patterns were adapted to this mobile lifestyle. The shelters of prehistoric hunter-gatherers were often temporary and designed for quick assembly and disassembly.7

Hunter-gatherer lifestyle (shelters)
Paleolithic shelters

One common type of shelter used by hunter-gatherers was the temporary campsite. These campsites were often located near water sources and provided a temporary base for hunting, gathering, and other activities. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers would construct simple structures using natural materials such as branches, leaves, and animal hides. These structures, such as lean-tos or windbreaks, offered minimal protection from the elements but were easily dismantled when the group moved on.

In some cases, prehistoric hunter-gatherers utilized caves or rock shelters as temporary shelters. These natural formations provided better protection from the elements and potential predators. Caves and rock shelters also served as communal gathering spaces and offered a degree of security, especially during inclement weather or hostile encounters.

Rituals, Beliefs, and Spiritual Practices of Hunter-Gatherers

Hunter-gatherer societies in prehistoric times exhibited rich and diverse spiritual beliefs and practices. These beliefs were closely intertwined with their understanding of the natural world and their role within it. Rituals and ceremonies played a significant role in establishing social cohesion, maintaining cultural traditions, and seeking protection from the unknown.

Animism was a common belief system among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. They attributed spirits or supernatural forces to elements of the natural world, such as animals, plants, rocks, and celestial bodies. These spirits were believed to possess their own consciousness, influencing human lives and the surrounding environment. Hunter-gatherer communities often engaged in rituals and ceremonies to communicate with these spirits and seek their favor or guidance.

Shamanism also played a crucial role in the spiritual practices of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Shamans, often regarded as spiritual leaders or intermediaries between the human and spirit realms, held significant influence within their communities. They were believed to possess supernatural abilities to heal the sick, communicate with spirits, and provide guidance. Shamanic rituals involved various practices, such as trance-inducing techniques, chanting, drumming, and the use of hallucinogenic substances.8

Primal Religions: Origins, Characteristics and Traditions

Artistic expressions, such as cave paintings, rock art, and carvings, were another important aspect of the spiritual practices of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. These artistic creations often depicted scenes from daily life, animals, and mythical or spiritual beings. They served as a means of communication, spiritual expression, and storytelling within the community.

The Origin of Art and the Early Examples of Paleolithic Art

  1. Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Societies“, Emma GROENEVELD, World History Encyclopedia, December 9, 2016^
  2. “Et l’Évolution créa la femme Broché”, Pascal PICQ, Éditeur: Odile JACOB, ISBN-13: 978-2738152138, 2020^
  3. Human ancestors: Changing views of their behavior“, Lewis R. BINFORD, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Volume 4, Issue 4, December 1985^
  4. Nomadic Peoples and Human Rights”, Jérémie GILBERT, Taylor & Francis, ISBN-13: 978-1136020247, 2014^
  5. “Ancient Civilizations of the World”, Denny ROSE & Rowan ALLEN, EDTECH, ISBN-13: 978-1839472756, 2018^
  6. “The Earliest Europeans – A Year…Survival Strategies in the Lower Palaeolithic”, Robert HOSFIELD, Oxbow Books, ISBN-13: 978-1785707643, 2020^
  7. “Archaeology: An Introduction”, Kevin GREENE & Tom MOORE, Taylor & Francis, ISBN-13: 978-1136860294, 2010^
  8. “The Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers: Key Themes for Archaeologists”, Vicki CUMMINGS, Taylor & Francis, ISBN-13: 978-1000189537, 2020^
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