How Far Did Hunter-Gatherers Travel and Why Does It Matter?

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle used to be nomadic. Groups of around 40 individuals moved every few days in search of plant and animal food. They moved a few miles and stayed within ancestral hunting territories. Travel changed considerably before settled agriculture, reflecting more complex societies.

One often gets the impression that before our ancestors abandoned foraging and settled on farms, they led simple lives. Archaeologists are finding otherwise. Stone-age people led fairly complex social lives.

Social Complexity in the Paleolithic

Rather than living in small bands, they had communities that contained as many as 100 to 150 individuals (1). These groups were in contact with each other and some individuals traveled more than a hundred miles from their home areas. Fairly extensive travel is suggested by the movement of objects, such as tools and body ornaments, far from their place of origin. These items may have been exchanged in trading journeys. Or they might have been passed along during marriage gift exchanges.

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

The earliest houses, at Terra Amata in France, gave occupants easy access to a plentiful supply of seafood. These homes were dated to approximately 230,000 years ago.

Some idea of how complex the societies of coastal hunter-gatherers might be is provided by the lives of indigenous people of the Northwest prior to colonization.

These peoples lived in permanent settlements and obtained most of their nourishment from the sea rather than from farming. Accomplished mariners, such as the Haida, went on extended trading journeys. Other signs of complexity include frequent warfare and the taking of slaves.

Being settled permitted the emergence of status differences based on wealth. These societies were politically complex, as illustrated by Potlatch ceremonies that established a pecking order among chieftains based on their capacity to outdo rivals in gift-giving extravagance. Of course, they are also noted for their fine craftwork, including intricate beading and wood carving.

That sort of complexity is hinted at by various archaeological sites that have been mined for evidence about how our ancestors lived during the past 50,000 years.

Archaeological Evidence

One of these is Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, a site dated to around 26,000 years ago and thought to be the oldest permanent settlement. The population was comprised of hunter-gatherers who subsisted mainly by mammoth hunting. Mammoth bones were a key material used in home construction. Homes surrounded an enclosure that 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 were marked with red ocher. The complexity of their technology is striking compared to that of earlier nomadic hunter-gatherers.

They produced fired clay sculptures, including the well-known Venus of Vestonice that resembled similar corpulent Venuses from other parts of Europe. The site yielded numerous carvings of women, men, and animals. This Gravettian artistic tradition suggests that there was travel throughout Europe at this time.

The Czech site is full of crafts and technologies that likely spread from elsewhere. There was a well-developed weaving industry that produced baskets, nets possibly used for hunting, and clothes that would have been essential for surviving on the European tundra at this time.

Travel and Technological Innovations

The hunters of Dolni Vestonice followed the mammoth herds. This meant that they encountered other groups with whom they conducted limited trade, and possibly exchanged brides.

Such travel meant that there was a uniformity of tools and artwork across a broad area of Europe. This uniformity has a fairly simple explanation. If a tool, or product, was improved in one place, the improvement diffused to other places when the item traveled along with its owner.

So the increased complexity of technology in Europe was a product of travel and trade.

On the other hand, if a small community is isolated, any improvements in technology is likely to disappear when the group dies out.

In isolated communities, technology does not improve but can actually 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 this happened, Tasmanian Islanders lost the capacity to build boats (2). These specialized skills were passed along within families. When the boat-building families died out they took their skills with them to the grave. Cut off from the larger community on the mainland, the Tasmanians had no means of retrieving their boat-building expertise.

Their seafood diet was reduced to shellfish taken 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 an extensive community is thus essential for technological improvement and increased travel in Paleolithic Europe fostered a more complex way of life.

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