The Ancient Patterns of Migration

By Deborah Barsky, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution and associate professor at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, with the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). She is the author of Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future. Cross posted from Wiki Observatory.

We live in an era of mass migration. According to the United Nations’ World Migration Report 2022[1], there were 281 million international migrants in 2020, equaling 3.6 percent of the global population. That’s well over twice the number in 1990 and over three times the estimated number in 1970. In countries that receive them, migrants are often blamed, rightly or wrongly, for everything from higher crime to declining wages to social and cultural disruption.

But the frictions provoked by migration are not new problems; they are deeply embedded in human history and even prehistory. Taking a long-term, cultural-historical perspective on human population movements can help us reach a better understanding of the forces that have governed them over time, and that continue to do so. By anchoring our understanding in data from the archeological record, we can uncover the hidden trends in human migration patterns and discern (or at least form more robust hypotheses about) our species’ present condition—and, perhaps, formulate useful future scenarios.

Globalization in the modern context, including large-scale migrations and the modern notion of the “state,” traces back to Eurasia in the period when humans first organized themselves into spatially delimited clusters united by imaginary cultural boundaries. The archeological record shows that after the last glacial period—ending about 11,700 years ago—intensified trade sharpened the concept of borders even further. This facilitated the control and manipulation of ever-larger social units by intensifying the power of symbolic constructions of identity and the self.

Then as now, cultural consensus created and reinforced notions of territorial unity by excluding “others” who lived in different areas and displayed different behavioral patterns. Each nation elaborated its own story with its own perceived succession of historical events. These stories were often modified to favor some members of the social unit and justify exclusionist policies toward peoples classified as others. Often, as they grew more elaborate, these stories left prehistory by the wayside, conveniently negating the common origins of the human family[2]. The triggers that may first have prompted human populations to migrate into new territories were probably biological and subject to changing climatic conditions. Later, and especially after the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens, the impulse to migrate assumed new facets linked to culture.

From Nomadism to Migration

The oldest migrations by hominins—the group consisting of humans, extinct human species, and all our immediate ancestors—took place after the emergence of our genus, Homo, in Africa some 2.8 million years ago[3] and coincided roughly with the appearance of the first recognizably “human” technologies: systematically modified stones[4]. Interestingly, these early “Oldowan” tool kits (after the Olduvai Gorge site in Tanzania) were probably made not only by our genus but also by other hominins, including Paranthropus and Australopithecines.

What role did stone tools play in these early steps along our evolutionary path? Archeology tells us that ancient humans increasingly invested in toolmaking as an adaptive strategy that provided them with some advantages for survival. We see this in the noticeable increase in the geographical distribution of archeological sites beginning about 2 million years ago. This coincided with rising populations and also with the first significant hominin migrations out of Africa and into Eurasia.

Toolmaking in Oldowan technocomplexes—distinct cultures that use specific technologies—shows the systematic repetition of very specific chains of operations applied to stone. This suggests that the techniques must have been learned and then incorporated into the sociobehavioral norms of the hominin groups that practiced them. In fact, there are similarities between the first Eurasian stone tool kits and those produced at the same time in Africa. Technological know-how was being learned and transmitted—and that implies that hominins were entering into a whole new realm of culture.

While the archeological record dating to this period is still fragmentary, there is evidence of a hominin presence in widely separated parts of Eurasia—China and Georgia—from as early as 2 million to 1.8 million years ago; we know that hominins were also present in the Near East and Western Europe by around 1.6 million to 1.4 million years ago. While there is no evidence suggesting that they had mastered fire making, their ability to thrive in a variety of landscapes—even in regions quite different from their original African savannah home—demonstrates their impressive adaptive flexibility. I believe that we can attribute this capacity largely to toolmaking and socialization.

How can we envision these first phases of human migrations?

We know that there were different species of Homo (Homo georgicus, Homo antecessor) and that these pioneering groups were free-ranging. Population density was low, implying that different groups rarely encountered each other in the same landscape. While they certainly competed for resources with other large carnivores, this was probably manageable thanks to a profusion of natural resources and the hominins’ technological competence.

From around 1.75 million years ago in Africa and 1 million years ago in Eurasia, these hominins and their related descendants created new types of stone tool kits, referred to as “Acheulian”[2] (after the Saint-Acheul site in France). These are remarkable for their intricacy, the standardization of their design, and the dexterity with which they were fashioned. While the Acheulian tool kits contained a fixed assortment of tool types, some tools for the first time displayed regionally specific designs that prehistorians have identified with specific cultural groups. As early as 1 million years ago, they had also learned to make fire.

Acheulian-producing peoples—principally of the Homo erectus group—were a fast-growing population, and evidence of their presence appears in a wide variety of locations that sometimes yield high densities of archeological finds. While nomadic, Acheulian hominins came to occupy a wide geographical landscape. By the final Acheulian phase, beginning around 500,000 years ago, higher population density would have increased the likelihood of encounters between groups that we know were ranging within more strictly defined geographical radiuses. Home base-type habitats emerged, indicating that these hominin groups returned cyclically to the same areas, which can be identified by characteristic differences in their tool kits.

After the Oldowan, the Acheulean was the longest cultural phase in human history, lasting some 1.4 million years; toward its end, our genus had reached a sufficiently complex stage of cultural and behavioral development to promulgate a profoundly new kind of cognitive awareness: the awareness of self, accompanied by a sense of belonging within a definable cultural unit. This consciousness of culturally based differences eventually favored the separation of groups living in diverse areas based on geographically defined behavioral and technological norms. This was a hugely significant event in human evolution, implying the first inklings of “identity” as a concept founded on symbolically manufactured differences: that is, on ways of doing or making things.

At the same time, the evidence suggests that networking between these increasingly distinct populations intensified, favoring all sorts of interchange: exchange of mates to improve gene pool variability, for example, and sharing of technological know-how to accelerate and improve adaptive processes. We can only speculate about other kinds of relations that might have developed—trading of stories, beliefs, customs, or even culinary or medicinal customs—since “advanced” symbolic communicative networking, emblematic of both Neandertals and humans, has so far only been recognized from the Middle Paleolithic period, from 350,000 to 30,000 years ago.

Importantly, no evidence from the vast chronological periods we have outlined so far suggests that these multilayered encounters involved significant inter- or intraspecies violence.

That remained the case moving into the Middle Paleolithic, as the human family expanded to include other species of Homo over a wide territorial range: Neandertals, Denisovans, Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis, Homo naledi, Nesher Ramla Homo, and even the first Homo sapiens. Thanks to advances in the application of genetic studies to the paleoanthropological record,[5] we now know that interbreeding took place between several of the species known to have coexisted in Eurasia: humans, Neandertals, and Denisovans. Once again, the fossil evidence thus far does not support the hypotheses that these encounters involved warfare or other forms of violence. By around 150,000 years ago, at least six different species of Homo occupied much of Eurasia, from the Siberian steppes to the tropical Southeast Asian islands, and still no fossil evidence appears of large-scale interpopulational violence.

Some 100,000 years later, however, other varieties appear to have died away, and Homo sapiens became the only Homo species still occupying the planet. And occupy it they did: By some time between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, most of the Earth’s islands and continents document human presence. Now expert in migrating into new lands, human populations flourished in constantly growing numbers, overexploiting other animal species as their dominion steadily enlarged.

Without written records, it’s impossible to know with any certainty what kinds of relationships or hierarchies might have existed during the final phases of the Paleolithic. Archeologists can only infer from the patchy remains of material culture that patterns of symbolic complexity were intensifying exponentially. Art, body decoration, and incredibly advanced tool kits all bear witness to socially complex behaviors that probably also involved the cementing of hierarchical relationships within sharply distinct social units.

By the end of the last glacial period and into the Neolithic and, especially, protohistoric times—when sedentarism and, eventually, urbanism, began but before written records appear—peoples were defining themselves through distinct patterns and standards of manufacturing culture, divided by invented geographic frontiers within which they united to protect and defend the amassed goods and lands that they claimed as their own property. Obtaining more land became a decisive goal for groups of culturally distinct peoples, newly united into large clusters, striving to enrich themselves by increasing their possessions. As they conquered new lands, the peoples they defeated were absorbed or, if they refused to relinquish their culture, became the have-nots of a newly established order.

An Imagined World

After millions of years of physical evolution, growing expertise, and geographic expansion, our singular species had created an imagined world in which differences with no grounding in biological or natural configurations coalesced into multilayered social paradigms defined by inequality in individual worth—a concept measured by the quality and quantity of possessions. Access to resources—rapidly transforming into property—formed a fundamental part of this progression, as did the capacity to create ever-more efficient technological systems by which humans obtained, processed, and exploited those resources.

Since then, peoples of shared inheritance have established strict protocols for assuring their sense of membership in one or another national context. Documents proving birthright guarantee that “outsiders” are kept at a distance and enable strict control by a few chosen authorities, maintaining a stronghold against any possible breach of the system. Members of each social unit are indoctrinated through an elaborate preestablished apprenticeship, institutionally reinforced throughout every facet of life: religious, educational, family, and workplace.

Peoples belonging to “alien” constructed realities have no place within the social unit’s tightly knit hierarchy, on the assumption that they pose a threat by virtue of their perceived difference. For any person outside of a context characterized by a relative abundance of resources, access to the required documents is generally denied; for people from low-income countries seeking to better their lives by migrating, access to documents is either extremely difficult or impossible, guarded by sentinels charged with determining identitarian “belonging.” In the contemporary world, migration has become one of the most strictly regulated and problematic of human activities.

It should be no surprise, then, that we are also experiencing a resurgence of nationalistic sentiment worldwide, even as we face the realities of global climate deregulation; nations now regard the race to achieve exclusive access to critical resources as absolutely urgent. The protectionist response of the world’s privileged, high-income nations includes reinforcing conjectured identities to stoke fear and sometimes even hatred of peoples designated as others who wish to enter “our” territories as active and rightful citizens.

Thanks to the very ancient creation of these conceptual barriers, the “rightful” members of privileged social units—the haves—can feel justified in defending and validating their exclusion of others—the have-nots—and comfortably deny them access to rights and resources through consensus, despite the denigrating and horrific experiences these others might have undergone to ameliorate their condition.

Incredibly, it was only some 500 years ago that an unwieldy medieval Europe, already overpopulated and subject to a corrupt and unjust social system, (re)discovered half of the planet, finding in the Americas a distinct world inhabited by many thousands of peoples, established there since the final phases of the Upper Pleistocene, perhaps as early as 60,000 years ago. Neither did the peoples living there, who had organized themselves into a variety of social units ranging from sprawling cities to seminomadic open-air habitations, expect this incredible event to occur. The resource-hungry Europeans nevertheless claimed these lands as their own, decimating the original inhabitants and destroying the delicate natural balance of their world. The conquerors justified the genocide of the Indigenous inhabitants in the same way we reject asylum seekers today: on the grounds that they lacked the necessary shared symbolic referents.

As we step into a newly recognized epoch of our own creation—the Anthropocene, in which the human imprint has become visible even in the geo-atmospheric strata of our planet—humans can be expected to continue creating new referents to justify the exclusion of a new kind of migrant: the climate refugee. What referents of exclusion will we invoke to justify the refusal of basic needs and access to resources to peoples migrating from inundated coastal cities, submerged islands, or lands rendered lifeless and non-arable by pollutants?



  1. ↑ “World Migration Report 2022,” International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency (December 2021).
  2. ↑ Jump up to:
    2.0 2.1 “New Discoveries on Human Origins Open up New Possibilities,” an interview of Deborah Barsky by Jan Ritch-Frel, produced by the Independent Media Institute and published on Asia Times (October 17, 2022).
  3. Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future, by Deborah Barsky (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
  4. ↑ “What Was Humanity’s First Cultural Revolution?” by Deborah Barsky, published on the Observatory (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) and produced by the Independent Media Institute’s Local Peace Economy project (November 22, 2022).
  5. ↑ “We Are Living Through a Paradigm Shift in Our Understanding of Human Evolution,” an interview with Professor Chris Stringer, one of the leading experts on human evolution, by Jan Ritch-Frel for the Independent Media Institute’s Human Bridges project (April 6, 2023).
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  1. Steve H.

    From the AfD:

    > Islam does not belong to Germany. Its expansion and the ever-increasing number of Muslims in the country are viewed by the AfD as a danger to our state, our society, and our values. An Islam which neither respects nor refrains from being in conflict with our legal system, or that even lays claim to power as the only true religion, is incompatible with our legal system and our culture. Many Muslims live as law-abiding and well-integrated citizens amongst us, and are accepted and valued members of our society. However, the AfD demands that an end is put to the formation and increased segregation by parallel Islamic societies relying
    on courts with shari’a laws.

  2. divadab

    If not for “imaginary borders” and “conceptual barriers”, Europe would be ruled by Mongol dynasties. And Africa would be ruled by Europeans.

    What this analysis misses in its one-worldism, is the basic structure of great ape societies – exemplarised by our nearest kin, chimpanzees. The basic unit of society was and is the tribe, related genetically, that controls a territory. The primary activity of young males is patroling the boundaries of their tribe’s territory against the neighboring tribe’s young males. The result of losing a boundary battle is loss of territory, loss of breeding potential as the invaders take the females, and usually loss of life. Any analysis that ignores this fundamental order is missing the point of nationalism, which is essentially the tribal order blown up to larger units. The open borders ideology would result in the loss of tribal cohesion and success in ancient societies and I doubt it’s any different today. Social suicide is the order of the day, propagated by malevolent actors and their misled sheep.

      1. divadab

        It’s well established in studies of chimpanzee societies. These studies have been going on since at least the sixties – no doubt you’ve heard of Jane Goodall, for example?

        “were you there…?” – of course not – I read scientific papers, National Geographic, Nature, Scientific American, New Scientist – are you saying none of these count, that all knowledge has to be direct? Are you saying we can have no knowledge of the past, archaeology is of no use, history is bunkum, because we do not have direct personal experience? Very curious viewpoint, rather nihilistic, I think. Do you apply this approach to every facet of your life?

      1. Divadab

        Not so much- which countries can you name that are still European-ruled ? The entire Cecil Rhodes project, once imperial red from Egypt to South Africa, is now entirely African- run. France, Belgium, Germany, Portugal, have all lost their African “possessions”.

        1. zach

          I agree with playon. Have you not been following France gnashing its teeth over the loss of influence in the sahel region? And were you unaware that most (or all, i’m not sure) of former French colonies use the Franc as their currency, which is still wholly administered by France? “Who controls the money, controls it all” – Henry Kissinger.

          Regarding the Mongols ruling Europe, i was taught that by the time they made it to Europe, and observed how squalid, savage, and destitute the societies were, they took a pass and decided to head south to the far richer and more advanced Muslim Caliphates, where the gettin was gooder.

  3. Lex

    I’m always a little hesitant to draw significant social conclusions from the archeological record. Humans are very adept at backward projecting and overlaying their ideologies across the past. It should always be considered that our current understanding of the past is colored by the nationalistic and “racial” beliefs.

    We have a pretty good understanding that mass migration at the end of the Bronze Age produced a negative reaction from populations in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the Egyptians. We certainly see it by the time we start considering a historical record from Rome. But in both cases we’re still mostly guessing at the causes of the migration (even if they’re very good guesses).

    The article points out how little archeological record there is for mass violence, which is particularly interesting given the fairly significant evidence for long distance trade which doesn’t prove migration but does hint at it. Resistance to migration is probably baked into our being, given that not many animal life forms welcome out group migration into a population en masse. But of course we like to think of ourselves as special and distinct, even if we haven’t overcome many of those shared traits with our widest family group.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>We have a pretty good understanding that mass migration at the end of the Bronze Age produced a negative reaction from populations in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the Egyptians.

      Our we being a bit dry? Is this the Bronze Age Collapse? An event that involved the disappearance of Bronze Age civilization around the Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent so complete that the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire would be a nonevent? Particularly in the areas of what is now Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq? That caused the decline of the Egyptian civilization from which it never completely pulled out even for the remaining twelve or thirteen centuries of its existence? Or the fallback of the Middle Assyrian Empire as well as Babylon to almost the very walls of their capital cities? Leaving a historical four century black hole from which we still do not have any details.

      We do have an expanding pattern of sacked, never reoccupied cities and disappearing kingdoms from north to south and west to east over mere years, perhaps a few decades or a generation.

      Then we can say that, yes, the local populations circa 1185 BCE did have a negative reaction to the Sea Peoples. We only know about the Sea Peoples because of the monuments and inscriptions left by the Egyptians after their victory.

  4. Roland Chrisjohn

    Why “many thousands?” Russell Thornton and other have argued for “many millions.” “Many thousands” reminds me of the deliberate low-balling of Native populations by apologists (like Peter Farb, for instance, who wrote that there were 1 million Indians in North America in 1492) for the New World genocides.

  5. Alexandra

    I’m really glad to see the archaeological evidence for migration as a long-standing human behavior making it into the conversation about current human experience. But – and I apologize in advance for my utter pedantry here – I think the author overgeneralizes in an effort to advance her preferred interpretation of the data.

    In an article of this nature, of course, it’s necessary to compress a vast time scale into a small number of words, which inevitably oversimplifies. I think, however, that the article would have benefitted from more acknowledgement that (1) it’s debatable when cultural identity groups with defended imagined “borders” first arose (the claim that it was among erectines is, at least as presented here, *highly* debatable). I don’t think that even matters except that the author seems to use this button of extreme antiquity to bolster her argument – a logical fallacy; (2) for all the evidence of defended ethno-cultural or national borders since the Bronze Age, there is even more evidence of people still moving around, doing their thing, exchanging information, technology, aesthetics, genes, etc (yes, I saw there was a passing nod to this, but it really undersold the importance of this); and (3) geography plays a huge role in the degree to which groups interacted with one another.

    For example, the existence of a largely flat mega-prairie (the steppe) inhabited by large, domesticable ungulates (horses, camels, cattle, sheep, goats, asses) used for food, transportation, and burden-bearing, and the invention of the wheel made temperate Eurasia from eastern Europe to China one giant highway. It would have been literally impossible to prevent migration and culture contact in this area prior to modern military technology and population sizes.

    On the other hand, in the craggy and mountainous peninsula we know as Europe, travel was very difficult except along rivers and around the Mediterranean Sea. Cultural and linguistic borders were mostly also/originally geographic ones. They were defended as it were by default, resulted in much more dramatic inter-regional cultural differences, and seem to have had a lasting influence on the attitudes of the cultures that originated there. In my view, the author is generalizing western European attitudes to the rest of the world and all of human history. Given the cultural hegemony of western Europe during the last few hundred years, indeed its attitudes *have* become globally pervasive – but they are not universal, and the reign of Western hegemony won’t be eternal. The cultural and biological juggernaut of migration preceded it and will outlast – if not undo – it. Perhaps that can also serve as a viable model for less-exclusionary policies in the shorter term? Alas, I doubt it, but one hopes…

    (For what it’s worth, I have a PhD in archaeology and migration and culture contact were my specialties, back when I was an academic. I’m not claiming to speak as an authority, but I’ve devoted many years to the study of these topics – hence my strong opinions. Apologies for the length!)

    1. hunkerdown

      As someone who’s read a couple of books on the subject, I can only author that the OP has a strong Whiggish, almost fabulist smell to it. Thank you for confirming my own naïve reading of the article.

    2. The Rev Kev

      Thank you for this comment. I too thought that she was looking at ancient vistas through a more modern viewpoint but migration seems to be fantastically complicated and does not resolve itself into simple divisions. When talking about migration I am reminded of the Bantu of Africa who spread south with their cattle. They might have paused in a new area of plenty of land and water for a generation of two but as it filled up, members would take their cattle and migrate further on until they came across more unoccupied land and water-

      For the better part it was just slow, methodical expansion which was related to how well their numbers did.

        1. The Rev Kev

          The Zulus were only a recent phenomenon going back to about the time of the end of the Napoleonic wars. At that time they were only a minor, obscure tribe of 1,500 people of note to only their neighbours. And then Shaka became their ruler and by the time of his assassination 12 years later, he had built up an empire the size of France and numbering some 2,000,000 people.

  6. p fitzsimon

    The idea that these early hominins were non-violent noble savages is completely unproven and probably totally wrong based on what we know from observations and encounters with stone age cultures.

  7. ambrit

    The authoress also does not take note of at least two massive population bottlenecks arising in the last 100,000 years; the Toba Eruption around 74,000 years ago and the Younger Dryas Events of around 12,000 years ago. both put severe strains on human populations, not to mention cultures.
    Younger Dryas:
    Both events would have placed major stressors upon Terran human populations and cultures. (The term Human here being widely inclusive.) In such cases, a return to fiercely exclusionary and “in-group” promoting strategies would be optimal for group survival.
    As is the case today, the most highly visible ‘migrations’ are prompted by disasters of various sorts.
    Tangentially, today’s surge in population migrations can be seen as a sign of a looming societal collapse. This time, a global collapse. Hmmm….

  8. Susan the other

    Maybe long distance trade has displaced human migration, looking for fresh environments to exploit. And seasonal migration to survive the cold. But emergency and desperation migration exist along with opportunistic migration. All sorts a reasons to pack up and go. Migration has always been a trait. I think this piece is not talking about migration as much as it is talking about worldwide scarcity. Maybe due to the takeover of everything by corporate privatizations and socializing the consequences. That’s all kinda hitting the wall now, but we have been promoting migration since at least 2008. Homogenization as opposed to Homogenicide?

  9. Felix_47

    I read the French are concerned they will lose access to uranium or something in Niger if they leave. I think the French would do well to leave and to also send all those from Niger that live in France back to Niger to improve their own society. Russia has plenty of uranium to sell to France. I do not believe in colonialism which is a form of migration as well. Local government should be better one would hope. But if all those from Niger that now are in France were sent back they would demand a better government.

  10. C. V. Neuves

    The author has not understood the concept of “life”: it is all about making the own genes, the genes of ones family, the genes of ones group dominant. This is a competition. With human beings there is a particular strong competition between groups, which can be expressed as trivial as in competition between horticultural hobbyists’ clubs, football clubs, etc. Which group is better managed, etc.

  11. podcastkid

    Well, I like summaries that move at a clip these days, and this was one of’em. The winner I guess will square the evidence with something readers can relate to, even though none of us were there. This pattern below was super interesting…

    As they conquered new lands, the peoples they defeated were absorbed or, if they refused to relinquish their culture, became the have-nots of a newly established order.

    What if they try to keep their culture, and absorb the new one too? They still end up have-nots!

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