|Gatherers and hunters
The first hominids are believed to have been gatherers of plant foods and
the occasional animal carcass. Although they were probably not capable of
sophisticated hunting at first, the ability to eat both meat and plant
food was an important survival strategy. Meat was especially important as
a source of fat, available otherwise from only a few plant and nut foods.
Fish of all types were important sources of protein and fat for those
people living near water.
Human predecessors eventually learned the technologies of fire and
hunting, and became hunter-gatherers. The ability to hunt living animals
brought important advantages. Fresh meat was safer to eat than rotten
meat. The fur and hides could be preserved from a fresh kill to provide
clothes. Warm clothes allowed the early humans to penetrate into colder
climates. Raw fresh meat is difficult to consume, however. Fresh meat was
tenderized by fire and could be preserved by smoking for later
consumption. Fire also allowed the environment to be controlled to some
extent. For example, early explorers of North America commented on how the
Iroquois regularly burned the forests to clear land for farming or create
more food productive meadows.
Hunter-gatherers were probably not unsettled wanderers taking what came
their way. Their existence and survival depended on systematically
exploiting the resources around them according to what has been called an
optimal foraging strategy. They moved to the seashore to harvest oysters
in season, near the nut trees in the fall, and elsewhere to be present
when fruits were ripe. They may have followed certain herds or arranged to
intercept migrating mammals, birds, and fish at the same place each year.
Plant foods make up 70 percent or more of the diet of present-day
hunter-gatherers, but most of these live in very marginal areas.
Prehistoric humans would have lived on the most productive lands and plant
foods may have been even more predominant in the distant past.
A critical condition of the hunting and gathering lifestyle was
uncertainty. The small living groups had to be flexible in where they
lived, how quickly they could move, what they ate, and population size
because their food sources were not dependable. Interaction with other
groups would have been limited because each would have required a large
territory for gathering. In the short term, droughts, fires, floods, bad
winters, and other environmental conditions could turn a rich food area
into a food desert very quickly. In the long term, ice ages made part of
the world uninhabitable and much of the rest only marginally productive.
There were periods of bounty, no doubt, and some leisure time for social
activity. There was time for making beautiful objects, as well as the
necessary tools, weapons, and clothes. Cave paintings and artifacts
suggest the beginnings of art and religion.
The slow gradual process of human evolution and technology advance brought
our human ancestors safe to the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
As the ice receded, the land reentered a cycle of gradually increasing
plant and wildlife abundance. Humans by this point had spread around the
world and were sufficiently advanced to begin dominating instead of just
surviving. One by one large animals like the mammoth and giant bison went
extinct, handicapped partially by loss of habitat and perhaps decisively
by human hunters with increasingly efficient weapons.
In this time of abundance, prehistoric humans made the single greatest
technological leap of our species—the agricultural revolution.