Early Man and the Earliest Civilizations

Civilization may be defined as a Complex society in which there is:

bullet Production of Excess food. In a subsistence society; a person or group of persons produces only enough food for itself; normally only enough for the immediate need.
bullet Large towns or cities
bullet Division of labor. 

        The Elements of a Civilization are:

bullet   A system of writing.
bullet   A system of laws or rules of conduct.
bullet   Some form of religion.        

The study of the development of human beings over time is divided into two fields:  


Prehistory - The period before writing.


History - The period after the invention of writing which has enabled human beings to record  and store information.   

The Origins of the Human Species

A number of myths exist about origins of modern humans:

bullet  Humans vs. Dinosaurs: No human being ever saw a living dinosaur, unless he saw it on video tape, or in a move theater. The last dinosaur died millions of years before the first human being appeared. 
bullet  Humans are descended from Apes, or so Darwin said. Actually Darwin said no such thing. Darwin published two volumes: 
bullet Origin of Species: In which he said that all life evolved from lower life forms, and only the fittest survived; evolution was a matter of adaptation of environment which enabled the fittest to survive and all others to die out.
bullet The Descent of Man in which he said that Man and Apes had a common ancestor.

Darwin never said that man was descended from the apes, although this common misconception often got him into trouble. In later years, he recanted his earlier propositions for the sake of not offending religious authorities.

bulletContrary to Hollywood, there were no cave people, or early men in America. The first people in America were the Indians who migrated about 25,000 years ago; they were truly modern people.

Human beings belong to the Primate Family and are members of a distinct group known as hominids.  Although there were many hominid species on the earth at different times, human beings are the last of the group.  Apes are primates but are NOT hominids.

       The earliest known specimen of hominid  was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia.  The remains were approximately 3.5 million years old.  The archaeological party that made the discovery celebrated its good fortune that evening with music from The Beatles.  One such song played was "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."  The tune became the inspiration for a name for their discovery, a female, so she was named "Lucy."

    Only a portion of Lucy's skeleton was discovered, but there were sufficient remains to determine that she was 3.5 feet tall, and weighed roughly 55 pounds.  She was about 25 at the time of her death, actually a rather old age for that time period. Notable was the fact that Lucy walked upright.  Other primates, (including all apes) use their arms for walking and maneuvering.  Lucy walked on two feet.  This freed her hands for other tasks, such as the use of tools.  It is the use of tools which primarily distinguishes humans from the lower animals. 

  Although Lucy had many humanoid features, she was NOT a true "human."  True human beings originated about 40,000 years ago.  Lucy's remains were much older, and lacked many human characteristics.

Lucy belonged to a species known as Australopithecus which lived in eastern Africa from four million to one million years B.C.E.  The name translates "Southern Ape," but this is a misnomer, as Australopithecines were hominids, not apes. They had well developed hands and opposing thumbs (as in modern humans) which allowed them to use tools and perform delectate operations. Although the portion of the brain responsible for speech was not well developed, it appears that they had some means of communication with each other.  It is noteworthy that they often traveled as far as 9 - 10 miles to find a particular type of stone which they used in tool making.

Australopithecines used tools for chopping and scraping, as well as food preparation. In the later stages of their existence, they developed methods of controlling fire which they used for warmth.   

Roughly one million years ago, australopithecines disappeared and a new species, belonging to the genus Homo.  The most important member of this genus was homo erectus ( upright-walking man).  Homo erectus had a larger brain than Australopithecus (roughly 2/3 that of modern man) and made more sophisticated tools.  They were able to hunt large animals successfully, which could only be done in groups.  This indicates they did have the ability to communicate with each other in some fashion.  Their knowledge of fire, more advanced tools, intelligence and language enabled them to spread throughout much of the world.  Australopithecus had never left Africa; Homo Erectus migrated throughout Eurasia.  Homo erectus faded from history roughly 200,000 years ago.  

 True Human Beings are called Homo sapiens. (Thinking Man.) and succeeded Homo erectus.  Homo Sapiens brain is/was larger than his predecessors, and had a different brain structure in that the frontal regions, where conscious and reflective thinking occur, is much larger.  This increased brain power make up for his lack of a natural means of attack (claws, beak, etc.) and of defending himself.  He had the ability not only to adjust to the environment, but soon developed the ability to affect the environment.  He had the ability to perform increasingly complex tasks, as well as complex methods of communication and cooperation.

Homo Sapiens was able to create increasingly complex tools and weapons, such as knives and spears.  He was able to create dwellings for himself in caves and free standing shelters, but most importantly, learned to clothe himself with the skins of animals.  This ability allowed him to survive in cooler climates in which his predecessors would have found life increasingly difficult, given their lack of natural insulation (fur).  His ability to impact his environment was so pervasive that many species of animal became extinct due to over-hunting.  Among these were the Mammoth, mastodon, and the horse and camel from North America.  Horses did not reappear in America until introduced by the Spanish in the 15th Century.

    The early age of man is called the Stone Age.  The name derives from the use of stones for man's first true tools.  The Stone Age can be divided into three phases: 

I. Paleolithic Period: (Old Stone Age) 2.4 million – 10,000 B.C.E.

This is by far the longest period of human existence, existing until about 12,000 years ago. It ended when homo sapiens developed the ability to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. During this period, the primary means of survival was hunting and gathering.  

Features of Stone Age society:

bulletIt did not allow for the accumulation of wealth.  An individual might own the furs that he wore, and one or two tools for hunting or dressing game, but there was no conception of private property. People of the period moved with the animals which they hunted.  All evidence suggests that their movements were NOT random, but were carefully determined so as to follow herds of game. 
bulletThere was no place (or need) for social distinction.  Undoubtedly, one or more persons served as leader of a group, which might be determined on the basis of strength, age, wisdom, etc.  There were, however, no hereditary distinctions between individuals.
bulletThe necessities of survival meant that groups which lived, hunted and gathered together were small.  A large group could not easily sustain itself, therefore when a clan/group grew large, certain members would separate from it and form a separate group.

 Typical of this time period is the Neanderthal man; named for the Neander Valley in Germany where the first fossil remains were found.  Remains have been found in Europe, South Asia, and Africa. Archaeological evidence suggest that Neanderthals flourished from about 200,000 B.C.E. until about 35, 000 B.C.E.

Neanderthals were originally believed to have large bones, short forearms, long, low skulls, and to be stocky; slow, stupid, with exaggerated features. Neanderthal is a phrase often applied to people who seem to be uncivilized and rely on brute strength. It was commonly believed that they were eventually destroyed by modern man, because they simply couldn’t compete. They didn’t have the brainpower, let alone the physical prowess. It is from this that we get out stereotypical "cave man" image.

Historians and anthropologists had problems determining how Neanderthals survived at all, because they appeared so slow and dull witted. They accepted as true all sorts of abominable explanations:

bullet  They were really scavengers who only ate the animals that were killed by other animals.
bullet  They were cannibals. 
This is one of the first instances in which we must learn to challenge old assumptions, which might be wrong. Rather than consider the error of their premise, outlandish explanations were made to justify it.

Later research has shown that the single specimen from whom this determination was made was older (about 35, which was VERY old for a Neanderthal); and was arthritic; thus his limbs and joints were swollen. Later, the skeletal remains of a young man and child were found buried together; during the same time period Each had  many of the same features; but were much more modern looking than had been earlier believed. It now appears that they were very strong, and practically athletic.

Neanderthal man contributed the first rudiments of survival, which would lead to modern man:

  Nomadic hunters and gatherers.

bullet   They used primitive stone tools and weapons.
bullet   They had some knowledge of fire; and used it for warmth; if not for cooking.
bullet   Chemical analysis of remains indicates that a large portion of their diet was meat; which meant that they had some degree of hunting skills. This would require the efforts of more than one person, so it appears that they had some form of spoken language, and could readily communicate with each other. It also shows that they had to be strong and athletic, and at least mentally acute in order to capture these animals. The only other explanation would be that they were scavengers, like hyenas; but there is no evidence to suggest this. Most of the animal kill sites located show evidence that the animal died from wounds inflicted by a weapon.
bullet   Fossil remains often show bodies that were "laid out," often with tools, etc. placed with the remains; and flower pollen, plus particles of clay, indicating body paint. Neanderthals obviously buried their dead with some form of ceremony; complete with flowers; and had some belief in a life after death; a common element of religion. 

II. Mesolithic Period: (Stone Age). (30,000 - 10,000 B.C.)

Typical of this time period was the Cro-Magnon Man. 

Cro-Magnon people were also hunters and gatherers, but were more advanced than Neanderthal: Their features were very similar to modern man, in fact, if groomed and dressed in contemporary clothes, it is doubtful that one would know the difference.

bullet Tools and weapons were more sophisticated. They were often flaked; which made their purpose unmistakable.
bullet They appear to have been more organized socially.
bullet They developed (and left behind) Cave Art. The Art was NOT a means of decoration. Sometimes they crawled deep into caves on their bellies to carve drawings, etc. Drawings often depict animals which were hunted; pregnant females, warriors prowess in battle.
bullet Deities were represented by carved figurines. Sort of personal deities that could be carried around. Archaeologists typically refer to these personalized deities as "Venus figurines" because they often depict individuals with pronounced sexual features.  Females were often depicted as pregnant.  This indicates their understanding between reproduction and survival, both in human society but in the larger world from which their food was produced.
bulletCro-Magnons build shelters which were adapted to the environment; they no longer had to seek shelter, as did the Neanderthal, but could live themselves in shelters they constructed themselves.
bullet Cro-Magnon wore clothing made of leather; not just fir. They obviously had the ability to remove hair from animal hides, and process it.

There was some argument in the scientific community that Neanderthals were cannibals; but were eventually destroyed by the Cro-Magnon. None of this appears to be true. This seemed to be the only explanation for the fact that these dumb looking Neanderthals could have a high protein diet. It is most likely that evolutionary processes gradually phased out the Neanderthal, but for some time they lived peaceably with the Cro-Magnon.

    Societies such as Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man lived in constant danger from starvation, floods, disease, etc.  It was necessary for them to tightly control their numbers.  It is most likely that to keep the number of their groups from becoming too large, they engaged in infanticide.

III. Neolithic Period: (New Stone Age): c. 10,000 B.C.

Modern Man appeared during the Neolithic period. The "ice man" found several years ago in the Alps is indicative of early modern man. He was found frozen, with various survival tools, etc. Recent autopsy results show he died as the result of an arrow – he was murdered. (A victim of early lead poisoning!)

bullet First to develop Agriculture; he was able to produce and reproduce the same crops, such as wheat, rye, legumes.
bullet Domesticated animals, goats, sheep, cattle, even horses. Used not only for food but also as work animals, could pull plows, which aided agriculture.
bullet Because surplus food could be stored, and animals kept until needed for food, there was no need to live as nomads. People began to settle in fixed areas; and populations grew in those areas.
bullet Settlement and surplus agricultural production led to specialization of labor. One could trade his surplus for the surplus of another. Thus one might trade agricultural produce for tools or weapons.

    Agriculture was usually implemented by a slash/burn method, in which forested areas were burned and farmed until the soil was exhausted, after which a new area was cleared and the old field allowed to remain fallow.  This was similar to the system used by the American Indians prior to arrival of Europeans.   

Agricultural development and settlement led to an explosion in human population.  There was no longer the need to limit numbers, as sufficient food could be produced.  The following table illustrates the change:

                        Year                                                                    Human Population

                 3000 BCE                                                                          14 million

                 2000 BCE                                                                          27 million

                 1000 BCE                                                                          50 million

                   500 BCE                                                                        100 million

With settlement and specialization came the development of Towns and Cities. One of the earliest settlements discovered to date is the Biblical city of Jericho.  It is located on a fresh water Oasis, and was inexistence prior to 8000 BCE.  Most residents of Jericho were farmers who grew wheat and barley with water from the oasis.  They conducted a small amount of trade with other societies, primarily in salt (Jericho is near the Dead Sea) and obsidian, a black volcanic glass that was often used for knives.  By 7000 BCE the city was sufficiently prosperous that its inhabitants built a large wall and moat around the exterior, in case any of the neighbors should decide to help themselves.  

One of best known settlements  identified is that of Catal Huyuk in the area of Anatolia  (modern day Turkey.) It flourished from 7250 BCE until 6150 BCE--a period of eleven hundred years. 

Accomplishments of the Neolithic Era: 

bullet This was the first civilization to develop the use of pottery, which was used to store food.  Pottery was often decorated, and became important not only as a practical tool but also as a means of artistic expression.
bulletThey  were the first to work with true metals, primarily copper, which was used to make tools and weapons.
bulletThe first use of textiles is evident here, with clothing woven instead of consisting of animal skins.
bulletThe opportunity to specialize soon led to class distinctions.  Individuals could trade surplus items (wheat, etc.) for jewelry, etc. The concept of private property developed about this time, and with it the accumulation of wealth.
bulletThe earliest rudiments of a calendar, which could accurately predict change of seasons, etc.
bulletA religion based on fertility and reproduction.  Venus figurines depicting pregnancy and fertility were common.  There were other gods dealing with life, death, and regeneration.

    Dense populations and specialized labor soon gave rise to cities.  Cities differed from Neolithic towns and villages in two important ways:

bulletCities were larger and more complex. Professions often appeared, that is, people who made their living by means other than agriculture.  Physicians, and craftsmen were typical.  Also, professional managers, such as governors, administrators, and military leaders.
bulletCities served the needs of people outside their walls.  Trade blossomed, and over time was conducted over larger and longer distances.  As food was needed to feed the inhabitants, Cities often extended their authority to areas outside the city walls; hence the beginning of empires and areas of influence.

    The first such cities developed in present day Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  The area is called "Mesopotamia," which in Latin means: "Between the Rivers."

        Genesis, in the Old Testament, states that four rivers ran through the Garden of Eden.  Among them were the Tigris and the Euphrates.  The other two cannot be identified.  It would thus appear that from a secular as well as a religious standpoint, Mesopotamia was the beginning point of civilization as we presently understand it.