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Big Era Two

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Human Beings almost Everywhere
200,000-10,000 Years Ago

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This Big Era and the Three Essential Questions

This is the first era in which our own species, Homo sapiens, is known to have existed. Therefore, it is the first era of human history. Scholars argue vigorously about when Homo sapiens first appeared. An increasing number of archaeologists and paleontologists think that this happened about 200,000 BP, in eastern Africa. One reason supporting this approximate date is that today the genetic differences between humans are very small, far too small for those differences to have accumulated over a period much longer than 200,000 years. Also, fossilized remains of humans from almost 200,000 BP suggest that they were almost identical to the anatomies of people living today. There are also hints that those folk were beginning to behave very differently from earlier hominins.

Big Era Two extends to about 10,000 BP when, in some parts of the world, humans began for the first time to take up farming. Scholars conventionally mark that date as the approximate transition from the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) to the Neolithic (New Stone Age). That is when humans in some places started using an array of more sophisticated stone tools, many of which assisted in early agricultural production. So we can think of Big Era Two as the era of human history that preceded farming and agriculture.

This era before farming was by far the longest in human history—embracing about 95 percent of the time that our species has existed on earth—but it is also the era we know least about. So in discussing it we will have to explore the different types of evidence used to try to understand it.

Most historical scholarship is based on written evidence. Writing did not exist during Big Era Two, however, so we cannot tell a traditional historical story about this period. For example, we do not know the names of a single society or individual from that era.

Nevertheless, scholars have done a great deal of research in archaeology. Therefore, we can say a surprising amount about how humans lived and how they related to the natural environment. We can even make some reasonable guesses about how they thought about the external world around them. Archaeologists are extremely skillful at examining material objects that have survived from this era in order to help us understand how people lived. For example, scholars can learn much by examining the bones of both humans and the animals humans hunted. Archaeologists also analyze the remains of human tools or foods. They can often date these remains quite accurately. They can therefore study how technologies changed over time and how humans slowly spread into new areas. They also use what they know about climatic change to make inferences about changes in human life. Finally, study of modern communities that use technologies similar to those known in Big Era Two can give us some helpful hints about the way people lived, the organization of their communities, and the sort of perceptions they may have had about their world.

In recent years, scientists have discovered a major new source for reconstructing early human history, especially the dating and patterns of migratory movements. This tool is the analysis of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the material inside the nucleus of a cell that carries genetic information for reproduction of cells. Scientists can determine the DNA profile of any individual by drawing a blood sample or taking a swab of cells from inside a person's mouth. As DNA flows from one generation of humans to the next, small alterations, or mutations occur. This happens at a regular rate, which means that over time the genetic differences between individuals sharing a common ancestor statistically increase. The longer two human populations have no contact with one another, the greater the genetic differences between them will be. Using complicated biochemical procedures, scientists can measure the rate of change in genetic material and therefore estimate how long ago in thousands or even tens of thousands of years two human groups separated from each other. From this data, scholars may propose hypotheses about early migratory directions and dating.

To understand how people might have been thinking before 10,000 BP, we have to resort mostly to indirect forms of evidence. If people buried their dead, it is tempting to think that they had an idea of an afterlife and were, in some sense, religious. Art, however, provides probably the most powerful evidence of how humans perceived their world. Most archaeologists believe that the existence of art is one of the first signs that humans had a wider, more complex ability to communicate. So, when we find early evidence of art, we are probably in the presence of people who were capable of using language.

Bone fish hooks found in western Europe and dated between 25,000 and 15,000 BP

Kathleen Cohen
World Images
Bone fish hooks

Language may in fact be the defining characteristic of our species. Apart from the evidence of bones, how can we tell that early Homo sapiens really were fully human? In fact, what is it that distinguishes humans from animals? Historians, philosophers, and archaeologists have debated this basic question for a long time, and they have not reached a universally accepted answer. One trait that appears on most lists of what makes us human is the ability to communicate with one another through language.

Many animals can use gestures to communicate with each other, but only humans can communicate information with precision and detail. Only humans can talk about things that are not present (a new pathway through a forest), things that probably do not exist (dragons, leprechauns, or sky gods), things that are abstract (one o'clock in the afternoon or the beauty of a ripe pear). Because of this ability, humans can communicate to one another the results of what they learn in their lifetime. And that means that within each community, knowledge could accumulate as each individual and each generation contributed to the common store of knowledge. This transformed the relationship of humans to their environment and to each other.

Humans and the Environment
Humans and the Environment arrow item

All animals learn how to get food and other resources from their environment. When an animal dies, however, almost all the knowledge it has accumulated in its lifetime dies with it. The ability of humans to communicate very precisely with each other changed that rule. The things that individuals learned during their lifetime could now be passed on to others. This meant that new knowledge could be stored up and handed on to the next generation. So humans, unlike all other animals, slowly accumulated more and more new ways of dealing with their environment and preserving what they knew. They could add to their knowledge from one century to another. This process, which we call "collective learning," explains many of the distinctive features of the history of our species.

One of the earliest signs of the presence of modern humans is an acceleration in the pace of technological change. The stone tools of the earlier hominins show little change in the course of a million years or more. But once humans appear, so do new types of tools. These implements are more varied, more delicately made, and more precisely designed for specific tasks. By modern standards, the pace of technological change was still slow. Nevertheless, Big Era Two witnessed changes that have transformed human history at an accelerating speed ever since.

Adaptation and Migration

As technologies changed, people learned to live in more varied environments. By 100,000 BP, Homo sapiens had already learned to live in places, such as deserts and dense forests, that no earlier hominins had occupied. Later, modern humans began to explore environments outside their African homeland. From about 100,000 BP, we have evidence of modern humans inhabiting Southwest Asia (the Middle East), and then over the following 80,000 to 90,000 years migrating to most other regions of Afroeurasia and to Australia and the Americas.

In recent years evidence has been accumulating to suggest that the earliest bands of foragers, that is, communities that made a living by hunting and gathering food, made their way eastward across Eurasia. Evidence from DNA suggests that humans departed from Africa by an easterly route starting in perhaps 70,000 BP, moving around the rim of the Arabian Sea to India, and eventually from there around the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia and China. We do not know if they had rafts or canoes, but they may well have had some kind of craft because open water separated northeastern Africa from the Arabian Peninsula even during the last Ice Age, or Pleistocene, when much water was locked up in glaciers and sea levels were 200 feet lower than they are today. Forager bands making their way across Eurasia could have thrived, multiplied, and made rapid progress (on a scale of thousands of years) because they did not have to face radically varying ecological conditions if they kept to tropical coastlands. They would have had an abundant and nutritious diet of edible plants, fish, and seafood. Traces of their campsites and boats may now lie deep under water because sea levels rose after the Ice Age began to recede in about 18,000 BP.

Perhaps in 60,000 BP or even earlier, some humans crossed a short expanse of sea to settle on the continent of Sahul, a landmass that at that time joined together Australia and Papua New Guinea. From perhaps 40,000 BP, humans began to occupy the cold lands of Russia and Ukraine. From there, they migrated into the even icier environments of Siberia. In such cold climates, they needed highly specialized technologies. They built pit houses and learned to sew warm clothing using bone needles. They also learned to be very efficient hunters. Because plant foods were scarce, they had to learn how to hunt huge animals such as mammoths.

Migrations of Homo sapiens map

At least by 15,000 BP and very likely thousands of years earlier, some humans crossed the Bering Strait from eastern Siberia into the Americas. Once in the Western Hemisphere, they spread from northern Canada to the southern end of South America within one or two thousand years. Scholars have recently argued that humans accomplished this feat in as short a time as they did because the first peoples who inhabited the western coast lands of the Americas thrived on a rich marine diet. As their numbers grew, they migrated steadily southward in small boats. Archeological evidence from a site in Virginia suggests that humans also crossed North America overland, arriving at the Atlantic seaboard as long ago as 15,000 BP.


Humans Populate the Major Landmasses of the World arrow item

Humans' Environmental Impact

In Australia, Siberia, and the Americas, humans found many new species of animals and plants. In these regions, animals had never encountered humans before, and many species underestimated how dangerous this strange new two-legged creature was. Consequently, the first human colonists found hunting easy. This may explain why many large animal species—the mammoths of Siberia, the giant wombats and emus of Australia, the horses and saber-toothed tigers of the Americas—soon became extinct. Humans also learned to use fire to burn vegetation and encourage new plant growth, thereby attracting the plant-eating animals that they wanted to hunt. By regularly setting fire to the land and by over-hunting, humans began to have a significant impact on the natural environment wherever they settled.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of how dangerous modern humans could be was the disappearance of all other hominin species. Neanderthals, and perhaps some types of Homo erectus, survived throughout much of Big Era Two. These species may even have met groups of Homo sapiens. Neanderthals had brains at least as large as ours, and they were effective hunters. But it seems they could not communicate with each other nearly as well as modern humans could. We have no evidence that they had the gift of language. They appear, therefore, to have lacked the remarkable adaptability and flexibility that modern humans had owing to their capacity for collective learning.

As far as we know, the last Neanderthals lived in the south of France, perhaps in 25,000 to 30,000 BP. There are hints that they tried, and failed, to imitate the technologies of modern humans. Other hominins may have lived almost as recently in parts of Southeast Asia. We cannot know for certain, but it seems likely that, as modern humans occupied more and more territory, close genetic relatives living in those regions were slowly driven to extinction.

By 10,000 BP, humans could be found in all the world's big landmasses—Afroeurasia, Australia, and the Americas. As the area that humans occupied expanded, their numbers probably increased as well. Yet the size of each community likely remained small. In other words, population increased by "extensification," that is, by increasing the number of communities and the area of settlement across the world without increasing the size of each community. By contrast, "intensification," which means increasing the size of each community and the numbers living within a given area, would become more important in Big Era Three after farming came into use. But even the slow population growth of Big Era Two may have raised the total number of humans from a few hundred thousand to a few millions. If so, the population world-wide at the end of the era was 1/1000th its size today.


Humans and Other Humans
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How did people live in Big Era Two? Archaeologists can tell us a lot about their dwellings and the tools they used, but it is harder to understand their social and cultural lives. We are sure that virtually all people were gatherers, hunters, or fishers in that era, even though the techniques people employed continued to vary and multiply as groups settled more widely across the globe.

Social Life in the Paleolithic Era

We may be able to gain insight into the social and economic lives of Big Era Two peoples by investigating the lifeways of those few modern societies that continue to survive by hunting and gathering. Scholars have to use this kind of evidence cautiously because we certainly cannot assume that modern foragers live generally the same way that their predecessors did 10,000 to 200,000 years BP! We can, however, use modern evidence to advance some hypotheses. Today's forager communities make up a minuscule percentage of the world's population, but they persist in a few places on all the continents. Except in extremely cold environments, they rely mainly on gathered plants for subsistence. Meat is valued, and most communities have hunters who occasionally bring it in. But meat is not the main component of most forager diets because hunting is usually less reliable than gathering.

In cold environments such as the Arctic where plant foods are scarce, people rely on the meat from seals, whales, and caribou. Their hunting techniques have to be extremely sophisticated. All foragers have to have deep knowledge about the plants and animals they use. Most modern forager communities are mobile, traveling through the land as the seasons change and staying in a single camp for only a few weeks before moving on. The largest communities are really large families, that is, groups of ten to forty or fifty people who travel together and periodically encounter other groups. When they meet, individuals often move from one group to another because of marriages, quarrels, or even boredom.

The main divisions within these forager communities are of age and gender. Men and women often have different economic and social roles, as do the old and the young, but there are few differences in wealth and power because no one stores up wealth. It does not make sense to do that if you can find the things you need all around you. And besides, if you are traveling much of the time, why try to carry many possessions with you? By combining the knowledge we have of modern foragers with the evidence of archaeology (stone tools and weapons, human and animal bones, and the remains of camp sites), we can construct a broad picture of how people lived during Big Era Two.

The Beginnings of Permanent Settlement

Towards the end of the era, we start finding signs that some communities were spending more time at particular sites and becoming more settled. This may have happened earliest in coastal areas where marine food resources were particularly abundant. As communities stayed longer in a single place, they devised new ways to increase their food supply. For example, they might care for stands of favored food plants by clearing weeds or scaring away birds. Or, they might build weirs (enclosures set in a waterway) to stock fish or eels. These technological innovations had features that were at least faintly characteristic of farming, the technology that appeared in Big Era Three.

Was foraging life 10,000 years or longer ago "nasty, brutish, and short," as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought, or was it reasonably comfortable? On one hand, it is probable that many people died young from illnesses, childbirth crises, or hunting expeditions gone bad. On the other hand, studies of modern hunter-gatherers suggest that in Big Era Two humans had a varied and nutritionally-adequate diet, as well as much more leisure time in a day than farmers have traditionally had. So, for a person born into a forager community, that mode of living was probably both satisfying and fulfilling.


Humans and Ideas
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Modern forager communities often think of the world as a place full of many different types of intelligent beings besides humans. Peoples who lived in Big Era Two may have thought the same thing. Some cave and rock paintings, as well as sculptured objects of stone, bone, or ivory, survive from the era. Many of the paintings depict hunting, but some artistic expressions also hint at various kinds of magical, supernatural beliefs. These pictures are hard to interpret, but they seem to describe a world full of spirits—spirits that animate stones, mountains, lakes, trees, and animals. If this is the case, then it is probable that humans in Big Era Two thought of themselves as just one part of the natural world. They had none of the sense of separateness from nature that characterizes religions and cosmologies in later eras of history.

The Earliest Art

Cave paintings and carved objects were just one of the ways that women and men expressed themselves symbolically through art. An early hint of the existence of art among humans is the physical evidence of powdered pigments. People appear to have ground up pigments, such as ochre, and used them to paint themselves or their surroundings. In fact, evidence of ground pigment use in southern Africa dates to well over 100,000 BP. Therefore, we may also have an early date for the use of language.

This scene was painted in
natural pigments on the wall of a cave in Lascaux, France.
The painting is dated
between 12,000 and 17,000 BP.

Kathleen Cohen
World Images
Hall of the Bulls. Lascaux Cave Painting

Archaeologists have unearthed tantalizing evidence of advanced technical skill and symbolic thinking at sites in Africa. In 2007, scientists working in eastern Morocco announced the discovery of perforated marine shell beads that they believe are 82,000 years old. These trinkets are colored with red ochre, and some of them show wear patterns suggesting that people suspended them from a cord. A site called Twilight Cave in Kenya has revealed ostrich eggshell beads dated to about 40,000 BP. Men and women appear to have been making and wearing beads from South Africa to the shores of the Mediterranean thousands of years before our species ventured to other parts of the world.

Sites of Early Symbolic Expressions Through Art

In any case, between about 50,000 to 10,000 BP, the period scholars call the Upper Paleolithic, artistic expression burst forth in many parts of the world. Humans began to produce not only paintings and carvings but also necklaces, bracelets, pendants, beads, and ornamental headgear. Through this art women and men represented their world symbolically.

Wherever people lived, they took advantage of the local materials and opportunities they had. Wall painting, for example, is concentrated heavily in northern Spain and southwestern France where deep limestone caves provided "gallery space" protected from rain and wind. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, cave shelters are rare, so people commonly carved small, portable figurines. Humans even started making music. For example, in western Eurasia archaeologists have found more than thirty flute-like instruments made of long hollow bone and equipped with finger holes. Most of these instruments are broken and unplayable, but the earliest may date to roughly 37,000 BP.


Interpreting Ancient Art Objects

The Venus of willendorf, a statuette of limestone found at a site in Austria. It dates to 24,000–26,000 BP. What meaning might people who possessed or looked at this statue have attributed to it?

Wikimedia Commons
Venus von Willendorf

Explaining the meaning of painting, sculpture, or music is always risky because so much depends on the cultural context of the work and on the ideas we ourselves bring to the interpretation. We can hardly do more than speculate on the aesthetic, social, or spiritual intentions of individuals who drew pictures of bison galloping across rock shelter walls, painted images of human hands, or carved mysterious spiral patterns on pieces of bone.

Part of the problem is that we know so little about the wider human environments in which particular works were produced. Take for example the hundreds of carved "Venus" figurines that have been found in sites scattered across Eurasia from western Europe to Siberia. The best-known samples of these have exaggerated breasts and buttocks. Were these female statues symbols of fertility? Were they part of a symbolic system by which women shared rituals with one another? Did their meaning vary from one region to another? Debate over the meaning of art in the Upper Paleolithic will continue for a long time.

We have no material artifacts at all to help us understand the most important sign systems of all, spoken languages. Writing presumably lay far in the future. Or did it? We do have quite a bit of evidence from the Upper Paleolithic of abstract markings, such as dots, paired lines, and zigzags. These signs seem to suggest systematic storing or transmitting of information, perhaps a record of hunting successes or the phases of the moon. If such symbols were early forms of writing, we still cannot connect the marks to sounds that came out of people's mouths. We also know almost nothing about the development and spread of particular spoken languages in Big Era Two. We may assume, though, that this was taking place as global colonization proceeded.


Teaching Units for Big Era Twoarrow item

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How Did We Get Here, Anyway?
The Foundations of Human History
13,000,000,000-200,000 Years Ago

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Human beings around the world
200,000 - 15,000 years ago

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Language: What Difference Does it Make?
60,000 - 10,000

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