How far did hunter-gatherers travel and why is it important?

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was once nomadic. Groups of about 40 individuals moved every few days in search of plant and animal food. They moved a few kilometers and remained in ancestral hunting grounds. Travel changed significantly before settled agriculture, reflecting more complex societies.

It often seems that before our ancestors gave up picking and settled on farms, they led a simple life. Archaeologists discover the opposite. Stone Age people led quite complex social lives.

Social complexity in the Paleolithic

Rather than living in small bands, they had communities that numbered up to 100 to 150 individuals (1). These groups were in contact with each other and some individuals traveled more than a hundred miles from their native region. Fairly large displacements are suggested by moving objects, such as tools and body ornaments, away from their place of origin. These items may have been traded on trade trips. Or they could have been passed down through wedding gift exchanges.

Some Paleolithic hunter-gatherers lived in settlements, either for the duration of a hunting season or permanently.

The earliest houses, at Terra Amata in France, gave occupants easy access to an abundant supply of seafood. These houses date back approximately 230,000 years.

An idea of ​​the complexity of coastal hunter-gatherer societies is provided by the life of the indigenous peoples of the Northwest before colonization.

These peoples lived in permanent settlements and derived most of their food from the sea rather than from agriculture. Accomplished seafarers, like the Haida, undertook long trading voyages. Other signs of complexity include frequent wars and the taking of slaves.

Sedentarization has allowed the emergence of differences in status based on wealth. These societies were politically complex, as exemplified by Potlatch ceremonies which established a pecking order among chiefs based on their ability to outdo their rivals in gift extravagance. Of course, they are also renowned for their fine craftsmanship, including intricate beading and wood carving.

This kind of complexity is suggested by various archaeological sites that have been mined to prove how our ancestors lived over the past 50,000 years.

Archaeological evidence

One of them is Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, a site dated to around 26,000 years old and believed to be the oldest permanent settlement. The population was made up of hunter-gatherers who lived mainly from mammoth hunting. Mammoth bones were a key material used in house building. The houses surrounded an enclosure which contained a communal bonfire.

That this society had a status system is suggested by the fact that some people were buried in fox fur and branded with red ochre. The complexity of their technology is striking compared to that of ancient nomadic hunter-gatherers.

They produced fired clay sculptures, including the famous Venus of Vestonice which resembled similar corpulent Venuses from other parts of Europe. The site yielded numerous sculptures of women, men and animals. This Gravettian artistic tradition suggests that there were travels throughout Europe at this time.

The Czech site is full of crafts and technologies that have probably spread from elsewhere. There was a well-developed weaving industry that produced baskets, nets eventually used for hunting, and clothing that would have been essential for survival in the European tundra at that time.

Travel and technological innovations

Hunters from Dolni Vestonice followed herds of mammoths. This meant that they encountered other groups with whom they conducted limited trade and perhaps exchanged wives.

Such travels meant that there was a uniformity of tools and artwork across a wide area of ​​Europe. This uniformity has a fairly simple explanation. If a tool or product was improved in one place, the improvement spread to other places as the item traveled with its owner.

Thus, the increased complexity of technology in Europe was the product of travel and trade.

On the other hand, if a small community is isolated, any technological improvements may disappear when the group goes extinct.

In isolated communities, technology does not improve but may in fact deteriorate. This phenomenon is illustrated by the history of Tasmania. Originally an isthmus, Tasmania lost its connection to the mainland in the form of a sandbar. After that, Tasmanian Islanders lost the ability to build boats (2). These specialized skills were passed down within families. When the families of boat builders died out, they took their skills with them to the grave. Cut off from the wider mainland community, Tasmanians had no way to reclaim their boat building expertise.

Their seafood diet was reduced to shellfish caught in shallow water. By the time they were contacted by explorer Captain Cook, they had developed a strange aversion to eating fish (2). Contact with a large community is therefore essential for technological improvement, and increased travel in Paleolithic Europe fostered a more complex way of life.

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