World History 1 23 - 2.2.3 Diverse Paleolithic Peoples

Our window into Paleolithic life is small and opaque. Scholars have thus had to rely mostly on observing hunter-gatherer societies that exist today and extrapolating from their experiences. Relatively few such populations still survive, and they are found in only a few places around the world where producing food simply isn’t practicable or desirable. These include the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, the forests of equatorial Africa, the far Arctic, Tanzania, parts of western Australia, and a few other places.

The San people of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa have often been studied (Figure 2.17). They live today in parts of Botswana, Namibia, and Angola, and those who still practice a traditional lifestyle do so in groups of up to sixty people that include members of several related families. The San survive by foraging on wild vegetables, nuts, fruit, and insects. They also rely on hunting wild game like antelope with throwing sticks, spears, and small bows that shoot poison-dipped arrows. Their groups are largely leaderless, though in certain instances respected hunters or older men might wield some authority.

A picture of shown of seven people in a dried out, brown field with white bushes and brown trees in the distance. All of the people are dark skinned with short, black hair and brown cloths or furs around their waists. They wear a variety of brown or colorfully patterned tops and all but one wear a blue, black, and white striped headband on their head. The man on the left stands with one hand on his head and the other holding a walking stick. A small boy stands next to him, wearing a white collar, obscured by a woman in front of him holding an object in both her hands. Another person stands next to her looking at the object. One person sits on the ground in front, while two squat to the right, all looking at the ground.
Figure 2.17 Some of the San people who live in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa still follow a hunter-gatherer lifestyle today, living in relatively small and generally egalitarian family groups. (credit: “Tribu d’indigènes” by “hbieser”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Despite this egalitarianism, the San do maintain some important divisions of labor based on sex. For example, men are expected to create fires for cooking and warmth, which they do by rubbing sticks together to create heat and adding a bit of dry grass so that it ignites. Men are also the primary hunters for the group, though women sometimes participate. Women’s responsibilities include gathering, as well as building traditional shelters from tree branches covered in long grass. These shelters are light and can be built quickly to allow the group to move regularly when necessary. Water is a constant concern in the very arid Kalahari environment, and the San can live on relatively little of it. They collect it from certain plants and special watering holes, frequently using hollowed-out ostrich eggs to collect and store it for later use.

In the Arctic region of northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, where conditions are very different from those in the Kalahari, the Inuit people practice a form of hunter-gatherer lifestyle suitable to that environment. Like other hunter-gatherer groups, they live in relatively small bands made of multiple families and are generally much more egalitarian than settled societies that depend on agriculture. There are few plants to gather but an abundance of birds and animals to hunt and fish, including caribou, walrus, bowhead whale, seal, polar bear, muskox, and fox. In addition to providing meat and fuel, these animals have hides the Inuit use to make ocean-going vessels and thick clothing to protect them from the harsh cold (Figure 2.18). The plants that can be gathered in some warmer regions include grasses, roots, and seaweed.

A black and white picture shows three people on a dark background. The woman on the left has small, thin eyes, high cheekbones, and is smiling showing her teeth. The man on the right has almond shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and is shown grinning. The child between them has dark, almond shaped eyes. All three wear thick, furry coats with fur all around the hoods.
Figure 2.18 Making carefully constructed fur clothing allows modern Inuit people to survive the cold conditions of their environment. This photograph of an Inuit family was made in 1929 and has been digitally restored. (credit: “Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929” by Edward S. Curtis in The North American Indian/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As is common among hunter-gatherer groups, men tend to do the hunting and fishing while women care for the children, maintain the home, and process the food that is hunted or gathered. The relatively limited supply of plants in relation to animals has exerted a strong influence on Inuit society. Since by far the largest part of the diet is produced by hunting and fishing, the emphasis on these male-dominated activities is strong. Hunting and fishing are also very dangerous occupations in which death and serious injury are common. The result is that women have traditionally outnumbered men in Inuit bands. In the past this ratio has led to higher rates of polygamy and even infanticide. The accumulation of numerous wives by some men has also sparked jealousy and violent rivalries among kin.

Both the San and the Inuit have had considerable exposure to the settled agricultural societies around them, and modern technology has influenced the way they live. For example, the Inuit today often use firearms to hunt in ways they could not have done several centuries ago. But one hunter-gatherer society that has still had only limited exposure to agricultural societies is the Awá people of the Brazilian rainforest. The known behaviors of the Awá thus provide scholars a picture of hunter-gatherer societies that may be closer to that of our distant ancestors.

Unlike the San and the Inuit, who live in environments where many resources are scarce, the Awá inhabit a very plentiful and lush environment. There are relatively few of them, only about three hundred and fifty, and their semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle is not a vestige of ancient practices. Rather, it is believed that as recently as the nineteenth century CE they abandoned previously settled communities and moved deep into the Amazon River basin to live as they currently do. Despite their relatively late adoption of this lifestyle, the Awá display many of the societal characteristics common among other hunter-gatherer groups. They are highly egalitarian. They own relatively few material objects. They live in small groups of up to thirty. And they survive by hunting animals and gathering edible plants from the surrounding environment. A traditional and highly valued gathered plant is the fruit of the babassu palm. In addition to relying on this oily and protein-rich fruit, Awá groups also survive on the abundant fish in the wet rainforest and hunt numerous other animals using bows and arrows.

The different environments in which the world’s remaining hunter-gatherers live have inspired very different understandings of the supernatural. The Inuit have a rich mythology that includes stories of fantastic hunts and incredible creatures that inhabit the world. The northern lights, a natural celestial display common in very high latitudes, is seen as a feature of the supernatural that can be both comforting and terrifying.

Many San religious beliefs revolve around a sometimes helpful and sometimes foolish being called Kaggen. Kaggen can take the form of numerous animals, including certain insects. The San also practice numerous types of rituals for important life events, such as a young boy’s first kill and marriage. They recognize certain members of their group as shamans with a special connection to the supernatural world.

The Awá perform unique religious ceremonies during special times, such as evenings with a full moon. They also practice rituals that take them to a spirit world where they can request special intervention on Earth.

This lesson has no exercises.

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