How do we know how they behaved?

An amazing amount of information can be extracted from the artefacts and fossil remains of our ancestors and the fossils of other animals. These can provide information about our ancestors’ lifestyles, technological abilities and even their social interactions.

‘Turkana Boy’ Homo ergaster skull

Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

The changing evidence

Our early ancestors left no archaeological evidence of their behaviour and it is assumed they behaved in a manner similar to the way chimpanzees do today. The first human-made artefacts to appear were stone tools about 2.6 million years ago. These remained the best source of evidence about behaviour until relatively recently, although scientists supplemented the information they gained from stone tools with close analysis of human and animal remains. A greater variety of archaeological evidence appears in the last 400,000 years which shows that by this time people were hunting, using fire in a controlled way, and building shelters. The next phase of great change occurred only within the last 100,000 years, a period that saw the development of human culture into recognisably modern and complex behavioural systems.

Using the evidence: snapshots in time

Two dramatically different periods of human prehistory have been reconstructed here. These show how archaeologists use a variety of evidence to shed light on how our ancestors may have behaved. The scenes also highlight how the type and amount of evidence available for archaeologists to study changes over time. 

Africa 1.5 million years ago – Homo ergaster

Reconstructions of Homo ergaster life are based on evidence from many sites in southern and eastern Africa. Archaeological evidence from these sites is limited and shows little variation between sites. This suggests that Homo ergaster had a relatively simple culture and the different populations of these people behaved in very much the same way.

What was happening in in the rest of the world?

Homo ergaster was not the only type of human living in the world at this time. Homo erectus occupied regions of Asia but left little in the way of archaeological evidence, such as tools, until about 1 million years ago. It is also possible that another species of human, Homo habilis, was still living in eastern Africa, although no evidence has been found of this species that is dated to later than about 1.5 million years ago.

Making tools- a connection to their mental capabilities?

Homo ergaster made standardised stone tools using raw materials collected nearby. This was a relatively simple technology requiring little forward planning. The people making this technology had improved mental capacities and skills compared with their earlier ancestors but the techniques required to make these tools could simply be learnt through imitating the actions of others rather than through transmission by language.

How do archaeologists know a chipped stone is a tool?

The earliest tools from 2.6 million years ago are very simple and at first glance could be mistaken for naturally chipped rocks. Early discoveries of stone tools were made after tool markings were noticed on fossilised animal bones and nearby chipped rocks were more closely examined. Investigations have since shown that the breakage patterns on naturally chipped stones are different to those that result when a stone is deliberately chipped and shaped by human actions. Deliberately made tools have breakage patterns including a ‘bulb of percussion’ and ripples produced by shock waves from the blow that chips the stone.

What were the tools used for?

The tools used by Homo ergaster indicate a range of activities including chopping, cutting and scraping. Looking at a stone tool under a microscope provides information about how it was used and what it was used for. Characteristic patterns of wear result when tools are used in different ways. For example, chopping, scraping and cutting actions each produce a different pattern of scratch marks, cracks or indentations on the edge of a stone tool. Tools can also be analysed for traces of the materials to investigate the use of a tool. This may reveal particular plant fibres, wood or meat embedded in the edge of the tool.

Hunters or scavengers?

The evidence gathered from animal fossils and from tools suggests that at this stage our ancestors were scavenging for meat rather than hunting. Some fossil bones have been found for example, with stone tool marks lying on top of teeth marks left by a carnivore. This shows that the carnivore had access to the meat and bone before humans did. Tools that could have been used for hunting have not been found, although if these tools had been made of wood they would not have survived in the archaeological record.

Caring for the clan?

None of the Homo ergaster skeletons that have been found so far were deliberately buried. There is evidence however, that they did care for living members of their group who were sick or injured, but they did not seem to be concerned with their welfare after death. For instance:

  • a 1.7 million-year-old female Homo ergaster skeleton (known as KNM-ER 1808 and found in 1973), was found to have had a debilitating disease, probably hypervitaminosis A. She had lived for some time with this diseases, indicating that she was looked after by members of her clan.
  • the skeleton of a young Homo ergaster male, nicknamed the Turkana Boy, was found in Kenya in 1984 and dated to 1.5 million years old. He was not deliberately buried, which is typical of all the remains of this species that have been found.
Social behaviour

It is probable that these people lived in social groups based on family bonds. A comparison with groups of primates living today suggests that these humans were moving away from a dominant-male social structure. Their developmental rates show that they took longer to mature to adulthood than modern apes. This feature suggests that Homo ergaster had an extended childhood period in which to complete development to maturity.

Europe 25,000 years ago – Homo sapiens

The people living in Europe 25,000 years ago were known as the Cro-Magnons. The abundance of archaeological evidence left behind by the Cro-Magnons has allowed us to know more about how they lived than we do any other group of modern humans living at the same time. 

What was happening in the rest of the world at this time?

Humans at this time occupied most regions through out the world and were exhibiting similar patterns of complex behaviour such as the ritual use of ochre, the development of art and music and systematic trade. However specific cultural differences were now appearing in different continents and even regions within continents. These differences rose out of the need to adapt lifestyles to the various environmental conditions that existed and the growing sense of group or social identity.

Rituals and an afterlife

Most Cro-Magnon remains have undergone deliberate burial, in which the bodies were covered with ochre and accompanied by goods placed into the grave. This provides evidence of ritual behaviour and interaction with the dead, and suggests a possible belief in an afterlife.

One of the more decorated burials was that of an elderly man buried at Sungir, near Moscow, Russia, about 23,000 years ago. His skeleton was covered with thousands of ivory beads and hundreds of arctic fox teeth that had been sewn onto his clothing.

The skeletal remains

The bones of Cro-Magnons were more robust than humans living today. This suggests they lived a very active and physical lifestyle, which would be expected for hunter-gatherers living in cold climates.

Social bonds

Studies of Cro-Magnon skeletons show that people were living longer, probably to the age where they could become grandparents. This resulted in a social structure based on extended families in which grandparents could help raise the children to a greater degree than before. There is also evidence that the elderly and injured were being cared for. These people were forming complex relationships within their own social group and with other social groups.

Tools

Cro-Magnon tool kits were technologically complex and included tools that could be used for specialised activities such as hunting, fishing or sewing. However, there were differences in the types of tools found at the various sites, showing that cultural differences were developing between groups. Prestige tools were also made and valued for their appearance rather than as working tools. This suggests that complex social networks were developing.

The tools were made from a range of materials including bone, antler and selected stone that often came from sites up to 100 kilometres away. This suggests awareness about the quality of materials and also of the special properties that the different materials possess. It also indicates possible contacts with other social groups and widespread trade.

Clothing

The first firm evidence for the manufacture of clothing comes from Cro-Magnon sites. Bone needles (appeared 26,000 years ago) and stone scrapers used to prepare animal hides had become a common part of the tool kit. Clothes that were sewn provided better protection from the cold than clothes that were merely tied together.

Fibres from flax plants were discovered in a cave in Georgia in 2009, dating to about 36,000 years old. The flax was most likely used to make clothes and woven baskets, and a small number of fibres appear to be dyed. They are the oldest example of their kind ever found. Textile impressions have been discovered at other European sites have, but no actual remains.

Ornamentation

Luxury items and body ornaments were abundant and show that humans had progressed from merely trying to survive and were now also concerned with their appearance.

Shelters and living sites - permanent or nomadic?

The types of animal bones found at Cro-Magnon sites indicate these people were nomadic and only occupied the sites at certain times of the year. Caves were often used for shelter but there is also evidence that they built huts in open-air sites. Their living sites were much larger than those occupied by earlier humans and a comparison with modern traditional peoples suggests that clans consisted of between 25 and 100 members.

Control of fire

These people had an ability to control fire in a manner never seen before and would have been able to live in some of the coldest regions of Europe. Management of fire was extremely important for warmth and cooking and also provided a focus for social activity. The earliest evidence for high temperature kilns and ceramic technology appeared at this time, particularly at sites like at Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic. Kilns dating to 26,000 years old were found that were capable of firing clay figurines at temperatures over 400 degrees Celsius.

Art and symbolism- evidence for language and ritual?

Cro-Magnon people were amongst the first humans to leave behind evidence of symbolic art in the form of paintings, figurines and music. For instance, Venus figures became widespread in Europe after about 30,000 years ago (their function is unknown but probably involved ritualistic beliefs), bone flutes and whistles first appeared 32,000 years ago, as did the earliest cave paintings. Many sites across Europe have produced similar types of artwork, suggesting that cultural and social links existed between the different groups of these people. The mental processes needed to produce this level of symbolism have been linked with a capability for modern language and the development of ritual beliefs.


Fran Dorey , Exhibition Project Coordinator
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