Human Legacy Course/The First People

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Human Legacy Course I
The First People

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Hello and thank you very much for listening to this audio lecture. In this lecture, we will be looking at the first people. Now, first of all before we begin, I would like us to answer one question:

How can footprints reveal facts about human history? Well, let me tell you a little story. Back in the 1970s anthropologist Mary Leakey took some fellow scientists to an archaeological site in Laetoli, Tanzania. Littered across the area were large piles of dried elephant dung. One scientist playfully picked up some dung and hurled it at another member of the group. Soon, dung was flying in all directions. As one man ran to avoid being hit, he tripped and fell. When he began to get up, he was amazed by what he saw. Before him were numerous animal tracks, hardened in volcanic ash. The tracks turned out to be around 3.5 million years old—a major find. An even greater find was still to come, however.

As Mary Leakey was examining the tracks one day she saw among them footprints that looked almost human. An analysis of the footprints revealed that two humanlike individuals had made them about 3.5 million years ago. The remarkable find showed that early people had walked upright on two legs long before scientists had thought, providing an important clue to the mystery of human origins.

Studying The Distant Past edit

A collection of artifacts, which are objects that people in the past made/used, such as coins, pottery, and tools.

Now, the human story goes back more than one million years, yet much of this story still remains a mystery. The reason is because writing, our main source of information about the past, has existed for only about 5,000 years. As a result, we know little about prehistory, the vast period of time before the development of writing. To study prehistory, scholars must be detectives, searching for clues and interpreting them to piece together the story of the distant past.

A variety of scientific fields analyze clues to learn about prehistory. One scientific field that contributes to our knowledge of prehistory is anthropology. This field includes a number of areas of specialization. For example, some anthropologists study fossils to learn about human origins. Fossils are the preserved remains or imprints of living things, such as preserved bones, teeth, or footprints. Other anthropologists study the cultures of past and present societies.

Anthropologists called archaeologists study human material remains to learn about people in the past. Examples of human material remains include architectural ruins and artifacts. Artifacts are objects that people in the past made or used, such as coins, pottery, and tools. By analyzing material remains, archaeologists can make educated guesses about people’s lives and cultures. For instance, by analyzing tools, archaeologists can draw conclusions about how technologically advanced a society was, what resources it had available, and some of the possible activities of people in the society.

Archaeologists excavate, or dig, at sites where people have left traces. At these sites, called archaeological digs, workers carefully excavate one small area at a time. They use tools such as trowels and small brushes to unearth objects without shifting or damaging them. Using screens, workers sift through removed soil for small items such as pieces of broken pottery. Researchers then use a variety of methods to date and analyze objects.

Anthropology and other scientific fields continue to expand and revise our picture of the prehistoric past. For example, scientists who study genetics have recently revised our understanding of human origins.

Human Origins edit

Throughout time, people have wondered about their origins. Where did the first people come from? When did they appear? Although we do not know all the answers, some key discoveries have provided important pieces to the puzzle. Not all scientists agree on the meaning of these discoveries, however; and future discoveries may lead to new ideas about human origins.

Key Discoveries edit

Leaky's discovery, "Nutcracker Man"
Lucy the Hominid, found in Ethiopia by Donald Johanson in 1974

In 1959, anthropologist Mary Leakey found skull fragments in East Africa that were more than 1.75 million years old. When put together, the fragments formed a skull with a heavy jaw and large teeth, earning it the nickname “Nutcracker Man.” The skull was from an Australopithecine, an early humanlike being or hominid. This term refers to humans and early humanlike beings that walked upright.

In 1974 in Ethiopia, an anthropologist named Donald Johanson found a partial Australopithecine skeleton. He described his find. "We reluctantly headed back toward camp. Along the way, I glanced over my right shoulder. Light glinted off a bone. I knelt down for a closer look … Everywhere we looked on the slope around us we saw more bones lying on the surface… The find launched a celebration in camp."

Johanson named the partial skeleton Lucy. Tests showed that Lucy had lived more than 3 million years ago. Based on an analysis of her skeleton and knee joints, Johanson concluded that Lucy had been about 4 feet tall and walked upright. Walking upright is a major advance because it leaves the hands free to use tools.

In the 1970s Mary Leakey made yet another key discovery at a site called Laetoli in Tanzania. There, she and her team found hominid footprints preserved in hardened volcanic ash. Made by Australopithecines about 3.5 million years ago, the footprints provided the oldest evidence at the time of early hominids walking upright. Mary Leakey considered the discovery the most exciting of her career.

New finds continue to expand our knowledge of early people. In 2001 a scientific team found an early hominid skull in a desert region of Chad, a country in Central Africa. The skull has features of both an Australopithecine and a chimpanzee, and the creature it belonged to may have walked upright. The skull has been dated to between 6 and 7 million years old.

Later Hominids edit

Plaque marking the discovery of Australopithecus in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

Based on the fossil record, more advanced hominids began appearing about 3 million years ago. In 1959 anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey found a hominid fossil in Olduvai Gorge, located in Tanzania. The hominid proved to be a new species, which became known as Homo habilis, or “handy man.” Homo habilis first appeared about 2.4 million years ago in Africa. Compared to earlier hominids, Homo habilis had more humanlike features, such as smaller teeth and hands that were better able to grasp objects.

In addition, scientists think Homo habilis learned to make and use crude stone tools. These early tools were made by striking one rock against another to create a sharp edge. With these crude tools, hominids could cut meat, chop roots, or scrape meat from bones. The use of tools greatly improved survival.

Other hominids that scientists named Homo erectus, or “upright man,” appeared some 2 to 1.5 million years ago in Africa. Homo erectus had a larger brain than earlier hominids and thus was probably more intelligent. For example, Homo erectus was a more skillful hunter than earlier hominids and created more advanced tools. One such tool was a hand ax made from flint, which is easy to shape into sharp edges.

Flint hand axes enabled Homo erectus to dig more easily, chop through tree limbs, and cut through thick animal hides. Scientists also think that Homo erectus was the first hominid to control fire. Once natural causes, such as lightning, had created a fire, Homo erectus learned to use the fire to cook food and to provide heat and protection. With the ability to control fire, Homo erectus could live in colder climates as well.

Modern Humans edit

In time, hominids with the physical characteristics of modern humans appeared. Scientists call modern humans Homo sapiens, or “wise man.” Every person alive today belongs to this species. With larger brains than earlier hominids, Homo sapiens developed more sophisticated tools and shelters and eventually learned to create fire.

Homo sapiens may have also been the first hominids to develop spoken language, perhaps because of improved brain and speech organs. With language, early people were better able to cooperate, hunt in groups, and resolve issues. Language also enabled people to form stronger relationships and interact with other groups.

Spreading Around The World edit

As later hominids learned to adapt better to the environment, they began to migrate, or move, out of Africa. This movement occurred gradually over hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists do not fully know why later hominids began to migrate, but one major reason was a change in the climate.

The Ice Ages edit

View from space of the Bering Strait

About 1.6 million years ago, much of the world began experiencing long periods of freezing weather called ice ages. As the world climate cycled between colder and warmer periods, huge sheets of ice called glaciers advanced and retreated. When glaciers advanced, ocean levels fell, exposing areas that are today underwater. For example, during the ice ages, the Bering Strait that now separates Asia and North America was an exposed land bridge. Such land bridges helped early hominids spread around the world.

Out of Africa edit

  Based on the fossil record, many scientists think that Homo erectus was the first hominid to migrate out of Africa. For example, Homo erectus fossils have been found throughout Asia and Europe. The ability to walk fully upright and to control fire may have enabled Homo erectus to make this migration.

Scientists hold different theories about the origins and migration of Homo sapiens. According to one theory, Homo erectus groups around the world gradually developed the characteristics of Homo sapiens over time. Recent genetic evidence does not support this theory, however. Based on the latest evidence, most scientists now think that Homo sapiens originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Homo sapiens then began to migrate out of Africa around 100,000 years ago.

After moving into Southwest Asia—the region of the Middle East—early modern humans likely spread across southern Asia and into Australia. Open sea may have separated Australia and Asia at the time, so early humans might have had to use some type of boat to make the crossing.

People took longer to move into Europe and northern Asia because high mountains and cold temperatures made it harder to live in those regions. As people improved their ability to create fire and adapt, though, they spread into Europe and northern Asia as well. Scientists disagree on when and how the first people reached the Americas, but most scholars think that early people crossed a land bridge from northeast Asia to North America. By at least 9000 BC, humans had spread to all of the continents except Antarctica.

Adapting To New Environments edit

As modern humans migrated around the world, they adapted to new environments. This process of adaptation caused humans to develop some of the genetic variety that exists today. According to one view, two early groups of modern humans were Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. Neanderthals lived about 200,000 to 30,000 years ago. After that time, though, they seem to have disappeared. Recent genetic research suggests they died out and may not have actually been Homo sapiens. Scientists continue to debate this point, however.

Cro-Magnons appeared about 40,000 years ago. Sturdy and muscular, Cro-Magnons were physically identical to modern humans. They made finely crafted tools, had superior hunting abilities, and were better able to survive. They also created figurines and haunting cave art.

Life In The Stone Age edit

The first humans lived during the prehistoric period called the Stone Age. During this vast period, early people made tools mainly from stone. Scientists call the first part of the Stone Age the Paleolithic Era, or Old Stone Age. It lasted from around 2.5 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago.

Stone Age People edit

During the Stone Age, people lived as nomads, moving from place to place as they followed migrating animal herds. These early people lived in small bands, or groups, and relied on the resources around them to survive. For shelter, people took cover in rock overhangs or caves when available. For food, people were hunter-gatherers, hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants, berries, nuts, and other foods. In general, men hunted, while women collected plants and cared for the children. Because each role was important to survival, men and women likely were equals.

Stone Age Technology edit

An important development for early people was the use of technology—the application of knowledge, tools, and materials to make life easier. The first tools that people made were crude chipped stones. Over time, people learned to make better tools out of wood and bone as well as stone. For example, people learned to attach wooden handles to tools. By attaching a wooden handle to a stone arrow, people invented the spear. With spears, hunters could stand farther away from their prey and throw their weapons, which was safer. Another tool called a spear-thrower enabled Stone Age hunters to throw spears farther than by hand. As a result, hunters could take down larger prey, such as bison and mammoths, which resembled large elephants.

Early humans gradually learned to make more refined and specialized tools. Later Stone Age people learned to make string from plant fibers and animal sinew. People then used the string to make nets and other traps to capture fish and small animals. Other new tools and weapons included the bow and arrow, bone hooks, and fishing spears. To travel by water, some people learned to make canoes by hollowing out logs. Such developments greatly improved Stone Age life.

As later Stone Age people migrated out of Africa, they encountered new environments with different climates or plants and animals. People had to develop new tools and skills to adapt to these new environments.

For example, in colder regions, later Stone Age people needed more than fire to keep them warm. As a result, people learned to make needles from bone and then used the needles to sew together animal skins for clothing. In time, people learned to use skins and other materials to make shoes, hats, and carrying sacks.

In addition to clothing, people learned to build shelters. The first human-made shelters were called pit houses, which were pits dug in the ground and covered with roofs of branches and leaves. Stone Age people eventually began to build shelters above ground as well. Early people used whatever was available to make their shelters. In some places, people used wood to create a frame and then covered it with animal skins. In eastern Europe, wood was scarce, so people used large mammoth bones instead. Still other people built more permanent shelters out of wood, stone, or other materials.

Stone Age Art & Religion edit

Over time, bands of early humans began to form societies. Stone Age societies developed cultures that included not only language but also art and spiritual beliefs. Cro-Magnons and other later Stone Age people produced a variety of art. They carved ornaments and figurines out of antlers, bone, coral, ivory, and shells. Later Stone Age people also painted and carved images on rocks and cave walls. Stunning examples of prehistoric rock and cave art exist around the world. In this art, bulls toss their heads, wounded bison charge at hunters, and horses leap majestically. Symbols and human hands appear as well. To create cave art, prehistoric artists used charcoal, clay, iron, and other materials to produce colors such as black, reds, and yellows.

Scholars are not certain what purpose this early art served. Prehistoric artists may have been representing the world as they saw and experienced it. They may have used cave art to chronicle hunts or to teach hunting skills. Symbols might have recorded the movements of the sun, moon, stars, or planets. Or, the art might have had a spiritual meaning.

Scholars know even less about the spiritual beliefs of early people. Anthropologists think that early people may have practiced animism, the belief that all things in nature have spirits. Cave paintings of animals might have been made to honor animal spirits. Early people might have believed in a life after death as well. Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons buried their dead and placed food and objects in the graves. These items might have been for the dead to use in an afterlife.

Assignment edit

That is the end of your lecture. Now, I will read to you some basic questions of what we just discussed. Please put your answers in the talk page, Skype them to me, or send them in an email.

  • Question #1: What is an artifact, and what are two examples of artifacts?
  • Question #2: How do some anthropologists and archaeologists contribute to our understanding of prehistory?
  • Question #3: Based on what you have learned about archaeological digs, would you want to work on one?
  • Question #4: How have Mary Leakey, Louis Leakey, and Donald Johanson contributed to our knowledge of human origins?
  • Question #5: What set Homo sapiens apart from earlier hominids?
  • Question #6: In your opinion, how did the development of language most benefit prehistoric people? Why?
  • Question #7: What possible routes did Homo sapiens use to spread from Africa throughout the world?
  • Question #8: What do most scientists think helped contribute to some of the genetic variation seen among modern humans today?
  • Question #9: What is a hunter-gatherer?
  • Question #10: What types of art did later Stone Age people create?
  • Question #11: How did Stone Age technology improve over time?

Thank you very much for listening to me and I hope that you can listen again in the next lecture! Goodbye.