The Great Courses: Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations – Donal’s Notes

Humans have been on the planet for 3 million years (Homo habilis), 2 million years (Homo erectus), or 200,000 years (Homo sapiens sapiens) depending on what you want to call “human”. The structure and organization of life we know as “civilization” has been around for about 8,000-12,000 years if we mark its beginning with the domestication of plants and animals. If we think about social complexity rather than civilization per se, it was about 40,000 years ago when social complexity increased to include many of the characteristics we associate with civilization, such as surplus, large permanent settlements, and inequities in wealth (see Hayden in Oxford Handbook of Hunter-Gatherers). It took us about 8,000-12,000 years (or 40,000 years) to discover that our modern way of life (and possibly civilization, itself) is unsustainable (meaning that it will end). Perhaps we might consider the fact that for 96% to 99.6% of human existence (190,000 to 2.9 million years) we lived sustainably on one planet’s worth of resources. Depending on what level of social complexity is actually sustainable, we might say that we lived 80% of human existence sustainably (given an increase in social complexity 40,000 years ago and defining “human” as homo sapiens sapiens). What lessons might we learn from our history to guide us once again to sustainable lifestyles, or, even better, to thriving on one planet? Because writing, itself, developed with the lifestyle we call “civilization”, we never did have anything like a written owner’s manual for how our ancestors lived sustainably for so much time. Hopefully, archeology, anthropology, and related fields of study will help us create one.

That is some of my motivation for understanding pre-civilization (i.e., pre-history) ways of living in general and my specific motivation for turning to one of the Great Courses, “Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations”, taught by Professor of Archeology, Brian M. Fagan of UC-Santa Barbara. What follows are my notes on the class (they are rough notes with some missing info and questions that I may go back and answer at some point). When I add pictures and notes from other sources, they are noted and appear in brackets. Most of the notes focus on the area surrounding the hunter-gatherer information and the transition to civilization.

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One Interpretation of the Temporal and Geographical Distribution of Human Evolution. Source: PLoS Biol. 2004 Nov; 2(11)

By 5 million years ago, the climate in Africa likely became drier and open savanna became more the norm. Walking on two feet, erect, was likely an advantage in traversing large areas to find food (widely dispersed across the savanna rather than historically more dense food in woodlands), outrun predators, and run to take shelter. We have a very incomplete fossil record from 7 to 3 million years ago so we know only the very general outlines of human evolution. Hominids may have split off from apes 5 to 7 million years ago. Early human evolution was bush-like with large diversity rather than linear. The larger brain of developing humans allowed for greater social intelligence that allowed our ancestors to cope with the complexities of living more closely together with other hominids.

Three significant differences between apes and humans: bipedal (more effective at carrying meat and objects), adapted for open savanna living and had to be more organized to cover greater territory, greater brain size allowed increased social intelligence so that people could live closer together and more cooperatively.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_habilis#/media/File:Homo_habilis_-_forensic_facial_reconstruction.png

Homo habilis – Forensic facial reconstruction/approximation by Cicero Moraes, CC BY-SA 3.0

Homo habilis was the first known human with thin skull, larger brain capacity, and perhaps the ability to make stone tools (3 million years ago). 

First true human was Homo erectus (oldest fossil 1.9 million years ago). Homo erectus spread out of Africa into Asia and Europe (but not the Americas) and evolved into highly diverse

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_erectus#/media/File:Homo_erectus_adult_female_-_head_model_-_Smithsonian_Museum_of_Natural_History_-_2012-05-17.jpg

A model of the face of an adult female Homo erectus. Reconstruction by John Gurche, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, based on KNM ER 3733 and 992. CC BY-SA 2.0

populations throughout the world. They had larger brains (775-1300 cubic cm) with distinctive skulls with almost modern looking limbs, 5′ 6″ tall, fully adapted to upright posture. Fully capable hands for gripping and making tools. [Professor alludes to the following but uses Homo erectus for simplicity. The following’s source is wikipedia: “Many paleoanthropologists now use the term Homo ergaster for the non-Asian forms of Homo erectus, and reserve Homo erectus only for those fossils that are found in Asia and meet certain skeletal and dental requirements which differ slightly from H. ergaster.”]

Increasing environmental diversity and climate change during the Great Ice Age (started 1.8 million years ago). Climactic fluctuations were minor until about about 780,000 years ago when the Earth’s magnetic field reversed abruptly for unknown reasons and continual climate change gripped the earth and has continued ever since. For over 75% of this time, the world’s climate has been in transition from warm to cold and back again, the periods of cold lasting longer than the periods of warmth. Some people believe we are still in the ice age and will return to a cold cycle in another 23,000 years. What is the effect of anthropogenic causes of climate change on this cycle?

Four great controversies in pre-history: (1) the origins of humans, (2) the origins of modern humans, (3) the peopling of the Americas, and (4) the origins of agriculture.

Homo sapiens sapiens probably evolved in tropical Africa as verified by mitochondrian DNA.

Neanderthals and modern humans lived alongside each other for over 45,000 years in East Asia.

15,000 years ago people came to the Americas across the Bering Strait probably in part because land became more accessible as the ice retreated during this period (Chapter 11).

Early Americans (Chapter 12). Extinction of ice age North American mega-fauna 13,000 years ago. One theory, early Americans hunted them to extinction. Another theory, climate change caused extinctions everywhere in the world, including the Woolly Mammoth. Most contemporary thinkers believe that humans had a limited role by killing slow-breeding animals like the Mastodon who were already under stress from climate change.

About 40,000 years ago, social complexity began to emerge (see notes on hunter-gatherer societies).

About 11,000 years ago, a new pattern of society developed, adapted to a wide array of environments. Only one mega-fauna survived, the bison on the great plains which became a short-grass environment. Natives hunted them on foot with stone spear tips, at least partly through organizing drives to stampede bison into a gully or over a cliff. The bow and arrow and then the horse followed. In the Illinois valley seasonal hunters were supported from 8500 years ago to 7000 years ago — with a stable population, most of the Costa people could meet their food needs within 3 miles of their settlement. Eastern woodlands thin scatter of bands who hunted diverse food sources and foraged over a 1000 miles but with more permanent settlements near water in river valleys or near lakes with richer sources of diverse foods. Often bands would camp near water during the winter (some locations were used for thousands of years) and then spread out again to edible landscapes during Spring, Summer, and Fall. Their staples were probably deer and rabbits, a relatively small range of other staple plants foods, but a knowledge of a huge variety of secondary foods they could eat if needed. A striking feature of these societies were how diverse their foods were. Where food was more scarce because of reduced water in the West, populations were smaller, highly mobile, and more scattered. In California, lakes were more common and became the focus of settlements, but as they disappeared, lakes became increasingly desirable places to live and were occupied for thousands of years. Intimate knowledge of the environment was key. Pacific coast had the benefit of fish, sea mammals, and shellfish, the latter two being reliable and predictable food used as main foods. Santa Barbara channel, San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Northwest. Spiritual complexity and relationship to the environment were important in all areas, probably becoming more complex over time. The diversity of these people is the main lesson to be drawn, despite many commonalities. The cultivation of maize and beans came about in the last 3,000 years.

Agriculture (chapter 13) and the domestication of animals. Massive global warming occurred at the end of the ice age about 15,000 years ago and warmed to modern levels within 6,000 years. These changes were particularly dramatic in northern areas, like Canada or Scandinavia. Sea levels rose dramatically to modern levels by 6,000 BC. By 11,000 years ago, Alaska was cut off from Siberia, England was no longer part of the European continent, the Baltic sea came into being. Rainfall areas shifted. At first, there was increased rain in temperate regions like the Jordan, Euphrates, and Nile Valley. The Sahara Desert supported shallow lakes and grasslands. zzzz

Agriculture began 14,000 years ago (12,000 BC) likely due to severe drought (climate change).

Leadership as a specialized status began before agriculture because of effective gathering of wild grasses and the ability to store it over time. People harvested grasses for centuries and had no need to plant them. One group of people ate about 12 varieties of grasses as a staple, another group ate almost exclusively gazelle. But they knew about at least 200 plants they could use for food. They were managing and maintaining their environment long before they domesticated plants or animals.

The Levantine Corridor (from wiki commons)

The Levantine Corridor (from wiki commons)

At the onset of severe drought, these hunter-gatherers started to grow plants to make up for the lack of natural plants, beginning probably with cultivating wild wheat barley. This first happened probably somewhere in the Levantine Corridor, west of the Mediterranean Sea and includes Damascus, Syria and the Jordan Valley.

13,000 years ago many of the mega fauna became extinct, probably through a combination of climate change and human hunting.

Jericho was a farming city around 10,000 BC (about 12,000 years ago) that was surrounded by 9 foot ditch and then stonewalls — whether these were for defense or flood control is unknown.

As agriculture increased as a way of life, it had huge impacts on how people lived. People lived in much greater population densities and lived in the same place for multiple generations, much longer than even the most sedentary hunter gatherer populations. Ancestor cults arose, in part because ancestors became more important, in part because people farmed generation after generation in the same spot — land ownership. Technology becomes much less light and portable because people are staying in one place for long periods of time. New technology included grindstones, much more durable storage containers like clay pots, and more durable housing.

People were crowded and living with poor diets and lower life expectancy. The transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture was one of the largest transitions terms of social change (but Hayden argues in Oxford Handbook of Hunter-Gatherers, that the largest change was the emergence of social complexity which occurred 40,000 years ago and well before the domestication of plants and animals). Social ranking introduced. Hereditary leadership came in, perhaps as early as 6000 BC (8,000 years ago). Egypt became a unified state in around 3100 BC.

European agriculture started probably around 6000 BC. Around 5550 BC, what was before a fresh water lake became the Black Sea.

Farming is much harder work than hunting and gathering lifestyles, taking up significantly more time.

Rice production began in the Yangtze River valley in China before 7000 BC.

Root crops like taro root and yams were critical for populating the Pacific Islands.

It’s the consequences of agriculture that are more important rather than the invention of it which probably occurred all of the world at different points — everybody knew that seeds germinate. The consequences include being in one spot and then being dependent on agriculture thereafter.

About 2000 years ago, the colonization of Micronesia started, made possible by the combination of food that could be stored, navigation techniques, and a double hull canoe.

All land had been discovered by about 1200 A.D. with the latest landmass being discovered possibly being New Zealand.

Native Americans in 1492 were arguably the world’s most expert farmers, having cultivated hundreds of plants.

Maize/corn was the product that allowed large complex states/civilization to exist in the Americas from territory ranging from Canada to Argentina. It has now been proven that maize came from the domesticated wild grass called Tiosinte. Maize was probably domesticated by 3600 BC or earlier in southern Mexico.

Potatoes  were domesticated in the Americas by at least 2000 BC, perhaps much earlier.  Potatoes spread from the Americas to other parts of the world. People in the Andes used dozens of varieties of potatoes. This contrasts, for example, with the Irish whose potato famine was the result of relying predominately on one variety.

California Indians were well aware of agriculture, they just had no incentive to take it up. Same was true of Australian aborigines. They had enough to eat. Rising populations and food shortages may have inspired people, in the southwest to start cultivating maize.

For many centuries agriculture existed only as a supplement to the staple foods that were hunted and gathered. It appears that this was because food was plentiful and off in fertile valleys [??]. The implication is that people only developed agriculture as they needed more more food given the population to resource ratio.  This is consistent with previous points made by the professor (e.g.,  about drought being the instigator for agriculture).

As agriculture became more and more prevalent, the land was changed more. This resulted in the dying out many of the wild foods that hundred gatherers formally depended upon. In this way, agriculture became more and more necessary and hunter gatherer lifestyle is less and less viable.  Everywhere maize took hold on a significant scale, society became more elaborate, organization became more elaborate, and long-distance exchange more prevalent.

The earliest civilizations appeared in Southwest Asia in Mesopotamia and the Nile river valley about 5000 years ago. Pre-industrial civilizations are characterized by not depending on fossil fuels. 

  • Civilization: urbanized, state–level societies. Critical is control of labor.
  • The economies of all pre-industrial civilizations depended on the centralized accumulation of resources – In other words, a pyramid hierarchy-type of organization with a few people controlling things. Cities (5000 people ore more) characterized these states.

You’re too broad. How civilization came to involve: ecological/big system theories and social theories. The latter emphasize economics trade love fighting hate etc. [??]

8000 BC (perhaps earlier), Iraq was the first civilization. Because there were long, dry summers, people had to form into larger communities to build irrigation systems, maintain those waterworks, and plant, grow, and harvest food.

3400 BC is the first writing, so called cuneiform Sumerian writing in Mesopotamia. This develops from earlier system of using clay tokens to keep track of trade accounts and inventories and the contents of temple storehouses. It took 1000 years for this form of writing to develop into the first literature. Writing is knowledge and knowledge is power.

About 3500 BC, also in Mesopotamia copper metallurgy developed for the first time. At first it was principally for ornamentation and prestige and was relatively easy to melt. Potters could learn to melt copper. It took 1000 years for people to learn to alloy copper with lead or tin to make bronze which was more capable of holding an edge and led to metal knives and tools.

Egyptian civilization started around the same time as the city states of Sumeria. By 3100 BC, a patchwork of villages became small city states along the Nile and those had combined to form the nation city state of Egypt. The Nile was beautifully set up for navigation because in one direction you could use the current and in the other direction you could use the wind. Hieroglyphs, a phonetic form of writing, developed probably a little bit later than the writing that occurred in Mesopotamia but developed independently.

Pharaohs ruled as the manifestation of Horace, the god of order, who is constantly battling Seth the god of disorder and chaos.

2180 BC old Kingdom with Merrill in Egypt [??] collapsed series of bad Nile flights [??], i.e. drought, which led to widespread famine proving that the pharaohs who had ruled by claiming infallibility are, in fact, fallible. The kingdom dissolved into many different areas ruled by warlords.

Middle Kingdom pharaohs became much less authoritarian, behaving more like shepherds, and investing in irrigation projects and other agricultural projects to ensure that the people could be fed. It is thought that this is due to the trauma and the lessons learned from the traumatic break up of the old Kingdom.

Egypt imported all lot of cedar from Lebanon. Though this was true of the old Kingdom as well, one characteristic of the middle Kingdom is the trade expanded greatly. One could think of it this way: their catchment area increased dramatically, possibly as a result of understanding the fragility of a smaller catchment area.

Around 1640 BC, the middle Kingdom disintegrated, largely as the results of a series of weak pharaohs. The Hyksos, merchants who were more cosmopolitan, ruled over lower Egypt during this time. That is, Egypt was divided into two kingdoms, the upper and lower kingdoms. Hyksos brought bronze, new weapons, and, most importantly, the war chariot to the area. The new Kingdom lasted until 1070 BC. Much of the power of Egypt depended on their access to gold. In 30 BC, Egypt became a province of Rome.

Iron was first smelt around 2000 BC. Technology spread rapidly because, in part, iron ore was so common relative to tin.

One of the great untold stories of ancient history is the impact of firewood on environments. There’s huge demand for firewood for charcoal another uses and often people with the firemen at leading to a Rosian etc. [??]

One major theme of civilization is increasing interdependence to trade, at every level of civilization from villages to towns to cities to states. The global economy has become more more global overtime of course. However, as early as 2000 years ago Egypt had silk, one indication of the levels of interconnectedness we’ve had for 2000 years.

Pre-industrial civilizations were volatile, with rapid rises and collapses.

The camel saddle was one invention that opened up trade routes across the deserts. The camels were known as the ships of the desert. The other major occurrence was the discovery of the monsoon winds which allowed huge expansion of sailing trade throughout the Indian Ocean. Both of these developments contributed to significantly to the increase of civilizations elsewhere in the world.

After North America was opened up, goods from North America started to be traded in places far away as Africa. For example, maize transformed economy [where??].

Early dynasty in Chinese civilization, the Shang (they collapsed in 1027 B.C.E.), were very wealthy with sharp differences between the ruler and the ruled. The ruler was thought to be the divine intermediary between Dass [??] life the gods. Human sacrifice was common and ordered by the royals to honor their ancestors. Warfare was relatively common, with huge earthwork defenses, as a patchwork of different dynasties competing with one another.

1500 BC was the time when iron was first smelted in the west, but in China, iron was smelted and widespread by 500 BC. However, in China they had been casting in bronze for a long time and they added carbon to their iron to reduce its melting point and therefore were able to do the same kind of casting with iron, catapulting them ahead in terms of technology compared to the west where smelting iron involved the laborious process of heating and hammering the iron.

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