Physical Anthropology

Introduction to the Stone Age

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"Introduction to the Stone Age"
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The Stone Age is when man fashioned tools and weapons instead of selecting them from the environment. It is the era that definitively separated human behavior from animal behavior. And by the close of the Stone Age, man was moving from a food gatherer to a food producer.

The Stone Age is the extensive, pre-literate period, beginning about 1,750,000B.C. and closing about 5,000B.C. This huge period of time is usually divided into three stages, commonly known as Paleolithic (or Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). Some experts prefer another age in the middle known as the Mesolithic era.

The Paleolithic period was dividied into Lower and Upper Paleolithic eras, and lasted till about 10,000B.C. The Lower Paleolithic era is the time of "homo habilis", or "man having ability". Louis Leakey (famed also for his support of Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees in Tanzania), is credited with finding skeletal evidence of this "man" in Tanzania, Africa in the 1960's. Java man was found in 1891 and Peking man was found in China in the late 1920's. Neanderthal man, or early cave man, was found in the Neander Valley, Germany in 1856. More examples of the latter were found in Belgium, Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Russia and Palestine. Some claim Neanderthal man is close to the physical features of modern man. But, height generally seems to have been about 5foot 4inches. From these slim sources, different, separate groups were developing across the world, but all shared heavy eye-browed skulls.

Knowledge of life in this Lower Paleolithic era is scant. In caves, fire with stone hearths and flint-working floors seem to be known. The dead were interred in shallow graves with objects of value. Man, at this time, was primarily a nomadic hunter and gatherer, with small group social contact and dependence. More significant was the emergence of stones chipped to create a cutting edge. Spearheads, borers, knives and scrapers were stone tools of daily life.

The Upper Paleolithic period, lasting about 200 years, marks a time when Neanderthal man disappeared, and 6 foot tall Cro Magnon man appeared. Notably, the heavy eye-browed ridges of earlier man no longer exist. Stone tools are still fashioned, but with more skill and variety. Further, bone is used for tool handles. The fish hook, harpoon and bow and arrow appear now. Nomadic life seems curbed. Caves are used at least seasonally or years at a time. Group life seems closer and more organized. Clothes of animal skins are worn. Interestingly, a little magic appears now. If he wished for a desired result, particularly pertaining to the availability of food, the result would materialize. He made paintings of the walls of caves. Often they involved a hunting scene. And there is evidence he liked to paint or tattoo his body.

The final stage of the Stone Age was represented by Neolithic culture in Africa, southern Europe, Meso-America (pre-empting the Aztec and Inca civilisations) and Asia. The most outstanding change in this era was man moved from a food gatherer to a food producer. Flocks and herds and agriculture, mainly cereal grains, guaranteed more dependable food resources. The cow, the dog, the coat, the sheep and the pig became domesticated. Pottery, spinning and weaving emerged. Neolithic culture was far more widespread than any before it. It even reached the Arctic regions of North America. Rules and standards solidified and stabilised the social group. There was an ownership of territory. And religious rites, born of fear of evil, became defined.

Interestingly, many islands of the Pacific and areas of Brazil and Africa perpetuate Neolithic culture today. In Irian Java, the western half of New Guinea, Neolithic tribes are still being "found". Polished bone daggers and stone axes are still considered prime technology. Home here is a circular, windowless, wooden hut with split bamboo for flooring. Dead leaders are mummified and violence accompanies a funeral, in the form of property raids. If a woman's relative dies, a finger is amputated without anaesthetic. The 400 survivors of the Hadze tribe in Tanzania still wear animal skins and carry poisoned arrows. They are the last hunter gatherers on the African continent. Sadly, tourist contact has introduced some of them to the problems of alcoholism and drugs. Even more sad, two wealthy Arab princes are negotiating with the Tanzanian government to buy the Hadze's 4,500 square mile territory for hunting.

The Stone Age marks the "dawn of civilization". And, as with any dawn, it can be difficult to separate and clearly identify "colours" and "shapes". So it is with Stone Age man. New findings continually adjust our interpretation, our understanding of "our dawn". Perhaps some of the "secrets" may be found with this tribes who still cling to "Stone Age ways" today!

"World Civilisations" Vol.1 Burns & Ralph. 5th.edition. Norton. 1974.

More about this author: Gemma Wiseman

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