Hunters And Gatherers, Civilizations Past And Present

World Civilizations: The Origins Of Civilizations

Human Life In The Era Of Hunters And Gatherers

By the end of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age in 12,000 B.C., humans had

evolved in physical appearance and mental capacity to roughly the same level

as today. Our species, Homo sapiens, had been competing with increasing

success for game and campsites with other humanlike creatures for nearly

30,000 years. Homo sapiens' enlarged brain, critical to the survival of all of

the branches of the genus Homo, was virtually the same size as that of modern

humans. The erect posture of Stone Age humans produced a tendency toward

spinal strain and backaches that was more than compensated for by the fact

that an upright posture freed their hands, as it had those of earlier human

species. The combination of a larger brain and free hands with opposable

thumbs made it possible for different human species to craft and manipulate

tools and weapons of increasing sophistication. These implements helped to

offset the humans' marked inferiority in body strength and speed to rival

predators, such as wolves and wild cats, as well as to many of the creatures

that humans themselves preyed on. A more highly developed brain also allowed

humans to transform cries and grunts into the patterned sounds that make up

language. Language greatly enhanced the possibilities for cooperation and a

sense of cohesion within the small bands that were the predominant form of

human social organization in this era. By the last phase of the Paleolithic

epoch these advantages had made Homo sapiens a species capable of mastering

the earth.

Paleolithic Culture

No matter how much Homo sapiens sapiens may have developed in physical

appearance and brain capacity by around 12,000 B.C., its culture, with some

exceptions, was not radically different from the cultures of the rival human

species such as the Neanderthals, who had died out thousands of years earlier.

Fire, which was perhaps the most central element in the material culture of

Paleolithic peoples, had been mastered nearly a half million years earlier.

Originally snatched from conflagrations caused by lightning or lava flows,

fire was domesticated as humans developed techniques to preserve glowing

embers and to start fires by rubbing sticks and other materials together. The

control of fire led to numerous improvements in the lives of Stone Age

peoples. It rendered edible a much wider range of foods, particularly animal

flesh, which was virtually the only source of protein in a culture without

cows, goats, or chickens and thus lacking in milk, cheese, and eggs. Cooked

meat, which was easier to digest, may also have been more effectively

preserved and stored, thus giving Stone Age peoples an additional buffer

against the constant threat of starvation. In addition, fire was used in

treating animal hides for clothing and hardening wooden weapons and tools. Its

light and warmth became the focal point of human campsites.

By Late Paleolithic or Old Stone Age times, human groups survived by

combining hunting and fishing with the gathering of fruits, berries, grains,

and root crops that grew in the wild. They had created a considerable number

of tools to assist them in these critical endeavors. Tools of wood and bone

have perished; thus surviving stone tools are our main evidence of the

technology of this epoch. These tools had advanced considerably by the late

Old Stone Age. Early human tools, discovered by archeologists at sites that

date back well over 2 million years, were made by breaking off the edges of

stone cores to create crude points or rough cutting surfaces. By the Late

Paleolithic period, humans had grown much more adept at working stone. They

preferred to chip and sharpen flakes broken off the core stone. These chips

could be fashioned into knife blades, arrow points, or choppers, which had a

wide range of uses from hunting and warfare to skinning animal carcasses and

harvesting wild plants.

Earlier human groups had produced evidence of artistic expression, small

figurines and decorated implements; the Late Paleolithic was a period of

particularly intense creativity. Fine miniature sculpture, beads and other

forms of jewelry, and carved bones were produced by Paleolithic peoples, but

their most impressive artistic contributions were the cave paintings that have

been discovered at sites in southern France and Spain. Remarkably realistic

and colorful depictions of a variety of animals from woolly mammoths to horses

were found deep in the caverns at these sites.

Because the peoples who created these paintings did not write, we cannot

be certain of the reasons for this surge in artistic creativity. These

paintings may have been done for the sake of artistic expression itself. But

the location of the paintings deep in the cave complexes and the rather

consistent choice of game animals as subject matter suggest that they served a

ritual purpose. Perhaps capturing the images of animals in art was seen as a

way of assisting hunting parties in the wild. It is also possible that those

who painted the animal figures hoped to acquire some of the strength and speed

of the animals depicted, to improve their chances in the hunt and to ward off

the animals that preyed on the human hunters themselves. Some paintings may

have been done to celebrate and commemorate particularly successful hunting

expeditions or other key events.

Other paintings and in many cases small sculptures, including those found

at a number of Middle Eastern sites, appear to have religious significance.

They may have been intended, for example, to depict prominent deities or to

promote fertility. There is also speculation that paintings at a number of

sites may represent early counting systems or primitive calendars. Whatever

their purpose, the paintings of the Old Stone Age era suggest quite a

sophisticated level of thinking. They also indicate that humans were becoming

increasingly interested in expressing themselves artistically and leaving

lasting images of their activities and concerns.

The Spread Of Human Culture

The possession of fire and tools with which to make clothing and shelters

made it possible for different human species to extend the range of their

habitation far beyond the East African savanna (grassy plain) zone where they

had originated. During the last Ice Age, which began about 2.5 million years

ago and ended around 8000 B.C., humans first moved northward from Africa into

Europe and eastward across the present-day Middle East into central Asia,

India, and East Asia. Neanderthals and related peoples were found across this

zone as late as 35,000 B.C., and some archeologists claim that by then they

may also have begun to migrate across a land bridge into the New World. By

10,000 B.C., groups of the Homo sapiens sapiens species had colonized all of

the continents except Antarctica. Glaciation, which had caused a significant

drop in sea levels, resulted in land bridges to the New World and Australia.

By the late Paleolithic period, around 12,000 B.C., human colonies were found

in North and South America and in the south and west of Australia. Thus, long

before the rise of civilizations, human societies had proven themselves

capable of surviving in widely varying climates and terrains.

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