Deep diving into Prehistory
Written documents provide a window to the distant past. For several thousand years, people have recorded information about their beliefs, activities, and important events. Prehistory, however, dates back to the time before the invention of writing—roughly 5,000 years ago. Without access to written records, scientists investigating the lives of prehistoric peoples face special challenges.
Archaeologists are specially trained scientists who work like detectives to uncover the story of prehistoric peoples. They learn about early people by excavating and studying the traces of early settlements. An excavated site, called an archaeological dig, provides one of the richest sources of clues to the prehistoric way of life. Archaeologists sift through the dirt in a small plot of land.
They analyze all existing evidence, such as bones and artifacts. Bones might reveal what the people looked like, how tall they were, the types of food they ate, diseases they may have had, and how long they lived. Artifacts are human-made objects, such as tools and jewelry. These items might hint at how people dressed, what work they did, or how they worshiped.
Scientists called anthropologists study culture, or a people’s unique way of life. Anthropologists examine the artifacts at archaeological digs. From these, they re-create a picture of early people’s cultural behavior.
Other scientists, called paleontologists, study fossils—evidence of early life preserved in rocks. Human fossils often consist of small fragments of teeth, skulls, or other bones. Paleontologists use complex techniques to date ancient fossil remains and rocks. Archaeologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and other scientists work as a team to make new discoveries about how prehistoric people lived.
How were early footprints found?
In the 1970s, archaeologist Mary Leakey led a scientific expedition to the region of Laetoli in Tanzania in East Africa. There, she and her team looked for clues about human origins. In 1978, they found prehistoric footprints that resembled those of modern humans preserved in volcanic ash. These footprints were made by humanlike beings now called australopithecines. Humans and other creatures that walk upright, such as australopithecines, are called hominids. The Laetoli footprints provided striking evidence about human origins.
Who was “Lucy”?
While Mary Leakey was working in East Africa, U.S. anthropologist Donald Johanson and his team were also searching for fossils. They were exploring sites in Ethiopia, about 1,000 miles to the north. In 1974, Johanson’s team made a remarkable find—an unusually complete skeleton of an adult female hominid. They nicknamed her “Lucy” after the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” She had lived around 3.5 million years ago—the oldest hominid found to that date.
Lucy and the hominids who left their footprints in East Africa were species of australopithecines. Walking upright helped them travel distances more easily. They were also able to spot threatening animals and carry food and children.
These early hominids had already developed the opposable thumb. This means that the tip of the thumb can cross the palm of the hand. The opposable thumb was crucial for tasks such as picking up small objects and making tools.
When did the Old Stone Age begin?
The invention of tools, mastery over fire, and the development of language are some of the most impressive achievements in human history. Scientists believe these occurred during the prehistoric period known as the Stone Age. It spanned a vast length of time.
The earlier and longer part of the Stone Age, called the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic Age, lasted from about 2.5 million to 8000 B.C. The oldest stone chopping tools date back to this era.
The New Stone Age, or Neolithic Age, began about 8000 B.C. and ended as early as 3000 B.C. in some areas. People who lived during this second phase of the Stone Age learned to polish stone tools, make pottery, grow crops, and raise animals.
Much of the Paleolithic Age occurred during the period in the earth’s history known as the Ice Age. During this time, glaciers alternately advanced and retreated as many as 18 times. The last of these ice ages ended about 10,000 years ago. By the beginning of the Neolithic Age, glaciers had retreated to roughly the same area they now occupy.
Before the australopithecines eventually vanished, new hominids appeared in East Africa around 2.5 million years ago. In 1960, archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey discovered a hominid fossil at Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania. The Leakeys named the fossil Homo habilis, which means “man of skill.” The Leakeys and other researchers found tools made of lava rock. They believed Homo habilis used these tools to cut meat and crack open bones. Tools made the task of survival easier.
How did homo erectus develop?
About 1.6 million years ago, before Homo habilis left the scene, another species of hominids appeared in East Africa. This species is now known as Homo erectus, or “upright man.” Some anthropologists believe Homo erectus was a more intelligent and adaptable species than Homo habilis. Homo erectus people used intelligence to develop technology—ways of applying knowledge, tools, and inventions to meet their needs.
These hominids gradually became skillful hunters and invented more sophisticated tools for digging, scraping, and cutting. They also eventually became the first hominids to migrate, or move, from Africa. Fossils and stone tools show that bands of Homo erectus hunters settled in India, China, Southeast Asia, and Europe.
According to anthropologists, Homo erectus was the first to use fire. Fire provided warmth in cold climates, cooked food, and frightened away attacking animals. The control of fire also probably helped Homo erectus settle new lands. Homo erectus may have developed the beginnings of spoken language.
Language, like technology, probably gave Homo erectus greater control over the environment and boosted chances for survival. The teamwork needed to plan hunts and cooperate in other tasks probably relied on language. Homo erectus might have named objects, places, animals, and plants and exchanged ideas.
When did “the Dawn of Modern Humans” take place?
Many scientists believe Homo erectus eventually developed into Homo sapiens— the species name for modern humans. Homo sapiens means “wise men.” While they physically resembled Homo erectus, Homo sapiens had much larger brains.
Scientists have traditionally classified Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons as early groups of Homo sapiens. However, in 1997, DNA tests on a Neanderthal skeleton indicated that Neanderthals were not ancestors of modern humans. They were, however, affected by the arrival of Cro-Magnons, who may have competed with Neanderthals for land and food.
How was Neanderthals’ way of life?
In 1856, as quarry workers were digging for limestone in the Neander Valley in Germany, they spotted fossilized bone fragments. These were the remains of Neanderthals, whose bones were discovered elsewhere in Europe and Southwest Asia. These people were powerfully built. They had heavily slanted brows, well-developed muscles, and thick bones.
To many people, the name “Neanderthal” calls up the comic-strip image of a club-carrying caveman. However, archaeological discoveries reveal a more realistic picture of these early hominids, who lived between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago.
Evidence suggests that Neanderthals tried to explain and control their world. They developed religious beliefs and performed rituals. About 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals held a funeral for a man in Shanidar Cave, located in northeastern Iraq. Some archaeologists theorize that during the funeral, the Neanderthal’s family covered his body with flowers. This funeral points to a belief in a world beyond the grave.
Neanderthals were also resourceful. They survived harsh Ice Age winters by living in caves or temporary shelters made of wood and animal skins. Animal bones found with Neanderthal fossils indicate the ability of Neanderthals to hunt in subarctic regions of Europe. To cut up and skin their prey, they fashioned stone blades, scrapers, and other tools.
The Neanderthals survived for some 170,000 years and then mysteriously vanished about 30,000 years ago.
When did Cro-Magnons emerge?
About 40,000 years ago, a group of prehistoric humans called Cro-Magnons appeared. Their skeletal remains show that they are identical to modern humans. The remains also indicate that they were probably strong and generally about five-and-one-half feet tall. Cro-Magnons migrated from North Africa to Europe and Asia.
Cro-Magnons made many new tools with specialized uses. Unlike Neanderthals, they planned their hunts. They studied animals’ habits and stalked their prey. Evidently, Cro-Magnons’ superior hunting strategies allowed them to survive more easily. This may have caused Cro-Magnon populations to grow at a slightly faster rate and eventually replace the Neanderthals. Cro-Magnons’ advanced skill in spoken language may also have helped them to plan more difficult projects. This cooperation perhaps gave them an edge over the Neanderthals.
Scientists are continuing to work at numerous sites in Africa. Their discoveries change our views of the still sketchy picture of human origins in Africa and of the migration of early humans out of Africa.
Newly discovered fossils in Chad and Kenya, dating between 6 and 7 million years old, have some apelike features but also some that resemble hominids. The study of these fossils continues, but evidence suggests that they may be the earliest hominids. A 2.33-million-year- old jaw from Ethiopia is the oldest fossil belonging to the line leading to humans. Stone tools found at the same site suggest that toolmaking may have begun earlier than previously thought.
New discoveries also add to what we already know about prehistoric peoples. For example, in 1996, a team of researchers from Canada and the United States, including a high school student from New York, discovered a Neanderthal bone flute 43,000 to 82,000 years old. This discovery hints at a previously unknown talent of the Neanderthals—the gift of musical expression. The finding on cave walls of drawings of animals and people dating back as early as 35,000 years ago gives information on the daily activities and perhaps even religious practices of these peoples.
Early humans’ skills and tools for surviving and adapting to the environment became more sophisticated as time passed.
Just for fun…
- Make your own Stone Age paper axe tool
- Stone Age jigsaw puzzles
- Test your knowledge with a Stone Age quiz
- Get into the minds of Ancient Britons, build a stone circle, create cave art and read some great fiction and non-fiction books about Ancient Britain
- Find out about the neolithic village of Skara Brae and try some Stone Age activities
- Do some prehistoric cooking by watching videos of ‘Paleolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’ recipes: baked salmon, grilled trout, and berry pudding, then following the recipes to make the food yourself
- Make your own Stone Age cheese!
- Play a game on the Chauvet Cave website to discover just how much we have in common with prehistoric humans
- Try using an interactive ancient stone tool
- Download two brilliant comics about Stone Age Wales sites: Barclodiad y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu
- Try a Stone Age counting activity
- Can you match the prehistoric track to the animal that made it?
- Get creative and make some Stone Age rock art
- Complete the Museum of London’s prehistoric archaeology activity pack
- Download and print an instant Stone-Age dress-up kit
- Show off your knowledge with a hunter-gatherer quiz and try some Stone-Age storytelling
Find out more about the Stone Age
- A general introduction to prehistoric Britain from BBC Bitesize
- Explore a 9000-year-old human settlement at Mountsandel in Coleraine, Ireland, online
- Understand how Stone Age hunter-gatherers lived and who the first farmers were
- Read kids’ historical fiction set in the Stone Age
- Stone Age information for children
- Introduction to Stone Age including cave art
- Download fantastic information booklets about Yorkshire in the Mesolithic period, Mesolithic life, and hunter-gatherer people
- Find out about Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic Brighton
- Visit a virtual museum of the Stone Age
- An archeological experiment in London tried out ways of moving large stones which might have been used in places like Stonehenge
- Find out about food and health in prehistoric times
- See a Paleolithic handaxe, found in Somalia in East Africa, which was made about 1.5 million years ago!
- Using virtual reality, scientists have recreated the sounds of Stonehenge from 3,000 years ago
- Read about Stone Age tools found in Yorkshire
- Take a close look at Stone Age objects found in Britain: a piece of small, portable Ice Age art showing an animal from Britain, a carved stone ball from Skara Brae, a 500,000-year old hand ax, a Mesolithic woodworking tool, a Mesolithic headdress made from deer antlers and a Neolithic quern for making flour
- Download a Neolithic Britain image bank from the British Museum
- Information about prehistoric pottery, made for the first time in the Neolithic period
- Why were flint and mining so important to prehistoric Britons?
- Find out more about daily life in prehistoric Britain, with links to more information about art, commerce, religion, and more
- Stonehenge food and feasting: how people cooked and served their food
- Read about the mystery of Stonehenge engineering: how was it built by prehistoric people?
- Discover Stone Age art and images of daily life on the 10,000 Years BC website
See for yourself
- Creswell Crags in Derbyshire: first inhabited by Neanderthals, these cave dwellings with carvings dating back to the Palaeolithic era
- Stonehenge is Britain’s foremost neolithic site. You can take a virtual tour of Stonehenge from your living room with a 360-degree view from the monument.
- Look through the BBC Bitesize kids’ guide to Stonehenge
- Visit the Wiltshire Museum to see treasures dating to the time of Stonehenge and worn by people who worshipped inside the stone circle
- Silbury Hill, the Avebury Ring and the Sanctuary are all close to Stonehenge in Wiltshire
- Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands is one of Northern Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic villages; look through a Skara Brae gallery to see inside the houses
- Castlerrig stone circle near Keswick
- Bryn Celli Ddu is a Neolithic chambered tomb in Wales
- The Megalithic Portal offers a map of ancient sites in the British Isles and Europe
- Visit the reconstruction of a Neolithic log cabin at the Ancient Technology Outdoor Education Centre
- Butser Ancient Farm features archaeological reconstructions of ancient buildings from the Stone Age
- Chauvet Cave is a 36,000-year-old French “art gallery”. Take an immersive journey through the cave with Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley in a new Virtual Reality experience