We were all hunter-gatherers

Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared on this planet about 200,000 before present time (200 KYA). The earliest evidence of fully modern Homo sapiens (FMHS) appears near Omo, Ethiopia around 204KYA. Our immediate ancestor was another hominid (bipedal primate) called Homo heidelburgensis, because it was first found in Germany, but its homeland was around the Mediterranean Sea (all sides) and East Africa. H. heidelburgensis dates to around 500KYA.

Both species were hunter-gatherers. All humans were hunter-gatherers until around 12,000 bp (12 kya). This means that there was no food production. Humans, like all other animals, simply occupied the natural world as it was, finding food where they could find it. Men hunted and women gathered. This is called the sexual division of labor. This does not mean that women never hunted or that men never gathered, but each task required so much knowledge and skill that people specialized.

Anthropologists are well-educated people who know at least two languages (as a pre-req for grad school) but anthropologists agree that it takes approximately 12-15 years of apprenticeship and intense study to learn to hunt or gather. 

In other words, these people were very smart and sophisticated in their ways of living, including how they managed birth control, resources, child-rearing and much else. The results of not learning the right skills were dire: you would die. Life expectancy was about 70 years in their world (longer than for the other species descended from H. heidelburgensis, which is H. neandertalensis, Neandethal). Groups with more elderly people (grandparents) did better than those without because at first, there were no maps, no cave paintings, no record-keeping that could help the group supply. People had to learn what was dangerous, what was poisonous, what the natural world could do to them. Treacherous mountains were traveled (there were no paths or roads) and the older people had done it before and literally knew the ropes (rope is a FMHS invention). They built rafts, bridges, sailed the seas. They invented fish hooks and new forms of food preservation, all of which had to be taught. There were new hunting techniques. This lecture is about the social world of hunter gatherers, because it was your ancestors’ social world not that long ago and because many of our biological traits and our traditions emanate from this period.

Hunter-Gatherers, Social Life, Sex and Gender

Unless your ancestors are from Iraq, Iran or Egypt, your ancestors were still hunter-gatherers at 8,500 BP. As you learned in high school, Mesopotamia or The Fertile Crescent (anthropologists call the region the Levant) was the first to invent farming and, later, agriculture (which is different from simple farming). The Nyimba people you saw in our documentary are still simple farmers. Pastoralism (what the Wodaabe do for a living) is 6000 years old. So out of 200,000 years on Earth, a few humans have been producing food for 188,000 years. But they wore out the land, over farmed, over grazed and the world they lived in shows the strain of increasing the number of humans. If everyone went back to to hunting and gathering (which is also called foraging), the world could probably support around 200,000,000-500,000,000 people. That’s 200 million, not billion. We have over 7.5 billion right now. Most of us would have to die or stop reproducing to do this. So in a real sense, we are all only here because some people invented farming, but for women and men, life changed significantly. Hunter-gatherers rarely have war (I’d say they never do). They do sometimes get into conflicts with other groups (rare) and sometimes they will raid another group (for food), but the chief way of avoiding war is to simply move somewhere else.

Hunter-gatherers are highly mobile. In less hospitable lands (the polar regions, high mountain regions), people may move to a new home every single day. The Inuit (Eskimo) people make new houses every day (the men make the houses, out of ice). In places where food was abundant (like Oxnard and Ventura) people moved 2-3 times a year, living in fairly well constructed houses that were like baskets (you can see one at the History Museum in downtown Ventura). Among the Chumash, the women made the woven houses and a woman who was very skilled at this, at an early age, was highly prized as a wife. They did not mate because of how people looked, they mated because of skills and personal compatibility.

50,000 Chumash were still alive in Ventura County in 1900, by the way, and some of my students are descendants of the Chumash – who also converted to speaking Spanish – and have never had ancestry in Mexico. The Spanish mission system destroyed the native culture, of course, but that was quite recent. The Chumash first arrived in the Ventura County area by 12,000 years ago, having walked across the Bering Strait and were of course, extremely proficient at many skills. The baskets, for example, can be seen either at the archaeology museum in Ventura or at the amazing Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles. These baskets were not only amazingly beautiful, but could be made waterproof and stored the many foods found in the area (foods that most of my students would not recognize even after having lived here). I teach a course on Native Americans and we spend some time learning to weave. A few people (usually women) are good enough at it (but cannot manage to create the famous patterns of Native baskets) but many modern young people can’t manage to do much weaving at all, sometimes struggling even with braiding to make a simpler style of basket.


Even finding the right species of grass eludes all the students. They have to use modern materials from craft stores to do any weaving at all. In the Chumash world, just as in your world, having a grandmother who was good at weaving (like a grandma who is good at cooking) meant you had a better chance of making good baskets.

Meanwhile, the men of the Chumash made boats (like large kayaks), and boated up and down California, they trekked to the desert, and traded with people in the Sierra Nevada. They traveled a lot. Sometimes, men would be gone for a year or more at a time, leaving behind older men, boys, girls and the women. Occasionally a woman would travel with the men, but the traveling parties were largely men. Like the baskets, the boats required skills and knowledge to produce, which were taught by older men.

These features are true of all hunter-gatherer societies. Men and women brought different economic skills to the table. Women of course had the babies, nursed them (there were no bottles or formula) and traveled less. The average hunter-gatherer man walked 15-25 miles a day, the average woman walked 6-8 miles a day. Nutrition was not always steady. People were lean and muscular (we know this because of their bones and teeth, the study of such things is an entire sub-branch of anthropology). Women cared for the babies, who could not be fully weaned until they were 3-4, because foods were unprocessed and sometimes fairly unavailable.

Hunter-gatherer groups tend to be patrilineal and patrilocal. Patrilineal means that names and many material items are passed through the father’s line (from father to son or from father to sons and daughters). There were many different major tribes in California (with six languages groups as distinct from each other as Spanish is from Chinese) but the entire region used something called a moiety system whereby people had last names. This indicates a fairly long, stable set of inter-cultural relationships. People were either Wildcats or Coyotes. A person inherited this membership (something like a clan, but really more symbolic than a clan) from their father.

Patrilocal means living in the house or village of your father. So, when women married (and this is the crucial point here) they left their families and went to live with their husband’s family. Anyone who has married and everyone who has lived with in-laws can understand what this means. The men remained closely connected, both to their mothers and fathers, to all their brothers and male cousins. Women, however, had to set out on a new life, among strangers (who often did not speak their language). Boys and girls were raised with this fact in mind. Most hunter-gatherer societies are patrilocal and patrilineal (this is not the same thing as patriarchal by the way – no one is in charge, there aren’t even any chiefs).

Not all hunter-gatherer societies were this way, there are a few exceptions, which anthropologists like to study, but for this class, we’ll focus on the fact that hunting, as a group male activity, tends to set up a patrilineal/patrilocal system. These systems are often called “patrifocal” in order to be brief.

In any Chumash village (and this would be true for nearly all of our ancestors at 12,000 years ago), all the people were in the same moiety (all Wildcats, let’s say) and all of the people were connected through their father’s kinship system.

However, there’s an interesting twist. People were not permitted to marry within the same moiety. That meant that a young man could not marry his sisters or cousins, no matter how distant and would have to leave his village and travel, sometimes quite a distance, to find a wife. For the Chumash, this would make travel and trading even more important.

In hunter-gatherer societies, marriages are arranged and approved by parents and elders. No one simply runs into someone, falls in love, and marries them. First of all, there would be no one nearby to “run into.” Instead, groups of young men, usually accompanied by a few older men who knew where other people lived and knew the kinship details of those groups, traveled to find brides. No young man would be permitted to marry until he could hunt, fish and make boats to a reasonable standard. When young men approached another group of (non-Wildcat people in our example), they were met by a group of men from the other group, who prevented them from approaching the settlement or the women until certain basics were laid down. The visitors needed to bring gifts of food and tools, which they did if they wanted wives.

Then the older men from each side of this exchange talked together about the unmarried young women in the area (the average age at marriage seems to have been around 20-23 for women) and which young man would be suitable for which woman. Many things were taken into consideration, but men who were better hunters/boat builders typically got matched to women who were the better house/basket makers. Keep in mind that the raw materials for these things were generally available to anyone, so the only differences in “class” were related to skill, knowledge and…hard work. The Chumash had many sayings about how lazy couples would live a poor life, which was true. The Chumash recognized three types of families: poor, middle income and well off. While laziness was considered a main characteristic that resulted in a shabby house and less food, having nearby family and children was important too. There were no social services, so when people were ill or when women were still recovering from difficult childbirths, their families helped out. Poor people had fewer relatives or were “lazy.” Cultivating new relationships (people had ways of being adopted into other people’s families) and hard work were the ways to avoid poverty and to stabilize society.

There is no evidence that the Chumash ever had a war (there is one famous example of a feud between the Hueneme group and the Malibu group, which pretty much became a legend), no evidence of any major inter-personal violence of homicide and, as with all North American natives and most hunter-gatherers everywhere, no corporal punishment of children. In short, domestic violence and abuse were unheard of.

This has sometimes led to some romantic views of “peaceful Native life.” People still got mad and had arguments, of course. But there were many other people (family members) to intervene and settle things down and many, many traditional customs (ceremonies in particular) to fix things. Everyone knew everyone well. Every child in the group was known to all the older people in the group and all children were loved and cared for by whomever was nearby.

Hunter-gatherers are described as egalitarian in terms of sex roles. No one could have a happy life if they didn’t have both protein foods (gained by men) and vegetable foods (which provided the vast majority of calories – about 65-70%). People needed each other and members of households exchanged their skills and talents with each other readily, and with non-household members when their skills created any kind of surplus.

You will see all of this when you watch “!Nai: The Story of a !Kung Bushwoman.” The instructions for doing this are in the class module, if you’re taking one of my classes.

So, hunter-gatherers are generally patrifocal, but men do not exercise specific power over women and wouldn’t have a house to live in if they didn’t have connections to women. They move around, but some hunter-gatherers move way more than others. They do not live in caves. They do not wear animal skin clothing (typically, human clothing is made of vegetable fibers, as leather is precious and needed for specific things – in many climates, it is needed for housing or cradleboards or sleds or boats; some hunter-gatherer societies didn’t work leather much or at all). All of them have art, music, song, poetry, dance and story-telling. All of them relied on building the skills of memory, not only to survive, but to pass on traditions. Most people could recount their kin charts back for about 10 generations (Australian aborigines are famous for being able to chant/count back 30 or more generations).

In other words, each individual worked at complex “jobs” and also practiced any number of leisure time skills (making music instruments, dance costumes, clothing, chanting, story telling, etc).

This is the way the world was until farming was invented. Here’s an article (that uses an older, famous journal article in anthropology for most of its information) on that subject:

Men and women were egalitarian, life expectancy was good, socially transmitted diseases (like measles or mumps or scarlet fever or whooping cough) were unknown, everyone communicated face-to-face, there was no method of writing (but there were pictographs and paintings), marriages were arranged (and sex outside of marriage was often treated quite casually), men saw more of the world than women did.