Misconceptions about the First 190,000 years of Human History/Paleo Lifestyle

There are many people that base what they know of the first 190,000 years of human history on Hollywood movies about cavemen rather than any academic research. The reality is that anatomically modern humans lived a hunting and gathering lifestyle exclusively for almost 190,000 years. They did this, not because they were too stupid to invent agriculture or that they had no idea what animal husbandry was, they lived that lifestyle because it was easy. In fact it was so easy a “caveman could do it”.

Got your attention?

Hunters and gatherers did not invent agriculture because it was a better lifestyle. The fact is that agriculture is not optimal for human health and it certainly is not as easy as hunting and gathering. Agriculture has a host of health and social problems that come with it that are extremely negative and the majority of these problems have not been overcome until relatively recently. This begs a question…If farm living is so much harder why would anyone do it?  The answer is relatively simple, necessity. The first people who moved to the agricultural lifestyle did so because of ecological change, change in climate, and population pressures that occurred at the end of the last ice age.

There are myriad reasons why humans did not develop agriculture before or during the last ice-age, but for the most part the ready availability of prey animals and small population densities made agriculture less desirable. Around 12,000 years ago there was a perfect storm of change that forced humans to try something new. That something new was not inherently better than what had come before. The change in diet associated with agriculture probably led to thousands of early deaths and has led to centuries of gastrointestinal problems as human beings adapt to this new lifestyle.

But, but, but….you can’t possibly be suggesting we return to the lifestyle of hunting and gathering. No, that is not what I am saying. We could not return to that lifestyle even if the population wasn’t so large, or even if someone believed it was a good idea. The ecological factors that made it possible for people to subsist easily are no longer present. Vast herds of megafaunal prey animals no longer roam America and Europe and will not again in the near future. Secondly our technological society has finally begun to mature to a point where human beings are better off as agriculturalists than as hunters and gatherers.

This does not mean we can’t objectively look at the differences between the hunting and gathering lifestyle and the agricultural lifestyle so we can understand why humans chose each. There are several advantages to being a hunter and gatherer.

1) Medical- Medicine didn’t magically become better when people started living in villages in fact medical problems got much worse when we started living on top of each other. Diseases that were often avoided because of isolation suddenly became pandemic. To see this in action look at what happened in North America after Columbus. The Native Americans had arrived on this continent as hunters and gatherers in small isolated groups. The trip to North America acted as a natural bottle neck for disease. Very few diseases that infected humans were carried across. These band of hunters and gatherers were isolated from human disease vectors that had evolved in the old world. When these diseases were reintroduced they decimated the agricultural civilizations that had sprung up in North America. Without such killers as measles, chicken pox, even the common cold the population had never evolved resistance.

So, you have all those same injuries and illnesses that hunters and gatherers faced like hunger, broken limbs, etc plus more disease in agricultural society. This lasted until the early modern period and it was often exacerbated by a much larger population vying for fewer resources. Pray if you are ever dropped back in time before about 200 years ago. It is somewhere underpopulated.

2) Society- Contrary to pop culture the strongest person was not always “Boss Caveman”. I may need to remind you these hunter and gathering groups are simply extended or direct family groups consisting of father, mother, children, and grandchildren. Sometimes uncles,aunts  and their children as well. Thirty people is the normal size of these bands. They are not states they are not even really tribal. Bands and family groups. There are no rules, rulers, kings, or serfs and government hasn’t been invented yet. Just because movies tell you that UGH was beating his tribe into submission doesn’t mean that was the norm.
As for WAR?  What war? Can you call a fight between groups that max out at about 60 people a war? It is a conflict more akin to a family feud. Most Hunter and Gatherer groups, we have had the privilege to observe in the modern age don’t go to “War” they count coup of one kind or another. Sometimes they do kill somebody sometimes a people get hurt. That is the nature of being human. When compared to the horrors inflicted by agricultural societies?

I have had people call hunting and gathering societies communist utopias. They were not. They were neither Utopian nor were they communistic. In fact communism as we know it, in which individuals live communally for the welfare of the group, is an invention of agriculture. These hunting and gathering bands are the haven of  the original rugged individualist.

The major advantage to living in large groups for these early people was child rearing. Children survive with more regularity in a settled society. Score one for “It takes a village”.  As the population rises in these settled agricultural communities they soon exceed the normal number of people associated with hunting and gathering. You can support more people on less land with agriculture. Soon you have government and with government comes a type of power humans had never had over each other before. In a hunting and gathering society when the bands become too large and one group tried to dominate another they break apart and go their separate ways. This doesn’t happen for agriculturalists. They are tied to the land or they are dependent on specialized knowledge of others to survive. They can’t run away over the hill and survive without interference from the state.

Yes, we are better off today than 13,000 years ago but it took quite a bit of heartache to get here and we didn’t get here because agriculture was a better choice.

Saying that hunting and gathering is a better lifestyle choice than agriculture until the modern period is not Marxism projected backwards, if anything it is individualism projected backwards. Neither is it a “Noble Savage” fallacy. There is plenty of evidence that life was not always easy no matter which lifestyle you lived. Humans evolved to live a particular lifestyle. We lived in that lifestyle for tens of thousands of years and it was not lack of intelligence or imagination that kept us there it was simply easy…we all get in a rut sometimes.

 Some popular misconceptions about paleolithic man. 

1) Paleolithic Humans were prey for carnivores such as the cave lion, or the short faced bear. and lived in constant fear of their surroundings..false.
Human’s have been apex predators since before becoming anatomically modern. Large carnivores may have been able to kill the occasional human but archaeological remains suggest early humans hunted other carnivores much more often than they hunted humans.

2) Paleolithic Humans lived exclusively in caves…false. Caves were certainly utilized, but humans are very adaptable and probably lived in many different types of structures made from local materials.

3) Paleolithic humans were always dirty, hungry, and disease ridden…false. We dealt with disease above. As for being dirty we can’t really tell from the archaeological record, but we can surmise based on hunters and gatherers that have been studied. Bathing is a fact of life in most of these societies and cleanliness is often ritualized. As for hunger it really depends Archaeological evidence shows that many groups of hunters and gatherers went through periods of boom and bust from year to year, others are more constant in their nutritional intake. It almost always depends on the area in which the people lived and the abundance of food. Looking at skeletal remains of hunters and gatherers verses agriculturalists, hunters and gatherers are often in much better physical shape probably as a result of better diet (Hunters and gatherers actually work much less than agriculturalists so it isn’t from physical labor).


For more reading:

Mashall Sahlins’ study The Original Affluent Society goes into detail how hunter and gatherer societies functioned, http://www.primitivism.com/original-affluent.htm





And if you want to see a writer go a bit too far with the Noble Savage idea:


About Jonathan David Baird

Jonathan David Baird has worked as an archaeologist for the past fifteen years throughout the Southeast. He left full-time field work in 2011 to finish graduate school. In 2012 Jonathan received a masters degree in English literature from Fort Hays State University. His focus of study was late Victorian Gothic horror. In 2014 he finished a second masters in American history with a focus on the Frontier. Jonathan is the editor and a major contributor to NukeMars.com and has written for and edited several anthology collections.
This entry was posted in Science. Bookmark the permalink.