A Different Picture of Our Prehistoric Ancestors

Last week, in Problems With History: Manipulation and Interpretation, I shared my views on a couple of the ways that I believe that history has been skewed to minimize the contributions of women.  In contemplating how I would like to present the information I’ve gleaned over the years, I decided to start at the beginning, with our Prehistoric Ancestors.  In this article, I would like to discuss how the basic picture of our earliest history is just generally incorrect.  To have a better foundation to build our story upon, I think it is best to start with a broader view of how our prehistoric ancestors lived.

A Different Picture of Our Prehistoric Ancestors

Part 1: The Struggle to Survive?

The pictures painted for us is that our Prehistoric ancestors were brutish cavemen (and women) who barely survived the day to day “struggle” against nature.  These big, brawny cavemen hunted large game, even mammoths, and fought among each other for territory and the right to mate with the women.  Cave women are shown as smaller, weaker and tending camp.  What if this picture of our prehistoric ancestors is completely wrong?  Why should we even care?

Why should we care about what history tells us about our Prehistoric Ancestors?

History is the foundation upon which we write our own stories.  Our beliefs about who we are, what our roles in society are, are based largely on what history tells us they should be. We are told, that from the dawn of time, life is one big struggle for survival.  As such, we have responded accordingly, to where we just accept this viewpoint as the norm.

By starting over, and looking at the facts in a new way, we can re-draw this picture.  Taking a fresh look at our earliest beginnings, will enable us to re-build a better foundation for our own stories and beliefs.  There is compelling evidence that our prehistoric ancestors were much smarter than we give them credit for. They struggled less and worked together much more cooperatively.

The Struggle to Survive?

The idea that life, all across our planet, is one constant struggle to survive, is presented to us on nearly a daily basis.  The nature documentaries that tell you that every hunting animal you see is just days away from starvation.  The drama is also inflected into the documentaries about how the universe and planets work.  Our recitation of history is from that of one battle (power struggle) to another.  Life is just one struggle to survive…. right?

I don’t think so.  For one thing, that lion in last nights documentary looked pretty darn healthy, with a nice layer of flesh over her bones.  She was not one missed meal away from starvation.  The cubs were just as fat and fluffy as well-fed cubs should be…not a week away from dying of starvation like the narrator said.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that there is struggle. There are cycles of feast and famine.  There are natural disasters, and changes in weather and climate.  However, life is not one continuous, daily struggle.

Drama Sells

We have to be careful, and remember that drama sells.  They show us an hour in the life of an animal. We shouldn’t take it as a complete picture of their entire life.  The downside to all of this, is it perpetuates a belief that every day is like that, when it couldn’t possibly be.  If every single day was a constant struggle to survive, and all of nature was on the verge of starvation, we would be living in an entirely different world than we do.

Look around you.  Are the deer in your neighborhood starving?  How about the rabbits, squirrels or mice?  Now, if they aren’t starving, then it stands to reason that the predators are also doing pretty well.  I know the birds of prey in my neighborhood look pretty healthy. Just the other day we saw a big owl fly by with some breakfast in their beak.

Humans and the Prehistoric Struggle to Survive

The picture painted for us about our earliest human ancestors is also one of constant struggle.  It must have been very scary for us to live in the dark, and cold.  There were predators everywhere, and since we were apparently hunting animals several times our size, we were always in peril.

In their book, The Invisible Sex, Adovasio, Soffer and Page suggest that this picture is not anywhere correct.  First off, our early human ancestors were smart.  They could work together, cooperatively.  They figured out the intricacies of sewing together leather to make clothing.  Keep in mind that our bodies are not an easy shape to fit.  For those northern ancestors, they needed pants and shirts that didn’t have gaps, and were close fitting for ease of movement.  It takes a great deal of skill to accomplish those kinds of clothing.

Since our ancestors weren’t tied down to a life of agriculture, they could move with the seasons.  They could find better places to go, when needed.  Additionally, there is actually no evidence that they hunted mammoths, and other really large animals.

Instead, evidence that has come to light in recent years, actually suggests that they were plying together fibers and creating nets and clothing much earlier than previously believed.  By using nets, they could hunt small animals and fish in a cooperative manner.  Hunting smaller game would result in having plenty to eat, without the perils of hunting much larger animals.  Cooperative hunting and fishing requires all members in a small group to communicate and work together to succeed.

What about all of those predators out to get us?  Well, we were smart enough to find shelter, and cooperative enough to work and live in protective groups.  We likely used many of the same skills and tactics that we are shown today by other animals.

Ancient Artifacts

My own curiosity led me to try and find out what artifacts have been found in prehistoric archaeological sites.  What I discovered is that by and large, we had time to play.


Shell Beads dating from possibly as far back as 120,000 years ago have been found in several locations in Africa, the Mediterranean and Middle East. Think about the time it would take to carefully poke holes in little sea shells.  Then, how much longer to create a string, or groups of strings to hold them together on your person.

Ocher, and other natural pigments. While we don’t know for certain if we were painting our faces and clothes, we did paint our world.  The artwork left behind in caves around the world suggests that we were rather artistic.

Creative Expression

The oldest flute, found to date, was found in Germany, and has been dated to around 35,000 years old.  The leg bone of a large vulture provided the flute material.  How long before this, do you suppose, it took our ancestors to work out that they could make unique sounds by blowing just right through a hollow leg bone?  Then, how much longer do you think it took them to work out how having holes placed just so would give you different sounds?

Venus Statues.  To date they’ve found over 200 of these ceramic statues, primarily in Europe.  The oldest one, found in the same place as the above flute, also dates to around 35,000 years old. These statues even have very intricately fashioned with details to show hair, possible woven hats, belts and other adornment.

Image courtesy of Ancient-Origins.net

While there is also plenty of evidence that we worked, evidenced by stone and bone tools.  Humans who are struggling to survive, do not take time to create, play and adorn themselves. They would simply be too busy staying safe and trying to get enough to eat.  Instead, it looks like they had plenty to time to play, create and explore their world.

This is just the barest glimpse into what life might have been like for our Prehistoric Ancestors.  If life wasn’t as hard as we’re led to believe, maybe the social structures of our ancestors is also different.  Join me next week, as I share a new picture of gender roles, and social structures of our ancestors.

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