Prehystery 2

This is part 2 of my anthro 101 final, with a focus on archaeology. The class was structured in the form of a crazy but likeable old academic ranting daily. Periodically, he would ask questions that would become an outline for a paper. Our entire grade is based on these few papers. I’ll miss this class. It made me want to go into some academic field where you just know stuff and write a lot… you know, like with a pipe and a funny sweater. Anyway, this is the last part of my final paper, in which I attack religion, government, and class; then explain stonehenge and the pyramids. Enjoy.

2. Sites of the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic

Lower Paleo- sharp rocks

The beginning paleolithic period is defined as the time when people first created and used stone tools as a culture. Naturally, the chronology is vague. The first homonid-made stone tools we know about are dated to around 2.8 million years ago. Some mode 1 type tools from Lokalalei and Senge have been dated to around 2.5 million years ago. In the Afar region of N.Ethiopia, bones have been found that were cut by a stone tool around 2.8 million years ago. It is often difficult to know which tools are made by which hominid, so stone tools are often studied separately. The chronological time range in which the paleolithic period comes into being is not a known fact, but is instead a useful question.


Olduvai gorge, in Tanzania, is a geological oddity that has resulted in very good preservation of objects from deep prehistory. Hans Reck first surveyed the site in 1913, and found remains of many extinct animals stratified in a way that made dating and associations possible. Many famous pre-hominid fossils come from here. The Leakeys have pulled more evidence of early hominids and pre-hominids from this site than anyone has anywhere else in the world. The Oldowan toolmaking complex also contains a wealth of stone tools of different types.

Mode 1 Pre-Oldowan: 

Core and flake type tools have been found here and may represent changes in use and cognitive ability from users of found tools. These tools are small sharp blades that were knocked off a central core. The hominids who made these were able to select materials for tasks that were difficult or impossible without tools. Breaking chirt or flint in a random way can result in shapes that may be useful. The thoughtful homonids who made the first tools went a step further, however. They planned where the blades and handle surfaces would be or made many and just kept the best one.The layer of Olduvai strata that they are found in suggests that they come from 2.5 to 2 million years ago. All of the earliest tools we know about are found in association with animal remains, but it would be unscientific to assume that it is from sustenence hunting, or that these people moved large carcasses into their living spaces.

Mode 1 Classic Oldowan:

These are pebble tools and choppers from the Oldowan complex. and they are found in association with animal remains. The questions of which hominids used which tools and which animals were killed by the tool users, if any, are still not proven conclusively. It is no longer assumed that all the tool creators were A.M.H., we know that they were not. These date from around 1.6 to 1.9 million years ago. This is the time period where we see the first variation and specialization of stone tools.

Evidence of pebble tool creation is abundant here. These types of tools are essentially sharp rocks created for a purpose then used for several purposes. It appears that materials were abundant. Individual tools were made quickly and discarded frequently. Core tools of slightly greater complexity and diversification have been named “Oldowan” because there are so many found at Olduvai. The locations where tools are strangely abundant may have had a concentration of good materials, where people went to procure tools. Evidence of heavy activity, stone tool making, and transport of materials has been interpreted to mean that more tools were being made here than could have been used in the area. This suggests travel and/or large trade networks.

Mode 2 Advanced Oldowan

These tools show even greater specialization and are starting to look more like Acheulian bi-faces. Mode 2 type tools have characteristics that may be purely aesthetic, like symmetry. In a non-hafted tool, having two blade faces could actually make the tool less useful just as it does in a pocketknife. This tells us that looks mattered a lot to these early tool creators. One of the main psychological differences between A.M.H. and all other primates is that we care about how objects look. The emergence of Mode 2 tools may indicate psychological differences between the makers of these tools and the makers of pre-oldowan mode1 tools.

Koobi Fora

The Koobi Fora site in Northern Kenya was first surveyed in 1968. It has produced an abundance of stone tools and remains. The climate, geology, and history of the site allow for remarkable preservation. The Leakys discovered australopithecus here. Bernard Ngeves found a homo habilis here, and Kimeu Kimoya found a 1.6 million year old h.erectus skull while working with a Leaky expedition. Remains of over 200 individual hominids have been found here, so there is abundant data on human evolution around Lake Turkana. Associated plants and animal remains have also been well preserved and undisturbed, so archaeologists working at the site can get a relatively complete picture of what was going on there from two million, to half a million years ago. This is the time period at which tool making was becoming a norm for hominids.

Middle Paleo- technology of aethetics

Middle paleolithic tools generally show more attention to aesthetics and an increased use of wood and bone tools in their creation.  Bone and antler shaping tools give more control over the shape of stone tools, but don’t make them sharper. Evidence of tool repair has been seen on Acheulian points. We can infer from this that the tool makers probably kept tools for a long time. We know that time, skill, and attention were required to make these points well. It is likely that people learned knapping skills from older people. This shows that some organized language and social structure must have existed. Most clear evidence of people killing large animals comes from this period and after.

Pinnacle Point

Pinnacle point in Mossel Bay, South Africa is a site where indications of a middle paleolithic settlement have been found. Their stone tools show attention to aesthetics and a wide range of specialized shapes for different purposes including flakes, blades, and points. Symmetry and smoothness are less prevalent than in Acheulian points from Olduvai. The people who lived here showed dental differences from A.M.H., but were very close to modern human. We can tell by the animal remains that the inhabitants ate shellfish, snails, reptiles, many types of large mammals, and a lot of tortoises. The relative lack of small animal remains has not been fully explained, but if the people there had dogs it would be less mysterious. This site tells us that cultural behaviors we consider uniquely human probably came about before humans who are biologically identical to us did. Unlike other sites, pinnacle point doesn’t have a long history of occupation by several types of hominids. The thick-toothed Habilis-like people who left remains around Pinnacle Point are easier to associate with the stone tools and animal remains than they would in a place like Koobi Fora.

Upper Paleo- art

Around 40,000 years ago, stone tools of more complexity (modes 3 and 4) appear in the record. These tools are shaped more smoothly and with more attention to aesthetic than anything previous. The diversification of tool types shows that people were using tool making technology for more things. Previous stone tools were similar between cultures that couldn’t have communicated but after the middle paleo, there are cultural differences in the tool making styles of one region to another. This implies that the tool-making was more cultural and less biological in it’s origin. We see more implements for fishing in this period. Tools of this period show a complexity that suggests deep thought and skill.  This is the period where we see more hafted tools and atlatls. The advance in technology represented by these multi-piece tools would have enabled safer hunting of megafauna, and harpooning of seafood. The last glacial period was far from over but there was an increase in population and migration. Finds from this era on some continents like Australia and the Americas indicate that people had just arrived. In most cases, we don’t know how they got there. The finds from this period in Northwest Europe show that the people were spending a lot of time and energy making things that looked cool, but had questionable utility. Cave paintings, bones with horses engraved on them, and beads have been found from this period. The upper paleo corresponds with the appearance of A.M.H. in Europe. The first evidence of religious beliefs also come from upper paleolithic sites but much of this depends on interpretation. Figures like the “Venus of Dusseldorf” appear in many places across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The widespread creation of strange, female figures is hard to interpret but we know that they must have had meaning and value to the people making them.

Terra Amata

In a part of Nice, France that was beachfront property during the last glacial period, advanced mode3 and 4 tools have been found associated with upper paleolithic art and remains. The stone points made by the A.M.H. who lived here are carefully and beautifully crafted. There is evidence of a wooden hut that may have been a permanent dwelling. There is evidence that they had good control of fires because there are several hearths close together. There are sewing needles and equipment that is probably for tattooing. Some of our earliest evidence of man made structures comes from here. Pigments were found on buried people. A footprint was found, as well as the remains of many elephants. Acheulian points, small blades from composite tools, and remains from this site suggest a high degree of cultural complexity and a decrease in nomadic lifestyles.

3. Sites of the Mesolithic and Archaic

Mesolithic- culture

Vaenget Nord

Vaenget Nord was on a small, rocky island in the Denmark chain. It hasn’t seen much use in the last 4000 years, so the preservation is good, even with the low fluctuating temperatures and sea air. The civilization that lived there had subsistence patterns similar to Aleut and Inuit peoples. They ate reptiles, fish, shellfish, land animals, and sea mammals. Their high seafood diet made them healthier than fully terrestrial people of the same period. The island site contains a trash dump with over 60 species of animal remains. There are paving stones and post holes on one beach, numerous hearths with evidence of cooking. There is a large pile of flint knapping refuse and many finished adzes, arrowheads, and burins. Scrapers and handaxes are rare in the finds to date. This means they either didn’t need them, or made them from some other material. Large ash and alder posts from 6000 years ago are still on the island. There is clear evidence of wooden buildings and some clues that boats must have been used. Importantly, there is a cemetery that was used for hundreds of years. The well preserved graves have remnants of clothing and jewelry intact. Couples are buried with children in a few graves. Almost all the males, including infants, are buried with flint pocketknives. In one burial of a woman and an infant, the infant is buried in a swan’s wing.


The Gatecliff Shelters are an archaeological site near Landers, Nevada. Near the end of the last glacial period, central Nevada would have been habitable for humans. This small area was used as a temporary living space by nomadic people over a period of about seven hundred years. The last known use of the site was less than 2000 years ago. After that, sediments were left undisturbed in an arid climate, so preservation is good. Burned animal bones have been found there, as well as evidence of periodic flooding. The people there had technology to create rope and weave baskets. They had bows, wood framed structures, firemaking kits and jewelry. Among the bone and shell beads found at the site, there is a man-made glass bead, but its’ provenience hasn’t been proven.

At both of these mesolithic sites, all the technology and cultural development necessary for farming existed. There is no evidence of agriculture or the need for agriculture at either site. Population concentrations and gatherings were generally not as large as in the archaic period. These sites and others have helped to delegitimize backward theories about the inevitable linear progression of man from buffalo hunter to wheat farmer.

The mesolithic period corresponds to a flourishing of H.Sapiens and art. Trade in adornments and finely crafted possessions was taking place but there is no evidence of agriculture. The mesolithic cultures are characterized by the use of composite tools. Jewelery, art, burials, and complex technologies like rope, sewing, baskets, and bows separate the mesolithic from the upper paleolithic people. It was a golden age for humanity in a sense, because it is when the uniquely human ways of living became successful in an evolutionary sense. Fashion and jewelry probably pre-date art and music. This indicates that arts had more to do with sexual selection than we previously believed. Human biology and cognitive ability were unchanged throughout the upper paleolithic to the present but our societies and technologies have been in constant change. All cultures of the period were hunter/gatherers in the traditional sense.

The term “mesolithic” comes from adjustments in the theoretical model. The entire stone age was once thought to be the invention of A.M.H. and his direct predecessor, Neanderthal. Early agricultural cultures were envisioned as a direct result of the emergence of H.Sapiens. It was presupposed that H.Sapiens had a divinely decreed superiority over the rest of nature and they would naturally create complex societies. We now know that global climate change was a bigger factor in the explosion of human populations and cultural changes. Expansion in our knowledge has forced us to define this period between the emergence of A.M.H. and the emergence of agriculture (neolithic) as “middle stone age”, or mesolithic, and “archaic”.

In the Levant and fertile crescent, climate changes and cultural changes that would later define the neolithic era happened much earlier due to climate and population concentration. In these areas the Mesolithic is split into mesolithic 1,2,and 3.

Archaic- weird buildings

The archaic stage of cultural development looks very different in different places, and happens at different times. A common attribute of archaic societies is a shift away from nomadism. This allows for the use of pottery and in a few cases, herding of livestock. Buildings and larger communities became more common in this period. Something besides food was bringing more and more people together. The environmental capacity for food production must have been strained. The largest buildings of this period are for some communal or ceremonial use and not residences. Farming was still a rare practice, so those previously mentioned trade networks became very important. The architecture from this period is mysterious. They had small houses and communal buildings that are not well preserved, but they also built showy, grandiose things like circles and mounds that are difficult to understand. The east coast of North America has many shell shaped structures that look like colloseums. Stone Henges, Circles, and buildings for ceremonial gatherings from the archaic period all indicate a social organisation that differs from that of the neolithic and present. Construction surveying on large archaic buildings seems to have been done by carefully timed shadows, because nearly all structures of the period align with the sun or moon. Long, straight roads were built in a few parts of the American Southwest and we still aren’t sure what they were for. In the Archaic period all the social and technological characteristics that archaeologists once associated with agricultural societies exist before agriculture.

The Northern American continent has some curious archaic ruins. The Southwest has some archaic ruins that are called “pueblos”. Genetic and cultural associations between the archaic North American civilizations and the later hunter/gatherers are unclear. The most complete of these is at Chaco Canyon. Timed solar light effects in the architecture of this period show a command of timekeeping and mathematics. Modern theorists who say that neolithic city states arose with no cultural precedence forget this.

Changes in the weather

Around 10,000 years ago, the last glacial age ended. This climate change is a major factor in the emergence of agriculture. The earliest evidences of agriculture anywhere is all from the few thousand years after this important event. All people up to this point had lived with cold winters and unpredictable climate change. The human population at the end of the last ice age was at an all time high and was about to get much bigger. Sea levels were rising rapidly, winters were getting warmer, weather patterns were changing, and eventually stabilized into the kind of global climates we have had ever since. These changes correspond to drastic reductions in the numbers of most large land animal species. Humans thrived however. Populations were growing and emigrating into areas recently opened up by climate change. Academics argue about why agriculture and animal husbandry began. They began during a time when populations were too large to remain nomadic in some places, climates had become warm and predictable, and game for hunting was disappearing. There still is no consensus on how the process of grain domestication happened but recent excavations around the fertile crescent have found some of the earliest known farms. We can learn a lot about the process of grain domestication from these sites.

4. Neolithic Nation States- a beginning and an end

The Nation States occurred in many places independently as a part of these neolithic changes. They had similar characteristics that had no precedent in human history. All had strict social class stratification with a deified ruler at the top. Warriors, clergy, craftsmen, and slaves had strictly defined specialized social roles. All had larger concentrations of population than ever before. Most had mounds, ziggurats, or pyramids of similar shape. Religious thought and activity took up more time and effort than it ever did previously or since. Rulers and religious leaders made elaborate shows of their authority and power through art, ceremony, and architecture. The megalithic structures that are central to so many neolithic settlements were built for reasons that confuse people today. These include all of the most mysterious and awe inspiring buildings in history: The Jaguar Temple in Belize, the Great Pyramid at Giza, Göbekli Tepe, and Angkor Wat.

Their most grandiose and showy buildings were used for dramatic and spiritual purposes. Blood sacrifice and war were common in these cultures. Oddly, none of these societies were permanent. In every nation state, people wander off at some point. We don’t know why this happens in every case, but some Mayan cities had problems with resource management that led to their decline. At Göbekli Tepe, archaeologists have said that the site was carefully and intentionally buried with sand. The reason these nation states all disperse is still not proven.

Agriculture is given weight here and elsewhere because we now understand the profound changes in human life that go along with it. Farming has a large enough effect on most types of grains that archaeologists can tell if a grain is domestic or wild. Some archaic cultures lived in regions with harvestable grains, and ate them. Some nomadic cultures within recorded history have been known to encourage the growth of plants that they traditionally gathered in places that they were likely to return to. It is a small jump from these kinds of behaviors to agriculture. The large concentrations of people evidenced by some archaic sites would have made food allocation an issue, but also would have provided a large labor pool. Some anthropologists regard the agricultural revolution as inevitable, but there is no current consensus on this idea.

The process of becoming agricultural brought about some positive changes in human life. Dangerous and irreversible things happen to societies that begin to plant and process their own foods, however.

The first problem is population explosion. People who feel like they know what their lives will be like in a year and live in houses have different breeding patterns than hunter gatherers. Hunter gatherer cultures have lower breeding rates because of worry over food supply, the practice of carrying and breastfeeding children until they are five, and no need for child labor. Rapid population expansion afforded by agriculture made agriculture necessary to sustain those populations. The process is irreversible. Concentrations of large numbers of people made disease epidemics a real problem for the first time in human history. The disposal of human waste and other dangerous refuse becomes a difficult issue in a Nation State as well. Water has to be carefully managed in a city and cities are an inevitable result of population expansion and concentration. Other problems come from the fact that many people have more time and more resources in a larger, more anonymous society. Someone in an early neolithic culture must have wanted more resources at less effort, because this is where we see the emergence of classism, kingship, organized religion, war, and poverty. The nation states didn’t include all the people of their period. One of the unique things about them is that people’s group identification shifted from kinship to citizenship. Hunter/gatherer people still existed around the nation states, and they must have been faced with difficult choices. Some nomads could co-exist with the nation states but most nomads had to leave, be absorbed, or die.

The relative ease of gaining food in an agricultural society also leads to some good things. Infant mortality decreased in all the cases we know about. Skills become more specialized in a society where everyone isn’t employed in the business of sustenance. Skilled people of the mesolithic couldn’t have been very good at one specific activity that wasn’t sustenance related. The neolithic saw the emergence of astronomy, mathematics, timekeeping, written languages, and civil engineering. People with specialized skills were much needed to deal with the problems that the new kind of society had created. The invention of agriculture started the course of modern cultural complexity increase, because ever since then human societies have created more problems and solutions together in an ever increasing growth pattern.

The first nation states we know about occurred in Southern Iraq, in the fertile crescent along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Here and elsewhere, early agriculture happened in flood plains like the fertile crescent. In the search for cultures that may have preceded Mesopotamian cities like Ur and Uruk, archaeologists found Hasuna, Tall Suwaan, and Qal’at Jarmo. The long peaceful history of these sites have caused archaeologists to question weather nation states and agriculture are inseparable. All were farming and keeping livestock far earlier than archaeologists thought was possible. Again, the theoretical model will need adjustment.


[Chazan,M.; World Prehistory and Archaeology, Pearson, 2008]

[Larson, C. S.; Our Origins, W.W.Norton&Co.,2008]

[Dennell,R. Domanska,L.; Harvesting the Sea, Farming the Forest, Sheffeild Academic Press 1998]

[Howell, F.C.; Hominids, Pebble-tools and the African Villafranchian, UCBerkely, 1954]

[Sample, I.; Bone Discovery, The Guardian, 2010]

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