A History Lesson: Prehistoric Times

Hello, all!

A student of mine has requested visual presentations as we go through the textbook we’re working with. The textbook in question is Traditions and Encounters, which was the textbook that I used when I was younger to study for the AP World History exam. Because of the fact that we’re using this textbook as a guide, I will be quoting from it as a source. Since it’s meant to be visual, I will also be including pictures, GIFs, and videos. Let’s go! I’ll live up to the Byzantines portion of this blog’s name.

Lucy: First and Best Known Hominid

Ethiopia location on the World Map
Ethiopia on a map of the world, ontheworldmap.com

Lucy, one of the oldest known hominids, was discovered in an archaeological site in Ethiopia in East Africa in 1974. This discovery was extremely important because, once Lucy’s and other skeletons were examined, it was determined that our earliest ancestors, even as long ago as Lucy’s lifetime, walked upright with two feet. This is part of what set early hominids (peoples that are precursors to modern humans) apart from apes, who used all four of their limbs to walk. Walking on two feet is super important to the progression of a species because that skill enables the arms to do other things besides walking. She was under four feet tall and her brain was about the size of a grapefruit. Her brain wasn’t very developed, but she walked on two feet. That was what made her and her companions different from the surrounding animals, and that would determine how the rest of history would develop.

Some Background

Before we get too deep into our study of prehistory, we need to remember two things. First, the word prehistory simply means the period of time before writing existed. History is everything after that. Second, humans didn’t develop in a world apart from everything else. Instead, they made use of what they already had, like fire and tools, better than any


other species. This use of resources shaped the Earth from the beginning, which would lead to things like agriculture and the establishment of societies, but that’s largely a topic for later. From the beginning, however, they laid the foundation for our societal structures we have today.

How did Homo sapiens come about?

That’s a question that is answered best by describing a chain of evolution. The first in this chain was Australopithecus, the “southern ape”. Australopithecus is not an ape, though, it is a hominid, a step on the way to the modern human species. They appeared in great numbers in East Africa, where archaeological sites like the one mentioned at the beginning contained many remains of these hominids. These are some of the earliest examples we have of hominid life.

These peoples were organized, made tools, moved in search of prey, and were able to use crude communication skills. They had opposable thumbs, which allowed them to better craft and use the tools they made.

Image result for homo erectus
Homo erectus, the Smithsonian Institution

After Australopithecus began to die out, the next step on the road to modern humanity arrived – Homo erectus. These hominids came into being approximately one million years ago and had bigger brains, made more sophisticated tools that expanded on the choppers and scrapers of Australopithecus – they made hand axes and cleavers. These helped them prepare food and also defend against predators. Also, if Australopithecus possibly how to control fire, Homo erectus most definitely knew how to do so. They also were intelligent and were able to use language, which helped them attack predators in an organized manner. Like their ancestors, they resided in camps and were peoples of community. These skills allowed them to scatter and spread, with groups reaching far corners of their ever expanding world.

Finally, about 250,000 years ago, a peculiar group began to emerge. These peoples had brains almost as large as ours, were highly intelligent, and their brains were well structured. Relative to their animal neighbors, they were relatively scrawny and weak. They couldn’t defend themselves with claws, talons, or teeth. Instead, they relied on their cleverness for survival – and won. These peoples were early Homo sapiens. Before and during this time, several ice ages created land bridges that provided free passage across now sea-covered areas. The Bering Strait that connects modern day Russia with Alaska was once one such land bridge. These early Homo sapiens crossed over these bridges and went exploring. Some stayed up north, crafting warm clothes and shelters from the cold, others ventured south – as far south as the tip of South America. Other early Homo sapiens found their way to what is now southern China, built boats, and pushed out into the Pacific, eventually settling and creating societies on the islands there. They reached Australia at least 60,000 years ago.

Paleolithic Society

Tools used by early Homo sapiens.

If there was one thing that Homo sapiens was excellent at, it was building tools. Hunting with tools eventually threatened other large species and drove some into extinction. Peoples in the Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic era, were quite skilled at hunting and didn’t just wander around searching for food. They knew the migration and growing cycles of the food they went after, and it was a calculated effort. They also got very talented at hunting big game successfully – so successfully that some of their prey, like the woolly mammoth, completely extinct. They had special techniques for killing these creatures, like causing stampedes.

A Neanderthal grave.

Contrary to what some might believe, however, they didn’t just spend all of their time hunting and gathering. They created art and had complex rituals. The Neanderthals, for example, would bury their dead with purposely arranged wildflowers and animal bones. Nobody knows exactly why the Neanderthals did this, but it provides evidence of self- and environmental awareness. They also had the capacity to feel and care for others, as evidenced by the burial sites for their kind.

The Cro-Magnon peoples displaced the Neanderthals and some mixed. The Cro-Magnons were very artistic peoples and they were fashionable and aesthetically driven. They created art deep in caves like Lascaux in France. This is all evidence of deep thought and progression.

The Transition to Agriculture

We have touched on Homo sapiens‘ hunting habits. As they hunted and developed new techniques for doing so, their food sources began to run out. With that encouragement nipping at their heels, the first crops were successfully and sustainably cultivated around 8,000 BCE.

Hunting and gathering actually takes less work than farming, and very few people would be willing to even attempt to farm were there not the possibility of a more stable civilization motivating them. Along with this farming, people stopped moving around in search for food and instead tended to it themselves in settlements like Jericho in the modern day Middle East and Catal Huyuk in Turkey. Not everyone farmed, either. In Catal Huyuk, there is evidence that people were artisans, creating pots and other things. Agriculture also made the human population stable enough that they were able to band together in larger numbers and experience a population boom. As the cities grew more complex, so did their capacity to create. We’ll see what happens next!


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