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The Beginnings of Human History, Society, and Culture

reconstruction of australopithecus, the first known hominid.

reconstruction of australopithecus, the first known hominid.

The First Hominans

When does human history begin? If we seek help from anthropology, then we find that the first animals of the homininans appeared in Africa around 6 million years ago and the first Homo sapiens appeared 600,000 to 200,000 years ago, also in Africa. From this perspective, we are all descendants of mother Africa. The dates of this first appearance the sequence of species that arose over time is a constant state of flux as scientists uncover new fossil evidence.

The earliest homininan is australopithecus whose mind and biology may have been very similar to the modern bonobo ape. Australopithecus are found only in Africa.

Prehistory of human beings is usually divided up into the paleolithic period, neolithic period, bronze age, and iron age. In 1816, Christian Thomsen divided up prehistory into the stone age, the bronze age, and the iron age. In 1865, John Lubbock divided up the stone age into the old stone age (paleolithic period) and new stone age (neolithic period).

  • The Paleolithic Period covers the time from the first emergence of Homo sapiens until the discovery of farming.
  • The Neolithic Period covers the time from the first use of farming until the discovery of metals.
  • The Bronze Age begins when a society starts to use copper and tin as part of their metal culture.
  • The Iron Age begins when a society starts to use iron as part of their metal culture.
Prehistoric stone implements

Prehistoric stone implements

Paleolithic Period

The genus Homo may have first appeared 2.5 million years ago. It is believed that with rise of this genus, hominoids began a more sophisticated tool culture. Many animals have been known to use tools at a very primitive level but the emergence of this new genus, we see remnants of stone flakes. There is controversy for when this genus begins.

It is currently believed that there were multiple species in this genus that may have lived simultaneously and interacted. There is also controversy for when Homo sapiens arise and whether Homo sapiens descended from the other species or whether the multiple species represent offshoots from a common ancestor.

The earlier Homo sapien appears over 200,000 years ago. Homo sapiens lived in families within tribes. In the early stages, the lived as hunters and gatherers. All known human societies possess rich, tool cultures and spoken language. Lifestyles vary with the geography in which they live. For some, the geography was rich enough to allow a sedentary life of hunting and gathering while for others, a nomadic lifestyle was needed to follow herds of animals in their migrations or move to different locations as the seasons changed.

It is believed that the first human beings left Africa 70,000 years ago. Why they took so long to leave is not clear. Perhaps the date is wrong and only indicative of the earliest known fossil evidence. What does seem to be clear is that other species of the genus Homo left Africa far earlier than this so when Homo sapiens also left Africa, they may have encountered these other species. Current scientific evidence suggests that these encounters occurred.

Jericho excavation, farming enabled towns and cities

Jericho excavation, farming enabled towns and cities

Neolithic Period

Not all human societies have embraced farming. For certain geographies, the climate is too extreme and for others, hunting and gathering is enough. It is believed at this time that by this time, Homo sapiens are the only species remaining of the genus Homo.

Despite the connotation of farming representing the beginnings of civilizations, a more objective assessment is that farming represents a significant change in human sociology in the sense that it enables significantly higher human population densities. After all, all known human societies have spoken language, culture, sophisticated tool use, belief systems, traditions, and family units.

The neolithic period begins at different times for different places. The earliest evidence for a farming community can be found in Jericho dating around 9500 B.C.  It is believed farming began first with wild and domesticated plants and then around 8000 B.C, it includes domesticated animals.

bronze age weapons

bronze age weapons

Bronze Age

The bronze age begins with the use of copper and tin in the metal culture of a human society and ends with the discovery of iron. Not all cultures went through a bronze age distinct from an iron age. Some societies for example went directly from a neolithic society to an iron age society.

The earliest known bronze use begins around 3300 BC. Like the neolithic period, different societies passed through a bronze age at different times.

The first known domestication of horses began in this period.

Hittite metal sculpture: Hittites were one of the first societies to enter the iron age.

Hittite metal sculpture: Hittites were one of the first societies to enter the iron age.

Iron Age

The iron age is believed to have begun around 1200 BC. Iron is a harder metal to work with this bronze because its melting point is at a higher temperature. The high point of the iron age is the discovery of steel which is made from iron and carbon.

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Angel on September 02, 2016:

i quite enjoyed it except when I read over it i realized many words were incorrect so then i decided to use this article... Im going into the 7th and i was very interested and so school hasn't started and i have homework isnt that ridiculous!? So this was usefull except the errors made it hard to understand

S Leretseh on August 04, 2016:

@AnthroProf 5... Regardless what Anthroprf asserts, it's all quite academic. Western Civilization [males] IS what human history is based on. I also do not believe, like so many other intelligent people, the human evolutionary process proffered by academia.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on September 12, 2013:

Hi Larry,

This is a very informative article on evolution of humans as we know of ourselves today. I will be looking forward to reading more articles along these lines.


forever jb on May 03, 2013:

i liked bery much your information about homosapiens you help me to study thank you

nabeel on January 07, 2013:

if the human being not a creature and evolved from another creature what about the another creature evolved from what and so on until what, there must be a creator.

Ann on March 07, 2012:

ITS embarassing that ihave wrote all such information for my course work

larryfreeman (author) from Fremont, CA on April 11, 2011:

Hi Anthroprof,

Thanks very much for your corrections!

I've changed the title from hominoid to hominans. You are exactly right in what I meant to say.

As I have time, I will attempt to correct the article to reflect the inaccuracies that you quite rightly point out.

It's quite embarrassing that I made so many mistakes. I guess my source on many of the ideas is outdated. It's been a while since I wrote this.

I appreciate the time you spent to write up your comment to set people straight. I'm quite confused how I could have made so many mistakes.


AnthroProf on February 26, 2011:

I don't have enough space to correct all the wrong information here. 1st, the first hominoids appeared more like 22 to 31 million years ago in Africa, not 6 million years ago. Hominoid is a superfamily that includes modern humans and the great apes. I suspect what the author meant to say is that the first Hominids (or Hominines depending on what classifaction you buy into) appeared around that time. This grouping refers to the clade (a group of species with a common ancestor) of which the only living species is humans. 2nd, most now agree that Australopithecus was not the first Hominine, but this is a naming issue, so maybe not as important. 3rd, the Paleolithic does not begin with the origin of humans but rather with the first appearance of stone tools in Eurasia (stone age is used as terminolgy in Africa, where tool use first appears around 2.5 million years ago, probably used by Homo habilis or rudolfensis). The Paleolithic begins when the human ancester, Homo ergaster, first leaves Africa around 2 million years ago. 4th, modern humans appeared some time between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. I am not aware of any well respected paleoanthropologists who put this as far back as 600,000. I'll stop here and simply suggest that people find a more reliable source. If my students had used this information for the exam that I am currently grading, it would not have gone well for them.

ALIA on September 27, 2010:


larryfreeman (author) from Fremont, CA on July 27, 2010:

Hi Simone,

Yes, I have Empathic Civilization on my reading list. I saw the video that you linked to. I'm not sure that I agree with his assumptions but I'm always glad to consider an intelligently expressed alternative view.

Thanks for the recommendation.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on July 24, 2010:

You've definitely got to read the Empathic Civilization... sure, it doesn't go back THIS far, but I think you'd enjoy all of the background!

Rod Martin Jr from Cebu, Philippines on April 16, 2010:

Very interesting, larryfreeman. Could you please name your source on the "600,000" year figure for Homo sapiens? I didn't know anyone had pushed the date for modern humans back that far, though I can't say that I'm surprised.

anasna on March 21, 2010:

the most invaluabledetailed knwoledge I have ever known

NOYB on October 23, 2009:

More info on Iron age

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