's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Origins of Neolithic Man

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Modern Homo sapiens[edit | edit source]

Stonehenge remains the most recognizable megaliths of the Neolithic Era

Homo sapiens sapiens, the "most intelligent people," first appeared in Africa during the Paleolithic, or "Old Stone," Age (200,000-10,000 BCE). For over 170,000 years, Homo sapiens sapiens existed in the Old Stone period as hunters and gatherers in nomadic groups. They developed tools out of stone to chop and cut and left paintings and carvings in caves. In addition to the development of tools, hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic period discovered how to make and control fire, making it possible to cook wild plants that were otherwise indigestible. Archaeological evidence suggests that these ancient hunter-gathers traveled in bands between twenty or thirty and traded tools and jewelery with other bands.

By the start of the Neolithic Age around 10,000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens had become the dominant primate species on the planet. Except for a few islands in the Pacific, humans had spread to every land in the world, from the highlands of the Himalayas to the Amazon basin. Hawaii would not be colonized until about 500 CE, while New Zealand would remain empty of human settlement until about 900 CE. Otherwise, humans were everywhere.

The Neolithic Age corresponds with the end of the Ice Age, when a warmer climate resulted in cereal grasses spreading to new and larger regions. Hunter-gatherers began collecting grains and grinding them for food, as well as saving seeds from the grasses to plant in other places. This activity coincided with another important practice: the domestication of animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats. Both of these processes resulted in a food-producing revolution, marked by an increased food supply and population growth. Cultivation of food and domestication of animals as a source of meat allowed a larger number of people to stay in one place on a semi-permanent, and eventually permanent basis. These settlements produced food surpluses and developed economic specialization, social hierarchies, religious institutions, and political structures. The first of these communities were in the Levantine Corridor, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia.

It is difficult to say just how culturally diverse humanity was, just at the end of the last Ice Age. The stone tools and small figurines called Venuses found at many early Neolithic sites suggest a remarkable uniformity of culture. However, humans tended to make stone cutting tools out of only four basic types of rock: chert, flint, obsidian and quartzite. The flaking properties of these stones lend themselves to particular shapes and forms quite well, but these prevent substantial differentiation in types. Some forms are sufficiently widespread and unique to be identified with specific cultures: the Clovis People of New Mexico, for example left behind spearpoints with a distinctive ogival shape and a thumb-shaped groove for binding the point onto a wooden spear half. A great many stone and bone tools, though, are anonymously uniform, carrying over their shapes from one generation to the next over thousands of years.

However, modern culture is not written in tools so much as in materials and gear that rot and decay. A young man in Europe and a young man in India and a young man in South America dressed very differently from one another in 5000 BCE, largely as a result of where they lived. Each spoke a different language from the others; each may have used similar tool sets, but one used that toolkit to hunt elk and moose, another to hunt cassowary, and another to hunt water buffalo. Each heard different stories from their elders, and wanted different things in life from one another. Each even had different standards of beauty when considering potential mates and marriage partners. In the same way, a Chinese woman, an Egyptian woman and a Mesoamerican woman learned to cook with different foods, and worked with different materials to clothe their families. They told their children different bedtime stories, played different games, and had different standards of beauty and ability when considering potential mates and marriage partners.

It is difficult to assess today what these ancient cultures looked like. However, by 4500 BCE the world was a patchwork of cultures. Some were gardeners, some were farmers, some were pastoralists, and some were hunter-gatherers. Some were straddling the dividing lines between methods of food production, and some people were actively traveling back and forth between different groups, carrying luxury food items, beads, precious stones and other goods between cultures, peoples and individuals. There were thousands of languages and millions of people world-wide. There may have been nations and kingdoms, but we know almost nothing about them, not even whether they existed. Writing was still more than a thousand years in the future.

Attribution[edit | edit source]

"Ancient History/Human Evolution/Neolithic Age" (Wikibooks)