The early development of human cultures and societies has presented a particular problem for historians wishing to understand the past. It was only 5000 years ago that the first writing was invented, which is fairly late in human history.
Traditionally the period before writing is referred to as “pre-history,” since it left no documents for historians to study. However, historians in recent years have been in a privileged position thanks to the development of several new scientific methods (such as the study of genetic material and radiocarbon dating of organic remains) that have been added to the long-established techniques of archaeology. Historians, as well as scientists, are now in a better position than ever before to take a look, however slight, into the pre-literate era of human history.
Despite this there are yet many topics of debate concerning distant human history, and sometimes our understanding is revised as new discoveries and research efforts create shifts in perspective. For example, the discovery of a single human skull, cave, or burial site could still throw large areas of accepted scientific and historical knowledge into question. Despite these possibilities, most historians and scientists of the twenty-first century believe that the history of early humans can be described with a reasonable degree of confidence.
Consensus holds that life begun on Earth roughly four billion years ago, and that the origins of the human race was in East Africa over two million years ago. Through the processes of biological evolution and natural selection, the genus Homo evolved. Historian and specialist in world history Yuval Noah Harari explains that,
“There were humans long before there was history, animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats. On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all” (1)
Through the biological processes of natural selection, Homo sapiens (the term used to refer to modern humans who are the only surviving human species today) evolved alongside other species of the genus Homo. Harari writes that “From about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species” (2). This included the bulky neanderthals, the Homo erectus (whomsurvived for close to two million years, thus making them the most durable human species ever to exist), Homo soloensis, Homo floresiensis, and Homo rudolfensis.
Around 45 000 years ago, modern humans (Homo sapiens) begun to spread across the world to inhabit most of Eurasia and Australia, which they reached by boat from Southeast Asia. Over the following few thousand years, they developed the ability to alter their way of life through the creation of languages, tools, beliefs, social customs, and art. They produced artifacts such as carvings, sculptures of figurines, jewelry, decorative tools, and weapons. Through these activities, human beings began to distinguish themselves as unique from the other animals in the animal kingdom.
Humans were also reproductively successful and able to expand numbers into the millions. This was also partly due to their ability to adapt to climates and climate changes despite being temporarily driven out of northerly areas, such as Britain and Scandinavia, during the Ice Age. The Ice Age occurred around 23000 years ago, and due to the cold temperatures people and animals in northern regions died out or had to move southward. Around 15000 years ago the first human beings arrived in North America by sea or through crossing the land bridge connecting Asia and North America (the Beiring Strait). For the following few thousand years, humans remained hunter-gathers, using stone tools and living in small, mobile groups until the advent of the agricultural revolution when they “began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plants species” (3). The time prior to the agricultural revolution is referred to as the Paleolithic Era, or Old Stone Age.
It is difficult to overstate the impact the agricultural revolution had on human life during what is known as the Neolithic Age (or New Stone Age). The following few thousand years resulted in many major developments in human activity including the advent of settlements as well as the occurrence of the first epidemic diseases due to the increases in population density. Possibly the first town in the world, Jericho, was settled around 9000 BCE and is still inhabited today. 1500 years later the first major evidence of complex rituals to indicate social cohesion was in a settlement called Çatalhöyük (located in central Turkey). The first civilizations developed in Mesopotamia’s Tigris-Euphrates valley (modern-day Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait), and it was there that irrigated agriculture was first established (4000 BCE). Around 3000 BCE, the world’s oldest writing system, cuneiform script, was invented in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), followed by the emergence of alphabetic writing in Egypt around 1800 BCE.
References and Recommended Readings
1. Harari, Y. 2011. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. p. 4.
2. Harari, Y. 2011. Ibid. p. 8.
3. Harari, Y. 2011. Ibid. p. 87.
Grant, R. et al. 2016. The History Book. p. 18-19
Hammer, M. 2013. Human Hybrids. Scientific American. Available.
Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W. W. Norton.