World History 1 22 - 2.2.2 Life in the Paleolithic Age

Until as recently as twelve thousand years ago, human populations around the world remained very small and relied on subsistence hunting and gathering for survival. A typical group of early humans could be as small as fifteen people and perhaps as large as only forty (Figure 2.16). These groups were further subdivided into family units. Their small size should not be surprising, since they had only the naturally occurring resources around them to depend upon. But it also contributed to the development of close relationships between members of the group, an advantage in a world where cooperation could mean the difference between life and death. Groups much larger than forty or so would have struggled to live on the scarce resources of an area and found cooperation difficult to achieve. Any groups that became too large would by necessity have split up and found other areas and other resources.

A drawing is shown of three people on a flat area of a hill. They all have dark skin and are naked except for small loincloths. The one on the left is sitting with his back showing, white feathers on his head and his bow and arrow on the ground to his left. A black dog-like animal sits in front of him. The other two men are standing, both with tall headdresses of thin slats with their bows and arrows on their backs. In the bottom left of the drawing, an adult in a brown cloak stands holding a small child while a naked child holds on to their leg. Two more people wearing cloaks are seen in front of them and other minute people are in the far distance. In the right of the picture six people are shown standing and sitting in front of rounded huts on a raised area. Smoke is shown rising up. The landscape is hilly with pale green, brown, and gray colors.
Figure 2.16 This 1804 sketch of a hunter-gatherer people known as the San was made by Samuel Daniell of England, during his appointment as artist for a British expedition traveling throughout southern Africa. For hunter-gatherers such as the San and our early ancestors, living in small groups of no more than about forty was necessary to survive, given scarce resources. (credit: “Bushmen Hottentots armed for an expedition” by Samuel Daniell in African Scenery and Animals/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Diets for humans in this period consisted of nuts, fruits, berries, wild grains and honey, fish, birds, shellfish, insects, and other animals. What people ate depended heavily on the environments in which they lived. Those in lush, warm environments had access to a variety of edible plants and animals. In more frigid and icier environments, they depended more on animals and fish. Fishing strategies likely included the use of spears but also nets and even hooks made of bone. Land animals eaten for food were either scavenged from remains left behind by other predators or hunted by humans themselves. Most hunting likely focused on smaller animals.

But large-game hunts did occur. Archaeological remains and cave paintings indicate that humans hunted deer, horses, gazelle, bison, and even very large animals like woolly mammoths. We know from archaeological work done in the Americas that as early as twelve thousand years ago, modern humans occasionally drove bison herds over cliffs to their deaths in order to process their meat and hides. Similar methods were likely used in other places to hunt various species of herding animals around this time or even earlier. Hunting woolly mammoths tens of thousands of years ago would have required a lot of group cooperation and the use of sophisticated tools like spears. It would also have been very dangerous, and scholars debate how common it really was. But killing a mammoth would have been highly desirable; a typical animal weighed around six tons, and harvesting it would provide a good supply of meat, hide, and bone for a small group.

For shelter, early humans commonly used both built structures and naturally occurring refuges like caves. Archaeologists around the world have unearthed evidence suggesting that some populations occupied a single cave for tens of thousands of years. The Panga ya Saidi cave in Kenya, for example, may have been home to humans for as long as seventy-eight thousand years. When caves weren’t available or when populations needed to be more mobile, humans designed their own shelters using wood, bone, animal skins, and other items gathered from the surrounding area. Evidence of shelters constructed of mammoth bones and covered with animal hides has been uncovered in several locations in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic. These encampments may have been used as long as twenty-five thousand years ago.

There are strong indications that modern humans living even tens of thousands of years ago had developed some form of spirituality, perhaps even a kind of religion. As they are today, spirituality and belief in the supernatural were a way of making sense of the world. Natural occurrences like sunsets, earthquakes, comets, lighting, volcanoes, and many events for which we have ready scientific answers may have held supernatural significance for our Paleolithic ancestors. If modern practices are any guide, Paleolithic humans likely had religious traditions similar to animism—the idea that a degree of spirituality exists not only in people but also in plants, inanimate objects, and even natural phenomena like fires. The detailed cave paintings of bison, deer, and other animals left behind by these distant ancestors may be some of the few surviving traces of their ideas about the supernatural. It is even possible they recognized some members as religious figures. Such shaman men and women would have provided some connection between this world and another less understood world beyond.

We do know that modern humans and even Neanderthals buried their dead, and they frequently placed common household items in the grave when they did. A few rare burial sites found in eastern and southern Europe and dating back thirty thousand years were particularly ornate. Some included ivory spears and discs, along with bodies carefully covered in red ochre and beads made of both mammoth ivory and fox teeth. But most burials discovered so far were fairly simple. While it’s tempting to draw conclusions about a belief in the afterlife from such finds, it’s impossible to know for sure what significance these burials had for the people who performed them.

By studying archaeology and observing modern hunter-gatherers, many have concluded that ancient hunter-gatherer societies were very egalitarian. The small size of the groups, the lack of wealth, and the nomadic lifestyle were likely the reasons. But it is difficult to know exactly how egalitarian early human societies were. There was clearly some degree of differentiation within them. Just like today, within even a small group there would have been varying degrees of physical ability, intelligence, charisma, and other traits. Group members would surely have recognized these differences and used them to their advantage.

Older interpretations of social organization suggested that men did most of the hunting while women did the cooking or stayed home to nurse children. More recently, some have suggested that Paleolithic men and women both made a number of contributions to society. Meat, likely hunted mostly by men, would have been highly prized, but plants and other foods gathered mostly by women may have contributed as many if not more valued calories to the group. It is also likely that if men were away hunting, then by necessity women would have taken care of everything else. This meant protecting homes from attack, repairing shelters, and making tools.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax