What we know of early human society & behavior

by Michael G. Lamoureux, March/April 2009


Depending on your definition of human society, the history of human society could start as recently as 7,000 years ago when we first started to employ agriculture as a primary method of obtaining food and started building large, permanent settlements or as far back as 2,000,000 billion years ago when homo habilis, the distant ancestor of homo sapiens (of which we are homo sapiens sapiens), first appeared. We will define human society as a society that organizes homo sapiens sapiens and thus restrict our discussion to what the archaeological record from the past 100,000 years (give or take 30,000 years) tells us, as our species has been determined to be somewhere between 200,000 and 240,000 years old, and the development of modern homo sapiens sapiens appears to have started in the middle Paleolithic around 100,000 years ago.

The definition of human society, which is characterized by patterns of relationships between individuals that share a distinctive culture or institution, is broad. As a result, economic arguments, social and religious arguments, and industrial arguments can be equally valid. The freedom of choice in viewpoint presents a great deal of complexity in an effort to organize the history of human society around a common theme as an in-depth focus on one organizational theme could downplay the importance of another theme, which might have had more relevance at a certain point in (pre)history.

This paper defines early human society as the early societies that formed in the middle Paleolithic, shortly after homo sapiens sapiens first appeared, and evolved through the Neolithic, when hunter gatherer societies started to experiment with agriculture and form semi-permanent and permanent settlements, until the societies reached a universally accepted stage of civilization sometime in the early bronze age. In other words, under the classification of Ed Tyler, this paper will discuss the transformation from hunter-gatherers through barbarism to the dawn of modern civilization. The discussion will cover the evolution chronologically, as this will allow all of the relevant social, economic and technological advancements to be discussed on equal footing.

Middle Paleolithic (approx. 100,000 to 35,000 BC)

Early homo sapiens (sapiens), like their ancestors homo erectus, and their counterparts, homo sapiens neanderthalensis which appeared at roughly the same time and died out before the upper Paleolithic, were primitive hunter-gatherer societies that were nomadic by nature. They hunted game animals for food and their seasonal camps usually followed the migration of the herd. Whenever they were available, they would situate their camps in caves or natural rock-shelters, and many of the known archaeological sites today are in caves, whose dry environments allow for the long term preservation of artifacts. For example, Klassis River Cave on Cape Coast was inhabited by early hunter gather tribes for almost 40,000 years between 70,000 BC and 30,000 BC.

Early homo sapiens were technologically unsophisticated. Their most advanced tools took the form of chipped stone technology, where points were flaked over both faces, which included stone scrapers for working hides and wood, simple "knives" for butchering and cutting, and Archeulean hand axes for hunting (which were named after the French town of St. Acheul where numerous examples of the hand axes were found). They used animal hides for garments (and make-shift shelters when caves were not available), animal stomachs for sacks, and their toolkits were manufactured for the most part from organic materials that don't survive well in the majority of archaeological sites.

Nomadic hunter-gatherers of the middle Paleolithic specialized in hunting migratory herbivores and the modern consensus is that most of the tribes followed the herd and specialized in intercepting their prey at key ambush locations during seasonal migrations, while augmenting the meat with other food sources at different times of the year.

Early homo sapiens were completely reliant on the environment for their survival. Hunter gatherers living in Central Africa exploited the dense rain-forests for their survival and took advantage of the abundance of natural resources for food and shelter; hunter gathers on the plains of Northern Europe took advantage of the endless herds of (rein)deer and buffalo; and hunter gatherers who crossed into Australia 50,000 years ago took advantage of the plains they found themselves in.

Fishing was an important part of the diet of hunter-gather tribes who lived near lakes, rivers, and oceans. For example, there is a group of small archaeological sites north of Aswan. At one site, known as site 440, in a dune at the base of the silts just south of Wad Halfa, we find two horizons with rich faunas that consist mainly of wild cattle remains in the lower level and fish in the upper level. The fish remains include several large, deep-water species that suggests the use of primitive rafts, boats, traps, or other relatively sophisticated techniques. In addition, some tribal archaeological remains indicated that some tribes included waterfowl and shellfish as part of their regular diet.

When they were available, hunter gathers made extensive use of caves or natural rock shelters, sometimes returning to the same site year after year in their nomadic travels, which usually followed the migration of the game animals they hunted. For example, Danger and Hogup caves in Utah contain artifacts from thousands of years of hunter-gatherer occupation, which were well preserved in the dry environment that could even preserve wood objects and basketry, and the Abri Patand rock shelter in France has yielded at least six layers of human occupation from as far back as 40,000 years ago to as recent as 9,000 years ago, spread across 20 feet of stratified deposit.

As previously discussed, when early bands of hunter gatherers did not have caves or rock-shelters to take advantage of, they used what they had available for shelter. At the Paleolithic site at Moldova, in the Ukraine, which was a relatively barren tundra that was home to a band of nomadic peoples near the end of the middle Paleolithic, the native people used the hides and bones of mammoths to construct their shelters. Mammoth bones were arranged in a rough circle to weigh down mammoth hides that were laid over a framework of branches to construct a dwelling that would contain a series of hearths. In central Africa, they exploited the natural resources of dense rain forests, and in the semi-desert plains of southern Africa, they made simple mud huts with thatched roofs.

In this timeframe, the earliest known burials were made by our cousins, homo sapiens neanderthalensis. (Neanderthalensis died out about 30,000 years ago.) Some anthropologists believe that observations of the custom, which included burying the dead with material objects, by early homo sapiens was the beginning of the homo sapiens (sapiens) burial custom.

Upper & Late Paleolithic (approx. 35,000 to 13,000 BC)

In the upper and late Paleolithic, homo sapiens started to make minor technological advancements, expand their territory, store food, and create art. Homo sapiens started to line their hearths with stone in the upper Paleolithic, invented the spear and boomerang near the end of the upper Paleolithic, the sewing needle at the beginning of the late Paleolithic, the bow and arrow near the end of the late Paleolithic, and discovered the oil lamp sometime in the late Paleolithic as well. Ivory spears found at Sungir at Russia date back to approximately 21,000 BC. Boomerangs found in Poland date back to 18,000 BC. Bone needles that are 19,000 years old have been found.

In France, detailed studies of cave faunas by Boyle and Fontanan in the 1990s indicate that different nomadic bands of upper Paleolithic hunters camped at different points along migration routes and killed deer at different seasons. Reindeer made up 90% of kills at Canecaude in the Aude basin but the variety of species found indicates that these people had a range of hunting skills from spearing at a distance to trapping.

It was in this time-frame that homo sapiens first learned to store food and defer the consumption of animals they hunted. Numerous European examples from the late Paleolithic show the large-scale killing and processing of herbivores, notably reindeer and horse. Archaeological evidence indicates that processing technologies likely included the large-scale filleting of carcasses (using the simple stone tools of the time) which was followed by drying, smoking, and storage.

In this time period, which is when homo sapiens first cross into the New World (around 30,000 BC), humans first started to create art, which, at first consisted mostly of cave and rock paintings and, not long after, very simple wood carvings. Of the roughly 15,000 known rock art sites in Africa, including Tsoelike Pine rock-shelter in Lesotho and Nelson's Bay Cave, and the numerous sites in France (including Abri Patand) and Spain (including Altamira Cave), most of them were painted well after 28,000 BC, which is roughly when the earliest known cave art appeared. For example, the famous paintings of bison, deer, and other animals on the ceiling of Altamira cave in Spain, which is one of the earliest examples in Europe, was estimated to have occurred around 18,000 BC. This was an important development as it not only represented the beginning of abstract thought, which is a defining requirement of modern man, but is believed by some anthropologists to correspond to the origination of human language. While the exact purpose of the cave art is still being debated, as one faction of anthropologists believe it was recreational, another faction of anthropologists believe it was the foundation of an information system that stored knowledge about animals crucial to a group's survival, and yet another group of anthropologists believe it was an early social network that facilitated gatherings of disparate tribes over large territories for feasts and religious ceremonies, it was still an important development.

While the graphical art was usually restricted to drawings and paintings of animals, the occasional human (often portrayed as hunting or fishing), and simple geometric figures, the sculptural art usually took the form of small statuettes of animals and highly exaggerated, sexual and pregnant human figures that include the classic "Venus" of Willendorf that has been found from Europe to Siberia.

Mesolithic (approx. 13,000 to 8,000 BC)

The Mesolithic, which was relatively short compared to the upper and late Paleolithic and occurred at the end of the last ice-age, was a period of relatively rapid advancement for homo sapiens as they, in the words of British anthropologist Ed Tyler, entered the stage of barbarism for the first time. (Tyler believed that humanity had three stages of achievement: (1) early prehistoric bands that survived as hunter gatherers, (2) barbarism where people started to cultivate crops and domesticate animals in simple societies, and (3) civilization, which started with the complex societies of the Egyptians and Sumerians.) In the Mesolithic, which saw advancements in chipped stone technology through the use of Levallois-type cores to produce triangular or parallel-sided flakes and the use of ostrich eggshell containers and tortoise-shell bowls in Africa, homo sapiens started to actively manage the landscape and domesticate animals.

While North America was still primarily a desert/plains culture with archaeological evidence of Paleo-Indian bison kills dating back to almost 9,000 years ago, recent findings of Clarke and Zvelbil augmented the growing palynological evidence that Mesolithic hunters in Europe were burning and clearing forest to encourage secondary growth which improved feeding conditions for the game animals, such as red deer, that they relied on. This paved the way for integrated systems of hunting, fishing, and gathering that sustained complex and sedentary communities in the region.

During the Mesolithic, homo sapiens first started to domesticate dogs and goats. Fossil remains of dogs have been found in human occupied camps as far back as 14,000 years ago and evidence suggests that goats may have been domesticated in the Middle East as far back as 12,000 years ago. The domestication of animals would prove important for the agricultural revolution that would occur in the Neolithic.

Neolithic (approx. 8,000 to 4,000 BC)

The Neolithic was, in the words of British anthropologist Ed Tyler, the dawn of barbarism for homo sapiens as they started to cultivate crops, domesticate animals for a variety of tasks, and form permanent settlements that paved the way for more complex societies, like those of the Sumerians and Egyptians, that many anthropologists still refer to as the dawn of civilization.

In the Neolithic, which means new stone age, our ancestors started to moved away from chipped stone technology to new ground stone technology. This allowed for the production of new, and better, microlithic tools and blades.

Our ancestors started to use pottery as a means of storing and transporting food, water, and other goods in the new stone age. This was a big step up from the hide sacks and animal stomachs that were commonly used until this time. Pottery also became the prime medium of Neolithic art, replacing the simple wood carvings, which tended to include statuary of the mother goddess, and the simple stone monuments that preceded it, which include the stone circles of England that were created near the end of the English stone age and represent the beginnings of modern architecture in the region. At first, the pottery, which was usually shaped like a basket, gourd, bell, or sack, was usually decorated with simple geometric forms that included triangles, spirals, and wavy lines. Later on, the engravings, especially in Egypt, would depict temples, shrines, gods, and religious rituals.

Somewhere around 8,000 BC in northern Iraq, our ancestors learned how to cultivate grains like wheat and barley. The remains of an ancient city that dates back to approximately 8,000 BC has been found in Jarmo in northern Iraq. Within 3,000 years agriculture, which was now common in parts of Mesopotamia and independently discovered in southwest Asia, parts of North, Central, and South America, China, and Africa, had spread to Western Europe. For the first time, societies could stay in one place year after year. This not only led to the formation of complex societies, but also allowed world population to increase to levels that would be unsustainable otherwise. It has been estimated that world population reached about 5,000,000 by 8,000 BC as agriculture supported higher density populations in smaller territories.

Agriculture led to the invention of beer. Although later texts indicate that the beer made in ancient times was drunk for its intoxicating properties, archaeological evidence suggests that, along with bread, it was probably a core part of the Neolithic diet of agricultural communities. Beer was originally made from bread that was crumbled into water, mixed with yeast and perhaps a few other substances, and then simply allowed to ferment. Once fermented, it was strained. Beer making was an efficient way to use stale bread and surplus grain and preserve food.

Agriculture also paved the way for organized warfare, as farmers had to band together to protect their food stores from nomads/raiders, who also had to become more organized if they were to stand any hope of taking the food and supplies they wanted from the sedentary communities that revolved around agriculture.

In the Neolithic, we also see clear examples of the ideology of kingship in societies that some anthropologists, who follow the teachings of Ed Tyler, point to as the beginning of modern civilization, including the early Egyptian civilization. The Abydos royal cemetery provides a clear example of the adoption of the ideology of kingship before the Bronze Age began.

Bronze Age (approx 4,000 to 1,000 BC)

Bronze, which may have been used as early as 4500 BC near Ban Chiang, Thailand, supplied the most useful metal known during the third and second millennia B.C. It replaced (primarily cold-hammered) copper and stone as the metal of choice for tools, weapons, and art and allowed for the construction of tools and weapons that were harder and longer lasting than the stone and (cold-hammered) copper predecessors.

The Bronze Age, which started with the widespread use of bronze, made from copper and tin, and saw the birth of the early great civilizations of the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean -- including the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the Egyptians, the Minoans of Crete, the Hittites of Asia Minor, and the Mycenaean civilization of ancient mainland Greece -- is the period where humanity left pre-history and entered into history with the formation of modern society.


The archaeological record provides us with a lot of knowledge about early human society and behavior, starting with the development of our ancestors back in the middle Paleolithic until the bronze age a few thousand years ago where most of the world entered into (the beginnings of) modern civilization.

We know our early ancestors, which were completely reliant on the immediate environment for their survival, in the middle Paleolithic were technologically unsophisticated and that the most advanced tools they had took the form of chipped stone technology and included stone scrapers for working hides and wood, simple "knives" for butchering and cutting, and Archeulean hand-axes for cutting. They used animal hides for garments, animal stomachs for sacks, and other organic materials, such as bone, that were readily available. When they did not have access to natural caves or rock-shelters, they built very simple shelters using easily shaped natural materials. The early peoples of the plains of what is now Ukraine, near Moldova, used mammoth hides and mammoth bones and the semi-desert tribes of Africa created mud huts with thatched roofs.

We know that our ancestors in the upper Paleolithic started to expand their territory, store food, and create art. They lined their hearths with stone for the first time and invented the spear and boomerang. As they progressed into the late Paleolithic, they invented the bow and arrow, the bone needle, and the oil lamp. The first appearance of art, which took the form of simple cave and rock paintings at first, was in the upper Paleolithic and by the late Paleolithic they were also making simple wood carvings, which usually took the form of simple animal sculptures or sexual and pregnant human figures that include the classic "Venus" of Willendorf that has been found from Europe to Siberia.

In the Mesolithic, when the glaciers of the last ice-age began to retreat northward, the rate of human advancement sped up as our ancestors learned how to manage land and domesticate animals. Hunters in Europe were burning and clearing forest to encourage secondary growth and improve feeding conditions for game animals and domesticating dogs, and, in the Middle East, goats.

In the Neolithic, when our ancestors discovered ground stone technology, they started to use pottery, cultivate grains, brew beer, and form sedentary societies based on agriculture and domesticated animal herds. This led to the first great Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations. Within 3,000 years, agriculture spread throughout Mesopotamia and Western Europe.

Then, sometime around 4500 BC near Ban Chiang, Thailand, bronze was discovered and a few hundred years later the Bronze Age was ushered in. In addition to the Egyptians and Sumerians, the Bronze Age ushered in the Minoans of Crete, the Hittites of Asia Minor, and the Mycenaean civilization of ancient mainland Greece. These civilizations soon developed writing and humans entered into history.