Pre-History: The First Humans Before Civilization!

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A Brief History

On October 1, 2009, paleontologists formally announced the discovery of the relatively complete Ardipithecus ramidus fossil skeleton first unearthed in 1994.  An incredibly important find in the search for the origins of human beings, the fossil is of a creature that is both bipedal and arboreal, and not real good at either form of existence!  When walking upright, Ardipithecus ramidus was less efficient than humans, and life in the trees left him less than as adept as arboreal primates.  Still, Ardi is an example of the species that is recognized as the earliest member of the family Hominidae (living between 5.8 million and 4.4 million years ago) the family of primates that includes humans and great apes.

Digging Deeper

The previous major find in the early evolution of the human species was the discovery of the fossil skeleton of “Lucy” in Ethiopia in 1974, a specimen of Australopithecus afarensis believed to be about 3.2 million years old.  Although bipedal, like humans, Lucy and her kin sported a small braincase more like that of apes.  Some scientists believe Lucy and her Australopithecus kin are in the human family tree.  Along with the genera Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, the next step in human evolution is believed to be the genus we call Homo.  Various species of Australopithecines lived at the same time that the genus Homo made its appearance in various species, such as Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo rudolfensis, and later Homo naledi, but when Homo erectus made the historical scene about 2 million years ago, the Australopithecus genus was nearly gone, leaving Homo as the remaining genus in the human line.  Homo erectus, or “upright man,” is the first of the human ancestors to spread far and wide across Europe and Asia from Africa.  Various scientists have theorized that Homo erectus is the direct ancestor to Homo neanderthalensis and other archaic humans, as well perhaps as our own direct ancestor.

The Paleolithic Era, what we refer to as “The Stone Age” because the tools used by early man and his ancestors were made of stone (as well as wood and bones) rather than metal, began about 3.3 million years ago, and lasted until the end of the Pleistocene Epoch (from about 2.8 million years ago until about 11,650 years ago) when the  Mesolithic Era began (variously dated from about 12,000 years ago until about 5000 years ago).  The Paleolithic Era of human development saw early humans gathering plants and hunting animals with their stone, bone and wooden implements, but not engaging in agriculture, animal husbandry or village building.  During the latter half of the Paleolithic Era early humans began to leave traces of artwork and remnants of their tools and decorations.  Appearing as long ago as 196,000 years in the past, Modern Humans shared Eurasia with more archaic species such as Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, and another possible human ancestor known as Denisovans, that may or may not be a sub-species of Homo neanderthalensis.  The Neanderthals were the last species of human to co-exist with Modern Humans (Homo sapiens) and they are believed to have disappeared about 40,000 years ago, perhaps either out-competed by Modern Humans or perhaps having been assimilated into the Modern Human population through interbreeding.  In fact, scientists today tell us that most Europeans and Asian humans have some remnant of Neanderthal DNA in their genome, while generally sub-Saharan African people do not.  Neanderthals probably also interbred with Denisovans.  An important item of discussion among researchers of human evolution is the presence of a tiny bone in the throat called the hyoid bone that allows Modern Humans to engage in the full range of speech and sound making that we so ably demonstrate on a daily basis.  Notoriously difficult to find in ancient fossils of humans and their ancestors, it was long believed that Neanderthals lacked this important physical development necessary for modern speech, though more recently evidence of Neanderthals possessing this vital bone has been established, meaning that it is more likely than we previously believed that Neanderthals could communicate through a language, perhaps even with Modern Humans.

Found in archaeological sites as diverse as Indonesia, France and the Iberian peninsula, human created paintings and drawings in caves are believed to date as long ago as well over 60,000 years, about 20,000 years older than previously dated.  The oldest such examples of human art are of simple shapes and outlines of other objects (or hands), while actual depictions of animals and other objects date to as much as 45,000 years ago.  Caves in modern France and Spain provided the first glimpses of such ancient art to modern people, and at least 350 caves bearing such artwork have been discovered.  Since the erosive effects of wind, sun and water, as well as temperature changes, has a deleterious effect on artwork exposed to the elements, art left in caves by early humans is by far more likely to survive to modern times to be admired and researched by modern scientists than such artwork deposited on rocks exposed to the weather.  Caves have also provided rich hunting grounds for researchers for other archaic objects left behind by early humans, including Neanderthals, giving us our colloquial term, “Cave Man.”  Obviously, a cave often made a convenient place for early humans to shelter from the weather and dangerous animals, a place that required no construction and little preparation.  The meaning and purpose of such cave art has been debated, with some scientists insisting the work represents a mystical purpose or religious influence on a hunting society regarding their prey animals and other animals that competed for that prey.  Or perhaps the artwork was merely a diversion for aesthetic reasons known only to the ancient artists.

Another major step in the evolution of humans and of human civilization is what we call the Neolithic period, the final stages of the commonly referred to Stone Age.  About 12,000 years ago (10,000 BC) the first evidence of human agriculture (farms) enters the archaeological record, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period, until the advent of metallurgy about 5000 years later, first manifested in what we call the Bronze age.  The dates used here and in other sources are quite flexible, inasmuch as they are dependent on local circumstances in different parts of the world, as all human civilization did not develop simultaneously.  The Neolithic period may be said to have lasted until as late as 1700 BC in the more remote populations of Northern Europe, while in other locations, such as parts of China, the Neolithic period may have lasted until as recently as 1200 BC.  Meaning “New Stone Age,” the Neolithic period represents the gradual change from humans using stone, bone and wooden tools while hunting and gathering their food to a culture of farmers and animal keepers that employ metal tools and implements, while also creating permanent habitations such as villages and towns.  The earliest domesticated animal may well have been the dog, at first in its most basic wolf form, as long ago as 40,000 years before the present!  (Other estimates are a less remarkable 20,000 years ago.)  Other animals such as sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and chickens, were first domesticated around 11,000 years ago, with sheep being the likely first such subject of animal husbandry.

From the long evolution of hominids into the Neolithic era, the seeds were being planted for the eventual emergence of the first civilizations.  The development of agriculture made permanent settlements a necessity, and as villages and towns grew, specialization of skills and the division of labor allowed humans to develop a much higher degree of efficiency in producing food and products needed for survival.  As language and especially written language was developed, humans could communicate more effectively than any other organism, allowing a level of teamwork previously unseen on the Earth.  Human communication, cooperation and teamwork has set Man apart from other animals and has led to the relatively lightning fast development of humans as the master species on Earth.  The question now is, “For how much longer?”

Question for students (and subscribers): What distinguished the Old Stone Age from the New Stone Age?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Pattison, Kermit.  Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind.  William Morrow Paperbacks, 2021.

The featured image in this article, an illustration by William Daniel Snyder of a female Ardipithecus using a hammer and anvil to crack open a nut, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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