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Lesson summary: the origin of humans and early human societies

An overview of the origins of humans and early human societies.

Key terms

prehistoryThe period of human activity that occurred before the invention of writing; this varies across societies based on when written records first appeared
historyHistorians typically mark the invention of writing as the start of history as this is the point at which historians have written records to work with and interpret
Paleolithic PeriodLiterally “old stone age”, refers to the time period when hunting, foraging, and fishing were the primary means of humans obtaining food and stone tools were widely used
Homo sapiensAnatomically modern humans, our subspecies is called Homo sapiens sapiens
hunter-foragerPerson who gets their food primarily by hunting or fishing animals and gathering plants
human migrationWhen people move from one place to another, usually over a long distance, with the plan to settle in the new area for a long period of time
Hand axe found in Winchester, England.
Hand axe found in Winchester, England. Hand axes were used for multiple purposes throughout the Paleolithic period. Image credit: Wikipedia

Key dates

200,000 years agoFirst known anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens
200,000 years ago—12,000 years agoPaleolithic period, or “old stone age”
100,000 years agoBeginning of large-scale migrations out of Africa, the first known birthplace of humankind
50,000 years agoEarliest known date at which humans developed the capacity for language

Key themes

Environment: People adapted to and attempted to alter their environments. During the Paleolithic era, groups of hunter-foragers migrated from Africa to Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas, adapting their technology and cultures to new environmental conditions. Humans developed technologies such as fire and stone tools that helped them survive.
Social structure: Before the advent of agriculture and cities, humans typically lived in small groups and hunted and foraged for food. Different bands of people interacted with one another and exchanged technology and ideas.

Review questions

  • How did technology allow Paleolithic humans to adapt to new environmental conditions?
  • Why might Paleolithic societies have been organized into small bands?

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