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K12 LibreTexts

1.3: Prehistoric Times

  • Page ID
    3294
  • Student Learning Objectives:

    At the end of this section, the student will be able to

    • Identify major causes and describe the major effects of the following events from 8000 BC to 500 BC: the development of agriculture and the development of the river valley civilizations.
    • Interpret maps, charts, and graphs to explain how geography has influenced people and events in the past.
    • Identify significant examples of art and architecture that demonstrate an artistic ideal or visual principle from selected cultures.
    • Analyze examples of how art, architecture, literature, music, and drama reflect the history of the cultures in which they are produced.
    • Identify examples of art, music, and literature that transcend the cultures in which they were created and convey universal themes.

    The Stone Age

    Evidence of life from about 30,000 years ago has been found in cave paintings, in burial chambers, and in the form of crude tools. But what about time dating earlier than that? This "Prehistoric" period — before writing and civilizations — is called the Stone Age and is extremely valuable to our understanding of our earliest hominid ancestors. Hominids comprise humans today, extinct ancestors, and apes that share similarities with humans.

    The earliest and longest period of the Stone Age is called the Paleolithic Age. This comes from the Greek word Palaios, meaning "long ago" or "old," and lithos, meaning "stone" — put together, Paleolithic Age means Old Stone Age.

    The Old Stone Age began approximately 4.5 million years ago. It lasted until about 10,000 BCE — relatively recently in terms of the overall age of the earth. It was at the beginning of the Old Stone Age, approximately 4.4 million years ago, that the first human ancestors made their appearance on earth.

    Approximately 3.5 million years ago, hominids began walking upright. What did they eat? Where did they live? The archaeological evidence is not clear. Those who study the earliest hominids do know, however, that these human ancestors physically changed in response to their environment.

    Chill Out

    Dramatic changes in world climate started taking place about 1.5 million years ago. Most of the world became cold — really cold. This plunge in temperature began one of four distinct periods of frigid temperatures known as the Ice Ages. Each of these frigid periods lasted between 10,000 to 50,000 years. The most recent one chilled the Earth just over 10,000 years ago.

    During this most recent Ice Age, the northern polar icecap moved so far south that massive sheets of ice covered much of the northern hemisphere. In some areas the ice was several miles thick. About 1/3 of the earth's surface was encased in an icy layer — that's four times the amount of ice normally found on earth today. Naturally, hunting and gathering abilities were interfered with during the Ice Ages.

    Once these frigid years were over, a revolution took place — humans started planting crops. This new way of life, which began about 10,000 years ago, led to permanent settlements and the world's first communities. Farming and the domestication of animals mark the beginning of the Neolithic Age, also called the New Stone Age.

    So what they did they wear and eat? What follows is a look at some of our earliest known human ancestors — how they lived, how they changed, and how they interacted with their environment.
    Archeologists and anthropologists unearth the remains of prehistoric people. Their work helps to answer profound questions:

    • Who are humans?
    • Where did we come from?
    • Where are we going?

    Food, Clothing, and Shelter

    Could you survive in the wild? TV shows like "Gilligan's Island" and "Survivor" and books and movies like "Lord of the Flies" ask this question. Small groups of people are set down on a deserted island and left to fend for themselves. They have none of the things we take for granted, such as easy access to food, shelter, clothing, or video games. There are no cities, no roads, no tools, no doctors, no computers — and no malls.

    In part, these shows are so compelling because it is interesting to ponder how each one of us would do in such a setting. Could you create tools, make rules, gather food, or work with wood? Could you weave clothes, protect your toes, fight off a beast, or know which direction is east?

    Now take yourself back 20,000 years. For Neanderthal Man, each and every day was a challenge. What was life like for Neanderthals? How did early humans find food, make clothing, and seek shelter?

    Hominids, History, and Prehistory

    Modern day farm animals were pretty different from the original wild animals. Find out where the horse and the chicken came from.

    Before answering these questions, it will be useful to understand how we know what we know about early hominids. Hominids are from the family homidiane, and refer to primate mammals who could stand on two legs. We are hominids as were our ancestors, including Java Man, Neanderthal Man, Beijing Man, and Lucy.

    When studying humans, historians strongly rely on written records to gather information about the past. History, as it pertains to mankind, is said to begin with the invention of writing, about 5,000 years ago.

    But humans lived long before the invention of writing. Prehistory refers to this long time period before writing was invented. How do we know what life was like if there were no written records of prehistory? Anthropologists and archaeologists work together with other scientists in answering this question. They use artifacts and fossils — clues from ancient times. After testing and analyzing them, educated conclusions are made about life in prehistoric times. Some of the conclusions are wrong, some are somewhat correct, and others may be entirely correct. Some theories will change as the next generations of scientists and historians glean more information.

    Imagine yourself digging through a stranger's trash. You can draw some conclusions about his or her life based on what you find. While archaeologists don't exactly dig through trash, they do sift through fossil remains and artifacts and try to explain things.

    For the Ages

    Prehistory is divided into different time periods. The use of stone tools by early people led historians to apply the name Stone Age to the period before writing became established.

    The Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, began about 4.5 million years ago and lasted until about 10,000 B.C.E. Many anthropologists believe that creatures vaguely resembling Homo sapiens (that's us today) may have lived at the onset of the Stone Age.

    The Neolithic, or New Stone Age, lasted from 10,000 B.C.E. until approximately 3,000 B.C.E. By the end of this era, villages and farms had come into existence.

    Scientists believe that the earliest hominids may have used caves as shelters. They probably ate vegetables and gathered seeds, fruits, nuts and other edible plants. Later, scientists speculate, meat was added to the diet as small animals were hunted. Eventually, humans hunted large animals.

    In order to hunt successfully, early men had to work together. As humans became successful hunters, they migrated over great distances in search of food. For nearly a million years, however, periods of extremely cold weather during the Ice Age limited the areas to which early people could migrate. Prehistoric people learned how to use fire and make warm clothing in response to this cold climate.

    Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons

    In 1856, human remains were found in the Neander Valley of Germany. This is where the Neanderthal people lived some 60,000 years ago. They had stocky builds, heavy jaws, thick eyebrow ridges, and large noses. Unlike hominids who came before them, they made efficient tools and wore heavy clothing made of animal skins.

    Most Neanderthals lived in groups of 50 people. Some may have dwelled in open-air camps along the shores of lakes and rivers. They cared for their sick and aged and may have been the first to practice a primitive form of medicine.

    The Cro-Magnons were one of the earliest Homo sapiens. They lived in Europe and lived after the Neanderthals. They lived inside cave entrances while others built huts in forested areas. Long houses made of stone blocks were also used for communities of 30-100 people. Hunting weapons which allowed for a safe distance, such as the spear and bow, were used to hunt the woolly mammoth and bison.

    How did early Homo sapiens such as Cro-Magnons compare with humans of today? In essence, we are brainier and they were brawnier. But the similarities, despite the passage of thousands of years, are striking.

    A Page Right Out of History

    Because there was no written language 50,000 years ago, we do not have much information on how a "modern stone age family" lived, what they ate, where they lived, what they wore, or even what they looked like. Like Fred Flintstone, did they have leopardskin suits, go barefoot, and use a boulder for a bowling ball?

    Archaeologists and anthropologists who study this time period do have artifacts upon which they can begin to draw some conclusions. Techniques like carbon dating can help scientists determine the age of objects and bones. Large human skulls, body bones, animal skeletons, cave paintings, and scientific ideas on ancient climate patterns allow scientists to draw a picture of what life may have been like for primitive people

    Archaeologists excavate artifacts at Çatal Hüyük. This Turkish site is one of the oldest human settlements to be discovered.

    Long and Evolved Story

    As a result of the Neolithic Revolution, humans settled in one place permanently in order to grow food. Shown here is an example of early Neolithic settlement; the remnants of an early village in Jordan.

    People living in Africa and advances in agriculture sparked the beginning of the Mesolithic Age or Middle Stone Age. This period lasted from about 10,000 BCE until about 8,000 years ago in Africa and Asia, although this date varies according to region. Raising crops for food signifies the beginning of a new way of life for people.

    The Neolithic Age or New Stone Age was revolutionary. About 10,000 years ago people learned to make better tools and weapons, establish permanent villages and domesticate animals for food and work. They were beginning to live like "modern" people.

    This "Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution," did not happen overnight. It took several millennia after the first discovery of agriculture for people to form settled societies.

    Jarmo in present day Iraq was one of the oldest settled civilizations. At 8,750 years old, this little town was home to 200 inhabitants. Catal Hüyük in present day Turkey was an even larger society with almost 3,000 residents 8,000 years ago.

    Slowly but surely modern human beings had evolved.

    Vocabulary

    Quizlet Flashcard Vocabulary on Prehistory Times

    Stone Age
    a historical era existing before humans learned to develop metal technologies, characterized by a hunting and gathering way of life
    Paleolithic Period
    also known as the Old Stone Age, this era extended from about 4.4 million years ago to about 10,000 BCE. It ended with the dawn of the Neolithic Period and the proliferation of agriculture. this period saw the evolution of the earliest hominids to modern humans.
    Neolithic Period
    also known as the New Stone Age, this period began around 10,000 BCE and ended around 3,000 BCE. Humans learned how to farm during this period and settled in permanent civilizations. The development of written languages marks the close of this period.

    Internet Sources

    First Peoples by PBS

    Human Evolution by Smithsonian Institution

    References

    Image Reference Attributions

    [Figure 4]

    Credit: upload.wikimedia.org/wikiped...y%C3%BCk_8.JPG
    Source: By Stipich Béla [(www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) ; CC-BY-SA-3.0] ; from Wikimedia Commons
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0