“THE CREATIVE EXPLOSION:
THE RISE OF SYMBOLISM, LANGUAGE, RELIGION, ART, AND MUSIC”
100,000 to 10,000 years ago
|This is an image of a cave painting of a horse in Lascaux cave, France. Paintings of animals may be found throughout the cave, and may have been created about 17,000 years ago.
Credit: Photo by Courtesy of Wikipedia
When did humans begin to communicate with symbols? What is the earliest archaeological evidence for language, art, music, and religion? What do the earliest forms of recognizable human architecture look like? Glimmerings of modern human behavior can be found in Africa about 80,000 years ago in the form of bead jewelry and geometric art, and over the next seventy millennia a wide range of human societies develop profound innovations in terms of their tools and technology and their artistic and symbolic expression.
It is during this time period that anatomically modern people first colonized Australia (then joined to New Guinea and Tasmania to form the continent called Sahul), and the Americas. New technological traits that emerge during this time include bone and antler tools (points, harpoons, needles – and presumably sewn clothing), spear throwers (atlatls), stone lamps, ceramics and pottery, art (in the form of cave drawings and paintings, engravings, sculpture), musical instruments, and the bow and arrow. The first definite architectural structures are also known from this time period.
This period ends with the demise of the last Ice Age between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, with warming conditions causing sea levels to rise worldwide and ultimately produce the coastlines that we are familiar with today
“POINTS OF CONFLICT”
THE EARLIEST COMPOUND TOOLS & POINTS
100,000 years ago
We take for granted that our modern tools are made up of different things, united together. A metal hammer or axe has a wooden handle, and a modern airliner might have a million separate components all working in unison. When did humans start putting things together? It seems to have started between 100,000 and 75,000 years ago, it appears that modern humans and their Neandertal cousins began to fasten (haft) stone and bone points to wooden spear shafts. Such hafted tools opened up a new range of possibilities for early humans, and made for new technological and functional possibilities.
“REST IN PEACE”
THE FIRST BURIALS
90,000 years ago
Many human societies bury their dead today. It is a way of paying respect for the deceased, and giving them a “final resting place”, as well as a way of disposing of a decomposing body that could be a health hazard or attract scavenging animals. The first evidence of such intentional burials can be seen with Neandertals and early modern humans starting around 90,000 years ago in the Near East and Europe.
THE FIRST PERSONAL DECORATION
80,000 years ago
Humans love to decorate themselves. We may put on make-up or wear rings, bracelets (sometimes in the form of watches), necklaces, and earrings, as well as even more extreme forms of decorations such as body piercings and tattoos. The earliest known personal ornamentation comes in the form of shell beads (made both from marine shells and ostrich eggshells) from Southern and East Africa between 80,000 and 70,000 years ago. From what we know of hunter-gatherers, such ornamentation is not just decorative but may symbolize many things: marital status, age group, bravery, or status.
“A ROOF OVER YOUR HEAD”
THE FIRST ARCHITECTURE
42,000 years ago
Many animals (for example termites, bees, fish, birds, and beavers) build nests of some sort. There is almost certainly a strong instinctive element to many of these structures. Human architecture, on the other hand, is culturally learned. Most of us have lived in a house, apartment, or a dormitory during our lives. But for most of human evolution, early hominins do not appear to have constructed habitation structures that have left archaeological traces, although they are known to have frequented natural caves and rockshelters. The Middle Palaeolithic site of Moldova 5 in the Ukraine, dating to about 42,000 years ago, shows a large hut made out mammoth bones with a number of hearths inside. Starting about 40,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic, evidence for structures become more common, with stone and mammoth bone foundations showing circular and rectangular shapes, often associated with stone tools, other animal bones, and hearth structures.
UPPER PALAEOLITHIC BLADE TECHNOLOGIES
40,000 years ago
Beginning about 40,000 years ago, humans in various parts of the world began to systematically produce elongated flakes called blades from specially prepared cores, one of the hallmarks of the Upper Palaeolithic. These blades were made into end scrapers, backed knives, burins (engraving tools) and a range of point types. These blade tools probably represented interchangeable parts, to be hafted to wooden handles or spearshafts. Along with blades, the Upper Palaeolithic also includes beautiful bifacial points and a range of tools points and harpoons in bone, antler, and ivory such as spearpoints, harpoons, hooked spearthrowers (called atlatls), and shaft-straighteners. This is also the time period of the earliest representational art (see the next event). Especially elaborate burials with rich grave goods seen at some sites may be an indication of higher rank in some individuals in the society.
“BRAVE NEW WORLDS”
THE PEOPLING OF AUSTRALIA AND THE AMERICAS
40,000 to 12,000 years ago
For most of the human evolutionary story, hominins first evolved from ape ancestors in Africa and then spread to the Near East, Asia, and Europe. But during the last Ice Age, anatomically modern humans made some important new migrations. Around 40,000 years ago they were able to somehow cross water from Southeast Asia and reached Australia with a simple core-and-flake technology. And in the last 15,000 years they were able to migrate from Siberia into the Americas by crossing the Bering land bridge (the area between Siberia and Alaska was connected during glacial times when sea levels were lower). The earliest widespread evidence of the first North Americans was the mammoth-hunting Clovis Culture, dating to about 13,000 years ago and characterized by beautifully-made, large fluted projectile points. There is a growing number of sites that suggest there may be a pre-Clovis phase of human occupation in the Americas.
THE FIRST REPRESENTATIONAL ART & MUSIC
35,000 years ago
The human desire to express one’s self artistically, for example through painting and sculpture and music, is one of many traits that separate us from the rest of the animal world. At around 32,000 yeas ago, humans began to draw on the walls of caves and carve beautiful sculptures, usually in the form of animal figures. At Chauvet Cave in France drawings of lions, rhinos, mammoths, and other animals show an astonishing mastery of design, and ivory sculptures from the site of Volgelherd and Hohlestein in Germany show how early artists were able to free a predetermined form from a featureless fragment of mammoth ivory. This Upper Palaeolithic art tradition lasted for 22,000 years, with the cave sites of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain being two of the multi-colored masterpieces of the Ice Age artists. It is likely that the earliest art had religious as well as aesthetic value. Several prehistorians have also suggested that much of this Palaeolithic art is associated with shamanism and trance-induced visions.
“A STITCH IN TIME”
THE FIRST NEEDLES AND SEWING
25,000 years ago
Around 25,000 years ago, the archaeological record first documents perforated needles made in bone or antler. This clearly indicates a sewing technology and suggests much more sophisticated stitched clothing than earlier human groups. Although Neandertals and perhaps even Homo heidelbergensis probably had crude forms of clothing in the form of hides possibly laced by leather thongs, human figurines from the Upper Palaeolithic show individuals with various forms of headgear, clothing, and even hooded parkas. Among modern hunter-gatherers, clothing can range from simple loincloths in tropical areas to sophisticated parkas and boots in Arctic areas.
“BEND ME, SHAPE ME”
THE FIRST POTTERY
16,000 years ago
Pottery (ceramic vessels) is usually associated with farming communities, but in fact the earliest known fired clay pots comes from hunter-gatherer populations of Japan called the Jomon culture. These ceramic pots could have held water or foods, or could have served as cooking vessels over a fire. It appears that fired clay pots were invented independently in the Near East a few thousand years later and then spread to Europe and Africa. Clay pots made it much easier to store foods as well as to cook by boiling food in water over a fire, thereby retaining more nutrients (fats, juices, etc.) within the vessel. Heating clay at a high enough temperature drives off the water and produces chemical changes that harden the material.
“DRAW BACK YOUR BOW”
THE FIRST BOW AND ARROW
11,000 years ago
The bow and arrow allows a hunter to shoot an animal from a greater distance with stealth and greater accuracy, and when combined with poison an arrow can become a lethal hypodermic needle. Although smallish projectile points which could have served as arrowheads can be found in the Upper Palaeolithic between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, there is no clear evidence of archery until after the end of the Ice Age nearly 11,000 years ago. This evidence includes actual examples of bows and arrows from waterlogged sites in Germany and Scandinavia as well as scenes in Spanish rock art, particularly along the eastern Mediterranean coast and dating to between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, which often depict people hunting animals with bows and arrows.