The Stone Age: Nomads & Hunter Gatherers

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Life in the Stone Age was very different from life today. In this lesson, we'll explore the nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies of the time and see how they survived.

Stone Age People

Today, we're pretty comfortable with the idea of staying in one place. We go to school or work, we go out to have fun, but we always come back home. Home isn't going to move every time we take a walk. We're used to this lifestyle today, but it wasn't always this way. In fact, it wasn't this way for the vast majority of human history.

Life in the Stone Age could be much different. Technically, this time period began with the introduction of stone tools roughly 2.6 million BCE by ancient hominids, way back before humans as a species evolved. However, we'll be focusing on the human part of the Stone Age, beginning sometime around 200,000 years ago. The Stone Age actually encompasses about 99% of all human history, so while this may seem like an ancient and lost world, it's one that has defined the majority of our species' experiences.

Nomads of the Ice Age

In the modern world, we live in sedentary or non-mobile societies. That's what we're used to. However, that lifestyle didn't become widely available until the late Stone Age, a period called the Neolithic (literally New Stone Age), as the Ice Age ended around 10,000 BCE. For the roughly 190,000 years of human existence prior to that, within the period called the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), all human societies were nomadic. This means that they did not have permanent addresses or build permanent structures. They traveled throughout the year, moving with their food supplies and available resources.

Many anthropologists have studied modern nomads to help us understand life in the Paleolithic

Nomadism seems like a pretty simple concept, but we've seen throughout history that there are actually a number of different ways to be nomadic. Some nomadic people seem to have relied heavily on large herds of animals like bison, following the herds wherever they roamed and hunting for survival. Others, including many around the Mediterranean Sea, seem to have moved around based at least, in part, on when various plant resources became available, traveling throughout the region as various natural fruits, seeds, and grains came into season.

Other societies of this time may have been only semi-nomadic, which means they maintained a semi-permanent residence for part of the year (generally one season or less). There seems to have been two factors which made this possible. For one, semi-nomadic groups had to have a place that could provide steady resources for an extended period of time. Perhaps the best example of this is a large river where fish migrate during a particular time of year. Tribes could camp by the river, and harvest fish for weeks, preserving the meat so that it would last.

Seasonal camps along fishing rivers were common in nomadic Amerindian societies all the way through the 19th century

The second factor is harsh climatic conditions. It's important to remember that Paleolithic people were living in the Ice Age. Winters were rough, and it seems likely that many of the cave dwellings we've found were occupied for weeks or months at a time. People used the caves for shelter during rough winter months, during which many herds of animals weren't moving around too much, and waited until spring to start roaming again.


Nomadic people did not farm for food but acquired it as they traveled. We call this a hunter-gatherer economy, which is exactly what the name implies. They hunted for food and gathered other resources as they became available. Both of these required an interesting amount of balance. Nomadic people lived on the move and did not have permanent storage facilities (like attics or pantries). So, they couldn't simply gather all the food and resources they found. They could only gather that which they could carry.

At the same time, it seems pretty evident from the archaeological record that these people tried to carry a small surplus of many things, even things that weren't necessities. How do we know this? Because stones, beads, and tools harvested on one end of a continent have been found all the way on the other end. How'd they get there? Trade. Trading was an important part of hunter-gatherer societies, as groups exchanged resources like tools, food, and even clothing items.

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