The Stone Age: Eras

Figure 1.--Here is an artist's depiction of people in tbe Mesolithic era or Mid-Stone Age, a elatively short oeriod marking the transirtion from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic era. The scene is set in the Coa Valley of Portugal. We are not sure about the accuracy of the clothing depictions, especially the man';s pants. Artist: Marcos Oliveira.

The Stone Age lasted about 2 million years--before thge appearance of Homo sapiens as well as much of the life of our species. This is important because much of our species' phsiological and social roots are genetic asaptations to the Stone Age. Only in the relatively recent period has man emrtged from the Stone Age. is generally divided into three periods: Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. Man was not the first being to use tools, but man was a unique being when it came to fashioning and using stone tools. The Neolithic begins even before the evolution of modern humans (Homo sapiens) with the appearance of the tool maker (Homo habilis). For most of human history there was little improvement on the basic stone tools. Only with the migration out of Africa do we begin to see more advanced stone tools. The Stone Age ends at about the time that agriculture appears--the Neolithic Revolution. Of course the passing of the Stone Age did not occur at the same time all over the globe. As late as the 20th century there were still isolated pockets of people living with Stone Age technology.

Australopithecus (4-2 million years ago)

Australopithecus is an extinct genus of hominids, the direct ancestors of modern humans. Australopithecus genus apparently evolved in eastern Africa, and nowhere else on earth. They first appeared about 4 million years ago and then spreading throughout the African continent. Several australopithecine species have been found: Australopithecus afarensis (the famed Lucy), A. africanus, A. anamensis, A. bahrelghazali, A. deyiremeda (proposed), A. garhi, and A. sediba. The fosil record is very limited, except for A. Sediba. Often just a few fragments or teeth have been found for some of these species. Often there is some dount as to wether they truly constitute a separate species. Thus the precise human lineage is still unclear. And it is likely that some of these species could interbread, further complicate the precise human lineage. . There is no evidence that ahy of these species could fashion or extensively used tools. Thus they can be seen as existing befoire the Stone Age. The fosil evidence is so limited tht antthropologists can only speculate as to behavior and life style. The spectcular finds of Sediba near Johaneberg, South Africa have enabled some assessmnents about behavior and life hitorty. Researchers speculate that theywere vegetarians surviving on berries, fruits, roots, and grasses. The speculation as to man's earliest ancestors being killer apes (ala '2001 Space Odessy and the work of Raymond Dart and Robert Ardrey) was clearly eronious. Australopithecus findings clearly establish the African Genisus theories. Interestingly this is what Darwin and Wallace had believed, largely because it was in Africa that most of the great apes are found. Subsequentauthors more influenced by racist beliefs had dis =missed this idea. Australopithecine species went extinct sometime after about 2 million years ago.

Birth of Humanity (about 3-2 million years ag)

Australopithecus species clearly were a significant part of human evolution. The genus Homo was derived from Australopithecus about 3 million years ago. Australopithecus primarily had ape-like characteristics, but exhibited some human characteristics. They were the first hominids to show the presence of a gene that causes increased length and ability of neurons in the brain--the duplicated SRGAP2 gene. One of the australopith species eventually evolved into the Homo genus in Africa, bout 2 million years ago. The stone age, however, does not begin until we find stone tools associated with the fosil finds. This is more complicasted than it sounds. Early stone tools would not have neen the finllu gradted tools of the late-stone age. Some stones found it nature could have been used as tools or wih only minor actions worke as tools. After all, several species use stone tools, including birds and mannals like sea otters. This archologist have the very difficult task of deciding is stones found near fossils are just old stones or fashioned and used as tools. Often this is a matter of considerable debate.

Paleolithic (2 million years ago-about 10,000 BC)

The Paleolithic was the early stone age. It is by far the eariest and longest period of human existence. There is no precise date for the beginning of the Paleolithic period, but about 2 million years ago is a good rough estimate. It approximately marks the point at which people became human. The first humonoid species was Homo habilis, demonstrating the importance of tools in the making of modern man. Habilis lived in Africa. A sucessor species, was also found in Africa about 1.8 million years ago, but spread all over the Old World. Erectus had a larger brain reflected in more sophisticated tools. He may also have discovered the use of fire. Homo sapiens or modern man originated in Africa about 0.4 million years ago. These people also spread throughout the Old World and even reaching the New World. These Paleolithic people were nomadic hunter gatherers. They were nomadic because they would quickly exhaust the available food supply in any area they may settle for any time. They also made seasonal migrations to capitalize on the different resources available at different time. The limitedcfood available in nature and the constant movement meant that human communities were primarily small bands. The demands of this life style, the dangers, and problems finding food meant that most people had fairly short life spans. People fashioned stone tools. At first they simply used items found in nature like rocks, bones, antlers, teeth, and other items. Gradually Paleolithic began to manipulate and modify these tools to make them more effective. The earliest tools were probably weapons (defense and hunting) or food production/prepration tools. Of course we can not know just how thesecpeoplke thought, there are some indications such as cave paintings. They suggest that peopke developed religious beliefs from a very early period. A hint of such beliefs is offered by cave paintings. Early religious beliefs wee animistic. Burials tells us that there was a developing belief in life after death because food, tools, ornamrents, and weapons are often found in graves. Language developed during the Paleolithic which may have begun as grunts and other simple sounds. An early discovery was how useful foire could be. Over time people learned how to actually make fire. Hunting was critcal to early people and they learned to use every part of the prey. They meat was used for food, but people gradually learned to use much more of the carcass. The pelt could be used for for food and shelter. The bones, teeth, horns, and antlers were useful for tools and weapons. Anthropologists debate as to the social roles of men and women.

Mesolithic (10,000-9/7,000 BC)

The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age is a relatively recent term. Other terms have been used. The term represents the need felt by archeologists to better describe the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic. During this period ground stone tools appeared they were much more finely fashioned than those used in the Paleolithic. The tools were commonly used for cutting and smoothing. Some may have been used for ornamentation. The people involved were still huntergathers. They still simplly collected food. without modifying the food they found or the environment in which they found it. Hunting habits might change from targetting large game to small game which was often more plentiful. It was also available locally, this less nomadic food strategy that probably played a role in the development of agriculture. People began asking inreasing adaptations to localized territories and gradually improved the efficiency with which they utilized the resources available to them. They by now knew where and when resources were available. There are increasingly complex devices including traps, nets, fishhooks built from composite pieces and materials. Small tools were used to make other other more complex tools. There is evidence of small villages where people lived at least part of the year. There were major climatic changes. It was during the Mesolithic that the Ice Age ended (about 8,000 B.C.). The mass extinction of the Pleistocene mega-fauna occurred at this time. Giant mammals like mammoths, mastodons, giant bison, and ground sloths disappeared. This was a factor in shifting hunting strategies to smaller game like antellope and gazelles. Various stratergies were developed to hunt these faster more evasive prey. This included driving the prey toward nets and cliffs.

Neolithic (9/7,000- BC)

The Neolithic was the Late Stone age, an ever shorter period of time. The short period reflects the spiuraling affect of developing technology. And it can be date more precuisely than the other periods because of the much greater availability of archeological evidence. The Neolitic Era was when man began to settle down to form agricultural communities. Many people mixed foraging with agriculture. The Neolithic Revolution is a term introduced by Gordon Childe (1941). He used it to describe the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. It is during this period that the beginnings of civilization appear in the great River Valleys where the first steps toward agriculture were taken. This meant that people began manipulating their environment. People domesticating plants and animals. Some of the most imporant early plants were wheat and barley. The most important animals were sheep and goats. This was a critical step and very complex. It including selecting crops and seeds, finding the best sites suitable for each crop, planting and harvesting at the proper time. Similar methods needed to be developed for animal husbandry. And the development of such complex methods and the social structure necessary to persue them meant in effect the rise of civilization. The results were harvests on a level never before experienced. The wealth produced was anothervfasctor in the rise of civilization as it supported a class of people who did not have to labor daily to fulfill their basic needs. This first occurred in the Middle East. The climate and geography were factors. The availability of suitable crops and animals that could be domesticated were also important. One problem in describing the Neolithic period is that the time period varied so widely in different areas and in fact there are even to this day Neolitic peoples such as the Nstive Americans in the Amazon such as the Yanomano.


Childe (1941).

Diamond, Jereny. Guns, Germs, and Steel.


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Created: 6:17 PM 4/3/2012
Last updated: 7:29 AM 9/24/2015