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Four phases of human history

Image Courtesy Rob Cross – June 2019


This article is one of a series addressing globalization. Human history is discussed as four phases of progressively increasing social organisation (Natura, Agraria, Industria, Informatia) based on the form of energy used to drive social activity. Later articles give a brief account of the major world civilizations arising out of highly developed social organisation. 



Natura is the term used to distinguish that phase of human existence which lasted about about 300,000 years from c. 315,000 to 15,000 BP, when humans lived within nature as nomadic hunter-gatherers in prehistory.

Natura was that phase of human history when humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in extended family groups of 10-20 people. This lasted from around 315,000 years ago (the approximate time when modern humans diverged from the lineage of  Neanderthal/Denisovans), to about 10,000 BCE.  They lived on a diet of wild plants and hunted game, the average per capita energy consumption being about 1500 to 2000 kcal per day. Cultural values were passed on by oral tradition with little emphasis on hierarchy but social distinctions made on gender and with an acceptance of violence. Environmental impact occurred mainly through fire and the ecological modification of trophic chains.

Natura is best understood in the context of the four major phases of human history.

Defining criteria

What justifies the selection of four historical phases of social organization? As with any historical periodization there will be an intergrading of one phase with another. Though the four phases are defined primarily according to their mode of energy capture and use, there are other distinguishing features that help make the distinction clear: the environment of evolutionary adaptation; mode of communication; group size; means of transport; diet; values; the rate of increase in technological complexity of the material culture; the ecological impact.

Energy capture & use

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle needed an biological and social energy consumption of around 1500-2000 kcal/cap/day obtained from plants.

On the cusp of plant and animal domestication around 10,000 BP this would have risen to an upper level consumption of around 5000 kcal/cap/day,

Environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA)

During Natura, the phase of prehistory that lasted from 200,000 (possibly up to 350,000) years the biology of Homo sapiens was forged by interaction with wild nature which was the environment of evolutionary adaptation (both bodies and minds) or EEA.

Group size

Hunter-gatherers lived in small tribal extended family groups c. 20 (100) at a time when the world human population peaked at around 3 million.

With energy conservation paramount, carrying and caring for young children and possessions was a severe hindrance to mobility. There was a high rate of mortality resulting from violent interaction with other groups with some natural birth control, which could include infanticide and senilicide. This ensured that the group size remained small. Material culture such implements, tools, spears etc. needed to be easily carried or quickly assembled at campsites. Australian Aborigines had evolved physiques and cultural practices adapted to the climate and their seasonal sources of food. The few children, few possessions, and maximum conservation of energy contrasted with later European energy-hungry and more complex sedentary material cultures based on agriculture, where property and ownership became much more important.

In the 1990s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed a cognitive limit to the number of people can know and relate to one-another, this being towards 150, known as the Dunbar Number. Popular numbers often quoted for human groups include 5 (close kin), 15-20 (extended family), 45-50 (acquaintances or clan), around 150 (tribe).


This consisted mostly of wild greens, fruits, seed, and root vegetables usually harvested and prepared by women, supplemented by the meat of hunted animals (derived from plants), mostly hunted by men.


We assume that through this period there would have been water transport consisting of rafts and simple water vessels. Over land the domestication of animals was yet to take hold so walking was the main means of getting from one place to another. As hunter-gatherers the nomadic mode of living followed seasonal sources of food. 

The wheel is considered a technological advance that occurred in the early Bronze Age dating back no further than 4500 BCE.


It then took, we believe, about 55,000 years from about 70,000 BCE (when the population numbered about 50,000) to around 15,000 BCE (population about 3 million) for the major wave of humans, as nomadic Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, to migrate out of Africa and across the world.


Before the creation of spoken languages, symbols of many kinds would have been used to convey information and meaning – sounds, facial expressions, body gestures, artefacts, ceremony and ritual etc.). However, once language was established it was primarily the spoken word that carried information between people. Knowledge and traditional wisdom was passed between generations in an oral tradition of storytelling and demonstration.


Hunter-gatherers placed little emphasis on political and wealth hierarchies but accepted gender hierarchy and violence.


For the nomadic hunter-gatherers, foragers, and steppe pastoralists of prehistory, wild plants made up the living environment of evolutionary adaptation. Wild plants were the primary producers in the energy food chain that led to humans and their hunted prey. They were consumed in a varied diet of greens, roots, seeds, fruits and animal meat when that was possible. Mostly it was women that provided the plant foods while men did the hunting.

Constant mobility meant that possessions, their material culture, was minimal. But these too – the spears, tools, fibres, resins, dyes, and simple dwellings – were mostly sourced from plants, although uneaten parts of hunted animals – their skins, bones, and sinews – were used, as were minerals like the stone axes, spear-heads, ochres etc.

Plants were a major source of healing powers, often administered by a special person in the community, the shaman-medicine man or woman, who was familiar with their medicinal properties and links to the spiritual world.

Though a matter of degree, the relationship between plants and humans of Natura was between ‘wild’ humans (living nomadic lives within wild nature) and ‘wild’ plants growing naturally in natural environments. This contrasted significantly with ‘domesticated humans’ (living settled lives in man-made environments) and ‘domesticated’ (anthropogenically/genetically altered) plants and animals.

Evidence of potato-like roasted rhizomes of Hypoxis angustifolia in caves of the Lebombo Mountains in South Africa 170,000 years ago as determined by ESR. This is the earliest evidence of starchy food – which is more nutritious when cooked and also enables meat protein to be digested more efficiently.[1]

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Earlier it was claimed that access to increasing quantities of social energy has resulted in a historical increase in social organization: that the choice of energy use has determined how much energy was accessed and therefore what was socially achieved. By and large, it is this that has determined the path of human history . . . the explosion in population, increasing economic growth, social complexity as connectivity and interdependence, and the general rate of social metabolism.

As a general principle biological systems will maximise their growth, both biological and social, until limited by the available energy, access to other critical resources, or build up of waste products.

In the case of humans, the curate Thomas Malthus in his 1798 Essay on the principle of population (which left a deep impression on Charles Dawin) expressed the view that human population increases until it is reined in by (birth) control, famine, war, or disease. So far humanity has resisted his pessimistic prediction by using cheap energy, adopting new technologies, using mass production (especially of food), avoiding humanity-obliterating wars, and controlling disease with modern medicine. Human ingenuity has so far won the day but Malthus could yet be proved correct with climate change, nuclear war, and non-curable disease ever-present existential threats today.

The food energy needed to maintain a human body has remained approximately the same throughout history but the amount of social energy consumed has had a direct bearing on complexity of the society.

Hunter-gatherers adopted group sizes, tools , technology and transport systems that required minimal energy expenditure because the energy they accessed was limited.

Today industrial agriculture uses energy intensive machinery, chemicals and transport systems in its food production. This gives us a general principle:

Principle 1 – the more dispersed and complex a society the more energy that is expended in food production

What applies specifically to food production applies broadly to social activity.

Principle 2 – As societies have become more complex so their per capita energy indirect expenditure has increased.

Another way of expressing this is to say that as social organization becomes more complex so there is a per capita increase in the energy intensity of human activity.

Key features

  • EEA: wild nature
  • Communication: the oral traditions of pre-history
  • Lasts: around 300,000 yrs (c. 315,000 – 15,000 BP)
  • Energy use: 1500-2000 kcal/cap/day
  • Group size: 10-20/100
  • World pop: to 3 million
  • Diet: Wild greens, fruits, seed, root vegetables with hunted game and fish
  • Values: little emphasis on political and wealth hierarchies but accept gender hierarchy and violence
  • Ecological impact: Humans were too few and insignificant to make any significant impact on ecosystems (perhaps some local impact on hunted animal populations). About 1 million years ago Homo erectus discovered fire and with this the capacity to intercede in the trophic cascades and the vegetation of pre-history.


Natura was that period of history lasting for about 340,000 years from around 350,000 BCE until around 10,000 BCE when humans lived within nature as nomadic hunter-gatherers or nomadic pastoralists in small bands of mostly up to 20 people. The world population at this time totaled less than 3 million people.

Communication was via the spoken word in an oral tradition of collective learning.  Individual energy consumption was 1500-2000 cals/person/day with most of this energy used as bodily or biological energy derived from plants eaten either directly in a diet of greens, fruit, seed, and root vegetables, or indirectly as fish and hunted game (also ultimately derived from plant energy).

Hunter-gatherers placed little emphasis on political and wealth hierarchies but accepted gender hierarchy and violence.

Living within nature in small numbers these nomads had little impact on their environment except through the use of fire and the decimation of megafauna that altered trophic cascades within ecosystems – both had the potential to dramatically alter ecosystems. 

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . 19 October 2019 substantive revision
. . . 1 January 2023 added summary

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Daily food needs - 1500-2000


   Natura       -     5000-10,000
   Agraria       -    10,000-30,000
   Industria    -    200-230,000
   Informatia  -   200,000 +



Date of origin

Base state   -       human muscle

Hand tools        -     3.5 M BP
Mental tools     -     3.5 M BP



Fire                     -     1.7-2 M BP
Animal muscle -     12000 BP
Wind & water   -  ...  5000 BP ...
Coal                    -      1600 ...
Gas                     -      1820 ...
Oil                       -      1860 ...
Electricity           -      1880 ...
Nuclear              -      1950 ...




10,000    –    0.002
8000    -    0.005
6000    –    0.011
4000    –    0.028
2000    –    0.072
1000    –    0.115

1      –    0.30
500     –    0.20   
1000      –    0.31      
1100      –    0.33      
1200      –    0.38      
1300      –    0.35      
1400    -
1500    -    0.43–0.50
1600    -    0.50–0.58
1700    -    0.60–0.68
1800    -    0.89–0.98
1900    -    1.56–1.71
2000    -    6.06–6.15
2100    -    c. 10–13   

Aboriginal man mending fishing net
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