Stone Age: The beginning of the path of civilization

stone age

The stone age marked the path towards the civilization of man in the prehistoric period. The invention of stone tools can be regarded as one of the most important times in the process of human evolution. The Paleolithic coincides almost exactly with the Pleistocene epoch of geologic time, which lasted from 2.6 million years ago to about 12,000 years ago. Several climatic and geographical changes occurred during this period. The period also saw five ice ages which had a major effect on human settlement and civilization. The human body also underwent several genetic changes to finally reach the stage of homo sapiens or “The Wise Man”.

Chronology of stone age

Paleolithic Age

Also known as the Old Stone Age is the earliest period of the Stone Age (roughly 3.3 million years ago to 10,000 B.C.). The Paleolithic Age is characterized by the use of stone tools, although at the time humans also used wood and bone tools. The old stone age can be divided in three stages.

1. Lower Paleolithic

Lower Paleolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. In African archaeology, the time period roughly corresponds to the Early Stone Age, the earliest finds dating back to 3.3 million years ago. The evolution of homo genus was at its infant stage, homo habilis walked the earth around 2.8 million years ago. At the beginning of the old stone age, hominins were found primarily in eastern Africa, east of the Great Rift Valley.

Most known hominin fossils dating earlier than one million years before present are found in this area, particularly in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. East Asian fossils from this period are typically placed in the genus Homo erectus. Although there is little fossil evidence available at known Lower Paleolithic sites in Europe it is believed that Homo erectus inhabited this area. There is no evidence of hominins in America, Australia, or almost anywhere in Oceania during this time period.

Prehistoric paintings have been found in many parts of the world. We do not really know if Lower Palaeolithic people ever produced any art objects as the evidence of any such art forms are not found.

2. Middle Paleolithic

The Middle Paleolithic followed the Lower Paleolithic and recorded the appearance of the more advanced prepared-core tool-making technologies. The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the old stone age and broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. The period is classified by the coexistence of archaic and anatomically modern human species (Homo Sapiens).

According to the recent fossil found in Isreal, the Anatomically modern humans began migrating out of Africa during the Middle Stone Age/Middle Paleolithic around 185,000 years ago and began to replace earlier pre-existent Homo species such as the Homo Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Humans lost body hair around one million years ago and the clothes appeared some 70,000 years before humans started to migrate north from Africa into cooler climates. Middle Paleolithic cultures may have possessed a developing religious ideology as indicated by the burials at sites such as Krapina in Croatia and the Qafzeh and Es Skhul caves in Israel.

The earliest undisputed evidence of artistic expression during the Paleolithic period comes from Middle Paleolithic or the Middle Stone Age sites such as Blombos Cave in the form of bracelets, beads, art rock, ochre used as body paint and perhaps in ritual. Man during this period developed various other skills. Activities such as catching large fish and hunting large game animals with specialized tools connote increased group-wide cooperation and more elaborate social organization.

The man began practicing social activities during this time. Evidence from archeology and comparative ethnography indicate that Middle Paleolithic people lived in small societies similar to those of Upper Paleolithic.

3. Upper Paleolithic

The third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age broadly dates to between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. This period witnessed the worldwide expansion of anatomically modern humans, the disappearance of archaic humans by extinction or admixture with modern humans. At Upper Palaeolithic times we see a proliferation of artistic activities. Around the world, the walls of many caves of this time are full of finely carved and painted pictures of animals that the cave-dwellers hunted. The subjects of their drawings were human figures, human activities, geometric designs, and symbols. In India, the earliest paintings have been reported from the Upper Palaeolithic times.

Stone core
Venus of Laussel, carving
Lascaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is interesting to know that the first discovery of rock paintings was made in India in 1867–68 by an archaeologist, Archibold Carlleyle, twelve years before the discovery of Altamira in Spain. Cockburn, Anderson, Mitra and Ghosh were the early archaeologists who discovered a large number of sites in the Indian sub-continent. Remnants of rock paintings have been found on the walls of the caves situated in several districts of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Bihar. Some paintings have been reported from the Kumaon hills in Uttarakhand also. The rock shelters on banks of the River Suyal at Lakhudiyar, about twenty kilometers on the Almora–Barechina road, bear these prehistoric paintings.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter

Mesolithic

The terms “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic” were introduced by John Lubbock in his work Pre-historic Times in 1865. The additional “Mesolithic” category was added as an intermediate category by Hodder Westropp in 1866. This period marked the gradual shift from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic Age. The largest number of paintings belongs to this Period. During this period the themes multiply but the paintings are smaller in size, hunting scenes predominate. The hunters are shown wearing simple clothes and ornaments. Sometimes, men have been adorned with elaborate head-dresses, and sometimes painted with masks also. Elephant, bison, tiger, boar, deer, antelope, leopard, panther, rhinoceros, fish, frog, lizard, squirrel and at times birds are also depicted.

Mesolithic artefacts
Mesolithic stone mortar and pestle
Pottery

Neolithic

The Neolithic period or the “New Stone Age” began around 12000 years ago and is the last division of stone ages. The Neolithic period is approximately characterized by the adoption of agriculture, which is the time when farming and animal domestication was practiced.

The agricultural activities began first in the Near East region and later in Southeast Europe and other regions. Farming communities first arose in the Levant (eastern Mediterranean region of western Asia) around 10,200–8800 BC and spread to Asia Minor, North Africa and North Mesopotamia. It was a gradual process that took several centuries. The early inhabitants fed on wild cattle and gazelles. The consumption pattern slowly shifted towards sheep and the early man started rearing animals for various purposes. The period saw a gradual decrease in hunting activities.

Mesopotamia is the site of the earliest developments of the Neolithic Revolution from around 10,000 BC. Major changes in the settlement pattern occurred with the introduction of agriculture. Population density increased and the man starting building permanent villages and towns in the later neolithic age. Organized warfare came into existence with the innovation in stone tools.

The Pottery period

1. Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA)– Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period began around 10000 BC in the Levant. A temple area in southeastern Turkey at Göbekli Tepe ( 9500 BC), developed by nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes may be the oldest known human-made place of worship. Settlements became more permanent, with circular houses for the first time made of mudbrick. The settlement had a surrounding stone wall served as protection from nearby groups, floods, and animals. During the early Neolithic, houses did not have individual storage facilities, the storage of grains and meat was managed at the community level.

Urfa Man
Ancestor Statue

2. Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB)– This period began around 800BC. A settlement of 3,000 inhabitants was found approximately 7250 BC on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. It is considered to be one of the largest prehistoric settlements in the Near East. The houses were of rectangular shape and made up of mudbricks. Burial findings suggest an ancestor cult where people preserved skulls of the dead, which were plastered with mud to make facial features. The rest of the corpse could have been left outside the settlement to decay until only the bones were left, then the bones were buried inside the settlement underneath the floor or between houses.

Footed bowl in granite
Jar in calcite alabaster, Syria

3. Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (PPNC)– An American-Latvian archaeologist Juris Zarins has proposed that a Circum Arabian Nomadic Pastoral Complex developed in the period from the climatic crisis of 6200 BCE. The culture developed partly as a result of increasing emphasis upon domesticated animals, and fusion with Harifian hunter-gatherers in the Southern Levant, with affiliate connections with the cultures of Fayyum and the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Cultures practicing this lifestyle spread down the Red Sea shoreline and moved east from Syria into southern Iraq.

Bicephalous statues

4. Pottery Neolithic (PN)– Began around 6,400 BCE in the Fertile Crescent, succeeding the period of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. By then distinctive cultures emerged, with pottery like the Halafian (Turkey, Syria, Northern Mesopotamia) and Ubaid (Southern Mesopotamia).

End of the Neolithic Age

With the discovery of Bronze (a mixture of copper and tin) the stone tools slowly got replaced by the metal tools marking the end of the neolithic or the stone age. The Chalcolithic (Stone-Bronze) period began about 4500 BC, then the Bronze Age began about 3500 BC. The bronze with increase hardness and lower melting point made it possible to develop tools that had greater strength. This gave a new dimension to human civilization. The stone tools and weapons became obsolete and metallurgy became prominent.