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The Beginnings of Human
The Time Before Written Records
The Time Before Written Records
What was life like long, long ago, when human beings first walked the earth?
What did they eat? Where did they live? What was important to them? Were
they hunters? artists? farmers? builders? fire-makers? tool-makers?
The people of the Stone Age lived before the time of written
records. So we cannot find newspapers or letters to tell us
about them. We must depend on other things they left behind.
In this unit, you will learn what life may have been like for these
prehistoric humans.
The first human beings on Earth kept on the move. They roamed from place
to place, seeking food. Then they discovered something that allowed them to
stay in one place, build cities, and develop a system of writing.
Timelines show us when important events occurred. They are recorded by
dates. There are two date formats on a timeline: BC, or BCE (before current
era) and AD, or CE (current era). We live in the time of AD, but all of ancient
history took place in BC.
The closer that the history gets to AD the smaller the numbers get.
When we look at history it might seem that we are going backwards
since the numbers get smaller, unlike AD where the numbers get larger.
BC Timeline
AD Timeline
Important Terms
Culture- The values, attitudes, and customs of a group.
Diary- A daily record of what happens to a person.
Historian- One who is an expert in history.
History- The record of past events and the story of what
happened to people in the past.
Humanity- The human race.
Primary Source- A first-hand account of a historical
Secondary Source- A second-hand account of a historical
event; an account written by a person who was not there.
Interpret- To explain something.
Interpretation- An explanation of the meaning of
Primary Sources and Secondary
When writing history, historians ask themselves five W’s:
• What happened?
• When and where did it happen?
• Who was involved?
• Why did it happen?
To find answers, they look for primary sources. These sources are firsthand, or eyewitness, accounts of the event. They also seek out secondary
sources, or second-hand records of what happened.
Primary Sources
Daily Personal Records
First-hand Accounts
Secondary Sources
Second-hand Accounts
How Do Historians Use Sources?
A historian writing about the American Revolution would read what people
living at that time wrote. These primary sources would include newspapers;
diaries or other personal records; and letters.
The same historian would also read what recent historians have written
about the war. Their books are secondary sources because these historians
were not eyewitnesses.
When you recorded the events of your first day at school you were the
primary source. When you tell your parents how your first day of school
was and they tell your grandparents, your parents become a secondary
How Do We Interpret History?
Individual people, like yourself, record history. Because people differ, what they
record differs. You interpret, or explain something one way. Another
eyewitness interprets it another way. So your two interpretations, or
explanations, differ. Secondary sources differ in their interpretations too.
Did your lists of the events of your first day of school differ? Were they
similar, but interpreted differently? Did everyone enjoy their first day of
school? Why or why not?
Cave Paintings
What do paintings on the wall of
caves tell us about the way people
lived in the Stone Age?
What other things would you like
to know about people who lived
in the Stone Age?
History Teaches Us About People
History tells us the story of all the people in every country of the world.
We discover their new ideas. We realize that they did great things.
History connects us to all the people who ever lived. Much happened
before our lives began. Much will happen after our lives end. But the
past gives us roots.
Roots anchor, or hold, a tree in the ground. A family tree helps you
understand who you are. The family tree, or history, of the world helps
you understand the human race. You are part of the global community. It
stretches back through time to the beginning of humanity.
Important Terms
Anthropologist- A person who studies the beginnings and
the behavior of people.
Archeologist- A person who finds and studies the things
humans left behind in the past.
Artifact- An object made by a person.
Calculate- To figure something out.
Radiocarbon dating- A way of measuring radioactivity of
historic artifacts to determine how old they are.
The Way Historians Work
Historians write about history. To do this, they study written sources
that earlier people left behind. But early people did not write books,
newspapers, or letters. So what tells us about them?
How Do Scientists Explore the
Archaeologists are scientists who find and study things people left behind.
We call these things artifacts. The include tools, weapons, pottery, and
How Do Scientists Explore the
Anthropologists are scientists who study the beginnings and the behavior
of people. For example, they may study the garbage Americans throw out.
The garbage tells them about the eating habits of Americans. It also tells
them what Americans do for fun, what they read, and much more.
Dating Artifacts
Sometimes, archaeologists must guess the age of an object. They do this by
studying where they found the object. For example, they might find one
object near another one made of plastic. This material is a fairly new
invention. So both objects are probably fairly new. In the same way, and
archaeologist might find an object near ancient bones. Because the bones
are old, the object probably is too.
Archaeologists must calculate, or figure out,
how ancient people lived. To do this, they
become detectives who use artifacts as clues.
For example, an artifact is made of a certain
material. We find this material in only a few
areas of the world. So the archaeologists can
calculate where the object may have been made.
Or, they can figure out where the people who
used it came from.
A trained scientist would say you can
learn a lot from a bone. Scientists
carefully study the bones and teeth of
early humans. Bones are clues to
diet, health, and lifestyles.
The Iceman
The prehistoric man know as “the Iceman” was a Bronze-Age hiker. His 4,000year-pld frozen body was found in the Alps in 1991. The Iceman’s worn-down
teeth showed that he ate tough, raw foods. Scientists also analyze the chemicals in
bones. Some experiments showed when early Americans stopped eating wild
plants and began to eat corn. That meant they had become farmers.
Bones and teeth give other clues. They can show
whether a person had a good diet or certain diseases. A
fractured skull may mean that someone died violently.
The long thigh bone is a good clue to a person’s height.
Measuring that bone can tell us how tall or short people
were in the past.
The Past is Like a Jigsaw Puzzle
For some periods of history, historians have few artifacts. So learning about
people from the past is hard. It is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with no
picture and few pieces. They can only guess what the finished puzzle of that
past might look like.
But their guess can change.
Sometimes, archaeologists
discover new artifacts. They
gather more missing pieces.
Then their guess about the
finished puzzle changes.
Important Terms
Decay- To rot away or spoil.
Embers- The glowing remains of a fire.
Nomad- A person who moves from place to place.
Obsidian- A volcanic gas.
Prehistory- The time before humans left written records.
Bison- Another name for a buffalo.
Boar- A wild pig-like animal.
Monument- An object or building that stands in place and usually
made of some kind of stone.
Scholar- A well-educated person who has a great deal of knowledge
about something.
Bronze- A hard metal made of a blend of copper and tin.
Eclipse- The hiding of the sun by the moon.
Civilization- A people who have cities and governments; a large
group of people with a high level of development as a group.
We know little about the earliest people who lived on earth. Why?
Because they left no written records. We have written records for only
about 5,500 year. The long, long time before humans left written records
is our prehistory.
The Stone Age
The Stone Age
We call the earliest period of human prehistory the “Stone Age.” During that
time, people made weapons and tools from stone. They shaped obsidian, a
volcanic glass, into weapons as sharp as a modern knife. They used these stone
weapons to hunt, chop, and cut. Later, they developed hand axes and spears.
We learn about these prehistoric humans from garbage, broken tools, and trash.
They left these behind wherever they camped. Other materials, beside stone,
were probably part of their garbage. However, these other materials decayed, or
rotted away. So only stone objects were left.
The Discovery of Fire
The discovery of fire is one of the most important events in human history.
Stone-Age humans knew that lightening caused fire. At some point, they
learned that fire creates heat. With fire, they could warm themselves.
Much later, these early people learned how to move a fire inside a cave.
They learned how to keep embers, or glowing remains of the fire, burning.
With these embers, they could start a new fire. Finally, they learned to
cook with fire.
Farming and Early Humans
Another important event in the history of humanity is farming. As nomads,
the earliest humans moved from place to place to hunt and gather food.
They probably had to travel far and wide to find enough to eat. An
important source of food was wild plants.
Gradually, they learned to plant seeds from these wild plants. Then they
began to grow their own food. They no longer needed to depend on
hunting for food. Now they could control their food supply. They could live
in one place and grow crops each year.
Pottery and Early Humans
Growing food created a new problem for these Stone-Age humans. They
harvested crops once or twice a year. But how could they store the grains
for later use?
Prehistoric humans solved their problem
by making pottery. They made pottery
jars out of clay from riverbeds. These
pottery jars protected the food from
insects, mice, and dampness. Today, the
broken parts of this pottery are like
puzzle pieces. They help the scholars
calculate the dates a certain people
Art and Early Humans
Prehistoric humans left no written
records. However, they did leaves
us some important artwork. In
1859, a young girl and her father
explored a cave in northern Spain.
They discovered beautiful pictures
on the cave walls. The drawings
pictured animals---deer, wild boar,
horses, and bison.
Today, most scholars believe that Stone-Age artists painted these pictures. They
probably used twigs or bits of moss for brushes. To make the paint, they mixed
meat grease with colored clay and vegetable colorings.
Stonehenge is a famous prehistoric monument. It is a type of building that
stands near the city of Salisbury, England. It consists of a series of great stone
circles. Over 30 huge stones make up the circles. Each stone weighs over 35
tons. Scientists have discovered that the stones came from as far away as 135
miles. About 250 workers would have had to move EACH stone that long
The piled-up bank of earth around Stonehenge had a ridge nearly six feet high. A
six-foot-deep ditch lay outside it. Prehistoric people worked with primitive tools.
How many people worked to build this bank and this ditch? And for how long
did they work?
Stonehenge was used for more
than 1,700 years. Most scholars
think prehistoric people honored
their gods there. Or Stonehenge
might have helped people guess
when an eclipse, such as the
moon hiding the sun, would
happen. Scholars know none of
this for sure because the
monument has fallen to ruin.
Stone tools broke easily. So prehistoric humans looked for other materials
for their tools. First, they used the metal copper. Later they discovered how
to melt copper and tin, another metal to make bronze. Bronze is harder
than copper and holds a sharper cutting edge.
The Bronze Age
From about 3500 B.C., prehistoric people made their tools from bronze.
They used it for the next 2,000 years. We call this time period the “Bronze
Bronze does not break easily. With it, ancient people
invented many tools. These made their lives easier.
Bronze-Age people also invented a sled to carry
things on land. They hollowed out logs and made
canoes to carry things on water.
Prehistory is an exciting period of
humanity’s story. At first, humans
were nomads. They moved from
place to place to hunt and gather
Then they learned to grow crops. So they
settled close their fields and formed small
groups. Now prehistoric humans had a sure
supply of food. This began a chain of fast
These changes brought about the
first civilizations in which people
built cities and set up
“In the Beginning…”
The Bible is the holy book for both Jews and Christians. Its parts, or books,
were written in different places over about 1,500 years. The Jewish Bible is
made up of the books that Christians call the Old Testament. The first five
books trace Hebrew history to the death of Moses. Later books tell the
words of the prophets and the history of Israel. The Christian Bible has two
parts. One is the Old Testament. The other is the New Testament. It tells
about the life and teachings of Jesus. It also includes writings about the early
Christian Church.
“In the Beginning…”
The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It has been
translated into many languages. The following reading is from the first
book of Genesis. The word genesis means “beginning.” In a poetic way,
Genesis describes the creation of the world.
The Search for the Truth
The ancient Greeks had two ways of thinking about the truth. They called
them by different terms: logos and mythos. Logos meant the kind of truth that
can be found through argument and demonstrations. You can see the word
logos in the ending of words like archaeology and anthropology. These refer to
careful study. Scientists in these fields study evidence and make experiments.
They try to find the truth about human origins.
Mythos meant a different kind of truth.
These were stories that everyone accepted
as true. They were not questioned. Today,
we use the word myth for made-up stories.
That’s the opposite of what the Greeks
meant. For them, a myth was a special
story that spoke the truth.
Navajo Creation Story
One creation story comes from the Navajo of the American Southwest. It says
there were once smaller worlds inside the earth. The first man and woman
made so many mistakes that those worlds were destroyed. The story tells how
people escaped to the earth’s surface by climbing up a reed.
Chinese Creation Story