13 things you need to know about the Prehistoric Ages

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Prehistory is the period between the emergence of humans (the Homo genus) and the invention of writing, characterized primarily by the lack of records. There are three main ages of Prehistory: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. 

Australopithecus may have been our ancestors

Australopithecus sediba
Reconstruction of an Australopithecus sediba by Adrie and Alfons Kennis at the Neanderthal Museum in Germany.
Credit: Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann // CC BY-SA 4.0

The genus Australopithecus is thought to have included the ancestors (or close relatives) of the Homo lineage. These are suspected to be Australopithecus garhi, Australopithecus sediba, Australopithecus africanus, and Australopithecus afarensis. They lived around 4.5-1.9 million years ago, with early Homo species appearing in East Africa 2.5-2.0 million years ago.

The oldest known stone tools are 3.3 million years old

Unearthed between 2011-2014, the oldest stone tools were unearthed at Lake Turkana in Kenya, predating the Homo genus by around one million years. They’re thought to have been made by Australopithecus afarenesis inhabiting East Africa or Kenyanthropus platyops. Around 20 well-preserved artifacts were found on the archaeological site Lomekwi 3. They were heavy and large stone blocks shaped deliberately for some unknown use.

Fire wasn’t discovered by Homo sapiens

Homo erectus
: Remains of ‘Java Man’ Homo erectus found in 1891.
Credit: Peter Maas // CC BY-SA 3.0

The earliest evidence of controlled fire by a Homo species is largely attributed to Homo erectus, with archaeologists finding reddened sediment and burned bones in separate areas. They date around 1.5 million years ago. Evidence of control of fire by Homo sapiens dates to around 300,000 years ago with evidence of burned flints, likely used while cooking speared food.

Acheulean tools were produced around 1.76 million years ago

Acheulean hand-axe
An Acheulean hand-ax discovered in Haute-Garonne, France. Around 300,000 – 500,000 years old.
Credit: Muséum de Toulouse // CC BY-SA 4.0

The most primitive tools are known as Oldowan tools, produced 2.6-1.7 million years ago, which were very simple and usually associated with Australopithecus garhi and Homo habilis species. Acheulean tool development followed around 1.76 million years ago, characterized by oval and pear-shaped hand-axes most likely used by Homo erectus. These tools may have been used for multiple tasks such as hacking wood, cutting animal carcasses, and hunting, though some may have been more specialized for digging roots.

The birth of Homo sapiens

Florisbad Skull
The Florisbad Skull, 294,000-224,000 years old, in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.
Credit: Ryan Somma // CC BY-SA 2.0

Homo sapiens originated in Africa around 350,000-260,000 years ago, with the earliest remains dated to 350,000 years ago found in the archaeological site Jebel Irhoud in Morocco. We are thought to have reached behavioral modernity (behavioral and cognitive traits distinguishing us from other anatomically modern humans and hominins) around 50,000 years ago. Other species like Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis, and the Red Deer Cave people continued to co-exist with Homo sapiens for thousands of years until around 14,000 years ago – or even closer to modern times.

Bows and arrows were developed over 60,000 years ago

 Chert arrowhead
Chert arrowhead from the Late Neolithic period from circa 3300-2400 BC.
Credit: Didier Descouens // CC BY-SA 4.0

Arrowheads were discovered in Fa Hien Cave, Sri Lanka in 2020, dated to 48,000 years ago, but evidence of bone and stone points have also been discovered in Sibudu Cave, South Africa, from 60,000-70,000 years ago. Because wood decays, the earliest evidence of a bow is only 9,000 years ago, preserved thanks to bogs – but the indirect evidence of arrowheads suggests they’ve been in widespread use since the Upper Paleolithic or early Mesolithic periods.

Fishing might have only existed for 40,000 years

Archaeological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers began to include freshwater fish around 40,000 years ago, with early settlements around rivers likely taking advantage of nearby water bodies for including fish as a major source of food. Spearfishing with barbed poles has been found in cave paintings 16,000 years old, suggesting this is how fish were largely caught.

Chauvet Cave has the most well-preserved cave paintings in the world

Hyena cave painting
Cave painting of hyenas from Chauvet Cave.
Credit: Carla Hufstedler // CC BY-SA 2.0

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France is considered one of the most significant sites for prehistoric art, with hundreds of animal paintings depicting horses, aurochs, mammoths, cave lions, leopards, hyenas, and more. The paintings even have scenes of animals interacting with one another. They were painted by at least two separate artists over 26,000 years ago, with the earliest paintings from around 33,000 years ago.

Ceramic figures date back to 29,000-25,000 BCE

Ceramic statuette
An exhibit in Finland of the Dolní Věstonice.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The oldest and most well-known form of ceramic statuette is the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, depicting a nude female figure. Others found in the archaeological site depict animals like bears, lions, mammoths, horses, and more. A fingerprint fired onto the statuette was found belonging to a 7 to 15-year-old child, though they aren’t considered the creator.

Dogs may have domesticated themselves

A 2021 hypothesis suggests that wolves in Siberia may have domesticated themselves due to close contact with humans and their focus on the same prey. Wolves and humans may have shared in scavenging, with wolves drawn to campsites to scavenge leftovers and gradually becoming tame. They may have even started out as the first guard dogs. This likely occurred around 23,000 years ago.

Agriculture was invented in the Neolithic Revolution

Neolithic Stones
Neolithic stones used to grind up grains.
Credit: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez // CC BY-SA 2.5

During the Neolithic period, hunting and gathering communities began to transition to agriculture and settlements, which allowed large populations possible due to the stable production of food. Small, nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers turned into sedentary societies with villages and towns, cultivating crops, utilizing irrigation and deforestation, and beginning to domesticate animals.

Before the Bronze Age, metallurgy started with copper

Evidence of metals in the Neolithic period focus mostly on gold and meteoric iron, though copper metallurgy seems to have been independently invented across the world between 7,500-2,800 BC. During this Copper Age, copper was likely used more for ornaments and trinkets, though evidence of a copper ax produced by the Vinča culture is dated to around 5,500 BC.

Prehistory ends with the invention of writing

Kish tablet
The earliest known evidence of writing is found on the Kish tablet, dated from 3,500 BC.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The earliest known civilization is Sumer, existing between around 4,500-1,900 BC, where the first cuneiform script emerged around 3,700-3,500 BCE. A limestone tablet termed the Kish tablet is considered the oldest known written document and represents the transition from proto-writing to cuneiform script. Recorded history began with this invention and the spread of writing.

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