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In this lesson we briefly explore the origins of Homo sapiens before discovering the differences between the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras of human civilization.

Pre-Literate Cultures

When you want to learn something new about a subject or figure in our past, what do you do? Chances are, you simply go to the library or get online and read as much as you can about it. If you’re lucky, the person or people have even written their own books that you can read to discover just what they were like and what they thought.

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Things get more difficult the farther back in history you go as resources become less available.What, then, are you supposed to do about humans who didn’t even have a written language? Fortunately, historians, anthropologists, and paleontologists have gotten increasingly crafty over the years and have deciphered a large amount of information about our prehistoric ancestors. In this lesson, we’ll explore the two main periods these cultures lived in, the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, and discover the differences between them.

Origins of Humanity

Long before the emergence of either of these civilizations, the evolutionary branches of primates went in several directions. Over millions of years, the branch that eventually resulted in humans developed various skills and adaptations which help distinguish mankind from the other primates. For example, the ancestors of today’s humans were the only primates to develop bipedalism, or the ability to walk upright on two feet. Researchers theorize this was possibly so these primates could see over the tall grass of the African savannah and see predators before the predators were on top of them.They also developed larger and larger brains. For example, the human ancestor Homo habilis first evolved around 2.4 million years ago and had an average brain size of 650 cubic centimeters.

When its descendant and our ancestor, Homo erectus, first appeared 500,000 years later, its brain size had almost doubled, with scientists’ finding some specimens whose brain capacity was as high as 1225 cubic centimeters! Our current species, Homo sapiens, first appeared somewhere between 250,000 and 200,000 years ago.


Whatever the exact date as to the arrival of Homo sapiens, this is when most paleontologists place the beginning of the Paleolithic period. First beginning in Africa, Paleolithic humans spread over the entire world over the following millennia. Paleolithic people adapted well to their surroundings but very rarely built permanent dwellings; any homes that were built tended to be made of amalgamations of mud, wood, and animal skins, depending on the environment. Often Paleolithic people lived wherever there was natural shelter, such as the mouths of caves.

Unsurprisingly, it’s in these caves that some of the oldest forms of human artistic and linguistic expression still exist today, in the form of cave paintings.Paleolithic people did not build sophisticated houses because they had little use for them; Paleolithic people lived in nomadic societies. They often migrated along with the herds of animals they hunted for food. Because of the mobile nature of Paleolithic society, bands were relatively small, rarely numbering more than fifty. Likely, these bands were generally the members of large extended families.

Political apparatuses were virtually nonexistent, and major decisions about the bands’ actions were likely made by either the eldest members of the group or the strongest.Because of the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles Paleolithic people conducted, there was very little time for complex tool-making or technology. The few tools that were created usually were made from chipped stone, wood, or animal bone. This technology was often as practical as possible, such as arrowheads that were created to tip spears to hunt fish and game. The Paleolithic period continued until about 10,000 years ago.


At this point, around 8,000 B.C.

, early humans first began domesticating plants and animals. Rather than simply chasing herds of animals around forever, humans now began to cultivate herds of animals which could be corralled and kept near human society. In addition, humans began taking the best plants they found in the wild and planting them in large quantities.

This phenomenon – the birth of agriculture – is what separates the Paleolithic period from the Neolithic period. This change first occurred in the Fertile Crescent, a region of rich soil and plentiful water in between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is today modern Iraq.As a result of the birth of agriculture, Neolithic society became more sedentary. Indeed, with herds of animals that could be controlled and fields which needed tending, it now behooved Neolithic humans to begin building permanent settlements. As humans clustered together, the first villages and towns sprang up, surrounded by the farmland these humans controlled.

Ideas concerning private property first emerged as for the first time in history humans now had livestock and land in which they invested enormous amounts of time.Agriculture also gave Neolithic humans large amounts of free time in relation to their ancestors. As they now often had more food than they could eat in a day, they had considerable time to begin cultural pursuits such as creating pottery, developing better tools, and crafting creation stories and early religious beliefs. Human families also grew larger as increased food production could support greater numbers.In time, human settlements grew larger and became the first cities.

Though the exact dates are still debated, these first city-states were governed by the priests of the first temples to the various gods of ancient society. Before long, however, these cities were ruled by strongmen who became kings, and complex social structures proliferated. The Neolithic period is considered to have ended sometime around 3000 B.

C., when the first written languages were developed by these same cultures.

Lesson Summary

Paleolithic culture and Neolithic culture are incredibly different from one another.

Though the Paleolithic period lasted much, much longer, the Neolithic period experienced a far greater change in human lifestyle in a much shorter period of time.For example, where Paleolithic humans were hunter-gatherers who largely followed herds and built only semi-permanent homes, Neolithic society was sedentary and humans built permanent settlements which grew into villages, towns, and eventually city-states.Additionally, whereas Paleolithic people built only stone and bone tools which could help in their hunting and food gathering, Neolithic people had the time to craft other objects like pottery as well as having the time to begin thinking about bigger things like humanity’s origins. Indeed, while Paleolithic culture is important, it is the characteristics of Neolithic culture which began to lay the bedrock for modern society as we know it today.

Learning Outcomes

When you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Recall the origins of homo sapiens and what set us apart from our ancestors
  • Describe the lifestyle of Paleolithic man
  • Explain the changes that occurred in human society and culture during the Neolithic Age

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