Hunter – Gatherers

Man discovered and developed the technology for agriculture, which involves domestication of plants, as also the related skill of domestication of animals, some 10,000 years back. Prior to that, the predominant way of life was that of hunter-gatherers. That is, to take the living example of the Jarwa tribals of the Andaman Islands, men went out from their camp on hunting expeditions lasting, perhaps a week. The women, on the other hand, stuck close to the camp undertaking roaming expeditions nearby, lasting no more than a few hours, gathering and bringing back to the camp whatever edible materials they came across – mostly fruits, edible tuber roots and such other plant materials. Meat was usually brought by the hunting bands coming back successfully from their expeditions.

In that life style ‘culture’ was likely to have involved story telling to share, and to pass on to posterity, the experience of the hunting bands regarding the terrain, the animals encountered and the strategies for securing food and avoiding danger. Oral traditions among the hunter-gatherer populations may have been rich, but not too many examples are accessible today. A specialist ‘witch doctor’ was likely to have evolved, to provide explanations for life and death, success and failure, seasonal changes as also to tend to the injuries and wounds with his herbs and magic. Even art, in the form of paintings from a simple print of the hand on a cave wall to sensitive portrayal of the fauna encountered, survive from that period.

Evidences available indicate that these hunter-gatherers were organised in discrete and numerically small bands owing to the constraint of the carrying capacity of the local environment and are likely to have nursed a natural animosity to the neighbouring populations because of competition for resources. For that reason, and also for the reason that their life was typically ‘brutish and short’, the scope for development of any elaborate culture and civilisation would have been rather limited.

Mastering Domestication

The qualitative leap in the development of culture, society and civilisation happened with the development of agriculture. With both the domestication of plants and of animals, food production multiplied manifold, even beyond the requirements of immediate consumption. Surplus could be generated and that could be exchanged with similar surplus products available with other populations. Exchange of such surplus – initially barter and then trading – gave access to products that were useful but not available locally.

Agriculturists, being tied down to the land, year after year, no longer required constant movement to follow the prey. Geographically settled communities became possible. Surplus production also meant that the food production process did not require the involvement of the entire population. Those who could be spared from farming could focus on other useful vocations in the service of the general well being of the community. Division of labour and advent of specialisation was thus enabled. Large flourishing communities, with a degree of permanence of the area of their settlement, and organised into rulers and soldiers, traders and artisans, poets and farmers thus became a reality. The same impetus of division of labour and specialisation ultimately led to not just division of vocation but also division of space into rural and urban. The city dwellers and the surrounding farming communities together formed one symbiotic unit. Functions were divided in an environment of mutual inter-dependence till an artificial (man made) hierarchy of power and influence crept in.