Prehistoric Life

Scientists believe that the earliest stages of human evolution began in Africa about seven million years ago as a population of African apes evolved into three different species: gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. Some three million years later early humans stood nearly upright and had developed larger brains, about half the size of the modern brain. By 2.5 million years ago it appears that these protohumans, as early humans are known, began to use crude tools such as chipped stones. Beginning about one million years ago, early humans began to migrate out of Africa and into other parts of the world. In a process that appears to have been completed around 10,000 B.C.E. , humans spread throughout the world, populating most of the major landmasses of the earth.

As evolution continued man became taller and more intelligent and capable. He evolved from the species Australopithecus into Homo habilus into Homo erectus and finally, about 500,000 years ago, into the direct ancestors of modern man, Homo sapiens. Yet human development was not done. Neanderthal man, an early subspecies of Homo sapiens in human evolution, survived from about 200,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago. Neanderthal man developed in several areas of the world and began to use more tools to hunt, to build shelters, and to develop the first known forms of human clothing. Evidence of Neanderthal man's existence has been found in Europe and in parts of Africa and the Middle East, but it is clear that the population was fairly small and not spread around the world.

Cro-Magnon man

Overlapping somewhat with Neanderthal man was the sub-species from which modern man is directly descended, Homo sapiens sapiens, better known as Cro-Magnon man. Cro-Magnon man first began to appear around forty thousand years ago in various parts of the world, as far apart as Borneo, in Malaysia, and Europe. At first Cro-Magnon man was much like Neanderthal man in his use of tools, his methods of hunting and gathering food, and his creation of rough forms of clothing. But there were important physical differences between the subspecies. Cro-Magnon man stood fully upright, had a larger brain, a thinner nose, a more pronounced chin, and a skeletal structure nearly identical to modern man. Before too long, and for reasons that still puzzle scientists, the capabilities of Cro-Magnon man developed dramatically in what some call the "Great Leap Forward." Cro-Magnon man spread throughout the world, displacing Neanderthal man, who soon died out, and began to establish more elaborate groupings that soon developed into the first recognized permanent human settlements.

Cavepeople often wore loincloths made of animal skin. Reproduced by permission of © .

Cro-Magnon humans were largely hunter-gatherers, which meant their food depended on the animals that they killed and the fruits and plants they gathered from within their local surroundings. Hunter-gatherers were usually nomadic, moving from place to place as they exhausted the local food supply or following herds of deer, bison, or other prey. Because they had to move frequently, they kept their population low, so that they wouldn't have to transport many small children, and their clans small, so they wouldn't have too many people to feed. Over time they developed more sophisticated ways of making stone tools, such as arrow points and axes, and they also developed tools from the bones of animals. Because they lived in a climate that was much colder than the present climate (during this time the earth's temperature rose and fell dramatically, creating a series of ice ages), they needed to find ways to keep warm and dry. Animal skins provided their first forms of clothing and footwear, and Cro-Magnon man used tools such as rock and bone scrapers to strip the flesh and fat from the skins and cut the skins into primitive forms of clothing. In addition to making clothing, Cro-Magnon man began to decorate the human body with body paint and perhaps tattoos.

As the climate warmed and the human population grew and spread geographically, humans began to develop the first "civilized" human settlements, starting to grow their own food, to domesticate animals, and to live in permanent settlements. The first such settlements were developed as early as 7000 B.C.E. in the broad region known as Mesopotamia, centered in present-day Iraq near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Mesopotamians, as those who lived in the area are referred to, developed the ability to create pottery from clay, learned to gather and spin wool from the sheep and goats that they herded, and developed systems of trade that soon expanded throughout the Middle East and into Europe and Asia. It was in Mesopotamia and the other great early civilization, Egypt, where clothing other than animal skins first began to be made and worn. Yet more primitive hunter-gatherer cultures continued to exist in many parts of the world well after the formation of the first civilizations, and indeed up to the modern day. These groups continued to rely on animal skins to provide their clothing.

How do we know?

The task of understanding the nature of early human life is very difficult. Scientists who study the material remains of past cultures, such as fossils, rocks, and human bones, are known as archeologists. They must use a very limited number of clues to reconstruct the nature of past human life. The older the human remains, the more difficult their work becomes. Years of burial beneath tons of earth and years of erosion and wear help to scatter and destroy evidence. Archeologists must carefully dig the remnants of the human past from out of the earth. They must form a picture of the whole based upon a very small part, guessing what a one-thousand-piece puzzle will look like after just fifty pieces.

Much of what archeologists know about past human life is uncertain and partial. For example, archeologists argue about the dates that human life began and changed. New discoveries constantly force scientists to rethink the dating given to major developments in human prehistory. Even the primary method of identifying the age of discoveries, known as radiocarbon dating, is subject to second-guessing. Often different sources have different dates. Another difficulty is that there are simply not many sources of evidence about early human life. Archeologists must form their picture of early life based on small sets of discovered materials separated by both time and distance. Because of these difficulties, much of what is known about prehistoric man is based on the best guesses of scientists who may have devoted their life's work to the subject.

The problem of understanding the clothing of early humans is made even more difficult by the fragile and destructible nature of fur. While bones and stones may survive for thousands of years, fur decomposes and disappears. The same is true with human hair and skin. But these difficulties do not mean we know nothing of early clothing and decoration. In some cases, human remains have been embedded in ice or discovered in extremely dry caves, and clothing has been preserved. Another form of evidence comes from early rock paintings and etchings that have depicted human clothes, hair, and body decoration. Though our knowledge of early clothing is minimal, we can get some picture of how our earliest ancestors protected themselves from the cold and, perhaps, made themselves beautiful or scary to their peers.


Corbishley, Mike. What Do We Know about Prehistoric People? New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1994.

Goode, Ruth. People of the Ice Age. New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1973.

Hawkes, Jacquetta. The Atlas of Early Man. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Lambert, David, and the Diagram Group. The Field Guide to Early Man. New York: Facts on File, 1987.

Wilkinson, Phil, and Nick Merriman, eds. Early Humans. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

Prehistoric Clothing
Prehistoric Headwear
Prehistoric Body Decorations
Prehistoric Footwear

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