Human innovation and the environment
Development of agriculture and writing
In this video, I'm going to use words like eras, periods, and ages to refer to segments of time in the human or in the pre-human past. And what I want to clarify right from the get-go-- because frankly, this is something that's confused me in the past-- is that archaeologists will refer to eras, periods, and ages in the human past and they're usually referring to periods of tens of thousands of years, or thousands of years. But these are different eras, periods, and ages than the ones that geologists would refer to when they're talking about geological time. In geological time, era means several hundred millions of years. Periods and ages mean millions of years. When an archaeologist, when we're studying the human past, this is just talking-- they're just generally talking about long segments of human time, but not in the millions of years, usually in the thousands or the ten thousands of years. So what I want to do with that out of the way is talk about what has happened in the distant human past, or the distant pre-human past, and also touch on some of the classifications for these segments of time-- because they actually tell us what were the interesting developments that happened to humanity over the 200,000 years that Homo sapiens have been on this planet, or that we believe that Homo sapiens have been on this planet. So the longest period of time in human past, or the category of human time-- and there are different ways you can categorize it-- is the Paleolithic Era right over here. And what really makes that period of time-- so this begins even in prehistory or pre-human history, so before Homo sapiens even existed-- you have the beginning of the Paleolithic Era that really began with the development of stone tools. And as we learned in the video on human evolution, there were pre Homo sapiens species that were using stone tools. And so the Paleolithic Era, it's really kind of signified by one, the stone tools, but even more-- that either the pre-humans-- or once you go about 200,000 years ago-- the humans show up. It's kind of distinguished by humans being hunter-gatherers, which essentially means to survive, we used to walk around a lot. If we couldn't see something obvious to hunt, maybe a woolly mammoth or something, if we didn't see something obvious to hunt, we would look around for snails, or mushrooms, or whatever else. And that's how we would survive. That's how we would live. And because we were constantly adapting to our environment based on the seasons, we were maybe following animals as they migrated, hunter-gatherers were fundamentally nomadic, which means that they never settled in one place for a long time. They were always ready to pick up-- probably their tents-- and follow the herd, or follow whatever animals they were hunting, or follow the season, so they could go to warmer climates, maybe, where they're more likely to find something on the ground to eat, maybe, during the winter. Or who knows. So the Paleolithic Era is really distinguished by that. It's a huge swath of time in human history. And it doesn't come to an end until you get to the advent of farming. So the Paleolithic Era, I mean, we're literally talking about over two million years ago was when it starts-- before Homo sapiens even existed as a species. And it goes all the way to the advent of farming, that we believe first came about around 11,000 to 7,000 years ago. And this abbreviation right here, this BP, this does not stand for British Petroleum. It stands for Before Present, or before the present time. So one more acronym to have in your tool kit when you see things. And obviously, if we're 11,000 years before the present, that's the same thing as 9,000 years Before Christ, or Before the Common Era. Because Christ was, we believe, born 2,000 years ago. Now, it may or may not be obvious to you, but the advent of agriculture is a super big deal, arguably the biggest deal in the development of human civilization, or in all of human history. And you might say, hey, you know, what's the big deal about agriculture? These characters over here look pretty happy. They're able to walk around a lot. They're able to hunt. What's the big deal of all of a sudden people plowing fields, and domesticating cattle, and having chickens to lay eggs, and whatever else? And the big deal about that-- besides the fact that it would change people's diet-- is that for the first time, it allowed them to not be nomadic. It allowed them to-- and you could have probably had some hunters who were somewhat settled, maybe living near the ocean. Maybe they did some fishing, and all the rest. But for the most part, with the development of agriculture, it forced people to stay in one place. So you have the Paleolithic Era all the way to the advent of agriculture, which was about 11,000 to 7,000 years ago. And besides the fact that it changed people's diet, it allowed them to settle. So agriculture allowed human beings to settle down in one area. And it wasn't just that they were settling in one area, but because they were able to control their environment, they were able to increase the density of things, of crops that humans could consume, and animals that humans could consume-- and lower the density of crops that humans can't consume, and animals that they can't consume, or that they don't want around, like pests of some type. What it allowed them to do is also settle in more dense environments. You can imagine when you just have people walking around, you need a lot of land to support even the calorie requirements of one human being. But all of a sudden, if you are able to develop agriculture, you're able to domesticate animals. All of a sudden you could have-- in the same amount of land, you could have more calories being generated. And because you have more calories being generated in a smaller amount of land, people can settle. And they can settle in a denser environment. And so agriculture was really this necessary requirement for people to develop civilization, or to develop villages and cities. And maybe also giving them the free time to start thinking about hey, maybe we want to think about how we can record what we know, how we can develop even more technologies. And so just to give us a sense of the categorization that an archaeologist would use for these different periods of time-- I told you we start with the Paleolithic Era, with the advent of stone tools, pre-humans-- most of human time on this planet. And then about 11,000 years ago, the development of agriculture. And it developed independently at different places around the world, which is by itself an interesting phenomenon. And people think that it might just be that be the climate might have warmed up a little bit, so that people-- maybe naturally there were some human edible crops that existed in a little bit of a denser environment, and humans learned to optimize that slowly, and they did that independently. But it's an interesting question of why did it develop just then after 180,000, 190,000 years, why did agriculture all of a sudden happen? But just to get the terminology-- the Paleolithic Era is that period before agriculture. And then once agriculture starts developing, we are now in the Neolithic Era. And some archaeologists will describe a transition period between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic Era called the Mesolithic. And just so you know what these words mean-- because they actually make sense when you know what they mean, paleo means old and lithic means stone, or of stone. So they're really talking about the Old Stone Age. Neolithic, as you could imagine, means new stone. So it's kind of the New Stone Age. And meso means middle. So it is the Middle Stone Age. So another way of thinking about this whole period from when people were hunter-gatherers all the way to about 11,000 to 7,000 years ago when they developed agriculture-- this whole period is called the Stone Age. And the Stone Age is this biggest age. And there's just different ways of describing it, because if you just call it the Stone Age you're really making importance out of the actual tools that people could shape. They weren't able to use metal at this point. When you refer to Paleolithic and Neolithic, you're maybe referring a little bit more-- and there's other ways to think about it-- but you're referring a little bit more to the lifestyles of the human beings-- Paleolithic being hunter-gatherers, Neolithic having actually settled, having actually started to develop primitive villages, and even cities. And then of course Mesolithic is in between. And just for a pop culture reference, you might have heard of the Paleolithic diet that some people are going on now. And those are people who try to live like hunter-gatherers. Their belief is that most of human evolution occurred while we were hunter-gatherers, and so that's what our bodies are most accustomed to. So they like to eat meat. And they like to eat a lot of nuts. And I even met, I had a coworker once who used to only eat raw meat. And I don't know if that is even justified, or that's even somehow validated by the archaeological record. These people probably did cook their meat. Now, at the end of the Stone Age, we would have, I would say, the number two most significant development in human history. And now we're talking about 3,000 BC, which is about 5,000 years ago. And this is the development of writing. So we were hunter-gatherers about 9,000 to 10,000, 11,000 years ago. People started developing agriculture. It allows them to settle in more dense environments. It also gives them a little bit more free time, because they don't have to hunt and gather all the time. And then you go and once again, we'll probably discover things as we go forward in time that maybe these dates need to be pushed back, or whatever else, or we discover new civilizations, or who knows. But our best sense is you have these villages. You have these civilizations developing. And by about 5,000 years ago-- so this would be 5,000 before the present, or 3,000 BC-- Before Christ-- you have people saying, hey, why don't we start trying to write down what we know so that when I tell someone orally, it doesn't actually lose information there? And then so our descendants can slowly collect all of the knowledge we have, and maybe accelerate-- I don't know if they did it explicitly thinking of these, but let's just write down what we know. And so at about that period of time, you have-- as far as we can tell-- the first development of a pictogram-based system of writing. And the earliest system of writing we know is cuneiform, which is from the Sumerian civilization, which is now in present-day Iraq. And what's the really big deal about this is that this is, on some level, the beginning of recorded history. We could talk about the word history. You could say that history is all of the past, and we could use the archaeological record to figure out stuff before people started to write things down. But when they started to write things down, now it was recorded. Now we're actually getting actual accounts of what people know, of actual people's knowledge. And the reason why this is a big deal-- I mean agriculture, hopefully you now appreciate that it was a pretty big deal-- but the reason why writing was a big deal, is that now civilization could collect its knowledge. And it could build upon it generation after generation, without having to worry about people forgetting it, or information getting distorted verbally from ancestor to descendant. And with that, you also have the beginning of the Bronze Age. And the Bronze Age is kind of known for this beginning of-- even though it's referring to a material, which comes from the first time that people started using bronze as a tool, or using bronze for their tools, and for their weapons-- and bronze, it's a mixture of mostly copper and a little bit of tin. But the Bronze Age-- at least in my mind-- the biggest deal of what started at the beginning of the Bronze Age really, really was the writing. So once again, just as a review, because I actually, I find this kind of confusing-- our current understanding, most of human prehistory, and even pre-human prehistory were spent as hunter-gatherers using stone tools, until about 11,000 years ago. And then we became a little bit more settled. We became farmers essentially, using stone tools. And then you fast forward another about 5,000, 6,000 years. And then we started to become farmers who started to write down the things that we knew. And we started to use bronze tools.