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Wild to Civilized

The Trajectory of Human History

From small nomadic packs 

in the African wilderness . . .

The long period of our prehistoric lives. Then, sudden growth in our technology and population.

. . . to megacities linked in

a global industrial civilization

In this work, we trace the entire history of humans from our long-ago prehistoric days all the way through millions of years to our lives in modern times. We trace our story from when, still looking apelike, we walked naked in the African wilderness in small groups—until today when, looking fully modern as Homo sapiens, we ride about in shiny, high-speed, metal contraptions with wheels, hiding our nakedness under various pieces of cloth, congregating in huge formations known as towns and cities, and calling ourselves “civilized.”


We tell this very long story, however, not as a series of noteworthy people or significant events. We do not care why Hannibal crossed the Alps or when the American Civil War started.  Rather, we examine a very narrow slice of our history over this vast period of time – as a sequence of critical changes in our movement patterns, the various ways in which we humans have moved across the earth’s surface in relation to each other.


Few scholars have studied our movement patterns, so we will explain what we mean. From millions of years ago until today, each one of us has had the task of securing life’s necessities, food above all. But to get food, we must move. In prehistoric times, to get food, we searched every day for animals to kill and for bushes and trees and other plants from which to pluck fruits and gather vegetables, all of which we ate raw with our bare hands and teeth. In modern times, to get food, we go daily to work at a job that does not produce the food we eat. Instead, we do our job repeatedly for 5 days a week for 48 or 50 weeks a year. We pick up a paycheck and deposit it in a bank account. We travel to a grocery store, pluck food in containers from shelves, pay for it at a cashier, return home, prepare it in a kitchen, and eat it at a dining table using knives, forks, and spoons. Whether we lived in prehistoric times or live now in modern times, doing these movements day in and day out, as we must to get food, requires us to repeat our movements over and over again. Hence, we have movement patterns, the repeated ways we move across the earth’s surface to secure life’s necessities – and also its luxuries.


We are a sociable species, however, and we do all these movements in relation to other humans. In prehistoric times, we traveled together in small nomadic packs through the African wilderness. In modern times, we live in huge societies with many differentiated groups and subgroups, from our families to our workplaces, from our towns and cities to our nation-states. Thus, movement patterns include not only the repeated ways we move through the physical world around us, but also the repeated ways we move in relation to other humans.


The difference between prehistoric and modern times is stark. But at all times (except the very ancient past, as we shall see in The origin of sharing), we have been embedded in a division of labor in which each one of us does only a part of the whole job of supplying ourselves with food and other products. In prehistoric days, the nomadic pack moved from one feeding site to the next in a large circuit of feeding sites. At each campsite, the men hunted for meat and women gathered fruits and vegetables, they came together at the campsite to exchange what each sex had acquired – a very simple division of labor, but each sex without the other sex was incomplete.


In modern times, each one of us does only a very tiny part in making the complete array of products and services each one of us needs. A bricklayer lays brick, a cab driver drives people around, a factory worker adds one more component to partially completed products, a store salesman sells clothes, an office manager observes workers and writes reports, a business executive consults with many people all day long. But none of these modern workers completes a whole product or service, and the products or services are just one small part of a huge economy with millions of different, specialized products and services, all of which must be shared and exchanged in a vast, circulating network of people.

Put very simply, in both prehistoric and modern times, the division of labor requires us to exchange with some people and not with others, which brings us together with some and separates us from others. Thus, the division of labor involves us moving in distinct, repetitive patterns, movement patterns that involve social relationships of various kinds. Some relationships in a division of labor are long-term, personal, and intimate; other relationships are short-term, distant, and remote – to mention just a few of the various qualities possible in human relationships. In our long journey from prehistoric to modern times, then, the division of labor involves movement patterns that involve social relationships of one kind or another – the basic idea of this work.

The Nomadic Pack  [[[ start here with a bit of the beginning of the previous section ]]]

As Homo sapiens of the 21st century, we are very familiar with life in civilization because we experience it daily. We are, however, far from familiar with our prehistoric lives in nomadic packs. By the end of this work, we hope readers will have learned more about our civilized, modern lives. And we hope readers will have learned more about our unfamiliar lives in small nomadic packs. Let’s look at these ancient little societies in more detail.

Nomadic packs are a social form that endured for millions of years, from well more than 7 million years in the past until just 10,000 years ago when, as Homo sapiens, we first settled down to farm. Prehistoric nomadic packs, of course, no longer exist. We are forced to rely on the fossil remains of lives lived hundreds of thousands and millions of years in the past, and on what we know about the relatively few nomadic pack societies that remain today in the earth’s hinterlands, living on terrain that covers, to our surprise, almost half of the earth’s habitable surface area (FIND THAT REFERENCE).

For millions of years, then, our entire lives were spent in these nomadic packs as we wandered and gathered fresh wild fruits and vegetables and scavenged for or killed wild animals. The tasks we needed to do to survive were divided by sex. We lived by a sexual division of labor. With rare exceptions, the men hunted for meat and scared off predators while the women gathered fruits and vegetables and tended to the young children. These tasks, in turn, determined how we moved as men, women, and children in those very ancient days. To hunt, the men and older boys traveled by foot some distance away from the small group’s campsite and searched for prey. They returned to the campsite with their bounty, a lot, a little, or nothing at all. Staying closer to the campsite with the young children, the women gathered fruits and vegetables, and returned to the campsite. Back “home,” the men gave some of their meat to the women and children while the women gave some of their fruit and vegetable gatherings, gatherings that were the staple of everyone’s lives, to the men and older boys. We ate the food immediately with our bare hands and teeth, not unlike other animals. Whenever the whole pack stayed at the campsite, the women and children were often in the center while the men kept guard, as needed, from a little further away at the group’s periphery. When we depleted the food supply in one location, we had no choice but to walk – barefooted – to a new location, which was likely to be one site in a circuit of favorable food sites known especially to the older men. We were always naked in the wilderness and thought nothing of it. For millions of years, we accomplished these tasks without the aid of language, although we probably did hoot and holler a few basic signs, such as warning of danger, announcing a food site, or expressing excitement and happiness, or sadness and bereavement. For much of this time, we were not even Homo sapiens; we were still slowly evolving towards our modern bodies and brains.

To summarize, the general movement patterns of a nomadic pack consisted of (1) the whole group moving from campsite to campsite in a circuit through the wilderness, (2) the men and older boys traveling away from the campsite to hunt and returning to it, (3) the women and small children moving a small distance away from the campsite to gather plant food and returning to it, (4) coming together at the campsite to exchange and share food, and (5) the women and younger children generally staying close to the center of the campsite while the men and older boys kept a bit away. All these movement patterns arose from a sexual division of labor to supply ourselves with food. Similar movement patterns would also be reflected at other times. For example, in traveling on foot from one campsite to the next, the nomadic pack formed a line with the older men positioned at the front, the women and younger children in the middle, and the older boys following at the rear.

In these nomadic packs, the particular patterns of the men, women, and children coming together and moving apart happened day after day and involved strong, long-term, face-to-face relationships among a relatively few people. From a highly civilized perspective today, we might not admire such relationships, but they do have merits. This stable pattern of work, movement, and relationships lasted those many millions of years with scarcely any change but one: the invention of crude stone tools, a most significant turning point near the end of this time period, a turning point that would eventually change the world.

Industrial Society

Now let’s consider in more detail the much more complicated ways that the industrial division of labor in our modern civilization makes us move and the relationships that are involved. In typical situations, at least one person in the local household unit moves away from the home and goes to work in a factory or bureaucratic organization, not unlike prehistoric men going out to hunt. But there the similarity ends. The work task that the modern individual performs in the huge scheme of industrial society is, as we said, just one small part in a huge array of tasks. Moreover, in the workplace, this modern individual usually remains confined to a small work station and performs that one specialized task over and over again on many identical work objects – both products and services – advancing each work object one more step towards completion before transporting it to the next specialized worker in the production line, regardless of whether it is transported by a conveyor belt or by inter-office email. That factory or bureaucracy, in turn, is one small part of an even larger supra-organization, such as the parent company of a string of factories or bureaucracies: Ford motor company, Kraft food products, Macy’s department stores, the U.S. government. The parent company, in turn, is also just one part of just one sector of an industrial economy – a sector such as extracting raw materials, manufacturing, services, retail sales, government, and so forth. All these sectors of organization involve movement patterns, of which the modern individual is truly a very tiny part.

At the end of the day, the individual heads home. But the individual’s work is not done. Each individual in an industrial society must procure all the various necessities and luxuries of civilized life by moving into contact and exchange with the many variously specialized groups and organizations. Some of these organizations are small and produce just one type of work object to sell directly to the public, like a cobbler, a guitar maker, or a barber. Other organizations bring varieties of work objects together in one retail location, such as grocery and department stores. Since everyone in an industrial society must circulate in this manner or have someone circulate for them, everyone pulls together into a dense aggregation to reduce the distances and make that circulation easier and faster. The overall picture in an industrial society, then, is people aggregated in closely spaced, dense social units: families and neighborhoods, clubs and churches, factories and bureaucracies, towns and cities, and state and national levels of organization. In all these venues, the individuals are circulating at high speed – not necessarily geographical speed, but interpersonal speed – from one person to the next and the next and the next.

Thus, in an industrial society, the quality of relationships is intrinsically tied up with the specific, specialized roles each person plays: customer and cashier, depositor and teller, patient and doctor, student and professor, citizen and government agent, and so forth. These relationships are short-term, and nothing personal gets involved. Each person is substitutable for another person. Longer-term relationships with family and friends are also fairly short when compared to relationships in a hunting-and-gathering nomadic pack. In modern society, children regularly move back and forth between home and school. Adults are drawn away from the home not only by work but by other social involvements outside the home. Adult sexual relationships often get shortened by divorce or separation, and one-time partners move on to new partners. All in all but with exceptions, the movements of individuals in an industrial society involve relationships that are to varying degrees short, anonymous, tenuous, and stereotyped, lacking in personal involvement. In the eyes of some commentators, civilization is a lonely place. Early hunters and gatherers did not have this problem.

The difference between our early selves and our present-day selves is huge. This radical change from living wild to living civilized is what we will examine in this work. The basic idea throughout is that the division of labor involves us moving in certain repeated patterns. These movement patterns, in turn, involve us in social relationships of one kind or another – whether they are close and personal or distant and impersonal, among other qualities.

The Trajectory

Our historic transformation from wild to civilized has a dramatic trajectory through time. About 10,000 years ago, after millions of years as hunters and gatherers, we shed our wandering lives and became settled farmers in villages. As our ability to grow food improved, we could feed more people. Out of the villages, then, grew towns. About 6,000 years ago, after still more improvements in agriculture, the first cities in human history emerged in the Middle East. By 4,000 years ago, urban civilizations had developed in all continents except Antartica. By 400 years ago, the beginnings of industrialization stirred in Europe and soon spread around the world – like wildfire when viewed in the long, long scope of our human history.

Standing now in the 21st century and looking back, these ancient villages, towns, and cities seem to have existed a very long time ago. But in the much longer time span going back 7 million years to our branching off from other primates as bipedal pre-humans, these “ancient” villages, towns, and cities are an exceedingly recent phenomenon, a very small fraction of our history. Even if we go back only to a relatively recent 200,000 years ago when we lost our apelike features and finally became anatomically modern Homo sapiens, these “ancient” villages, towns, cities, and civilizations – collectivities of varying size – are still very recent.

The growth in the size of the human collectivity has been enormous, starting with 5 to 25 individuals in small, scattered nomadic packs to millions of people living in dense, interconnected cities. The growth in technology has been equally immense – from a small repertoire of stone tools and techniques shared between the sexes to a wide assortment of tools, machines, and techniques requiring thousands of different full-time specialists. Moreover, this transformation was progressively more rapid. The changes in our history are so recent and so rapidly accelerating as to suggest that the human species is undergoing a process analogous to the breaking loose of an avalanche or perhaps even the growth of cancerous tissue.


​​Figure 2 is a graph that shows the size of the human collectivity over the time periods we are discussing. But the graph is not fully to scale. The last inch on the right, from 10,000 years ago to the present, is correctly scaled. But for the entire line to be correct, the part of the line representing only anatomically modern Homo sapiens would need to extend almost two feet to the left to cover the last 200,000 years. To cover the 2.3 million years between present time and when we first became toolmakers in stone, the line would have to extend almost 20 feet to the left, making the last inch on the right a very small fraction of our very long history. If we go back 7 million years to the beginning of bipedalism and our branching off from the apes, the line would extend almost 60 feet to the left, making the last inch when we settled into villages, towns, and cities a truly very tiny fraction of our total history. Now, in an instant of cosmic time, we are speeding through modern civilization.

These recent dramatic events in the human story occurred so fast, in fact, that the speed of historical change may have outstripped evolution. Having survived so long in nomadic packs, we seemed to have been well-adjusted to our wilderness environment. It is hard to conceive of any significant biological adaptation to civilization just in the past 10,000 years when these dramatic growth events began. One fact, however, would definitely speed up the rate of recent evolutionary adaptation. Compared to the limited population of all the small nomadic packs of our prehistory, estimated at about several hundred thousand individuals worldwide [CHECK THIS FIGURE], our worldwide population today is in the millions and billions, which greatly increases the chances of genetic mutations occurring. Such mutations have undoubtedly made our evolution speed up. But even with evolution at a much faster pace, it seems that the biological changes that would be required to adapt the human organism to the starkly different conditions of civilized life could not have taken place fast enough in the short space of 10,000 years. Civilization, in other words, may not be just one more step in the very slow, gradual evolution of the human species. It may be that we humans in civilization have, by our many inventive technologies, rushed ourselves into an alien ecological niche to which we are not terribly well-adapted.

Where From Here?

To be accurate, however, the trajectory of human history is not one continuous upward line. Rather, it is a jagged line with many ups and downs on the way up. Many civilizations have come and gone. In other words, cities in various regions grew out of towns and all became interconnected by trade as one of the ancient civilizations – Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese civilizations – all of which shrank and receded to earlier social forms. Some civilizations disappeared completely while others persisted as small cities, towns, or villages. Looking at our own more recent Western civilization since the Middle Ages, since around 1200 A.D., the trend again has been one of fluctuating but ongoing economic and social development propelling us with ever-increasing speed, it seems, into the 21st century.

We appear to be at a pinnacle, the farthest human society has gone towards a highly developed civilization. Moreover, a yet-more-developed world civilization might soon emerge from the present growth of international trade, continuing breakthroughs in technology, the interconnectedness of digital media, and the looming prospect of a one-world order. Certainly, the images in science fiction often portray a future society many centuries away that is leaps and bounds ahead of us in technology and modes of governance.

But there are also signs right now of impending trouble on a worldwide scale:  global warming (if it is truly happening), wreckage of natural habitats, depletion of natural resources, the uncontrolled spread of certain diseases, the decline of civic participation, and the suggestion of some thinkers that current dislocations and crises involving the most advanced nations may be the beginning of a long downward trend. Could we be at the crest of our modern civilization, destined for a serious, long-term contraction as happened to other civilizations in the past, only to grow again when the next centralizing process begins? Might there be a limit to how far human beings can go in adapting our nomadic-pack brains and bodies to highly centralized living conditions? We shall see that the course of civilization might contain, as Karl Marx said in a similar context, the seeds of its own destruction.

These questions cannot be answered definitively, but they are interesting to ponder as we proceed to look at movement patterns, divisions of labor, and social relationships. In Part II, we look at the basic types of social relationships that humans and other vertebrates can have and the movement patterns involved in them. We present these types of relationships in their sequence of evolution from simpler to more complex forms of relationship. In Part III, we take a quick journey through human history, looking at how three basic divisions of labor establish different movement patterns and support or limit the different types of social relationships that are possible.

Before we tackle Parts II and III, however, it is important to understand better how we analyze movement in social life, in the same way that ball players must learn the rules of the game before they can play it. At the end of this work, we shall return to the question of our adaptation to civilization.

Questions or comments:

The Nomadic Pack
The Trajectory
Industrial Society
Where from Here?
homo habilis.jpg
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