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READ: Era 2 Overview - The Earliest Humans

Humans anatomically identical to us walked the Earth 250,000 years ago. They were foragers. For 245,000 of the years that followed they remained foragers. So what dramatic transformation happened in these years that set the scene for rapid change in the last 3,000 or so years of human history?
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What does the author of this article argue about “most” of human history? How would you respond to this argument?
  2. What types of evidence do scientists use to understand how and when humans migrated to new regions of the world?
  3. What was the cultivation revolution, and why was it important?
  4. The author does not give an opinion on whether or not the shift to farming in some places was a good idea. What is some evidence used to show both the positives and the negatives of the shift to farming?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. At the end of this introduction, what do you think will be the most exciting or important thing you learn about in this Era?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Era 2 Overview - The Earliest Humans

Image of an early cave painting featuring animals: the animals resemble bulls, deer with large antlers, and horses.
By Trevor Getz and Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
Humans anatomically identical to us walked the Earth 250,000 years ago. They were foragers. For 245,000 of the years that followed they remained foragers. So what dramatic transformation happened in these years that set the scene for rapid change in the last 3,000 or so years of human history?
Most of human history is the story of tiny bands of people, each largely made up of members of one family. These groups moved around in search of wild foods they could forage or hunt. The better-known history of farmers, cities, empires, and nation-states spread around the world—although it spans five of the seven eras of this course—is just the final 2% of this long human story. It is a 2% that takes us from foragers to the Internet, and it was all made possible by the humans who lived in Era 2, the first 98% of human history, between 250,000 years ago and 3000 BCE (Before the Common Era). Their experiences, and the ways in which they changed and innovated, may seem slow to us, but they included some of the most monumental transformations in human history.
In this era, we try to capture those big changes by asking the question: "Why aren't most of us still foragers today"? That's because the final transformation of the era was when people in many places began to become farmers. But the move to farming was just one of several major innovations in a period that saw humans learn to communicate effectively, spread around the world, and—in many places—settle down to produce their own food for their first time.

The cognitive revolution

The first transformation we look at in this era was related to how we think and communicate. Most researchers believe that the first Homo sapiens evolved in Africa between 300,000 and 250,000 years ago. Our foraging ancestors were physically much like us. Their brains were likely as sophisticated as ours (or nearly so). Their hands could use tools, like ours. But they did not yet have the same abilities to think abstractly, to plan or to share symbolic language. These abilities came about later, because of a cognitive revolution that happened over a long time. This cognitive revolution, above all, allowed us to communicate better using art, music, and language.
Language may in fact be what sets us apart from all other species. Many animals have the ability to communicate, usually through grunts and gestures. But humans are the only species that have created a symbolic language—a language that uses symbols to represent words and phrases. Humans can also construct new languages. We can speak or write about the past, present, and future. We create mythical creatures and discuss abstract concepts through symbols. Symbolic language is also the key to a process called collective learning—the ability to share and preserve knowledge that builds over generations. Many animals learn survival skills from their parents and pass these skills on to their young. But only humans have a vast library of knowledge that has been preserved in writing and has been passed down through multiple generations. Billions of humans have contributed to this collection of knowledge. It is this ability that has made it possible for us to fly around the Earth on planes, communicate with people we've never met on the Internet, take medicine to cure a disease, and read the teachings of Buddha and the plays of Shakespeare hundreds of years after these people have died.

The peopling of the world

The development of language also allows us to adapt to new environments. For that reason, they were vital to a second great transformation—the spread of humans around the world. The great migration of humans from Africa to Eurasia, the Pacific, and the Americas was a dramatic story covering tens of thousands of years. It is maybe the most incredible human endeavor of all time. Yet it was accomplished by small bands of foragers, rather than massive industrial or digital societies.
Scientists still disagree about the dating and pathways of some of the great routes of migration. But we are increasingly able to use three types of evidence to understand their routes. The first is linguistic evidence. We can compare words and grammar in languages from different regions to see how they are related. The second is DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic code that all humans carry and that is unique to each one of us. Our genetic material is like a language inside of our cells. By comparing DNA of people living today in different regions, scientists can determine how long ago human groups might have separated from each other as a result of migration. They can also use this data to figure out when a species shared a common ancestor. Based upon genetic studies, for example, many scientists believe that early humans first migrated from Asia to the Americas no earlier than 23,000 years ago. They believe humans would have crossed a strip of land that connected Siberia and Alaska during the last Ice Age, although others still dispute this date.
World map with arrows indicating how humans migrated across continents, often towards coastal areas.
Map of proposed migration routes and dates based on Cavalli-Sforza, L. Luca, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza. The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The final type of evidence we can use to understand patterns of human migration are fossils and artifacts that early humans left behind. These objects include things like human and animal bones and stone tools and weapons. Archaeologists also use advanced dating techniques that provide accurate information about when these humans lived, what they ate, and how they lived. Dating these materials also allows these experts to study how tools changed over time. Most of the remains archaeologists use to understand this period are made of stone. Our foraging ancestors had limited technology. But stone tools can survive where wood or other organic materials did not. Because of this, we call this period the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age).

The cultivation revolution

Then, beginning maybe about 12,000 years ago, and in several parts of the world, some humans began to herd animals and farm crops. They cultivated crops—which means that they promoted the growth of some edible foods by actively preparing the conditions for their growth. Then they domesticated both plant and animal species. This means they selected the best ones and actively helped them to grow and reproduce to provide food. Because they had new daily tasks, their tools changed. New kinds of farming equipment, in particular, were developed. We see this in the archaeological record in the form of different types of stone implements like hoes and adzes. These tools give us the name for these communities—Neolithic (New Stone Age).
There are many debates about how this change happened. It certainly was very difficult and took a long time— thousands of years in some regions. But was switching from foraging to farming a good idea? Scholars can't agree. Some point out that most early farmers had access to more calories from food than foragers. But they also suffered from more diseases and harder labor conditions. There are also disagreements about how many people really became farmers during this period. Just about everyone today eats food grown on farms and ranches. But throughout this era, most people probably remained foragers. Some only herded animals and didn't cultivate plants. Even members of farming societies still probably hunted and gathered to some degree.
Photo of a grindstone: a flat, bowl-shaped rock from the Neolithic period. The round rock on top of the stone was used for grinding. This object is comparable to a mortar and pestle.
Neolithic grindstone used to grind or process grains. By José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, CC BY-SA 2.5.
Arguably, the shift to farming was the trigger for the changes that were to follow. Some foragers, in areas with plenty of food, had already begun to spend most of their time living in one location. Farming allowed them to build truly permanent settlements. The populations of these communities grew, often dramatically, until their settlements became villages and cities. They needed more labor and more ways to control labor, which meant they needed government. They produced enough food that some people could specialize in other kinds of production or jobs. Their ideas about the world and forms of worship changed.
These changes created problems and opportunities that were shared by farming communities around the world. Many developed similar strategies for dealing with them. But there were also great differences in communities in different regions. Archaeologists, who study these communities, are able to interpret both the shared experiences and the differences between lifestyles in different regions of the world.
Why do we need to understand how the people in all of these Neolithic sites are related and connected? Because early human history was not just a step along a stairway to something more complex and modern. It was a series of lived experiences.
Author bios
Trevor Getz is a professor of African and world history at San Francisco State University. He has been the author or editor of 11 books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and has coproduced several prize-winning documentaries. Trevor is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, world history, and AP US government and politics for the past 10 years at the high school level. In addition, Bridgette has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course world history and US history curricula.

Want to join the conversation?

  • hopper cool style avatar for user zhiwenglim
    My answers, please see if are there anything you could disagree on.
    1. He argued that most of human history consists of foragers traveling around the world for survival, but they have their own breakthroughs that could not be ignored. I would argue that it is the minority of the human history are able to bring the most changes to the world.

    Linguistic evidence: compare words and grammar in languages from different regions to see how they are related.
    DNA: the genetic code that all humans carry and that is unique to each one of us.
    Fossils and artifacts: Know how these humans lived, what they ate, and how they lived. And how tools changed over time

    3. It is when humans develop new ways to domesticate plants (promote growth for edible foods, selective reproduction) and animals (herding cows, sheeps and horses) & develop new stone tools for farming. It is important because it helps humans to permanently settle in one place and turn that place into a city in the future.

    People are able to settle in one place permanently
    Increase food supply, diversity & calories
    Farmers suffer more diseases
    Harder labor conditions: may require them to forage for more food.

    5. I think the most exciting part would be how people in that era are able to migrate from their original place (Africa) to other locations including the Americas.
    (6 votes)
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