The strength and mobility of early man was not developed through structured programs, methods, or schedules, but rather was forged by the daily, instinctive, necessity-driven practice of highly practical and adaptable movement skills. Today, the few hunter-gatherer tribes which still exist around the world would have no idea what “primal fitness” or a “caveman workout” is, as this kind of “exercise” remains deeply ingrained in their everyday lives.
Starting between 10,000 and 8,000 BC, the Agricultural Revolution is often considered to be the dawn of civilization. Man’s transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer to farmer led to dramatic changes in his physical activity. The numerous demands of growing food and raising cattle meant a lot of chores and a lot of daily labor for farmers. But these tasks were largely repetitive, and required a very limited range of movement. At the same time, the need for performing a variety of complex movements — running, balancing, jumping, crawling, climbing — greatly diminished. Such movements were rarely performed in a farm environment, or were performed in much simpler ways; for example, climbing a ladder is safer and more constrained and predictable than climbing trees.
Between 4,000 BC and the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, civilizations rose and fell through war and conquest. Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, and later on, the Greeks and Romans all imposed physical training on boys and young men. The purpose? Preparing for battle. Ancient military training had similarities to the movements performed in nature by our cavemen brethren, but with more structure and a different end goal. Young men practiced fundamental skills such as walking and running on uneven terrains, jumping, crawling, climbing, lifting and carrying heavy things, throwing and catching, unarmed fighting, and weapons training. Civilized populations valued physical culture for sports as well. Records of athletic competitions exist from ancient Egypt, and of course, the ancient Greeks famously created the first Olympic games. Not surprisingly, these early sports were all based on practical, natural movement skills and were fundamentally related to the preparedness needed for war — the Greeks strove to best each other in running (sometimes with armor and shield), jumping, throwing (javelin or discus), and fighting (striking and wrestling).
Outside of military training and sports, Greeks, and later the Romans, celebrated the body’s beauty and strength and embraced physical training as a philosophical ideal and an essential part of a complete education. They celebrated the idea of having a sound mind, in a sound body. Physical culture started to rise beyond practical necessities to become a means to an end — an “art de vivre.”