2,000,000 – 40,000 B.C.E.
Historians call the earliest period of human history the Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic Age. This long period dates from about 2 million B.C.E., the time of the first stone toolmakers, to about 10,000 B.C.E.
All three of these early human species made and used stone tools. At first, these were nothing more than sharp-edged stones used for cutting, scraping or chopping the flesh and bones of the animals they killed- made by striking one stone against another, chipping away pieces to form a cutting edge. Later toolmakers used wood or bone mallets to produce straight, sharp cutting edges. Homo erectus learned to make double-edged hand axes, which they used to shape wood or bone and cut up meat, showing that they may have been the first hominids to hunt large animals.
Out of Africa
Homo erectus were the first hominids to live outside Africa. Some time after 1.8 million years ago, they began a migration that led them through the Middel East to South and South-east Asia and northern China, although they did not reach the Americas or Australia. The earliest non-African examples of Homo erectus have been found on the island of Java, Indonesia, and are around 1.8 million years old – although some scientists think this is a separate species.
The ice ages of the Pleistocene era, which lasted from about two million to 11,500 years ago, prevented much human migration to Europe, because of the massive glaciers that covered large parts of the continent during this period. The earliest human remains in Europe, found in northern Spain, date to around 800,000 years ago.
To survive in colder, northern areas, Homo erectus mastered fire and began to wear clothing – the first hominid species to do so. The earliest evidence of the use of fire was found in a cave in northern China occupied by Homo erectus around half a million years ago.
Anthropologists have found startling evidence of early human life in East Africa. In 1959, Mary and Louis Leakey found pieces of bone embedded in ancient rock at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. After careful testing, they concluded that the bone belonged to early hominids, or human-like primates. In 1974, Donald Johanson found part of a hominid skeleton in Ethiopia. Johanson named his find “Lucy” after a Beatle’s song.
Because of such evidence, many scientists think that the earliest people lived in East Africa. Later, their descendants may have migrated north and east into Europe and Asia. In time, people reached the Americas, Australia, and the islands of the Pacific.
Field Museum of Chicago
Home of “Lucy“
Modern human beings are classified as Homo sapiens. This group evolved higher, more rounded skulls, while the ridged brows and protruding faces of earlier hominids gradually disappeared and a noticeable chin developed. Certain differences, such as skin color and eye shape, continued to distinguish the various groups of Homo sapiens, depending on where they lived in the world, and these differences can still be seen among humans today.
There are two main theories about how Homo sapiens developed: the single origin theory and the multiple origin theory. According to the more widely accepted single origin theory, the humans that spread out to Africa to different parts of Asia and Europe did not maintain contact with each other. Those that remained in Africa evolved into another species, Homo heidelbergensis, which spread throughout Africa and then into Europe around one million years ago. Those that spread into Europe adapted to the cold and severe conditions to form Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals.
The first Homo sapiens appeared in Africa between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, having evolved from the African Homo heidelbergensis. The new species then spread thoughout Africa, as well as into Asia and Europe, displacing those who lived there. These earlier peoples, including the Neanderthals in Europe and Homo erectus in Asia, eventually became extinct.
According to the multiple origins theory, sufficient contact was maintained between early human subgroups, including Homo erectus, Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis, to ensure they remained part of the same species. The differences in appearance between each subgroup were due to their adaptation to local conditions. At some point between 700,000 and 400,000 years ago, these scattered groups evolved into Homo sapiens.
The Neanderthals lived in ice age Europe between 150,000 and 35,000 years ago. With large noses and short, sturdy bodies averaging around 5.2 ft. in height, they were well adapted to the cold climate. They were the most advanced toolmakers of their time, using hammers made from bones, antlers and wood to produce a range of tools for butchering animals, scraping hides and carving wood. Advanced hunters, they also made spears for hunting animals such as horses, reindeer and mammoths. Most lived in caves, but some built circular tents from hides, leaves or bark supported by wooden posts. Interestingly, the Neanderthals were the first people known to bury their dead.
Early Religious Beliefs
About 30,000 years ago, people began to leave evidence of their belief in a spiritual world. To them, the world was full of spirits and forces that might reside in animals, objects, or dreams. Such beliefs are known as animism. In France, Spain, and northern Africa, cave or rock paintings vividly portray animals such as deer, horses, and buffaloes. Some cave paintings show stick-figure people, too. The paintings often lie deep in the caves, far from a band’s living quarters. Cave paintings may have been part of animistist religious rituals in which hunters sought help from the spirit world for success in an upcoming hunt.
Archaeologists have also found small stone statues that probably had religious meaning. Statues of pregnant women, for example, may have been symbols meant to ensure survival of the band. They suggest that early people worshipped earth-mother goddesses, givers of food and life.
Toward the end of the Old Stone Age, some people began burying their dead with great care. This practice suggests a belief in life after death. They probably believed the afterlife would be similar to life in this world, so they provided the dead with tools, weapons, and other needed goods. Burial customs like these survived in many places into modern times
World History – Connections to Today, Prentice Hall, 2003.