Sunday, November 9, 2008

Prehistoric Humans

Little is known about the lives of early human beings. What we do know has been gathered through the study of ancient caves that scientists called archeologists believe early humans probably lived in.

Early Humans

The evidence suggests that the first human beings lived in caves along the Southern coast of Africa. This region provided ample supplies of food, as well as a warm climate.

It is believed that the men probably traveled in hunting packs or groups into the mainland looking for big game, while the women stayed near the coast.


Another type of scientist that studies human history are anthropologists. Anthropologists study humans and other human-like creatures known as hominids. They compare the bones, of these creatures to one another, looking for changes in brain size, and posture.


Mankind begin keeping a written history about 5,500 years ago. Much of what we think of as human history happened between then, and now. However, in reality this is just the scratch on the surface.

Anthropologists and archeologists have traced human history back some 4.4 million years.

Dating Fossils and Artifacts

How do scientist such as anthropologists or archeologists determine how long ago an artifact was created, or how long ago a fossilized creature lived?

Dating Objects

In today’s society the products we consume often come with an expiration date. A date that tells us when we should use the product by. Best if used by… Ancient artifacts and fossils do not come with dates stamped on them. Thus scientists must use detective work to determine their date of origin.

Radiocarbon Dating

One method that scientists use to date ancient fossils and artifacts is called radiocarbon dating. All living things on Earth are made up of a high percentage of an element called Carbon. Carbon combines with other elements in complex ways to form the molecules that make up our bodies. Most carbon on Earth is not radioactive, but a very small percentage is. Thus, as living things take in carbon, they inevitably will take up a small amount of radioactive carbon into their bodies.

When these life forms die, they stop taking in new carbon. The carbon in their bodies at the time of their death will remain in their bodies until they decompose, or if they become fossilized, then forever.

Radioactive carbon decays at a known rate. This allows scientists to look at the amount of decay in a fossil’s radioactive carbon, and determine a relative date.

Lab for Radiocaron Dating

Radiocarbon dating is only effective for objects and fossils that are less than 50,000 years old. However, scientists can look at the decay of other elements in these objects allowing them to date them up to 2.2 billion years.

These dating techniques are by no means perfect, but they are always improving, and they are the best methods that we have at this time.

Early Hominids

Human like animals that walked upright were known as hominids. It is believed that the earliest hominids lived around 4.4 million years ago in the humid forests of eastern and southern Africa.


These animals, known as Australopithecus are believed to have been around three to five feet tall, and probably fed on leaves, fruits, and the remains of dead animals. There is no evidence that Australopithecus made their own tools. There is however strong evidence that they used sticks, and bones to help them dig, and defend themselves.

Hominid Types

Scientists such as anthropologists divide hominids into three different types based on their body shapes, and lifestyles. The first type of hominids are referred to as Homo habilis, which means ‘person with abilities’. It is believed that Homo habilis lived until about 1.5 million years ago.

Hominid Types

The second type of early human living on the Earth was Homo erectus which means ‘person who walks upright. Homo erectus lived on the Earth until about 150,000 years ago.

The final type of hominid living on the Earth are Homo sapiens. Homo sapien means ‘person who can think’. All humans living on the Earth today are Homo sapiens.

Ice Ages Effect Human Evolution

During the last 2 million years the Earth has experienced four long periods of cold climate known as ice ages. During each ice age, the average temperatures around the world has droped dramatically. While the middle latitudes near the equator stay warm, the higher latitudes both in the North, and in the South get very cold, making life in these regions more difficult.

During these periods, massive glaciers form, which can cover thousands of square miles. As ice sheets spread across the landscape they freeze out plants and animals. As more and more water freezes the sea level decreases by as much as 300 feet. As sea levels drop, land bridges appear between continents and islands.

Land Bridges

Cooler temperatures forced change on early hominids. They either had to adapt to their new environments, migrate, or perish. Land bridges allowed hominids to migrate to new lands such as the Americas, Japan, Malaysia, and Australia. Cooler temperatures spawned the development of clothes, and the discovery and mastery of fire.

Tools And The Stone Age

One of the most important advancements in human history was the development and use of tools. Tools allowed hominids to become the masters of their environments, to hunt, to build, and to perform important tasks that made life easier for them. The first tools were made out of stone. Thus, historians refer to the period of time before written history as the stone age.

Stone Age

Historians divide the stone age into three different periods, based on the sophistication and methods of tool design. The first such period is referred to as the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. The Old Stone Age began about 2 million years ago with the development of the first tools by Homo Habilis, and lasted until around 12,000 years ago.

The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age began around 12,000 years ago, and continued through about 8,000 years ago. The Neolithic or New Stone Age lasted from 8,000 years until around 5,000 years ago.

Homo Habilis

It is believed that Homo habilis were the first hominids to create and use tools. These creatures lived in Africa from about 1.5 million years ago until around 1.5 million years ago. Homo Habilis probably lived alongside Australopithecus. However, their larger bodies, and brains would have given them a clear advantage.

Homo Habilis

Homo Erectus

Homo erectus inhabited Africa, Asia and Europe some 1.6 million years ago, and remained active in these areas until around 250,000 years ago. Their large brains allowed them to easily adapt to a wide variety of environments. Fossils of Homo erectus have been found in forests, planes, and grasslands.

Homo Erectus

Historians believe that Homo erectus began as gatherers but advanced over many generations into hunters. The women likely stayed close to home, where they cared for children, and gathered nuts, fruit, and leaves for eating.

It is believed that the men went in hunting groups in search of meat. At first they only looked for animals that were already dead. Over time, however, they developed tools such as clubs that allowed them to hunt and kill animals.

With the discovery of fire, Homo erectus became even more adept at survival. Fire allowed them to cook their food, to stay warm in cool environments, and to utilize caves as shelter.

In order to keep warm, Homo erectus began utilizing clothing. This began with individuals placing animal skins over their bodies, and became more advanced as they learned to stitch animal skins together using stripes of leather.

Hominids Leave Africa

Due to the scarcity of evidence, there is a great deal of disagreement among scientists about exactly when prehistoric peoples left Africa and migrated to other parts of the world.

Hominids Leave Africa

Some evidence suggests that Homo habilis may have been the first to leave Africa. However, if they did, it is unlikely that they remained very long. There is however strong evidence that Homo erectus migrated from Africa around 1.6 million years ago.

Fossil evidence shows that Homo erectus had arrived in Asia by around 460,000 years ago, and in Europe around 400,000 years ago.

Language Develops

The first simple languages spoken by Homo erectus likely developed around 500,000 years ago. This would have been a dramatic development, of paramount importance.

Language Develops

Prior to spoken languages, members of a group communicated with one another by grunting or through simple noises, and hand gestures. Spoken language allowed group members to exchange complex thoughts and ideas, and pass on their culture from one generation to the next.

Now groups could discuss plans, teach techniques, explain how to track animals, or where to go to find water, as well as form religion and folklore.

The knowledge of one generation could now be passed down to the next, building from generation to generation, expanding the human experience.

Homo Sapiens

Hominids evolved and developed for millions of years prior to the arrival of Homo sapiens on the Earth. This evolution was slow. The development of a new skill, or tool often took thousands of years. With the arrival of Homo sapiens, this all changed. The speed of advancements increased dramatically. Instead of thousands of years, great progress was made in hundreds or even dozens of years.

Homo Sepian


The first Homo sapiens are believed to have been the Neanderthals. Neanderthal people first appeared on the Earth around 200,000 years ago, in Africa. They migrated from Africa to the rest of the world around 100,000 years ago.


Neanderthals were around five to six feet in height. They had thick sturdy bones, and muscular shoulders, legs, arms, and necks. The Neanderthals also had a large brain. In fact, their brain was slightly larger than that of modern humans.

Neanderthals And Tool Making

Like earlier hominids, Neanderthals made and used tools. However, the tools produced by the Neanderthals were much more advanced than those used by their predecessors.

Neanderthals And Their Tools

Neanderthals learned to create specialized cutting, and scrapping tools by chipping away at the edge of a rock. They learned to combine different types of stone into a single tool, and they discovered how to use a wide variety of soft and hard stones for specialized tasks.

Neanderthal Shelters

The Neanderthal lived throughout a widely divergent climate and habitat. These peoples adapted quickly to new environments as they migrated. Some lived in caves, while others built shelters out of branches and animal skins. Still others dug pits and covered them with branches, animal skins, and leaves.

Neanderthal Shelters

Neanderthal Culture

Because the Neanderthal spread throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe, their cultures were as different as the places they inhabited. Archeological finds have given historians a small glance into some of their beliefs and ways of life.

There is strong evidence that the Neanderthal had a belief in the afterlife. Burial plots have been found where the dead were covered with flowers, and buried with food, and with the tools they would need in the next life.

Neanderthal Culture

There is also evidence that Neanderthal cared for their sick and injured. Fossil remains show serious injuries, such as broken legs, which had healed completely. It is even possible that Neanderthal used medicines.

Homo Sapiens Sapiens

It is believed that modern humans like you and I first originated on the Earth around 50,000 years ago in Africa. These modern humans are referred to by historians as Homo sapiens sapiens. Within just a few thousand years these modern humans had spread to every continent across the entire planet, and onto many islands.

Homo Sapien Sapien

As Homo sapiens sapiens migrated outward from Africa, it is believed that they wiped out Neanderthals, either by absorbing them through intermarriage, or by destroying them through war and competition.


The earliest Homo sapiens sapiens were the Cro-Magnons. These early modern humans are named after the location of their discovery in France in the 1860s. Since their original discovery many other Cro-Magnon fossils and artifacts have been found throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Cro Magnon

Cro-Magnons were taller than the Neanderthal, but they were not as muscular. A very important advantage is that they had much improved technologies, languages, and cultures over those of the Neanderthals.

The Tools And Technology of Cro-Magnons

The advanced tools and technology of Cro-Magnons allowed them to quickly adapt to, and master their environments. In addition to stone, Cro-Magnons used other materials for making tools. These materials included bones, antlers, teeth, and ivory.

With these new materials, they were able to create sharper blades, needles for sewing, and fishhooks for fishing. Cro-Magnons also invented new kinds of long distance weapons, such as bow and arrows and spear throwers.

Cro-Magnon Tools

Axes allowed humans to chop down trees. Evidence has been found to show that early humans used some of these logs to make canoes.

New technologies dramatically increased the amount of food available. This in turn allowed for the population of Cro-Magnon to explode.

Cro-Magnon Social Life

At first, Cro-Magnon life was not all that different from the lives of earlier hominids. They lived in caves, or temporary structures, and spent their lives hunting and gathering in small groups.

As food sources increased humans settlements became more permanent. Many groups began building homes out of logs or stone. Smaller groups joined together forming larger groups.

Cro-Magnon Village

As these groups developed, so did the need for order. In order to allow individuals to interact with one another, it was necessary that these groups developed rules or laws. To help enforce these laws, there had to be leaders appointed.

Each group or tribe had their own methods for appointing leaders. Sometimes leaders were selected through fighting. In other cases they were appointed according to religious beliefs or through inheritance.

The Agricultural Revolution

For hundreds of thousands of years hominids depended on nature for their survival. Food came from wild plants and animals. A natural disaster could reduce the amount of food in the environment which might have a devastating effect on the peoples in nearby regions.

Around 8,000 years ago a new way of providing food emerged. This revolutionary advancement was that of farming. Instead of hunting and gathering food from the environments where they lived, humans learned to simply grow their own food.

The Agricultural Revolution

Grains such as wheat, barley, rice, and corn were grown in different parts of the world. Wild animals were also domesticated. Goats were utilized for their meat and milk, cattle, pigs, and chickens provided a steady source of food for the support of a group of humans.

Villages Develop

With the advent of farming and domesticated animals to feed a society, life became much easier for early humans. As a result, many more humans survived the difficulties of life. The population quickly rose from around 2 million humans on the Earth, to more than 90 million.

Farming allowed people to build villages along rivers, or wherever the ground was fertile enough for crops to grow. Archeologists have found some villages that are believed to have been built more than 8,000 years ago. Some of these ancient villages, such as Jericho, still survive to this day.

Ancient Village

Technologies Advance Quickly

With an abundance of food, and more permanent shelters, people had more time to devote to the development of new technologies. Better farming equipment, such as the ox driven plow were invented. The wheel aided humans greatly in transporting goods from one location to another. The loom allowed people to weave clothe, and create finer and more comfortable clothing.

Technologies Advance

Tools were created for measuring the passage of time, such as calendars, star charts, and sun dials. This helped farmers track when the growing season would arrive, and when the best time to plant crops would be.

People learned improved farming techniques, such as how to use fertilizers in their fields, and how to better utilize water through irrigation. Villages dug large canals, and complex systems of ditches delivering water from distant sources to where it was most needed.

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