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

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