Human Race, Development Of, Civilizations Past And Present

Civilizations Past And Present

Various Authors

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi

The Development Of The Human Race

The Civilizations Of The Ancient Near East


Paleoanthropologists estimate that between three and four million years

ago, ancestors of the human race appeared on earth, naked in a world of

enemies. The skills necessary for survival were mastered over many hundreds of

thousands of years. Agriculture and the ways of life it engendered were the

most important achievements. The first farmers scattered kernels of grain on

the earth and waited patiently for harvest time. Wild beasts were tamed as

work animals or kept for their meat and hides. Because their fields and

flocks could supply most of their wants, a settled life in villages became

possible; people were no longer compelled to move on endlessly in search of

food, as their food-gathering ancestors had done for countless generations.

It was along the banks of great rivers that villages first grew into

towns and cities. In early Egyptian picture writing a town is shown as a cross

within a circle - the intersection of two pathways enclosed by a wall. The

symbol is an appropriate one, for in the history of the human race the town

marks the spot where civilization as we know it began.

Within the towns the business of living took new turns. While the

majority still farmed, there were now more craftsmen turning out specialized

wares, merchants trading for metals and other needed raw materials, priests

conducting religious ceremonies, and administrators planning and supervising

the necessary cooperative effort for the common good. Specialization allowed

leisure time for intellectual and artistic pursuits that enriched the lives of

the participants and developed a cultural heritage.

A culture can endure only if the knowledge necessary for its survival is

passed on from generation to generation. Early peoples relied on information

transmitted by word of mouth. But as cultures became increasingly complex,

methods for keeping records were needed and systems of writing were created.

To most authorities, the development of writing is a prerequisite to


The four earliest civilizations - Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, and

Chinese - arose between c. 3100 B.C. and c. 1500 B.C., in each case in the

valley of a great river system. In this chapter we shall trace the progress of

civilization, including the earliest advances in technology and creation of

writing systems, in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In chapter 4 we shall examine the

stirrings of civilization in India and in China.

The Development Of The Human Race

Did God create humanity "in His own image," or was our species itself the

product of physical change and adaptation no less than the rocks, plants, and

animals of this planet? This question - so basic in nineteenth-century thought

that it caused anguish and bitter controversy among theologians and scientists

alike - came to the fore when Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830)

provided evidence that the earth was the product of a tremendously long period

of change.

Evolution: A Major Theory

The issue of human evolution became critical with the appearance of

Charles Darwin's two treatises, The Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of

Man (1871). The controversy surrounding the theory of human evolution has

raged on into the twentieth century, although with decreasing intensity as

more fossil evidence has come to light. Of course, the fossil record can

probably never be complete, and paleontologists have only skeletal remains

(usually partial ones) to analyze. The evidence for evolution appears

overwhelming, but the theory by no means precludes the presence of a guiding

intelligence ultimately responsible for a progressive development of organic

life from simple to more complex forms, culminating in the intelligence and

creativity of our own species.

Evolution Of The Hominids

Who the ancestors of early humans were and when and where tools were

first made are much debated questions in scholarly circles. According to the

theory of evolution, a crucial development occurred when the ape family became

differentiated into the tree-dwelling apes and the ground-dwelling types known

as hominids ("pre-humans" or "protohumans"). The remains of Australopithecines

("Southern Apes"), the earliest known hominids, were first discovered in South

Africa in 1924. Autralopithecus had an erect posture but an apelike brain.

Since World War II, and especially during the 1970s, our knowledge of the

hominids and their relation to the genus Homo ("man") has been rapidly

growing. The dominant present view is that Australopithecus was succeded by

three species of the genus Homo: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens.

(A genus contains one or more species. The genus name is capitalized and

precedes the species name, which is not capitalized.)

Three major sites in East Africa have produced a remarkable collection of

Australopithecine fossils. Between 1972 and 1977, an expedition led by C.D.

Johanson worked at Hadar in Ethiopia. The Hadar collection comprises at least

thirty-five individuals, with one female skeleton - named Lucy after the

Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" - nearly 40 percent complete and

between 3.0 and 3.5 million years ago.

During this period, too, the British anthropologist Mary D. Leakey

discovered at Laetoli, in northern Tanzania, the fossil jaws and teeth of

eight adults and three children, between 3.35 and 3.75 million years old.

Subsequently, she uncovered fifty-seven footprints made by two individuals -

the oldest known marks of human-like creatures on earth.

Meanwhile, in 1972 at a site on the east side of Lake Rudolph, Kenya,

Mary Leakey's son Richard had made yet another major discovery. Of special

interest was his discovery of a skull (labeled KNM-ER 1470), probably 2.9

million years old. Leakey's claim that 1470 is a representative of the genus

Homo has been challenged. The find made earlier (1964) by his father, L.S.B.

Leakey, however, has been generally accepted as the earliest representative of

our own genus, Homo.

L.S.B. Leakey had made his discovery at Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania, at a

site some 1.75 million years old. Homo habilis ("skillful man"), as Leakey

named his find, was about four feet tall, walked erect, and had a

well-developed opposable thumb. Significantly, these fossil remains were found

in association with crude tools. With the advent of a hominid capable of

making tools, Leakey felt confident in assigning his find to the genus Homo.

The first evidence of the more advanced group known as Homo erectus was

discovered in Java in 1891. Peking man and other members of this group, whose

earliest fossils are about 1.5 million years old, have been discovered in

Asia, Africa, and Europe. Homo erectus had a brain size larger than Homo

habilis but smaller than our own. The members of Homo erectus were about five

feet tall, had heavy brows, and a receding forehead. They developed the

ability to control and use fire, a major step in mastering the environment and

setting humans apart from the rest of the natural world. They also perfected

the first major standardized all-purpose tool, the hand ax, made by striking

flakes from a flint stone that had been hardened in fire to make it flake

easily. Its cutting edge was as effective as steel in cutting meat. The hand

ax remained a favored tool for over a million years, long after the extinction

of Homo erectus about 300,000 years ago and the gradual emergence of Homo


From about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, just before and during the early

part of the last glaciation of the Ice Age, the Neanderthals were the

principal inhabitants of Europe and adjacent parts of Asia and Africa.

Somewhat taller than five feet, Neanderthals had sloping foreheads with

prominent brow ridges and thickset bodies. They invented tools of advanced

design, were able hunters, and adapted to extreme cold by using fire, wearing

clothes, and living in caves.

Despite a brain capacity averaging slightly larger than our own,

Neanderthals were long considered to be brutish, dimwitted, slouching

creatures - the stereotypical "cave man" of modern cartoonists. Recent

reconstructions of the fossil evidence, however, have determined that

Neanderthals are a subspecies of Homo sapiens and deserve the label Homo

sapiens neanderthalensis. "If he could be reincarnated and placed in a New

York subway - provided he was bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing -

it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its

other denizens." ^1

[Footnote 1: Richard E. Leakey, The Making of Mankind (London: Michael Joseph,

1981), p. 148.]

The culminating phase of the development of the genus Homo occurred some

40,000 years ago when the Cro-Magnons, a subspecies of Homo sapiens called

Homo sapiens sapiens, replaced Homo sapiens neanderthalensis in Europe. What

happened to the Neanderthals can only be conjectured.

Named after the locality in southern France where their bones were first

unearthed in 1868, Cro-Magnon skeletons are virtually indistinguishable from

human skeletons of today. Skillfully made flint and bone tools and polychrome

paintings found on the walls of caves reflect an advanced culture. By 20,000

B.C. Cro-Magnon and other representatives of Homo sapiens sapiens inhabited

Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and had moved across the Bering Strait to

America. Today, Homo sapiens sapiens is the only existing species of the genus


Paleolithic Culture

Benjamin Franklin is credited with first defining the human being as a

"tool-making animal." The making and using of tools is the first evidence of

the human ability to use reason to solve problems. Since the use of stone

implements was the most distinctive feature of early human culture,

(Anthropologists use the term culture for a primitive people's way of life.)

this first cultural stage is known as the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It was

a food-collecting stage, characterized by hunting, fishing, and the collecting

of wild fruits, nuts, and berries.

Much of our knowledge of Paleolithic culture comes from groups that have

survived into modern times - Indians in the rain forests of Brazil, for

example. Labor was divided according to sex. Men hunted, fished, and protected

the group. Women gathered wild plants, fruits, and nuts, and prepared the food

for eating, they processed animal hides and wood into household objects, and

cared for the children. Men and women shared such tasks as building dwellings,

making ornaments and tools and training children for adult life.

To withstand the cold, late Paleolithic peoples made garments from skins

and erected building in areas where natural caves did not exist. The reindeer

and mammoth hunters of what is today Czechoslovakia and Russia lived in tents

and huts made of hides and brush or in communal houses partially sunk into the

ground with mammoth's ribs for roof supports. There is evidence that they used

coal for fuel.

One of the highest achievements of late Paleolithic culture was art.

Animated, realistic paintings of bison, reindeer, primitive horses, and other

animals, colored in shades of black, red, yellow, and brown, have been found in

more than a hundred Cro-Magnon caves in Spain and France, dating from about

28,000 to 10,000 B.C. Cave art rivals that of civilized artists not only

stylistically but also as an expression of significant human experience. It

represents the Paleolithic response to complete dependence on an abundance of

game animals and success in hunting them. By drawing pictures of food animals -

sometimes shown pregnant or pierced by spears and arrows - the artists may

have believed that they could wield a mystical power over the spirits of the

animals to ensure the animals' multiplication and human mastery over them.

Like the religious art of civilized peoples, the magico-religious basis of

Paleolithic art in no way detracts from its esthetic qualities as true art.

Paleolithic artists also modeled in clay and chiseled pictures on rock and


Mesolithic Culture

With the final retreat of the glaciers about 10,000 B.C., Europe became

covered with dense forests. Because of their highly specialized adaptation to

cold weather, the reindeer moved north while the hairy mammoth and other

animals hunted by late Paleolithic peoples became extinct. Humans, however,

adjusted to postglacial conditions by developing new cultures called

Mesolithic or Transitional. Many of these Mesolithic groups lived along the

coast, fishing and gathering shellfish. Others lived inland, where they made

bows and arrows for hunting and devised skis, sleds, and dugout canoes. Our

Mesolithic forebears also domesticated the dog.

The Neolithic Revolution

While the Mesolithic peoples of Europe were adjusting to the postglacial

environment by developing new food-gathering techniques, something of far

greater consequence - a shift from food gathering to food producing - was

taking place in the Near East (now generally called the Middle East). Here, on

the hilly flanks of the mountains bordering the Fertile Crescent there was

sufficient rainfall to nourish wild forms of wheat and barley and to provide

grass for wild sheep, goats, and pigs. By 7000 B.C., people in this region had

domesticated these grains and animals and were living in villages near their

herds and fields. (At about the same time, yams were domesticated in Southeast

Asia; and the cultivation of rice in China dates back to about 6500 B.C.) This

momentous change, the most far-reaching breakthrough in the relationship of

people to their environment, ushered in the Neolithic or New Stone Age.

One of the oldest Neolithic village sites to be excavated is jarmo in

northern Iraq. The 150 people of the village lived in twenty mud-walled

houses, reaped their grain with stone sickles, stored their food in stone

bowls, and possessed domesticated goats, sheep, and dogs. The later levels of

settlement contain evidence of domesticated pigs and clay pottery. Since many

tools were made of obsidian, a volcanic rock from beds 300 miles away, a

primitive form of commerce must have existed.

The best preserved early village so far uncovered [is] by Catal Huyuk in

southern Turkey, excavated in 1961. The large, 32-acre site, first occupied

shortly before 6000 B.C., contains some of the most advanced features of

Neolithic culture: pottery, woven textiles, mudbrick houses, shrines honoring

a mother goddess, and plastered walls decorated with murals and carved


It is generally thought that because of their earlier role as gatherers

of wild foods, women were responsible for the invention of agriculture. As

long as the ground was prepared by hoeing rather than by plowing, women

remained the cultivators. They also invented and performed the making of pots

from clay, and the spinning and weaving of textiles from cultivated flax and

animal wool.

The Neolithic revolution spread to the Balkan Peninsula by 5000 B.C.,

Egypt and central Europe by 4000 B.C., and Britain and northwest India by 3000

B.C. The Neolithic cultures of Middle America and the Andes are independent

developments, and a possible relationship between China and the Near East is

now doubted.

You Might Also Like