Contrary to popular belief, the story of humanity does not start at Ancient Egypt.
It seems to be a common pitfall of Conworlders that their first peoples, cultures and nations must start with an ancient, venerable, agricultural empire, and that the rest of their conhistory consists of this empire (and others like it) disseminating their civilization outwards. This is, of course, true to a great extent, but it misses another part of the picture completely.
Perhaps it is best if we put things in perspective. Modern humans have existed for at least 100,000 years, 20 times the length of civilization. For 95,000 years all humans of the world lived as hunter gatherers. And even for the remaining 5,000 years of civilization, vast numbers of human beings continued to live in this way, at least until the dawn of modernity in the last few centuries or so. At the time of the rise of ancient Egypt, the majority of our own ancestors lived outside the influence of civilization.
These people are not simpletons either; remember, they are modern human beings of the homo sapiens species. Their physical and mental capacities were the same as ours. They led their own complex emotional and social and romantic lives. Millions of human beings just like us lived and died in such societies. Civilization, from Egypt to Hollywood (inclusive), is like a sudden and brilliant blip at the very last part of the human story — civilization is the great exception of human culture, not the rule.
Of course, the fact that they were, in fact, extremely technologically backwards compared to us or even their contemporaries, gave their lives a very different sort of theme than us. We can see still how their way of life may have been in hunting-gathering peoples like the Khoisan peoples of the Kalahari Desert, in Africa. Of course, keep in mind that we're talking about the all human cultures of the entire World for several dozen millennia, so it's hard to generalize anything.
As a whole, women and children stayed close to home and gathered seeds and fruits; men ventured further away to hunt fast-moving wild animals. (Some people like to connect this to the apparent affinity of men to competitive strategic sports, or women to congregating and gossiping, but we'll leave that for another discussion.) Because people needed to be on the move all the time, they tended not to have so many children (about 4; compare that to 10+ which we commonly see in agricultural societies). People didn't live that long; the average lifespan was about 35 years, though this was probably the result of high infant mortality rates -- if you survive to adulthood, you can live longer than that. Nevertheless they aged very fast, so that a 40-year-old hunter gatherer would look a lot older than a 40-year-old professional urbanite with her face creams and so forth.
The main food source was gathered seeds plus hunted animals. People didn't need to work as long for these (about 30 hours a week), so there was quite some leisure time compared to us. Also, hunting and gathering extracts very little calories per unit area of land, so population density was very low -- less than one person per square kilometer. In general people moved around in small clans across a wide, wild landscape, constantly chasing their prey. There was no overcrowding and they did not come into contact with other clans all that often. As a result, the exchange of ideas and materials was slow, which goes a great deal to explain why for more than 100,000 years human beings didn't seem to advance all that much in terms of philosophy or technology. (Keep in mind that these human beings are basically genetically identical to us, so "because they were stupid" would not be a good enough explanation.)
All that changed, of course, with the development of agriculture, after the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.Last modified on 13 November 2008, at 14:15