The modern view is that ancient gatherers had a tenuous existence, totally dependent on the surrounding environment, but early people were both healthier and better organized than previously believed.
Indeed, examining prehistoric living from a health perspective, we can learn a lot about the types of activity and foods that are necessary to live at optimal health even today.
Early hunter-gatherer people typically lived together in “bands.” Life was dedicated to food gathering and every single person participated.
Groups of early humans would base their social structure on age, and they would divide up work duties by sex.
It was not uncommon for the men in a band to take up the hunting tasks. They might travel up to ten miles in a single day of hunting, often sprinting in rapid pursuit of their prey for up to a mile over rough terrain—the forerunner of today’s cross-training.
On the other hand, foraging for food such as nuts and berries, fruit and vegetables was primarily the work of women. It was usually conducted within the immediate vicinity of the camp.
But that doesn’t mean their life was any less important or demanding. In fact, foraging would typically contribute between 75% and 80% of the total calories consumed by the band. The purpose of hunting was to provide the protein that might have otherwise been lacking in a gathering-intensive society.
Today, anthropologists refer to the limited region around a given camp or settlement that was exploited for food as the “site catchment area.” Cohabiting groups of individuals would migrate seasonally to more bountiful catchments.
Obviously, a lot of walking was involved. Estimates indicate that the average gatherer would cover a distance somewhere in the range of three to seven miles a day.
While a gatherer might not have needed to sprint as fast as she could, it is still likely that much of her day was spent hiking, climbing, bending, crouching, lifting, stretching, carrying and otherwise exercising rigorously. Such activity contributed to women’s overall health and stamina.
Perhaps more important, gathering was the activity that enabled plants to be identified not only for immediate food and medicinal purposes, but eventually for cultivation and the basis of farming, leading to the Neolithic Revolution.
Being able to identify, pick, choose and bring home useful items from the environment was a critical survival skill. And it still is today, although instead of calling it “gathering,” we now call it “shopping.”
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