Hunter-gatherers were prehistoric nomadic groups that harnessed the use of fire, developed intricate knowledge of plant life and refined technology for hunting and domestic purposes as they spread from Africa to Asia, Europe and beyond. From African hominins of 2 million years ago to modern-day Homo sapiens, the evolution of humans can be traced through what the hunter-gatherers left behind—tools and settlements that teach us about the hunter-gatherer diet and way of life of early humans. Although hunting and gathering societies largely died out with the onset of the Neolithic Revolution, hunter-gatherer communities still endure in a few parts of the world.
Who Were the Hunter-Gatherers?
Hunter-gatherer culture developed among the early hominins of Africa, with evidence of their activities dating as far back as 2 million years ago. Among their distinguishing characteristics, the hunter-gatherers actively killed animals for food instead of scavenging meat left behind by other predators and devised ways of setting aside vegetation for consumption at a later date.
The culture accelerated with the appearance of Homo erectus (1.9 million years ago), whose larger brain and shorter digestive system reflected the increased consumption of meat. Additionally, these were the first hominins built for long-distance walking, pushing nomadic tribes into Asia and Europe.
Hunting and gathering remained a way of life for Homo heidelbergensis (700,000 to 200,000 years ago), the first humans to adapt to colder climates and routinely hunt large animals, through the Neanderthals (400,000 to 40,000 years ago), who developed more sophisticated technology.
It also spanned most of the existence of Homo sapiens, dating from the first anatomically modern humans 200,000 years ago, to the transition to permanent agricultural communities around 10,000 B.C.
Hunter-Gatherer Tools and Technology
The early hunter-gatherers used simple tools. During the Stone Age, sharpened stones were used for cutting before hand-axes were developed, marking the onset of Acheulean technology about 1.6 million years ago.
Controlled use of fire for cooking and warding off predators marked a crucial turning point in the early history of these groups, though debate remains as to when this was accomplished. Use of hearths dates back almost 800,000 years ago, and other findings point to controlled heating as far back as 1 million years ago.
Evidence of fire exists at early Homo erectus sites, including 1.5 million-year-old Koobi Fora in Kenya, though these may be the remains of wildfires. Fire enabled hunter-gatherers to stay warm in colder temperatures, cook their food (preventing some diseases caused by consumption of raw foods like meat), and scare wild animals that might otherwise take their food or attack their camps.
After Homo heidelbergensis, who developed wooden and then stone-tipped spears for hunting, Neanderthals introduced refined stone technology and the first bone tools. Early Homo sapiens continued to develop more specialized hunting techniques by inventing fishhooks, the bow and arrow, harpoons and more domestic tools like bone and ivory needles. These more specialized tools enabled them to widen their diet and create more effective clothing and shelter as they moved about in search of food.
From their earliest days, the hunter-gatherer diet included various grasses, tubers, fruits, seeds and nuts. Lacking the means to kill larger animals, they procured meat from smaller game or through scavenging.
As their brains evolved, hominids developed more intricate knowledge of edible plant life and growth cycles. Examination of the Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov site in Israel, which housed a thriving community almost 800,000 years ago, revealed the remains of 55 different food plants, along with evidence of fish consumption.
With the introduction of spears at least 500,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers became capable of tracking larger prey to feed their groups. Modern humans were cooking shellfish by 160,000 years ago, and by 90,000 years ago they were developing the specialized fishing tools that enabled them to haul in larger aquatic life.
Hunting and Gathering Society
Studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers offer a glimpse into the lifestyle of small, nomadic tribes dating back almost 2 million years ago.
With limited resources, these groups were egalitarian by nature, scraping up enough food to survive and fashioning basic shelter for all. Division of labor by gender became more pronounced with the advancement of hunting techniques, particularly for larger game.
Along with cooking, controlled use of fire fostered societal growth through communal time around the hearth. Physiological evolution also led to changes, with the bigger brains of more recent ancestors leading to longer periods of childhood and adolescence.
By the time of the Neanderthals, hunter-gatherers were displaying such “human” characteristics as burying their dead and creating ornamental objects. Homo sapiens continued fostering more complex societies. By 130,000 years ago, they were interacting with other groups based nearly 200 miles away.
Where Did The Hunter-Gatherers Live?
Early hunter-gatherers moved as nature dictated, adjusting to proliferation of vegetation, the presence of predators or deadly storms. Basic, impermanent shelters were established in caves and other areas with protective rock formations, as well as in open-air settlements where possible.
Hand-built shelters likely date back to the time of Homo erectus, though one of the earliest known constructed settlements, from 400,000 years ago in Terra Amata, France, is attributed to Homo heidelbergensis.
By 50,000 years ago, huts made from wood, rock and bone were becoming more common, fueling a shift to semi-permanent residencies in areas with abundant resources. The remains of man’s first known year-round shelters, discovered at the Ohalo II site in Israel, date back at least 23,000 years.
Neolithic Revolution to Modern Day
With favorable conditions supporting permanent communities in areas such as the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent and the domestication of animals and plants, the agriculture-based Neolithic Revolution began approximately 12,000 years ago.
The full-time transition from hunting and gathering wasn’t immediate, as humans needed time to develop proper agricultural methods and the means for combating diseases encountered through close proximity to livestock. Success in that area fueled the growth of early civilizations in Mesopotamia, China and India, and by 1500 A.D., most populations were relying on domesticated food sources.
Modern-day hunter-gatherers endure in various pockets around the globe. Among the more famous groups are the San, a.k.a. the Bushmen, of southern Africa, and the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, known to fiercely resist all contact with the outside world.
The First Hunter-gatherers. Oxford Handbooks Online.
What Does it Mean to be Human? Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Hunter-Gatherers (Foragers). Human Relations Area Files.
The Case Against Civilization. The New Yorker.