Chapter 1 Before Civilization

Section 3 Later Paleolithic Methods of Adaptation

As people spread into new areas during the Paleolithic Era, they gradually changed their methods of survival to suit new local conditions. In part such adaptations were responses to changing climate. Around 30,000 B.C., for example, the retreat of glacial ice caused a warming of the environment in northwestern Europe. The grasslands that had provided grazing for mammoths, bison, and reindeer, on which early hunting bands in this region had come to depend, gave way to forested regions more suited to smaller deer and cattle. Humans had to change their approaches to both hunting and gathering in this new environment in order to survive.

             Some probably adapted to forest life, or found other ways of getting food. Where early humans lived near lakes, rivers and seas, for example, they often turned from hunting to fishing as the primary source of food. Along the coast of northwestern Europe, there is evidence of such fishing peoples, mostly in the great piles of rubbish they left behind. These early garbage heaps, mostly composed of fish bones and the remains of shellfish, also show the kinds of inventions that made such an adaptation possible: boats, nets, and fish hooks made of bone. Other hunters and gatherers, however, continued to follow the great herds of game on which they depended, moving north and east after the retreating ice. 

Peopling the Americas. It may well have been the pursuit of the large game animals that brought the first humans into the Americas from Asia sometime between 50,000 and 14,000 years ago. For most of the last Ice Age, so much of the world's water was locked up in great ice sheets that ocean levels were much lower and a region known as Beringia connected North America and northeastern Asia. The earliest migrants were probably following herds of woolly mammoths, steppe bison, wild horses, and caribou that they depended on for meat across Beringia and into North America. In addition to hunting, these Paleo-Indians, as scholars call them, lived by fishing and gathering wild plants. The exact timing and process of these migrations, however, is disputed by scholars. Recently some have suggested that a direct overland route was not practical due to the extent of the great ice sheet that stretched almost down to the coast of the Pacific. Instead, they argue, the first colonists must have hugged the coastline, or even taken to the sea in some kind of boats or rafts. Other recent scholarship, using genetic analysis, has also suggested not only several waves of migration over long periods of time from Asia but perhaps even some migration around the ice sheets from Europe to North America.

Regardless of when or how the first migratory groups entered North America, many of the Paleo-Indian groups continued to move south and east, perhaps to escape the harshness of the arctic climate. At any rate, by 9000 B.C. and possibly much earlier, humans had spread throughout the Americas. According to an American Indian creation myth: 

"For a long time everyone spoke the same language, but suddenly people began to speak in different tongues. Kulsu {the Creator], however, could speak all languages, so he called his people together and told them the names of the animals in their own language, taught them to get food, and gave them their laws and rituals. Then he sent each tribe to a different place to live."  

When the last Ice Age ended around 12,000 B.C., the climate became warmer and caused a great many environmental changes. Some scholars believe that these changes led to the rapid extinction of many of the animals on which Ice Age hunters had depended. To survive, Paleo-Indians gathered more plants, caught more fish, and hunted smaller animals.

Beginnings of sedentary lifestyles. Whatever means they adopted to maintain themselves, most of these early human groups remained essentially nomadic. Although they might camp for a while in a single place, usually near an available water source, eventually they would exhaust the food supplies in the surrounding territory. Then they must move to find better hunting. Such an existence suggests two things. First, their groups must have remained rather small, probably between 20 and 30 members. Any more mouths to feed would have strained the abilities of even the best hunters. And second, even these small bands would have needed the resources of fairly large areas to support themselves. In some places, however, evidence has been found that shows a rather different pattern.

            In central Russia, for example, herds of wooly mammoths were so abundant and apparently so slow moving some 20,000 years ago that Paleolithic hunters were able to settle down in the same place for most of the year. Feeding off the mammoths as well as gathering wild plant foods, these people developed a relatively sedentary, or stationary, way of life that lasted from about 18,000 to 10,000 B.C. Using the enormous bones of the mammoths themselves, the Mammoth-bone people, as they are known, constructed sturdy huts and storage pits. Archeological evidence even suggests that they were in regular trade relations with communities some 500 miles further south along the edge of the Black Sea. The communities eventually disappeared, probably because the mammoth herds on which they depended either moved away or were hunted to extinction. As far as we can tell, the people abandoned their settlements and went back to a nomadic existence of Hunting and Gathering.  

Reconstructed Mammoth-bone hut,

             A similar pattern developed in the area covered by modern-day Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, but based more on gathering than on hunting - and with dramatically different results thanks to new challenges from the environment. Climatic changes around 12,000 B.C., as the world experienced a warming, drying period, apparently allowed the rapid spread of wild varieties of barley and wheat plants over this region for the next thousand years. Hunters and Gatherers soon settled in the area, eventually coming to depend primarily upon gathering these wild grains, supplementing them with the meat of local varieties of game, as well as nuts and other foodstuffs abundant in the region. So rich were the pickings that between about 10,500 B.C. and 8,000 B.C. a new type of human adaptation, the so-called Natufian culture, had emerged in large permanent settlements of round and oval stone huts. The people who lived in them had learned to store the wild grain they gathered. Using large stone slabs, they ground it up in order to prepare it as food, perhaps making it into bread or some kind of porridge. Like the mammoth-bone culture, these settlements also got quite large, much larger than the old hunting and gathering bands. 

Human Societies Become More Complex.   The emergence of both the Mammoth-bone and Natufian cultures marks a major change in the way earlier human groups had related to their environments. It is a change directly related to the whole process of cultural adaptation.

            Earlier hunting and gathering communities had been small because if they got too large they could not gather or hunt enough food to sustain all their members. In other words, they lived in a kind of balance, or equilibrium, with their environment. Since they were always on the move, following their food supply, they had no means of storing food. The use of fire, of course, probably made it possible for them to preserve meats, but so long as they were moving they could only carry relatively small amounts.

             Once people began to settle, however, they could begin to save food for future use. This meant that even if the herds moved away temporarily, the people would not starve immediately. In other words, instead of living from hand to mouth, people could provide themselves with a cushion against hard times. In addition, with stored food available, the numbers of the group could grow without causing hardship. Equilibrium with the environment could be re-established at a higher level of population. Larger groups in turn began to transform the whole nature of how individual human beings related to one another.

             As we have seen, the earlier hunting and gathering bands were probably fairly egalitarian. Everyone contributed to the welfare of the group, in order to insure their own individual welfare. Although some specialization occurred, mostly as a result of the growing importance of hunting, social relations remained fairly equal. Private possessions were probably not very important, because people were always on the move. What possessions they did have were mostly for survival, and must have been shared if only because survival required cooperation. There may have been items of adornment, perhaps even religious objects, but with the limitations of a nomadic existence there cannot have been many. These too may well have been shared, simply because of the nature of human relationships within these small bands. After all, the most important glue holding these bands together was that they were all family members.

             On the other hand, the beginnings of social differences between individuals existed even within these Hunting and Gathering groups. The best hunter might command the best portions of his kill. The oldest members of a band probably commanded respect simply because of the skill it had taken to survive so long. "Cleverness" was clearly a valuable quality among such people, if the myths and stories of present-day Hunters and Gatherers are any guide, and clever people must have been admired and respected - though perhaps not yet envied.

            As groups settled down and became larger, however, the ties of kinship also became looser. Although people were still related, the distance of the relationship increased over several generations. How many of us today, for example, feel as strongly about our distant cousins as we do about our mothers and fathers? In fact, most of us probably have relations we don't even know about. As groups became larger, then, the social relationships probably became less easy, more complex.

Private property and social stratification. Whereas nomadic groups had lived essentially in common, settling down allowed individuals and their immediate families to have some privacy. As the settlements grew over time, the relationships among members of different immediate family groups must have become less natural and more formal. With their own stationary space, individuals and family groups were also able to accumulate more possessions, possessions that they identified as peculiarly their own, in other words, personal or private property. Cooperation within the larger group continued, of course, but a new sense of identity had begun to emerge, both for individuals and their immediate family members.

             Settling down probably also involved yet another increase in the process of specialization, in which individuals develop a few skills very well, rather than mastering a large variety of general skills. These new skills, practiced in people's new private spaces, probably reinforced the differences among individuals rather than their sameness. A hunter, for instance, might ask a good stone toolmaker to make weapons for him in exchange for part of his kill or for doing some other task that would free the toolmaker's time for making the tools. This kind of exchange of goods and services is called a barter system. As people began to accumulate such possessions, some must have gathered more than others, based upon their natural abilities, and the value people placed upon what they produced.

             Gradually, people began to make distinctions about the relative value of such things. Those who produced the most valuable items essential to survival, whether physical objects or special knowledge, would have been held in higher regard by their fellows. Such regard could be accumulated too and is generally called status. As differences of status appeared within the group, social stratification, or grading, had begun. In both the mammoth-bone settlements and in the Natufian culture there is clear evidence of such stratification: some people had bigger homes, and more possessions, both tools and ornaments.

             Social stratification did not necessarily mean that some people began to make decisions for the whole group, while the rest simply obeyed. On the other hand, as it became gradually clear that some people were better providers for themselves and their families than others, their fellows probably consulted them on how to do things. Just as there had probably been particularly clever leaders in hunting bands, so now clever leaders may have emerged within the new settled communities. Recognition of leadership, however, would probably still have been by consensus, that is with agreement among all the adult community members. Not until it was a matter of survival, probably, would people agree to give any more control over their lives into the hands of any single person or group of people. When they did, it marked the emergence of a new elite, that is a group of people who coordinated, guided, or even dictated the affairs of the larger community.

             If any single factor contributed to the emergence of new elite leaders within the group it was probably age. Respect for age certainly seems to have been a part of these early settlements, as it still is among hunting and gathering peoples today. For age means experience, and is the clearest proof of one's successful ability to survive. Moreover, it was the elderly who carried within them the fullest memory of the group, how it had developed through time, and most importantly of all - the skills and techniques that had allowed it to survive. In an era before people had developed writing, all the skills and tricks of living could only be passed down from the older to the younger generations by word of mouth through stories. Combined with age, however, would have been respect for those who contributed most to the group's survival through the provision of food, water, shelter and security. In hunting and gathering bands, for example, the most successful hunters would have had greater prestige than their less successful colleagues. And skills on the hunting trail would have translated naturally into war skills if the group ever found itself under attack from competing outside groups. On the other hand, where group survival came to depend more on gathering plant foods for survival, those who were most successful at providing such foodstuffs would have naturally risen to leadership roles within the group. In short, those who contributed most through their various skills to the group's survival and sense of security would have commanded the greatest respect.

            Once social stratification had begun, and possessions as well as knowledge began to pass down from generation to generation, it was important to establish just who should get the inheritance. This meant that people had to know how they and their immediate families stood in relation to others. In short, another level of identity had to be formally established. In fact, the evidence from early settlements like the mammoth-bone and Natufian cultures suggests that the first social organizations revolved not around men but around women. The Natufian settlements, for example, were almost certainly matrilineal, that is they traced one's family and inheritance in the female line, as well as matrilocal, which means that a married man went to live with his wife's family. The most obvious explanation for this arrangement is that people still did not understand where children came from! (Even if they did, they may not have been absolutely certain who a child's father was, whereas the mother was beyond dispute.)

            However, such social organization may also have reflected a growing dependence upon the wild grains gathered primarily by the women. In some cultures, this pattern led to the emergence of a female-led elite, or matriarchy, in which the women of the group made the major decisions affecting the community. In others, particularly where hunting remained a predominant source of food, even if inheritance was determined through the female line, the eldest men, who had proven themselves on the hunting trail, generally made community decisions. Such an arrangement is called a patriarchy. As people settled down more and more, developing new sedentary techniques of survival, these various forms of social organization became more firmly entrenched.

             But what did all this social development mean for the ordinary person? In essence, it meant that people were developing new senses of identity for themselves. Instead of being equal members of a small family group, all of whom did essentially the same things, now they were also neighbors of other family groups. They were identifiable based upon their special talents, whether in making useful objects or in knowing things that others did not. In other words, as the group activities became more complex and individuals became more specialized in their knowledge and skills, individual identities became more unique.

            Increasingly, people identified themselves as individuals, and their relationships with others in the group, and with the group as a whole, became ever more complex. A new stage in the development of human consciousness had been reached. And as people began to adjust their relationships with each other, they also began to consider their position in the world as a whole, their relationship with the environment, with Nature and the forces or spirits that ruled it. Not only did their new identities exist in the realm of Humanity, they existed in the Cosmos.

Development of Early Religious Ideas

As with other aspects of early Humanity, we do not know a great deal about the early religious life of human beings. Once again, we must guess on the basis of very little evidence. For the early Paleolithic period, from about 800,000 to about 80,000 years ago, there is little or no evidence suggesting any kind of spiritual beliefs. During this period, bands of humans were entirely nomadic and seem simply to have left their dead wherever they fell. By the Middle Paleolithic era, however, around 60,000 B.C., things had begun to change. In Europe and the Middle East human beings had begun to bury their dead in the ground.

             It is possible that early humans buried their dead simply to get rid of the stench of decay. This does not explain, however, the care with which such remains were obviously treated. In addition to arranging the bodies, people also left artifacts for the dead. Whether the burial of individual objects such as tools and items of decoration, even bits of food, was meant as a symbolic gesture, or reflected instead a belief that the dead would be able to use such items in some afterlife, we simply do not know. In some areas, however, such as on the Iranian plateau, the bodies were always faced in the same direction—east, towards the rising sun.

            Clearly, Paleolithic humans had begun to wonder about the implications of death. Perhaps they hoped that just as the sun rose again every day, so too the dead would also rise again. By the later Paleolithic era, there is considerable evidence that some people had begun to think in terms of some kind of spiritual existence. Small figurines and rock carvings of women, clearly pregnant, have been found in sites from France to the Middle East. They seem to have been fertility images, designed perhaps to help women become pregnant. Or they may be representations of a Mother Goddess. In September 2008, in southwestern Germany, researchers from the University of Tübingen discovered the oldest such figure yet found, the so-called Venus of Hohle Fels, which was made between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. 

            Some scholars believe the creation of the figures was an effort to affect the real world, much as practitioners of some modern Caribbean religions try to harm their enemies by creating doll-like images of them, and then burning the images in the belief that the real person may be affected. This practice is called sympathetic magic, because the ritual process is supposed to create a bond or sympathy between the image and the real object.

            Sometime after the appearance of the female figurines, another form of Paleolithic art developed that seems to support the interpretation of sympathetic magic. In great caves at Lascaux in southern France, and at Altamira in northern Spain, we have found magnificent paintings of the animals human beings hunted over twenty thousand years. These wall paintings remain vibrant testimony not only of early humanity's artistic skills, but also perhaps of the beginnings of their spiritual life. Similar paintings have been found from the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain to the Ural Mountains in Russia, to the caves and rock outcroppings of southern Australia.  

            Although we do not know for certain why hunting and gathering people created these paintings, both their locations and their subject matter are suggestive. We might expect paintings done for simple pleasure to be displayed where people could see them, near the cave entrances where there was sufficient sunlight to see them. Many of these early murals, however, are located far back in the depths of the caverns, where observers must crouch low between the sloping roofs and the rocky floors; where daylight never penetrates, and only the flickering light of torches brings them eerily to view.

            Perhaps these dark recesses in the earth were more suited to the deeper purpose of the painters. Even the modern-day observer gets a prickly sensation, the hair rising on the back of the neck, looking at the careful renditions of great herds of animals, hunters and their prey, almost ghostly apparitions of human faces and hands blending in and out of the shadows. Surely these are ritual paintings, in which the hunters who made them are invoking the spirits of the hunted? Tying picture to reality, these early artists may have believed that they were summoning the creatures upon which they depended for their survival simply by painting them as realistically as possible, here in the bowels of the earth. And those spears, thrust so elegantly into the sides of the bison, surely they were intended to depict, and so to insure, victory in the hunt? Or perhaps this is all too fanciful a notion, and these are simply records of the hunt; or images painted on stone to instruct or initiate boys in the arts of the hunt. They might even be stories of the creation of the world with its animals and its human beings: the first recorded myths. Crouching in front of them, with the darkness thrust back only for a moment by our flashlights, we can only speculate.

             By the time human beings had begun to settle down, however, new concerns began to shape their views of the world around them. The growing influence of women, especially in establishing the boundaries of the family, was reinforced by an increasing dependence upon the grains they collected. Fertility, which had always had a practical importance, since it kept the group alive, also had a powerful hold over the human imagination.

            In an era when the cause of birth was not known, women must have seemed like magical creatures. At the same time, the birth process was a natural one; it could be observed all around. Women then were simply a part of the great mystery of life as it existed in Nature. People who believed in a world of spirits that animated everything, from the wind moving the branches of trees to the rock on the hillside that suddenly fell for no apparent reason, must have viewed childbirth as a similar process.

            To such people, women clearly had power over the unseen spirit world. They could summon spirits into their own bodies and make new human beings. So the reasoning must have gone. It is little wonder that the early religious impulses of humanity revolved around these two poles: the spirits of the natural world, and the mystery of a Mother Goddess. It would take yet another turn of the cultural evolutionary clock to bring further developments in the human religious imagination.