The Hunter-Gatherer Age

We begin our Societies Over Time series with a look at hunter-gatherer societies.

This type dominated from around 100,000 to 8,000 BC, and marks the full biological emergence of our species, Homo sapiens.

You might think this type of society is boring and not worth learning about, but we believe the opposite.

It makes up the vast majority of human history: all subsequent history until the present time accounts for only 10% of our species’ heritage.

Appreciate that these societies are the original source of all of human history, and that subsequent time is but a tiny slither written on all that came before it. For many thousands of years, we lived this very modest, basic life that evolved and morphed at an unimaginably slow speed.

By learning about the hunter gatherers, you see the evolutionary arc in bold relief.

The Main Features of Hunter-Gatherer Societies

Remember: this mode of existence dominated for over 90% of human history. Hunter-gatherers still exist in remote parts of the globe, though there are fewer and fewer of them.

It seems there are many similarities between modern and ancient hunter-gatherer societies.


In these societies, hunting and gathering serve as the primary method of obtaining food, with fruits, vegetables, and wild animals sourced for sustenance. Men are tasked with hunting while women focus on foraging. One feature that distinguish humans from primates were subsistence activities, like big-game hunting, which develop in this period. While crops provide some sustenance, it’s not the primary means.

The innovation of fire played a significant role in the development of these societies by enabling activities like cooking and socializing, along with heat and light.

These humans live in basic shelters and regularly move to new areas with few possessions, normally within a bigger, sacred territory. This nomadic lifestyle fosters self-sufficiency, though non-essential items are occasionally traded between groups.


Tools tend to be rather basic and limit the growth of these societies, though crucial innovations of this age include the spear thrower and the bow and arrow, both of which allow humans to hunt more effectively.

Hunter-gatherers also make use of specialised tools like pins, needles, spoons, axes and shovels.

Full-blown speech appeared 35 to 40,000 years ago and coincides with rapid technological advance.


Though this lifestyle might seem idyllic, we should also remember that life expectancy is short.

Women are only reproductively active for a few years, infants are prone to high level of mortality, and everyone is vulnerable to disease.

Infanticide and abortion are also widespread, because mothers are tasked with gathering food, meaning it’s dangerous to have too many children.

Due to these reasons, births tend to balance deaths, and bands remain small, only a few dozen in size.

Though there were periods of population expansion in the hunter-gatherer period, probably thanks to technological innovation, there were still only around 10 million humans on the planet by the end of the period.


Social interaction is organised around kinship, a concept that is tricky for us moderns to understand.

Essentially, a kin group is an extended family in which everyone is related to everyone else. The type of relationship between the individuals determines how they treat one another.

Kin groups perform the functions of schools, business firms and governments simultaneously. Together with family, they are the only significant form of organisation in hunter-gatherer societies.

Another factor that distinguished the early hunter-gatherers from primates was the durable bond formed between males and females, which isn’t present in many of our furry ancestors.


The structure of work is almost diametrically opposite to the modern way. There is almost no full-time specialisation: everyone’s main occupation is either hunting animals or foraging.

This is because there is no way to store food for extended periods, so all band members must participate in subsistence activities.

Hunter gatherers are neither leisurely nor overworked, neither starved nor glutted. It depends on the band, the conditions, and the season.

There is no multiplication or accumulation. Resources are plentiful and free to use, and there are no beasts of burden.

Hunting and military duties fall to males, along with most political, religious and artistic activities. Women devote themselves to childcare and collecting and preparing vegetables.

There is some part-time specialisation: most groups have a headman and a shaman, but these figures must also participate in hunting and gathering.

Organisation of Hunter-Gatherer Bands

There is very little political organisation. The only leader in hunter-gatherer bands is a headman, whose power is minimal.

Reports from researchers living among the Siriono of eastern Bolivia reveal there is no obligation to fulfil the headman’s orders and no punishment for disobedience. In fact, little attention is paid to the headman’s orders.

He has few privileges and must carry out his obligations like other members. That said, he is always the most skilled man, and hold the position based on respect.

There is variation in this aspect: sometimes the leader has more privilege than ordinary, and sometimes there is no leader at all.

Thanks to the primitiveness of the economy and politics of these bands, there is minimal inequality in power and privilege. The leader doesn’t have the economic or social apparatus necessary to build power, and rules and punishments are informal.

Differences in political influence do exist, but only to the degree allowed by other members, and only because they respect the influential.

There are very minor differences in wealth, and private property is limited. After all, the fields and forest belong to the entire group, not a single individual. Sharing is widespread: members don’t keep the spoils for themselves.

Though there are inequalities in prestige according to personal qualities, like age, hunting skill and supernatual powers, there are no barriers to improvement in prestige. 


Overall, these societies have a low store of information, so their explanations for the world and life fall back to animism.

Animism is the view that spirits inhabit virtually everything in the world of nature. They intervene in human affairs and outcomes, all the way down to small individual events. These spirits can be influenced by humans who know the proper rituals, sacrifices and magic charms. Basic hunter-gatherer art visually encapsulates magical thought.

The shaman is a part-time figure who communicates with spirits to heal members and ensure the safety of group.

Children are taught to be self-reliant rather than obedient, unlike in horticultural and agrarian societies. Initiation rites, which often involve a painful trail to prove young men’s courage, are held to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Hunter-Gatherer Bands v Tribes

Each band is usually autonomous. Bands are rarely ever brought together under one leader. When this does occur, the groups tend not to be dependent solely on hunting and gathering; it seems that the hunting-gathering structure limits large-scale cooperation.

Sometimes several groups form a tribe, but its importance is cultural (lin terms of language, name and identity), not social.

This concludes our brief overview of the key features of hunter-gatherer societies. The next mutation in the evolution of human societies was the horticultural structure, followed by the agrarian.