The Stone Age was the longest period in human history. It lasted from 2.6 million years ago to around 5,000 years prior. The Stone Age is also the period of human history that is the least well known in comparison to later time periods. The Stone Age saw very few changes in the daily lives of people as compared to what happened during the last 5000 years. However, the changes which did occur were quite extensive as they were the ones that made humanity what it eventually became in the modern era.
The term and definition of the term ‘Stone Age’
The first definition of the Stone Age was given in the 19th century by Christian Jurgensen Thomsen as being the earliest period of human history. Thomsen considered the Stone Age to be a period when stones constituted most technology and tools. Human history is divided into three ages viz. the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.
The Bronze Age was the time that directly succeeded the Stone Age. The end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age differ from one area to another. But the earliest date for the start of the Bronze Age is about 3000 BC as this was the time when the usage of Bronze became common in the region of ancient southwest Asia.
The Iron Age began at some time in the first or second millennia BC and outlines the time when Iron supplanted Bronze as the metal used most frequently. The date of the Iron Age also varies, because it began at different times in different regions. In southwest Asia, the Iron Age began in about 1500 BC.
The Stone Age is further branched into the Paleolithic Age and the Neolithic Age. In Europe, where farming did not begin directly after the end of the Paleolithic Age in around 10,000 BC, the term ‘Mesolithic’ was also used between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic Ages. The Paleolithic Age occurred from around 2.6 million years ago when the first tools made of stone appeared as recorded in archaeology to about 12,000 years ago in 12,000 BC when human beings began to domesticate animals and started farming. The Neolithic Age refers to the part of the Stone Age which began after this period and lasted from about 10,000 BC to around 3,000 BC.
The Paleolithic Age
The Paleolithic Age consists of most of human history, which is about 2.5 million years and entailed different human species. The technology used by humans in the Paleolithic Age developed very slowly and changed very little until around 50,000 – 100,000 years prior when innovations in technology started increasing. The Paleolithic Age is generally divided into the Lower Paleolithic Age, the Middle Paleolithic Age, and the Upper Paleolithic Age. The Lower Paleolithic Age lasted from 2.5 million years ago to about 200,000 BC, the Middle Paleolithic Age lasted from 200,000 BC to about 40,000 BC, while the Upper Paleolithic Age started in around 40,000 BC and lasted until 10,000 BC.
The Lower Paleolithic Age
The Lower Paleolithic Age began with the appearance of the first primitive human species which could be marked as a member of the genus Homo. The major features of the genus Homo were an upright posture as bipeds and a large brain. The earliest member of this genus was Homo Habilis. Homo Habilis did have body features and size like apes as they had longer arms compared to their legs. However, their brains were bigger than the Australopithecus and other bipedal which had come before them. Homo Habilis were the creators of the first stone tools, though it is now accepted by archeologists that stone tolls existed prior to the appearance of the Homo Habilis.
The first stone tools were created by using a cobble, or hammerstone, and striking it against a large rock to get sharp pieces that could be used as cutting tools which were most likely used to cut meat from the bones. Though the tools made by the Homo Habilis were primitive, they were the first identifiable tools used by human beings. It is believed that Homo Habilis probably lived at least for some part of their lives and they never left the continent of Africa to migrate elsewhere.
A new species of humans appeared around 2 million years ago who were referred to as Homo ergaster. They were the first human to have a body that was similar to modern humans with the legs being longer than the arms. Their skeletons have also shown that they were very tall at around 6 feet (1.8 m). At the time of the appearance of the Homo ergaster, newer and more advanced tools made of stone also appeared in archaeological records. These were flake tools that had been created from previous stone tools by giving them a more specialized shape by removing smaller flakes from them. One such tool from this group of next-generation tools was the ‘hand axe’. These tools represented the Acheulian tool-making tradition in archaeology. Though their purpose is uncertain, these tools are believed by archaeologists to be used for processing meet. These tools required more precision and planning to make. They thus represented an increase in the analytical abilities of the toolmakers.
Homo ergaster was the first human species to move out of Africa and migrate and settle eventually in Europe and East Asia. The Asian specimens of the species are known as Homo erectus, while Homo ergaster is used to refer to the African variant of the species. Homo erectus and Homo ergaster are considered by some anthropologists to be distinctly separate species whereas some consider them to be the Asian and African variants of the same species. It is believed that Homo erectus may have been the first human species that intentionally made use of fire and relied on material culture as a fundamental means to adapt to their environment. This tendency of relying on tools as a basic way to interact with the environment is the aspect that makes humans cultural animals. Though Chimpanzees are known to have done it occasionally, they can do hunting and other activities without tools. Conversely, humans usually make use of tools to hunt, accumulate food, or while performing a multitude of activities. This characteristic appears to have started with Homo erectus and Homo ergaster.
From around 1.9 million years ago to around 200,000 years prior, the Acheulian toolkit was the main cultural tradition in Eurasia and Africa. Around this time, there were evolutionary advances in human cognition which brought new changes and began the next era in the Paleolithic Age.
The Middle Paleolithic Age
Around 400,000 years prior, early humans started developing the ‘prepared-core technique’ in which tools could be made by cutting away flakes of a size and shape which had been pre-determined. This allowed the diversification and standardization of tools and represents an advance in the cognitive abilities of humans as more skill and thought were required to make the tools than in the previous eras. Hafted tools that had wooden handles also appeared during this period. It was also during the Middle Paleolithic Age that the first spears with stone points were made. This advancement in the usage of tools coincided with the emergence of a new species of humans referred to as Homo heidelbergensis which began to evolve in Africa around 800,000 years prior. They eventually spread out from Africa to Eurasia. Although their existence as a separate species is debated among anthropologists with some believing that they should be referred to as archaic Homo Sapiens, others believe that there were two species of humans, one in Africa and one in Eurasia.
The humans of the Middle Paleolithic Age are believed to have had more cognitive abilities than their predecessors which thus allowed the development of more advanced tools. They are also believed to have been the first humans to bury their dead and the first to have spoken a language that would have made the development of tools easier and possible to be passed down from one generation to another. The Middle Paleolithic humans are also thought to have been the first to have scavenged meat as well as having started to hunt big game. Their tools show that they could have started to scavenge meat from carnivores like saber-toothed cats and in this way have left Africa following the cats to scavenge on their unfinished kills. The spears of the Middle Paleolithic Age as well as the size of the animals killed which have been found at various sites show that big game hunting began during the Middle Paleolithic Age.
The early humans of the Middle Paleolithic Age seem to have separated into three different species over time, including the Neanderthals in Europe, the Homo Sapiens in Africa, and the Denisovans in Asia. The three species probably evolved around 200,000 to 300,000 years prior. Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens both had advanced tools and linguistic abilities compared to the previous human species. Though Homo Sapiens later developed more advanced cognition than the Neanderthals, for the majority of the Middle Paleolithic Age, they seemed to have had the same abilities as the other contemporary human species.
The Upper Paleolithic Age
The Upper Paleolithic Age was marked by further advanced tools of more diverse materials including stone blades which were longer and more finely crafted than earlier tools. It is also marked by the arrival of a large number of cultural aspects unique to the Homo sapiens like art and religion. Though it is believed that Neanderthals also produced art, most artwork is still associated with Homo sapiens. 40,000 years prior modern humans entered Eurasia and displaced the Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the remnants of Homo erectus in the islands of Southeast Asia. But this displacement appears to have been a more gradual process, and the Homo sapiens are believed to have even co-existed and interbred with other human species for long periods.
Also, during the Upper Paleolithic Age, humans are believed to have first arrived in the continents of Australia and the Americas. This was the first and only human species known to have colonized these areas. This period is also known for the widespread use of stone blades, harpoons, and artwork for the first time in prehistoric times. These advances are primarily attributed to the rise and spread of Homo sapiens but recent archaeological evidence has shown that this also took place among the Neanderthals. Presently, the status of the Denisovans is not clear as they didn’t leave any archaeological records. However, they were closely related to modern humans and are likely to have interbred with them indicating that they may have been equally cognitively advanced like the Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals.
The Neolithic Age
The term ‘Neolithic’ literally means the ‘New Stone Age’. It is considered to have begun around 12,000 years prior tentatively. It was around this time that the first farming communities emerged, first in the ancient Near East and then elsewhere. By around 9,000 BC, agricultural settlements had emerged across Southwest Asia and elsewhere. The emergence of agriculture led to a surplus in food stocks which meant that everybody didn’t have to farm or gather food always. This in turn led to a diversification of craft and a division of labor for the first time in humans.
The Stone Age and the start of the early human societies.
The emergence of agriculture led to the development of large settlements and a substantial increase in human populations and the creation of social structures like chiefdoms and states, which had not existed prior. It was during the Neolithic Age that human societies diverged from those of previous primates. Human societies previously had consisted of only a few hundred individuals who lived in family groups. But the new human societies consisted of thousands or tens of thousands of individuals and looked like separate organisms in their own right. They expanded through trade and warfare, thus changing humanity to be radically different from the initial years of its emergence.