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World History

State of nature: how modern humans lived as nomads for 99 per cent of our history

Until about 10,000 years ago there were few, if any, permanent homes or villages. People moved around all the time, from place to place.

Men would hunt animals, and women gathered wild fruit and nuts. Sometimes the women helped out hunting, too, especially when trying to catch an animal like a deer which needed to be surrounded on all sides to prevent it from escaping.

Living the life of a traveller – a nomadic life – meant people had few, if any, actual possessions. All they had was what they could carry. In cooler climates they wore animal skins and furs; in hotter areas many went around almost naked. Why carry what you don't need? They took essential provisions with them, such as water inside gourds, vegetables belonging to the pumpkin family which can easily be hollowed out to make bottles. They would also carry spears or bows and arrows for hunting, and flint implements for skinning dead animals and lighting fires.

These people needed little else. The whole idea of owning anything at all was completely alien to them. Their habit was to share things with each other, because it meant there was less to carry. There was no need for money, because they hunted and gathered whatever and whenever they needed. They had no use for storage areas or farm buildings. They had no property, and no one could tell them "PRIVATE – No Hunting Here", because no one owned any land. It was, like the air we breathe today, something common to us all, a resource to be shared between all living things: plants, animals and people.

People lived in this state of nature from the time of their first appearance as Homo habilis, or even as far back as the Australopithecus – Lucy's people – dating back at least 3 million years. They hunted when they were hungry, slept when they were tired, and when the land was void of fruit and meat they moved on elsewhere, giving the Earth a chance to restore, recover and renew.

Were the people living this wandering, possession-free lifestyle happy with their lot? We cannot know. But it is interesting to note that before people started living in towns and making weapons out of metals like copper, bronze and iron there is little evidence of extensive warfare or violence.

A deep regard for all things natural was the basis of a hunter-gatherers' mythology, or religion. For them, the woods were full of magic and wonder: they contained the spirits of their dead ancestors who returned in the afterlife to protect, guide and comfort the living – or so they thought. The woods were their ultimate source of food, warmth, habitation, medicine and shelter. To them, nothing was more important than looking after nature's forests. They trusted completely in her abundance and her resources.

Perhaps the biggest long-term strength of the hunter-gatherers' lifestyle was that it provided an inbuilt control on the overall level of human population. Hunter-gatherers relied on travelling by foot so it was necessary for them to have their children well spaced apart – one every four or five years at most – so they didn't have to carry too many children at once. A stable population of about 5 million hunter-gathering humans lived on Earth for tens of thousands of years, without the population increasing significantly overall. It was a natural limit, a sustainable level, founded on a nomadic way of life.

So what happened? Why did 5 million humans who had lived for tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers change the habits of generations and turn to a radical, new, and much more demanding way of life?