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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Know Your Prehistory (1) --
The Dawn of Man.
by Joy Saynor.

The purpose of this article is to examine some of the problems of the long period in pre-history between the appearance of the first hominid (man-like) creatures, as distinct from the anthropoid apes and that of homo-sapiens, the ancestor of modern man. Many problems evidence themselves when any attempt at summarisation of the immensely long periods of time during which these man-like hominids existed is made. It is not always sufficiently appreciated that the length of the Palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age, alone, represents nearly "98 per cent of humanity's sojourn on this planet."See Footnote [1] Furthermore, the later succession of stages in technological progress in succeeding Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Palaeometallic (Bronze and Iron) Ages, although everywhere homotaxial (occupying the same relative position one to the other) are not everywhere contemporary.

Pre-history, like the rest of history, needs an absolute chronology, such as that which written records provide for comparatively recent events (in Egypt from 3000 BC). Fortunately, for very early times, culture periods can be correlated with geological events affecting the whole earth. A global frame of reference, albeit coarse, for archaeological events in the Palaeolithic period is provided by the geological events of the Pleistocene period, with its four major Ice Ages (with correspond- ing pluvial or rainy periods, in tropical and sub-tropical territories) and the consequent changes in sea and lake level. Furthermore, since 1945, a more accurate method of determining in years the age of any organic artifact in an archaeological deposit has been available -- the radio-carbon process of measuring the decay of the radio-active isotope of carbon, C14, in the given sample. But at the present time, there is a limitation in range of 50,000 years, as well as a margin of error of three centuries either way in this method, thus it is of little use for the period under discussion.See Footnote [2].

It is impossible to overestimate the effect of the geological events of the Pleistocene period upon the mechanics of human progress, or lack of progress. It is only necessary to point to the immense acceleration in the process of social evolution, the extension of human settlement over progressively wider territories with the comparatively milder climatic conditions in the final stages of the Pleistocene period. Plants and animals reacted to each climatic cycle, which, in turn, had a cumulative effect upon the pitifully small human societies. Temperature variations in the four Ice Ages must have influenced settlement and the possibilities of migration were limited before the development of sea-going craft. Land connections were laid bare by the retreating ice sheets; between Britain and the European mainland, "North- sealand," Scandinavia and Denmark, Alaska and Siberia. In tropical regions, there were land connections between South-East Asia and Indonesia, and between Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania. It was only about 4000 BC that a general rise in ocean levels to above modern sea level, finally separated Britain and Scandinavia from the continent and divided the early paths of the Thames and Rhine.

Towards the end of the Lower Pleistocene period emerged the first of the three main types of hominids (man-like creatures). Significantly, he walked erect and possessed a brain with a cubic capacity of between 450 and 700 cc, which, however, was never larger than that of a modern gorilla. This small-brained hominid. Australopithecus, who evolved mainly, it seems, in South and East Africa, may represent part of the main stem of evolution, or only the culmination of a side branch. Expert opinion is divided as to whether lie was a tool-maker, since lithic, i.e. stone, tools, of a very primitive type could remain undetected on open sites without recognisable hearth evidence.

By Middle Pleistocene times, the next stage in hominid evolution -- Pithecanthropus -- standing midway between his predecessor Australopithecus and modern homo-sapiens in cranial capacity, had been reached. It is an open question whether Java man, the Javanese representative of Pithecanthropus, was a toolmaker, but the evidence indicates that the slightly later Chinese hominid, Pekin man, was certainly manufacturing tools and using fire. It is this tool making rather than tool using which sets man apart from the apes. ("The active manipulation by an organism for the furtherance of its aims of some object taken from the external environment"). In this context, it was the excessive zeal of early pre-historians, who found earlier and earlier examples of so called tools or "eoliths," which proved their undoing. These were sometimes assigned to periods long before the first man-sized ape had appeared. The Kentish "eoliths" were most likely produced by the friction of one flint against another in the course of soil creep.

In the case of Swanscombe man, only the occipital bone of Kentish Pithecanthropian was discovered in Middle Pleistocene gravels. Since the all-important frontal bone is missing, it would be a mistake to attribute to him characteristics of more advanced development than his fellow hominids.

With the remains of some 40 representatives of Pekin man, a wealth of stone artifacts made from intractable materials like greenstone, coarse chert and quartz have been discovered. Pekin man's tools show certain well-defined characteristics; unlike the hand-axes of Africa and parts of Europe and South-West Asia, pebbles and flakes were used as materials for tools. The flakes had sometimes been formed by crushing nodules between two boulders with signs of percussion at either end and secondary retouch was scarce and irregular. Flakes from long animal bones may also have been used. Hunters may have used wooden spears with fire-hardened tips, for Pekin man, unlike his ape collaterals, was a flesh eater. He was probably also a cannibal; human bones were split, like those of animals, to extract the marrow, while the aperture at the base of human skulls was habitually enlarged to facilitate the removal of the brain. No burial rites were practised and human and animal bones are found mingled together. Historically speaking, this is the most primitive level of human culture that can certainly be recognised.

It was in East Central Africa that the most rapid advance in the cultural revolution took place in the Middle Pleistocene period (300,000 - 150,000 BC), and probably where the great hand-axe tradition first arose. In the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania, the gradual emergence of hand-axes similar in form to those originally recognised in Europe, in northern France at Chelles, Abbeville and St Achavil, can be traced, as well as tools made in the old tradition, flaked from water-worn pebbles or irregular nodules of quartz, lava, chert and quartzite. During the Middle Pleistocene similar tools spread over much of Africa and the contiguous parts of South-West Europe as far as the Rhine and South-East England and to Asia through India as far as the Himalayas.

It appears that the real barrier to the spread of the hand-axe culture was ecological -- the culture was more specifically adapted to a forest environment. The hand-axe peoples were first and foremost big game hunters. In South-East England settlements have been found on the banks of river valleys, for example the Thames, by the shores of lakes (at Hoxne in Suffolk) and at Clacton. These Clactonians removed flakes by the anvil technique, with a prominent bulb and high angle towards the striking platform and main flake surface; leaving a chopper-like core. No trace of artistic experiment, of carving or engraving or the making of ornaments, appears. Towards the end of the Middle Pleistocene period Africa, with the drier conditions which made a desert out of the Sahara region, became somewhat of a cultural back- water and the hand-axe industries began to decline.

About 70,000 BC, at the beginning of the last Ice Age (the Wurm glaciation), the continent was apparently populated by "men" of Neandertal stock, who, although distinct from modern man, homo-sapiens, made important advances. His unprepossessing appearance -- a flatterned cranial vault and massive chinless jaw set above thick short limb bones -- was due perhaps to lack of migration opportunities in the extreme climatic conditions. Yet he extended his range of settlement to the north of the frost free zone, colonising for example, parts of Siberia at a time of glacial intensity. Although there is some evidence of cannibalism, care seems, generally, to have been taken in his treatment of the dead, as instanced in the burial a child's head surrounded by the horns of a Siberian mountain goat. Although the industries of Neandertal man were still essentially Lower Palaeolithic in character as shown by his scrapers, he also produced hand-awls from triangular or heart shaped hand-axes in S. Europe, from the Riviera to the Black Sea. With the disappearance of the cave-dwelling, mammoth-hunting Neandertalers, the advent of homo-sapiens, the ancestor of modern man has been reached at between 40,000 and 30,000 years BC, during an Interstadial of the last Ice Age, when the ice had retreated without vanishing altogether. (Wurm I/II).


  1. What happened in History -- Gordon Childe (1965).
    Return to start of current paragraph.
  2. Radio-carbon Dating -- Libby (Chicago 1950).
    Return to start of next paragraph.
  3. World Pre-history -- An Outline -- Graham Clarke (Cambridge 1961).
Other articles in this series.
Issue (year) KAR number Article number Title
Winter 1971 #26 8 Iron Age Progressions
Summer 1971 #24 7 Bronze Age Beginnings
Winter 1970 #22 6 Bronze Age Beginnings
Autumn 1970 #21 5 The Neolithic Period
Spring 1970 #19 4 The Neolithic Revolution
Winter 1970 #18 3 Mesolithic Progress
Autumn 1969 #17 2 The Emergence of Homo Sapiens
Summer 1969 #16 1 The Dawn of Man
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