About 400,000 years ago, a group of people were gathered at the mouth of a cave. They had a fire in which they were roasting deer meat and around them lay the bones of monkeys, wild pigs and water buffalo from previous meals. One of the women was picking berries from the nearby bushes. A man sitting close to the fire chipped away at a broken stone he would use to cut off chunks of the cooked meat. another man, too hungry to wait, gnawed the marrow from some bones.
The cave was one of several not far from what is now Peking, China and the people who first used these caves are known as Peking Man. Peking Man did not leave anything behind except some bones, charcoal, berries and stones, but these are enough to suggest certain things about the way he lived. They show that the people at the caves ate meat as well as plants, made crude tools, could kill large animals and knew how to keep a fire alive.
With fire they could keep warm and fend off wild animals at night. Probably they cooked some foods in the fire. Instead of eating in the fields after killing an animal, the men might wait until they gathered around the fire to eat. Such a meal became something of a family or group occasion. There was a sharing of tasks, of food, of pleasures. No one said much, but with simple language the adults could pass on something of what they had learned to their children.
At times, when food was scarce these people may have eaten human flesh, but it is likely they killed only to survive. Or perhaps they believed by eating human flesh they could obtain the strength of a slain enemy, or keep the spirit of a dead comrade.
Among the things left behind by Peking Man were bones which had been pried open. To pry open a bone takes a certain knowledge and skill; Peking Man must have had an intelligence. As primitive as he was, he belongs to human history.
The Great Ice Age
It had taken millions of years for a body and a brain to develop and work together as Peking Man’s did. Atleast 600,000 years before Peking Man appeared, man was clearly standing erect and grasping tools he himself had made. Man was then near the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch, a period that takes its name from Greek words meaning ‘most recent’. Although the Pleistocene Epoch began one million years ago, that is considered recent when compared to the many millions of years in the life of the planet.
During the Pleistocene Epoch, there were various types of men at different stages of development. One of the most primitive types was the Australopithecus. The name means “southern apelike” and refers to southern Africa, where many bones of this type have been found. A later and more advanced type is the Pithecanthropus, meaning “apelike man”. Peking Man belonged to this group, along with such relatives as the one found on the island of Java. Still more advanced types developed in the years that followed.
During all these years, the earth itself was passing through an ice age. In the early part of the Pleistocene Epoch, the first of four glacial periods began. Each lasted many thousands of years and was followed by a warm interglacial period also lasting thousands of years. During a glacial period, large masses of ice moved down from the mountainous regions in the north and across Europe, Asia and the Americas. As the great ice masses – and the cold climate – spread across the northern hemisphere, vegetation was wiped out and animals were driven southward. Rains moved across new routes and the region just north of the equator became a fertile grassland where animal life flourished and men tended to concentrate.
Then the ice began to melt and the glaciers retreated. Sea levels rose and land bridges between various areas of higher ground vanished, leaving some creatures isolated. During these interglacial periods, the climate often became semi-tropical in regions where the ice had been. Plants, animals and men spread into the new territory.
The last glacial period ended about 11,000 years ago but, during the hundreds of thousands of years of the great Ice Age, man was developing as he moved and changed with the climate. Little has survived of man during this period, except for his stone tools. These have given the period its best-known name the Paleolithic (“old stone”) Age.
From the beginning there was the one thing that set man apart from the animals: he changed objects so that he could use them as tools. His first tools were probably wooden clubs and sticks and bones for digging. Soon he saw the advantages of stone and began to break or chip rough edges on pebbles. He discovered too, that hard stones like flint could be given a sharp edge that penetrated other materials, such as wood, bone and flesh. In many parts of the world flint became the most common material for tools.
Peking Man did not make anything from stone except crude chopping stones and flakes with rough cutting edges. In Africa and Europe, men chipped more precisely and put sharp edges on stones. Their basic tool was the hand axe. It had no wooden handle, but the stone was shaped with two sides, cutting edges and a blunt end. Grasping this blunt edge in one hand – or both, since a hand axe might be up to two feet long – a man could perform such tasks as digging, splitting or butchering.
Gradually, here and there, man began to find new ways of making different kinds of stone tools. In general, tools became smaller, thinner, sharper and more handy. Man want to much trouble to shape a stone. He took pride in a neat job.
“Intelligent Man” Appears
For hundreds of thousands of years, man’s advance must be measured by his stone tools. Then, 120,000 years ago, a different type of man appeared in many parts of the world. This was Neanderthal Man, named after the German valley where his remains were first discovered. Europe had still to pass through the final glacial period and Neanderthal Man took to living in caves. He hunted animals such as reindeer, musk ox, woolly mammoth and bear, which were all forced to live at the edge of the glaciers.
Neanderthal Man became a highly skilled stone-chipper and made stone flakes into scrapers and knives. He made points so finely edged that they could penetrate the thick skins of the animals he hunted. Neanderthal Man was so involved with animals that he seems to have developed a cult of animal worship. In the arms of a man buried in a cave he placed the jaws of a bear; this suggests that he considered the bear sacred. Although earlier man may have buried the dead, Neanderthal Man was the first to place food and tools with the body. There was a feeling for an afterlife, a sense of religion.
Then, about 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal Man gave way to a new type of man – Homo sapiens, or “intelligent man”. This was modern man, who appeared in the Near East, North Africa and Europe. An early type of European modern man is named Cro Magnon Man after the French site where his remains were discovered. Modern man also moved into southeast Asia, into the Far East and into Australia.
Some of these modern men became the first people in America. Moving out of Asia, they crossed the Bering Strait – perhaps over a bridge of land or ice – to Alaska. Then, pushing forward in search of food, they moved down and across North America, Middle America and South America. It was many years before modern man reached the barrens of northeastern Canada or Greenland or Antartica or the mid-Pacific islands, but about 15,000 years ago, modern man had taken over much of the earth’s habitable surface.
From the beginning, man had been adapting to conditions such as extreme heat or cold. Different physical features such as skin colours or body types were developing, too. Modern man now became many men, living in different ways throughout the world. For all their differences, however, their lives were much the same and their advances still depended on simple tools.
Some men found better ways to make old tools. They improved the spear by tipping it with points of stone or bone. They invented the spear-thrower, a narrow stick that allowed a man to launch a spear and thus increase its power.
Men were also making new tools. With one, the burin, a chisel-like instrument, a man could make needles out of bone and ivory and with needles he began to sew clothing from skins and furs. He could then live in colder climates and hunt reindeer, whose antlers provided still another material for tools.
As men moved into new territories, they met new problems, but now they were able to handle them. One group of people, for instance, lived in the flatlands of northern Europe and southern Russia. There were no caves and the climate was severe. The people scraped a few inches of soil off the ground and then erected a roof of animal skins or branches covered with dirt. Inside this dwelling they had a fire and in this way they survived to hunt the great mammoths.
It was a hard life and yet those people took time to make themselves ornaments, such as beads, bracelets and pins. They decorated ivory and bone objects with simple geometric designs and carved small stone or ivory figurines, apparently for a religious cult. Man was already giving thought to things beyond his immediate needs.
As the last glacial period drew to an end in Europe, a mild climate settled in and along with it came various kinds of wild game. Hunters began to live in and around the many caves and rock shelters of southwestern France and northern Spain. Here in the caves, men began to paint.
In different caves, at different times, they painted with their fingers or simple brushed. Sometimes they blew dry powdered paint onto a surface prepared with fat. Sometimes they shaded in figures with black, sometimes with a colour and sometimes with several colours. Between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, men were covering the walls and ceilings of caves with an astonishing variety of forms, mostly of men and animals.
The artists did not paint these pictures merely to show their skill or give pleasure. The paintings were part of the magic and religious beliefs of people whose survival depended on those animals. The people believed that the pictures were a link with the forces behind the fertility of the animals and the success of the hunters. The cave was a sacred place, or sanctuary and at some stage the paintings may have been used as part of a ritual. Perhaps, in the depths of the caves, by the light of fires and torches, they were dancing and chanting. Men in animal skins and masks may have performed, for such figures are painted on the walls of some of the caves.
They way of life of such hunters lasted for many years in some parts of the world. In other parts of the world, men entered a period of great change. This happened about ten years ago, when the final glacial period came to an end and the climate that was to mark modern times developed. The period of change is known as the Mesolithic (‘middle stone”) Age. Since it fell within quite recent times, it can be dated as beginning about 8000 B. C. Depending on the people and the region, the Mesolithic Age lasted from one thousand to several thousand years.
Hunters and Food Gatherers
During this period, men began to find new ways of obtaining food besides hunting and food-gathering. Some people had long eaten shellfish, but shore dwellers now began to eat them as a staple. Men learned how to spear fish and how to make hooks, nets and even dugout canoes. Later they made harpoons and hunted seals or caught stranded whales.
When men could feed themselves from the sea, new areas opened up for settlement. Men also began to move into woodlands, with their fresh materials for shelters and food. The old cutting tools were inefficient and soon men were making an axe with a handle. Later they began to polish the axe blade with abrasives like sand, giving an edge that cut neater and faster. Men also began to make tiny chips of stone that could be set into other materials to provide jagged cutting edges.
Men still remained hunters, but now they had two new aids — the dog and the bow and arrow. The ancestors of dogs had been coming and going around campfires for some time. About 10,000 years ago, dogs were already men’s hunting companions and were used for tracking, cornering and retrieving game. The bow and arrow had no ancestors in nature but was a true invention, combining several parts and principles. At first it aided man the hunter; later it served man the warrior.
Despite such changes, most people remained hunters and food gatherers who stayed close to rock shelters wherever the search for food took them. Wood stone and bone were still the basic materials for tools. Then something new appeared in the Near East. In the region that spread from Palestine, up across Turkey and down into Iraq, the highland plains and valleys supported a rich variety of small game and wild plants. Life did not have to be organised around hunting a few large animals and the climate enabled men to relax a bit. A few people here began to make sickles to cut grasses and grains. Some people made grinding mills and pounding stones to prepare the wild grains they gathered.
Men had long known where and when certain wild grass grew best. Perhaps they had even tended the fields by driving away animals and pulling out unwanted plants. After the grains were gathered, men learned how to prepare them. It was the people of the Near East who took the next step. Perhaps someone accidentally dropped some seeds, forgot about them and only later noticed some grain growing in the area. Or perhaps people returned to an old campsite and saw a good growth of grain where their garbage had been thrown. Most likely it was the women who noticed such things, since the men were too busy hunting to worry about a few stalks of grain but when people learned that grains could be made to grow where they wanted them, farming began.
Metals and Inventions
The people of the Near East at first grew wild barley and wheat, but soon they were cultivating many wild vegetables and fruits. They also began to use such tools as the sickle, the hoe and later the plow. In time, too, men in the Near East learned how to irrigate their fields. Knowledge of how to farm spread to other regions and had a great effect on the life of the people at that time. Meanwhile, people in southeast Asia had begun on their own to cultivate other kinds of plants and the Indians of Middle America had started to grow a primitive kind of corn. Later, the American Indians would be the first to cultivate many other plants such as the potato, tomato, pumpkin and peanut.
The way of life that began to develop with farming marked a new period, the Neolithic (“new stone”) Age. As was the preceding periods, the name refers to the tools made by the peoples of this time. The complete neolithic culture, however, included many other developments besides tools. By this time, for instance, some men were building their own houses, with roofs, pavements, fireplaces and storage pits. They even built special rooms for their gods and religious rituals. Men were becoming village and town dwellers and at Jericho, in Palestine, they built town walls with a tower. Along with their farming and settlements, neolithic men were domesticating animals. Sheep, goats, pigs and cattle were first used in their half-wild state and then men began to breed them in captivity. Later, men began to milk such animals as goats and cattle.
In their settlements, people were learning how to shape new materials. Perhaps a woman noticed that a basket lined with mud became hard and waterproof after standing near a fire or beneath the sun. Before long many people were making pots of every size and shape and decorating them with surface marks or paints. Neolithic people who began to spin and weave and developed a loom. This provided more materials for clothing and also turned some men from hunting to cultivating flax and cotton and tending sheep for wool.
Farming, villages, domesticated animals, pottery, weaving – these made up the neolithic culture that the people of the Near East had taken the lead in developing. Soon the new ways were being adopted by other people, who learned about them from migrant groups or from individual travellers and traders. Not all people took over all the new ways and each group adapted the new ways to its own conditions. But the basic neolithic culture was taken up by much of mankind around the Mediterranean and Africa, Europe, central Asia and the Far East.
Meanwhile, in the highlands of Turkey and Iran, another development took place. A few men began to smelt copper from ore. By 5000 B. C., they were making small ornaments and tools, soon they were making bowls. By smelting other earths and rocks, men discovered metals such as silver, tin and lead. Bronze, a mixture of tin and copper, were probably discovered by accidental smelting of an ore mixture. Stone and pottery continued to be the basic materials for a long time; metal was for only a few privileged persons. Still, once metal-working started, it developed and spread.
While this was going on during several thousand years, still other discoveries were giving man new sources of energy. For a long time, man had depended largely on his own muscle. Only recently had he hitched animals to ploughs and sledge, whilst some men were getting work out of the ass, the reindeer, the horse and the camel. Now with the invention of the wheel, men could move themselves with large loads over the land quite easily. With the sail, men could move ships. Simple applied mechanics, too, enabled men to haul water or move great weights. For a long time to come, manpower continued to do most of the work, whether it was building the pyramids of Egypt or hauling large stones to Stonehenge, but a new world was opening up.
Even before metals or the wheel affected most men’s lives, a more basic change took place in the neolithic world. Men were able to produce a surplus of food to support people such as priests and craftsmen, who did tasks other than farming. In a settlement where goods and labour were exchanged, there was a need to keep accounts and generally administer the community’s property and activities. Out of such communities grew the civilisations that would make history and from their simple records came the writing to record that history.