Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cavemen Rule: Part I

Hi Everybody, time for another exciting season of Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I say things!  I’ve been planning to do a new series for a while now, and I’m finally ready to go.  Presenting: Intro to Human Origins, or: Cavemen Rule!
So I’d like to start off this series by talking about how inconceivably badass cavemen are.  I know everyone talks about Vikings, pirates, gladiators, and all these dudes, but for some reason people forget about cavemen, the original badasses whence all other badasses, myself included, were spawned.  These dudes clawed their way up from being a house lunch special on the Serengeti to mastering the world around them, paving the way for humanity’s greatest accomplishments, from the Pyramids of Egypt to Boston’s More than a Feeling:
For most of humanity’s existence, we have lived under conditions that, in popular culture, would be described as a “caveman” mode of life—or, more accurately, what anthropologists call band societies.  But before you get excited and start thinking that this is going to be a rockumentary*, I have to burst your bubble and say: it’s not that kind of band.  A “band society” refers to a mobile hunter-gatherer society of less than 100 individuals, usually no larger than an extended family or clan.  For most of our existence as a species, this was the way we lived.  Billions upon billions of people have lived out their lives in this kind of society.  Were not their lives as precious and full of color as ours?

*Unless, of course, the "rock" in "rockumentary" refers to the stone artifacts left behind by prehistoric man!

We do seem to have this idea that human prehistory goes a long, long way back, but I think a lot of people don’t really have much idea of what went on during this time.  Who were these people?  When, where, and how did they live?  Why is it that we learn about the Egyptians and Romans, but not the Mousterians and Aurignacians?  The answer, of course, is “relevance”.  But like I always say: who cares about relevance, as long as it’s badass? 

These societies existed for thousands of years, with as much drama and life as any society in written history.  And there’s just as much, arguably, to learn, if we are able to interpret the clues correctly.  Prehistoric cultures may not have left written records, but they did leave us clues, here and there, that add up over thousands of years.  Every day we are developing a clearer picture of how these people lived and died.

Let’s start with a few common misconceptions that people have about the 98% of humanity’s existence that predates the written record:
·         Prehistoric people were in some way “less human” than us: less developed, less evolved, however you want to say it:
·         Prehistoric people didn’t behave the same way we do, or had limited intelligence compared to us.
·         Prehistoric people saved money on their car insurance by switching to Geico.
·         People, one day, “discovered” agriculture, as if they didn’t know how seeds worked.
·         The five thousand years of our existence when we’ve had written history somehow matter more to the human story than any other five-thousand-year period.  They don’t.
People are people now, people were people five thousand years ago, and people were people fifty thousand years ago.  Prehistoric societies—and modern-day small-scale cultures—are just as important as any other human society—Roman, Chinese, Navajo, whatever.  
Another problem that popular consciousness has with human prehistory is that most of us don’t have much of a “timeline” for this vast, unrecorded period of our existence--for example, I was talking with a friend once who asked me which came first: fire or cave paintings.  That’s not a stupid question, because most of us just never learned this stuff in school.  But to me, it’s a terrible betrayal of our shared human heritage that we do not!

So let’s fix that!  In this series we’re going to take a trip though prehistory, and learn about the origins of who we are as a human family.

Traditionally, scholars have divided up human prehistory and proto-history by the materials used for toolmaking: hence, we have the stone age, bronze age, and iron age.  Some people would also add the “copper age” as a transitional period between the stone and bronze ages, but these three are the most important.  I’ve always thought “stone age” was kind of a misnomer, since that implies stone was the only, or even the dominant, material used, but people during this period had just as much ingenuity as we do; consider, for example, that plenty of bone artifacts have been recovered as well.  At any rate the “stone age” lasted from the very beginnings of humanity to about five thousand years ago; the bronze age, between five and three thousand years ago; and the iron age, from about three thousand years ago to the emergence of written history.  

Note that this is a fairly Eurocentric way to look at protohistory; we use this division simply because Greece and Rome developed iron technology before consistently writing stuff down.  But just because they were late to the party doesn’t mean everyone else was; consider that fully developed written scripts were used in Mesopotamia and Egypt concurrently with early bronze smelting.  Hence, the terms “bronze age” and “iron age” have little true significance to these cultures, since these periods overlap with the historical record.  In the same way, there are still societies today that do just fine without the use of metal.
The “stone age” concept, however flawed, is nonetheless used as a handy tool by archaeologists to describe what they have divided into three periods:
  •       The Paleoloithic, or “old stone age”, which is further divided into the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic periods;
  •       The Mesolithic, or “middle stone age”, and;
  • The Neolithic, or “new stone age”.

Of these, the Mesolithic and Neolithic pale in comparison to the enormous timescales of the Paleolithic, which lasted from the very dawn of humanity to about ten thousand years ago—maybe twenty in some places.  This period was characterized primarily by band societies engaging in scavenging, foraging, and hunting of big game.  The Mesolithic is characterized, again, by band societies, but now with more emphasis on small game, along with collection of wild cereal grains.  During the Neolithic, grain took on an even larger role as people began to settle down and develop true agriculture.  Lots of people think of the Neolithic as the beginning of what we call “civilization” but it took thousands of years of small-scale farming before cities, metal tools, or writing developed—hence the need for “Neolithic” as a classification.

But how old is humanity itself?  Well, that’s a difficult question, because first you have to answer the somewhat bloated philosophical question of “what is human?”—something we will attempt to do in our next video.  Thanks for watching!

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