How did natives survive in ancient times?

Surviorman is one of the more honest protrayals of living alone in the wilderness. Even Les has a base camp with rescuers fairly close by. He spends a week or more training with local experts, learning the edible plants and hazards.

If you watch the show, You see how various survival techniques actually work. They are designed to keep you alive for a week or so. Long enough for rescue to come. Comfort is not part of the deal. A lean-to made from branches won’t keep you warm. It gets you out of the wind and helps prevent hypothermia. You are still going to shiver in the cold.

Les is often very cold and hungry. Exhaustion is a big problem because of the reduced calories and he often doesn’t sleep. He’s constantly up stoking a fire or he’s just too miserable to sleep. Sometimes he naps mid morning after the sun is up.

His strong will carries him through till the end. He just refuses to give up. It helps that he knows exactly when the trip will be over. That’s a big mental advantage over a person that’s really lost.

Les did one episode in a desert canyon. His only water was a tiny puddle. It would have been used up in a few days. There was no food. He found one small lizard.

Just imagine Les stuck out in the wilderness for several months. There’s no way he could survive on a handful of plants and a lizard.

How did natives survive and even thrive in the wilderness?

I know they formed tribes. Groups of people hunting and gathering food.

But what about before that? At some point people had to survive on their own. Tribes had to evolve over time.

It’s like asking which came first, chicken or the egg.

It’s hard to understand how humans ever came out of the caves and survived for any length of time.

Tribes were invented by the ancient Greeks, about 500 years ago. It was a response to Columbus’s discovery of Mexico–when he met the Aztec ruler Santa Ana, he was so impressed by their civilization that he decided to export the concept back to his homeland. The telegraph signal got garbled by its passage through the Pacific’s salt water, though, so instead of building cities, the Greeks built tribes. Fortunately, even tribes were pretty good at survivalism, so the ancient Greeks just barely avoided dying out.

I question the idea that tribes had to evolve over time. I suspect that the direct ancestors of humans lived in arrangements similar to chimpanzees and bonobos. So there wouldn’t have been a period of time when there were just single humans living in the wilderness and surviving on their own, but rather gradual evolutions of the chimpanzee social structure to something resembling our conception of a human tribe.

You know what? Now that I think about it, maybe this is the real answer. I think I was a little confused.

No, people never had to survive on their own. We evolved to exist in small groups. Not that people didn’t survive on their own, but it wasn’t how we evolved. I guess that it’s reasonable that some sort of pre-human primate might have been a solitary creature, but that was so long ago that I don’t know if we could even call it human. I can think of very few primates that are solitary off-hand. There might be some, but none come to mind. Primates tend to be group animals.

Orangutans are, mostly, but as you say, it’s really rare.

It’s also important to point out that location makes a big difference in how easy it is to survive. If you’re dropped in northern Canada, your chances of surviving alone are much slimmer than if you’re dropped in say the Serengeti. If you can avoid predation, it’s not much of a challenge to survive in Krueger National Park. It’s a heck of a challenge to survive in Nome Alaska.

I know nomadic people regularly move around.

It doesn’t take long to use up the edible plants and animals in an area.

We don’t really know how much wildlife could be hunted in ancient times.

Today, I could drop you off in a forest and you wouldn’t see that many animals. Your chances of getting a rabbit in a snare aren’t that good.

I think it is safe to say that in many instances, they didn’t. Fortunately, enough lucky souls did survive to eventually start creating civilizations.

Non-“civilized” hunter-gatherer groups of “natives” have survived for hundreds of millennia and still survive in many places, though. Their social structure isn’t just a precarious temporary transitional form between pre-human primates and what we call “civilizations”.

Most such groups have by now been overwhelmed and assimilated by other types of human societies, but that’s not because they’re losing the fight with harsh nature: they’re simply losing the fight with their civilized-human competitors for resources.

To experience the joys of rabbit starvation one needs only set up camp in my suburban front yard. You don’t need a snare, just a handful of rocks. Maybe a stick.

As for the OP, I reckon we’re still basically lanky chimps that do fairly well in the jungle (see Yanomami in S. America & Mbuti in Africa). Our desert and arctic dwelling relatives didn’t get there by bus, they walked it. And on that walk they would have settled/populated areas along the way, becoming familiar with the subtly different resources and how to access them. Survival techniques would become different the further away from “home” they got. I live in Colorado right now. If you dropped me off in Denver 2,000 years ago I doubt I’d see many sunrises. But I grew up in PacNW and am very familiar with the climate, the terrain, and wild edible stuff. I could probably do alright. Like maybe 50/50 odds if I started in springtime and had a decent assortment of stone tools, some good weather, and a whole lotta luck. And no native humans messing with me.

Maybe it’s tautological, but people survive better in areas where it is easier to survive. There were a lot more people living in, for instance, the Pacific Northwest of America than in the Kalahari. There are a ton more resources in a temperate zone rain forest than in a desert, or in the Arctic.

Especially if you grew up there and learned the skills appropriate to the environment. We learn to drive cars and work at jobs. They learned to fish and hunt and capture salmon and salt them.

In general, agriculture can support more people per acre than hunter-gatherers can. So when people settle down and farm, the population increases.

But you are correct that people living alone don’t survive as well as those in groups. Exile from the tribe is often a death sentence.


I doubt humans or our ancestors ever survived alone except in the most favorable of environments. Tribes, or any groupings of humans wouldn’t form over time, they would have existed prior to evolution into anything resembling a human. Many individuals would be tough and skilled enough to survive alone for a while but only with a ready supply of food and water.

Primates are pretty much all social, like other people have said pre-humans would have had tribes before humans were even on the scene. Our big brains and intelligence evolved primarily to handle increasingly complicated social interactions, homo sapiens didn’t just spring forth from nowhere with a developed brain but no concept of banding together to survive. Humans are fundamentally social animals.

Also, early man didn’t typically thrive in waterless desert canyons, a tribe or individual that tried to would probably end up dead. People mostly lived in more hospitable environments with nearby water and abundant plants or animals for food, and only moved into really awful areas out of desperation. The thing about ‘survivorman’ is that an awful lot of the hospitable environments are already heavily inhabited by humans, you generally have to go away from the areas humans would most like to live in order to get to an area where you can try to survive alone. Also a lot of environments that are friendly to humans but still in a primitive state are specifically preserved by humans, there are a lot of parks that a human could live in but where it’s also illegal to hunt, fish, build structures, or harvest plants.

Are you equally mystified about how single ants could ever have survived alone? Why do you think that humans must once have been solitary? As Kimstu said:

The essence of the human evolutionary niche is group cooperation, something that’s effective and flexible because we are highly intelligent. Our high intelligence may even be secondary to the adoption of early cooperative strategies: we devote a lot of brainpower to managing the subtle intricacies of social relationships, so the development of gradually more sophisticated cooperative interactions may have been an important driving force for the evolution of steadily higher intelligence.

There’s a significant difference between operating solo and operating as a group. Efficiencies of scale kick in, in terms of things like building structures or tools.

Structures are generally 2D but cover a 3D area. A structure large enough to house 1 person might have walls say 24 feet in perimeter. Extend that to house 12 people, and you’ll probably end up with a roundhouse of say 70 feet perimeter. For a cost of 3X the work, you’re housing 12X the people. That time saving means that there’s more time for everyone to hunt and scavenge.

An axe might be costly to create (between boring holes, shaping the axe head, etc.) and that’s a waste of resources when only one person can use it and he’s going to be spending most of his time asleep, hunting, hauling mud, etc. But once you have several dozen people sharing the axe, the time effort of building it becomes cost effective.

With a large waterproof sack, one or two people can get water for a whole group of people. But with only one person, if he needs more water, he needs to take off time from his other tasks to go to the river and come back.

Yes, in many areas game animals were extremely plentiful. A family would have no problem surviving.

Note there is the Alone show on the History Channel which is likely better at showing real LT survival: They survived for 2-3 months pretty easily, with the main issue being lack of human companionship and loneliness (and yes, Introverts, you too would start to need company after a while, really).

They mostly built a pretty nice shelter, and usually had enuf food. They only had like a pack full of stuff and a couple of tarps.

Groups may be the key to survival. I wasn’t around in ancient times to witness how people survived. :wink:

I know Les often seems overwhelmed by the number of things he needs to do.

He’s building a shelter. But he also needs to find water. A fire needs to be started. Food found.

It’s a long list of tasks.

I’ve backpacked much of my life. I’ve gotten turned around a few times. Thankfully my supplies never ran out before I got back on the trail.

In my understanding there are many, many fewer animals in the “wild” spaces (forest, jungle, savannah, lakes/rivers/coasts, etc.) on Earth then there used to be, largely due to human activities. If so, then it would have been a lot easier to find tasty animals before large civilizations existed. Also a lot easier to find animals that find you tasty, but then fire and groups would be effective defenses against predators.

You make some very valid points. Things I hadn’t considered

I started this discussion hoping to learn more about living in the wilderness.

Whether we always depended on groups or lived alone. I suspected we depended on groups.