Early Hunter-Gatherers: What They Ate, How They Lived, and More

Written by Leanna Serras

People who live in hunter-gatherer societies get their food by hunting animals and gathering plants, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. A few hunter-gatherer communities are still around today, but most hunter-gatherers lived in prehistoric times. They lived about 12,000 years ago, before humans developed farming.

Hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times lived in groups because there was safety in numbers. Several family units would live in the same group. They chose their location on the basis of the available food. If there weren't enough animals to hunt or enough food to gather, the entire group had to move to an area where food was more plentiful. The men in the group hunted for food while the women in the group foraged for edible plants.

Over time, how hunter-gatherers lived became more complex. The tools they used became more advanced, which allowed hunter-gatherers to better exploit their environment.

The Ice and Stone Ages

The last Ice Age took place during the Pleistocene Epoch. The Ice Age started 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 12,000 years ago. The period is called the Ice Age because of the ice sheets that formed on Earth. The Paleolithic period is another word for the early Stone Age, which got its name because of the stone tools that people were using during that time. The Ice Age and the Stone Age overlap. The Paleolithic is divided into three stages: the Early Paleolithic, the Middle Paleolithic, and the Late Paleolithic. The Late Paleolithic was about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. Our society is extraordinarily advanced compared to human life in the Ice Age and the Stone Age, but 99% of human technological development occurred during the Paleolithic.

The First Hunter-Gatherers

Hunter-gatherers appeared for the first time on the African continent. They might not have belonged to our species, but they belong to the same genus (group of species). The earliest stone tools have been found in what is now Ethiopia, and they were made about 2.6 million years ago. One of our most famous human ancestors, Lucy, was an australopithecine. Many australopithecines lived around the area of Lake Turkana in Kenya. Hunter-gatherers preferred to live near water because plant life was more abundant. Other sites where traces of early human life have been found include Swartkrans Cave and Sterkfontein.

Dependency on the Environment

Groups of hunter-gatherers stayed in places where there was a lot of food. Once they found a good spot, they would store up food for periods of scarcity and defend their territory against other hunter-gatherer groups. If there wasn't enough food to support the group, the group had to move to a new place where there was enough food for them to live. Life was really dangerous in these times. Hunter-gatherers had to deal with harsh weather conditions. There were also large, aggressive predators that tried to eat them. The hunter was often the hunted.

Homo erectus was the first human hunter-gatherer to move beyond Africa. Evidence of Homo erectus has been found in Indonesia, China, and Europe. These early humans lived there about 1.6 million years ago. It was around 700,000 years ago when Homo heidelbergensis climbed the mountain ranges to explore new territories. The Neanderthals and the Denisovans evolved from these intrepid mountain-climbers. Humans were ultimately able to adapt to every environment they found themselves in. At the end of the Ice Age, humans had reached all areas of the Old World and the New World.


Hunter-gatherers relied on natural shelters, like cliffs, instead of building their own shelters. Cliffs and caves were important refuges from the wind and rain. A wet night could lead to hypothermia and kill an early human. Humans discovered fire approximately 400,000 years ago, which is when human settlements started to have hearths. Hearths were used for warmth and for cooking food brought by the hunters. There is some evidence that hunter-gatherers had a type of transport system, because some materials were brought over long distances.

In the Late Paleolithic, humans started to build shelters. Caves were dry and warm, but they were also dangerous because cave bears and lions lived there, too. Early structures were huts or tents that were supported by mammoth bones or wooden frames. Hunter-gatherers also found time to make art where they lived. This is the time during which they started to make their famous cave paintings, like those found at Lascaux or Chauvet Cave in France.


Hunter-gatherer groups had different diets from each other. Some groups were experts at hunting big animals, like the wooly mammoth, the giant elk, or the megaloceros. Hunter-gatherers probably scavenged as well. They also fished and hunted birds and smaller mammals. The earliest humans didn't have the tools to hunt big game.

Early humans had large molars to bite through flesh and chew tough plants. As humans grew bigger brains, their teeth became smaller. Smaller teeth weren't a problem because they had stone tools to help them cut meat into smaller, more manageable pieces. Humans who started out as herbivores became omnivores over time.

A 2016 study of early humans in Israel revealed that early hunter-gatherers had a varied diet and ate up to 55 different types of plants. They used fire to cook the meat and fish they ate. When it came to hunting, the biggest animals were the best, since just one successful hunt could feed the entire group for days or weeks. As for other foods, an archaeological dig in Jordan showed us that humans had started baking bread as early as 14,000 years ago.


Tools were made from materials in the environment. Humans used stones to cut meat and chop plants 2.6 million years ago. This was called Oldowan technology. Tools became more complex during the Acheulean period, which was from 1.7 million to 250,000 years ago. Humans now had axes and cleavers instead of just pieces of stone. Humans started making wooden tools as well. Hunting was a group activity that needed hunter-gatherers to cooperate with each other. Homo heidelbergensis hunted in groups and used tools that were advanced for the time.

Lots of tools appeared for the first time during the Middle and Late Paleolithic. Tools were created out of ivory, bone, and antlers. Sharp blades were now common.


Fire was important as a source of protection, warmth, and cooked food. Humans could light fires to protect themselves because wild animals were afraid of fire. About 1.8 million years ago in Africa, humans were taking advantage of natural fires, even if they weren't making fires themselves. Once humans knew how to create fire and harness it for their needs, fire became an important part of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Cooking makes food softer and safer to eat. As humans' brains grew, they developed more intelligent ways to use fire. Fire also extended hunter-gatherers' days because they could spend time together after the sun went down.

The Social Side

Prehistoric humans had an active social life. They needed to work together to survive. That's why hunter-gatherers built bonds and connections among family members and friends. Language also developed in hunter-gatherer societies. It started as hand motions and evolved into the languages that we hear today. Most hunter-gatherers eventually transitioned to agriculture, except for a few hunter-gatherer societies that still remain today.

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