Late Paleoliths and Early Neoliths

A lot of my kids showed a lot of confusion about how hunter-gatherers and nomads might have lived at the end of the Paleolithic age or the beginning of the Neolithic, sometime between 20,000 and 14,000 years ago. This text is now about two pages long, and encompasses most of what I know about hunter-gatherer peoples, and their methods and means. It’s also probably inaccurate, but I thought it was sufficiently good that I wanted to post it, and get constructive feedback. Anything you can think to add or edit would be useful.


Early Neolithic peoples lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, in small extended families. Each tribe lived within a large territory, up to a hundred miles in every direction. It included diverse landscapes. Moving around in tune with seasonal rhythms, Neolithic tribes people viewed their territory as a complete world. They knew the landscape intimately.

In summer, a tribe settled in the plains near a lake or watering hole. The pond provided the tribe with fish; men hunted in the surrounding grasslands for deer and antelope. Women gathered berries and medicinal herbs from thickets and small woodlands.

As summer waned, wary animals moved away. Plants died or dried out, and women would have to travel farther to provide food and medicines. The tribe celebrated summer, then packed and moved. A slow walk of ten days brought them to the seacoast, where salt marshes provided birds, fish and shellfish. Careful work turned oyster and clam shells into beads and knives. The occasional pearl adorned a necklace for a chief.

As autumn continued, the tribe moved again, to hunting grounds for woolly mammoths or horses. Here they would pass the winter, living off of herbs, seeds and nuts gathered in autumn, and meat from the animals they chose to hunt. During the coldest weeks, when the storms were worst, they stayed indoors and made new tools, carved statuettes, or decorated clothing and baskets. They used bird feathers to make fancy headdresses, and beads to make armbands and bracelets.

When winter ended, the tribe followed the horses into the mountains, There, goats and sheep became their prey. Here the tribe gathered wool for string making, killed animals to make leather for clothing and armor, and slaughtered sheep to make warm winter clothes.

There in a mountain cave, the men initiated their sons into manhood, surrounded by painted scenes of the animals they hunted. Girls underwent their own initiation at the time they first menstruated, and it became possible for them to bear children. When the tribe encountered strangers, warriors would approach visitors first, and determine if trade or warfare would follow. More often than not, meetings with other people were chances to trade beads, leather, clothes, and even technologies and ideas.

Each tribe practiced some division of labor. Men hunted animals to provide meat for their families. Animal protein provided high-energy food, and the bones and skins were vital components of human survival. Some men hunted alone, and went after smaller animals like squirrels, rabbits, and possibly deer — game that had little chance to fight back. These men used traps, bows and arrows, and atlatls to bring down small game. Some men hunted for fish from dugout canoes, using fishhooks hung from lines, and nets. They captured large schools with weirs — enclosures of stone or basketwork built right in the water — and used conical nets to snare lobsters, crayfish and crabs.

Other men hunted in groups, and went after larger herd animals like mammoths, horses, and bison. They used stabbing spears, throwing spears, atlatls and cliff ambushes as their tools. The men worked in groups to corner, cut off, and kill their prey. All the hunters made use of the full moon and the weather to take advantage of animals; the full moon provided enough light to hunt and dress an animal’s carcass; the dark of the moon hid human movements from predatory animals who competed with humans for food.

Back in camp, men filled leadership roles, acting as chiefs and traders with other tribes, and sometimes as medicine men or shamans. Some men went on long journeys to trade beads, stones, leather, furs and other sought-after goods. The men played games with knucklebones, an early form of dice, and engaged in contests of skill with throwing spears and bows and arrows. They also may have begun the process of taming and domesticating dogs, horses, camels, cattle, cats and sheep.

Women demonstrated early the power of multi-tasking. Younger and more mobile women gathered nuts, roots, seeds, berries, edible leaves and roots. Older mothers with infants looked after the camp and took care of children. They prepared the foods, both day-to-day meals and the elaborate feasts when hunters brought home meat, or travelers from distant places. When grass was plentiful, some women braided cordage for rope or basketry. They used primitive looms or boiled water to make cloth and felt out of wool, cotton fibers, hemp fibers and even mammoth fur.

Women also took on leadership roles. As fire tenders, house keepers, and as mothers of the tribe’s children, the women often decided when a girl was ready to be married, and when a boy was ready for his initiation to manhood. They could be keepers of the tribe’s stories and legends, and controlled much of the tribe’s plant lore and mysteries. At least some of the women would be skilled as medical practitioners of sorts, helping women through childbirth and caring for the elders of the tribe. In some places, where the role of men in the creation of children was not well-understood, they had power flowing from their ability to create life — apparently without help — and bring new humans into the world.

In the evenings, the tribe gathered around the fire. Conversation flourished, as hunters told stories of the crazy antelope who bucked and kicked around the watering hole, and women told of the plants they had found, or the medicines they made. Perhaps the tribe made music, either through singing or through playing instruments — drums, perhaps a flute, perhaps a plucked string made from horse tendon or sheep gut. Strangers would be invited to tell of their travels, and the things they had seen and heard.

Over time, many hunter-gatherer groups discovered they could gather far more food than they could eat. As a result, many tribes began to designate specific men and women to do specific jobs for the tribe. A disabled man made the tribe’s stone knives and arrowheads. A blind made baskets from bundles of grass others brought her. An elderly man became the tribe’s physician and medicine man, who guarded the tribe from evil spirits and set broken bones. An old woman and her crippled daughter mixed potions to ward off disease.

Over generations, tribes became too large. Then they split their numbers and their skills, and divided their hunting and gathering grounds. Meetings between tribes became more frequent. Some sites took on sacred significance, while others became trading camps and sites for battles between rival clans. The tribes cooperated with each other in eliminating predators — bears, wolves, and big cats — from their territories, and in eliminating the more troublesome males from the herd animals they pursued for food. Opportunities for trade became more common; so did chances for warfare and rivalry.

Trade may have been haphazard. In many cultures, gift-giving and gambling took the place of outright trades of equal value. Related tribes took this a step further by establishing specific gift-giving patterns — in which one chief honors another, who honors another, who honors the first chief — so that no one in an established circle of related tribes would be left out. Tribes sheltered strangers and fellow tribesmen alike, under an iron-clad code of hospitality: do not let a guest be injured under your roof, nor allow the guest to do injury to others.

War, such as it was, was also haphazard. At the slightest hint of some real or perceived insult or slight, the men of the tribe would march out of camp, usually to some pre-arranged spot where the warriors of the other tribe would meet them. The battle consisted of a two or three hour boasting match, followed by a single combat between warriors from both sides.

If one-on-one fighting failed to decide the issue, an all out melee ensued, in which a dozen or twenty spears might be thrown. The side that broke and ran usually lost not only their honor but their lives. Victors hunted down survivors, and united the losing tribe’s women with their own. In places where the men survived, they often suffered great abuse and injury from the women of their own tribe. No one tribe could afford to lose too many battles; without men, hunting would come to a standstill, and their women and children would starve.

Gradually, many such clans took control of the landscape, with each tribe ruling different parts of the land, yet united by a common belief that the whole landscape belonged to them together. The roaming tribes were becoming settled and sedentary, living off the land’s abundance.

50 comments

  1. that’s pathetic!

    even poor schools buy these things, and share them among classes. and there’s money targeted all kinds of ways–money for science or social studies materials, money to integrate tech into the classroom, esl money (one of our courses exists in a spanish-language version), and i don’t know what all else.

  2. Re: sorry for my redundantness – I hope this is constructive?

    Have the list, no need to worry about redundantness.

    How are things with the extended-family-meeting-wolfie fallout going? Nice pic, just a few entries ago. Sorry about the long delay in getting back to you.

  3. Oh my fucking gods.

    Not ouch, just…

    Let me put it this way. I can’t even get the school to spring for a $750 digital projector. We’re still arguing about the $400 Rand-McNally map set from three years ago. It’s easier for me to buy my own stapler than to get the school business office to buy me one.

    $3000? Yikes. Who are your customers?

  4. Love Diamond

    I think Diamond is great, too. He put things into perspective for me.

    Speaking of which, do you know about these folks? http://www.longnow.org/
    They’re building a clock to run 10,000 years on technology that can be duplicated with bronze-age technology. Amazing to me, but entirely doable. And pretty damn cool, if you ask me.

    You might check out The Botany of Desire if you like those sorts of books that examine history from weird perspectives. Botany imagines human history from a plant’s point of view — a method for duplicating their more successful genes. Each chapter explores a different plant: apples, cannabis, tulips, … I forget the other two or three. But a Good Read, nonetheless.

  5. i’m re-reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Professor Diamond is really interesting on the domestication of plants and animals.

    i haven’t read it yet, but there’s a book called A History of the World in Six Glasses that looks really interesting (in the chapter on beer) on the move to agriculture.

  6. we have comprehensive science and social studies products, and they don’t require any tech support, they’re stand alone products.

    what we’re doing right now is a supplement to our social studies product: a series of (probably 12-15) whole-class games with mini-teaches feathered in with gameplay turns, and the game we’re making now traces the move from hunter-gatherer villages to civilizations with trade, currency, writing, etc.

    this’ll be ready at the beginning of next school year.

    we’re http://www.ignitelearning.com

  7. Given that I teach this age-group, would you let the educational software company know that I’d REALLY like to see their materials when they’re done? Let me know, and I’ll send you a postal address. Let them know that our school is a Mac-Exclusive site, aside from a few student owned computer.

  8. wow! i followed you here from your comment in my journal, and i’ve *just* been writing about this same period for an educational software company. adding you, and you’ll see my entry on this recently.

  9. wow! i followed you here from your comment in my journal, and i’ve *just* been writing about this same period for an educational software company. adding you, and you’ll see my entry on this recently.

    • Given that I teach this age-group, would you let the educational software company know that I’d REALLY like to see their materials when they’re done? Let me know, and I’ll send you a postal address. Let them know that our school is a Mac-Exclusive site, aside from a few student owned computer.

      • we have comprehensive science and social studies products, and they don’t require any tech support, they’re stand alone products.

        what we’re doing right now is a supplement to our social studies product: a series of (probably 12-15) whole-class games with mini-teaches feathered in with gameplay turns, and the game we’re making now traces the move from hunter-gatherer villages to civilizations with trade, currency, writing, etc.

        this’ll be ready at the beginning of next school year.

        we’re http://www.ignitelearning.com

        • Oh my fucking gods.

          Not ouch, just…

          Let me put it this way. I can’t even get the school to spring for a $750 digital projector. We’re still arguing about the $400 Rand-McNally map set from three years ago. It’s easier for me to buy my own stapler than to get the school business office to buy me one.

          $3000? Yikes. Who are your customers?

        • that’s pathetic!

          even poor schools buy these things, and share them among classes. and there’s money targeted all kinds of ways–money for science or social studies materials, money to integrate tech into the classroom, esl money (one of our courses exists in a spanish-language version), and i don’t know what all else.

      • i’m re-reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Professor Diamond is really interesting on the domestication of plants and animals.

        i haven’t read it yet, but there’s a book called A History of the World in Six Glasses that looks really interesting (in the chapter on beer) on the move to agriculture.

        • Love Diamond

          I think Diamond is great, too. He put things into perspective for me.

          Speaking of which, do you know about these folks? http://www.longnow.org/
          They’re building a clock to run 10,000 years on technology that can be duplicated with bronze-age technology. Amazing to me, but entirely doable. And pretty damn cool, if you ask me.

          You might check out The Botany of Desire if you like those sorts of books that examine history from weird perspectives. Botany imagines human history from a plant’s point of view — a method for duplicating their more successful genes. Each chapter explores a different plant: apples, cannabis, tulips, … I forget the other two or three. But a Good Read, nonetheless.

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