Homo sapiens first emerged 200,000 years ago in Africa and over the next 180,000 years, humans migrated to every continent on Earth, with the exception of Antarctica. After the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, civilization developed about 6,000 years ago in what is modern-day Iraq and Egypt. Not a whole lot is known about humans before civilization started, simply because writing hadn’t been invented, so what we do know is essentially a combination of speculation and educated guesses. These are 10 of the most interesting of these theories about what life was like for humans before the dawn of civilization.
10. The Relationship Between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals
Homo sapiens is a species of Hominina, and while there were others, we’re the only ones that have survived. However, other Hominina lived alongside us at one point in history. So exactly how friendly did our Homo sapiens ancestors get with other species of Hominina? Well, it turns out that they were quite friendly. Evidence seems to show that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals, who evolved about 400,000 years ago, interbred with each other.
Humans and Neanderthals share a common ancestor and they are our closest evolutionary ancestors. It is believed Neanderthals moved out of Africa about 300,000 years ago, about 100,000 years before humans evolved. They settled in the areas that are now Western Europe all the way to Siberia. Then, humans started migrating out of Africa and 45,000 humans migrated to Europe and for the first time, the two species of Hominina came across each other. It is believed by some researchers that it was during this time that humans and Neanderthals mated with each other. In fact, people who descended from Europeans, Asians, and other non-Africans have genomes that are two percent Neanderthal. It is believed that the genes helped with battling infections and dealing with ultraviolet rays. Researchers have also speculated that it is possible that Neanderthals passed along genes that helped humans deal with the cold. Evidence also seems to indicate that the genes that were passed along to human-Neanderthal hybrids were harmful and the hybrids didn’t survive past many generations.
What’s amazing is the similarities that we share with our ancestors that lived tens of thousands of years ago, and one way that we are really alike is that they kept dogs as pets. There is evidence that 33,000 years ago, humans had domesticated some dogs, but then an ice age happened about 26,000 years ago and none of the domesticated dogs survived. Instead, all pet dogs now have a common ancestor from about 17,000 to 14,000 years ago.
In Northern Jordan, there is a graveyard that is 16,500 years old with people buried alongside dogs. Amazingly, dogs weren’t the only pets of prehistoric humans. In one of the graves, they found a man buried with a fox; possibly meaning that humans and foxes were friends at one point.
8. Wolves and Humans Drove Neanderthals to Extinction?
One of the biggest mysteries of prehistoric times is why did the Neanderthals go extinct 40,000 years ago? One of the leading theories is that climate change altered their ecosystem and killed off the animals they would have eaten. Another theory is that humans were better suited at hunting than the Neanderthals. Evidence that it was competition simply comes down to the fact that about 45,000 years ago humans made their way to Europe, and 5,000 years later, all the Neanderthals were gone. A twist on the second theory from a leading American anthropologist was that wolves and humans drove them to extinction.
In Europe, at the time, there would have been three top competitors for animals – humans, Neanderthals, and wolves. As we talked about in the prior entry, prehistoric humans had domesticated dogs, and they were bred from wolves. According to the theory, the humans’ alliance with the wolves would have given humans a number of advantages. Dogs would have chased away rival carnivores, like lions and leopards, which would have stolen meat humans would have eaten. The dogs would have also been used for tracking and when they found the prey, they could have hounded it until it tired, making it easier for humans to kill the animal. This would have made hunting both easier and safer for humans, which would allowed our numbers to flourish and would have caused the Neanderthal population to dwindle and die off.
When you hear about a guy who tattoos or pierces his penis, you may cringe and think that you’ve really lost touch with the modern world. But in reality, the men who choose to do that may just be following in the footsteps of their ancient ancestors. It turns out that 12,000 years ago, in the areas that are known as France and Spain, they found phallic art that seems to show that men pierced, tattooed, and even scarred their manhood.
Researchers believe that it was probably for social or ritualistic reasons, but no one is exactly sure what the tattoos and scars mean. Many of them are geometric shapes, mostly triangles and circles, and the symbols match images in nearby cave paintings. So the markings could be significant to the tribe, or it could be decorative like many modern tattoos.
6. Wiped Out the Elephants?
At one point in Earth’s history, elephants and mammoths were relatively plentiful. There were at least 12 species and they were found in Eurasia, African and the Americas. Today, there are only two sub-species of elephants left and they are only found in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. There are two theories as to what killed the elephants and mammoths. The first is the climate change that happened about 10,000 years ago. The second theory is that humans drove them to extinction. To test the theory, two researchers looked at 41 archaeological sites on the five continents where elephants and mammoths lived. They found that once humans moved into an area, elephants and mammoth started to disappear from fossil records, meaning it is quite possible that anywhere humans went, they decimated the populations of elephants and mammoths.
One of the biggest fad diets of the past few years is the Paleo diet. The idea of the diet is to eat like our prehistoric ancestors. This includes eating lean meats and seafood, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It is also best to avoid dairy, grains, processed foods and sugar, legumes, starches, and alcohol.
So, did our ancient ancestors really eat that way? Well, sort of. The modern Paleo diet is an oversimplified version of what humans in the Paleolithic era ate. First off, different people living in different areas would have eaten different meat due to what was available. For example, humans that settled in the desert wouldn’t have access to fish and people living in cold climates wouldn’t be able to grow fresh fruit and vegetables. In lieu of fruits and vegetables, they would have eaten different parts of animals to get the important nutrients they needed to survive.
Also, the Paleo diet suggests that you don’t drink alcohol. Well, there is evidence that 9,000 years ago, in what is modern day China, prehistoric people made alcohol from fermented fruit. The mead had about a 10 percent alcohol level. Other than that, it is believed that in what’s known today as Turkey, archaeologists found evidence of a beer brewing station that was used over 11,000 years ago. While it would have been much different than the beer we drink today, we are betting that it still tastes better than Milwaukee’s Best.
Whether prehistoric people were cannibals or not is a highly debated topic amongst experts on prehistoric people. There are certainly reasons why they would eat other people. It would keep enemies in line and it was a food source. Plus, they didn’t know about the harmful effects of cannibalism. Also, not eating other people is ingrained in current society as a social taboo, but was prehistoric man’s social laws as strong as our own?
Well, there is some physical evidence that suggests our great ancestors may have eaten some of our other great ancestors. In Gough Cave, England, researchers found human bones from about 12,000 years ago and they had gnaw marks on them that are very similar to the marks modern humans leave when they chew on bones. So while it may sound disgusting, we want to point out that these British prehistoric people were lucky if they dined on human flesh because it is probably better than some British food that came after it.
3. Amazing Artists
One of the most interesting artifacts left behind by prehistoric people are cave paintings. There are cave paintings found on every continent except Antarctica, and some of them are believed to be nearly 40,000 years old. In many of the paintings, there are depictions of animals and people hunting them. What’s interesting is that on average, the cave painters were better at depicting the anatomy of animals than artists in the 19th and 20th centuries. When four legged animals run, they have a specific way they move their legs called the “foot-fall formula.” When they run, the pattern is left hind leg, left foreleg, right foreleg, and right hind leg. This formula wasn’t discovered until 1880. Yet, pre-historic humans seemed to know this because out of 39 cave paintings that were examined, 53.2 percent of them had the animals walking correctly. Compare those numbers to 272 paintings and statues made before 1880, where the artists only got it right 16.5 percent of the time. When examining 686 pictures and statues created after 1887, the artists still only got it right 42.1 percent of the time.
2. Women Were Cave Painters
As we just mentioned, the cave painters had some amazing knowledge about animals and it was translated well into their drawings. Besides drawing anatomy correctly, they also used scale and color well. Many people who don’t have artistic training would struggle to draw something as well as prehistoric cave painters. This has led researchers to speculate that an individual probably worked full time as a painter. But, having someone paint full time would have been an odd choice for a group of hunters. Ideally, they would want every able bodied male out for the hunt, for two reasons. First, making a kill was important because it meant the difference between eating and starving, and secondly, hunting was a dangerous activity and there is safety in numbers. This has led anthropologists to believe that cave painters were women because a woman could focus a lot of her time on painting and it wouldn’t take any members away from the hunting group. Evidence to back this up is early hand stencils found in caves. Prehistoric people would place their hands on the wall or the ceiling and then blow or spray a pigment onto it, leaving a stencil, and many of the handprints seem to be more consistent with women’s hands.
Researchers have speculated that paintings seemed to be important to prehistoric people because it is believed that the paintings were either to record notable hunts or was a form of “hunting magic.” This means that they painted the images with the hopes that it would aid them in real life hunts.
1. The Toba Catastrophe
In our known universe, we are the dominant species. At this moment in time, we have over 7.4 billion people living on Earth and that number is growing every single day. Amazingly, it almost didn’t turn out that way because over 70,000 years ago human beings were nearly wiped out.
At that time, humans were all still living in Africa. Across the Indian ocean in Indonesia, Toba, a supervolcano, erupted. It was the biggest known volcanic explosion in history by quite a large margin, and it spewed 650 miles of vaporized rock into the air. The amount of dust that entered the atmosphere dimmed the sunlight that reached the Earth for six years and this had drastic effects on the environment. Ash was scattered everywhere, rains were disrupted, which effected the water streams that people and wildlife would have drank from. All of this would have decreased the amount of fruit, trees, and the amount of animals humans would have hunted. Many humans at this point would have starved to death. The situation got so dire that there were only about 1,000 breeding pairs of humans, which means there was maybe 5,000 to 10,000 total humans on the planet. But, of course, we luckily bounced back, and as of right now, a lack of population is definitely one of the least of our worries.