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Prehistory: The Time Before Writing

It can be very difficult for children to imagine a time that is very different from their own. When my son was in second grade, I told them about a culture that was very isolated, and had not started writing when other cultures did. Because they could not write, and because were isolated, they developed in very different ways from other cultures. My son looked puzzled and asked, "Why didn't they just send e-mail?"

It is important for children to realize that the material you are about to study happened a long time ago. I always started history lessons with a reminder. "This happened before you were born, before I was born, before Grandma was born, even before Jesus was born. There was no television, no computer...." You get the idea. It took a while, but by the end of the year the children really understood there had been a time when they were not on earth, and when all the comforts of home were not yet invented. On the other hand, they also knew that in some ways, ancient people were much like us. They had families, and feelings, they were hungry or tired or happy. As we study, we look for the ways we are like them, and the ways we are different. We wonder about the real people who lived back then. This is not just a time period in a book;this is real, and the people who lived then were real, even if we don't know much about them. History is really people, and try to find books that remember this. So many history books are empty of people, and full of only dates and battles.

By the time you finish your study of archaeology, you will have a good background in the materials covered in the next unit. Again, religious families may run into conflicts, but none are insurmountable. Just remember that there is no way your children will grow up without hearing these things, so you should consider teaching it now, when you can insert your own beliefs into the material.

My article on one-room schooling can help you adapt the time period to a variety of ages. Don't forget to bring in the material you learned during your study of archaeology, since much of this is presented here. To start off, there is one very important person you should get to know right away, if you didn't meet her in the archaeology class. She will bring the past to life.

Who was Lucy? Lucy was a woman who lived long ago, more than three million years ago. We don't know her real name, but the scientists who found her, Don Johnson, Tom Gray and their team, named her that, after the Beatles song Lucy in the sky with Diamonds. Calling her Lucy makes her more real to us. She was littler than your kindergartner, and her head was the size of a baseball. she was about 25 years old when she died. Scientists were able to tell all of that from the skeleton, even though they didn't find all of it. There are many books about her, so try to find one. Then you will be ready to learn about the time in which she lived.

The stages of human development:

AUSTRALOPITHECINES: (aw stray low PITH uh syns) These were Lucy's people. They are considered by scientists to be the first people and they lived between 3.75 million years ago and 1 million years ago. The name means southern apes. They probably didn't make tools, but might have made use of stones and other items they found to help them with their chores. They had low foreheads, large eyebrow ridges, flat noses and jutting jaws. Their jaws were more powerful than ours and the teeth were larger. It is thought that the men did the hunting and the women and children did the gathering. They believe the early people had more variety in their diets than we do. The important people to study (besides our old friend Lucy) are Raymond Dart and Louis Leakey.

An interesting note on attempts to find links between apes and humans: Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, and at another time, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, found a human skull that had an ape's jaw. Scientists were so anxious to prove their long-held theory that about the missing link that they accepted it without even trying to verify it. It was called the Piltdown man, and it wasn't until 1953, when they realized some unknown person had created the skull, and it was shown to be false. Another example of why we have to keep rewriting the history and science books!

ANOTHER WRONG TRY: EUGENE DUBOIS was a Dutch doctor and anthropologist who believed in evolution. While serving in the army as a doctor, he began doing excavations on a small island called Java. He eventually found part of a stone-encrusted skull, a thigh bone, and a tooth. He was positive these were the missing link between apes and humans, and called his link Pithecanthropus erectus, "the apeman that walked erect." They are usually called the Java Man now. Few people even then believed this was really a missing link, and scientists today don't either.

HOMO HABILIS: 2.5 to 1.5 million years ago and the first people scientists agree are our direct ancesters. Their teeth and jaws were more like ours, and their brains were larger. Their name means Handy human, named by the Leakeys because they made and used tools. They may also have made the first buildings, small round huts. This is the start of the Paleolithic Age, also called the Old Stone Age.

HOMO ERECTUS:Even larger brains and more complex tools. The earliest people found outside Africa-the first erectus was found in Asia. These people get credit for inventing fire, very useful during the ice age. They are said to have had sloping foreheads, large eyebrow ridges, large jaws, flat faces, and no chin.

Now we get to the HOMO SAPIENS, meaning wise humans (we're such egotistical people.) These are the modern humans, arising when the homo erectus die out, with the first appearing about 150,000 years, give or take a decade or two. We are homo sapiens, but there are some intermediate groups to appear here.

NEANDERTHALS: the first homo sapiens. These people got named after the place they were first found: Neander Valley, in Germany. Once again, the brain is larger and the tools are more complex. They had bony ridges above their eyes, a protruding mouth and small chins. Because it was so cold, scientists guess they were the first to wear clothes all the time. They also built interesting houses: animal skins stretched over frames of branches or bones. Their tools wer of flint and bone.

CRO-MAGNONS: the first people to look like us. Their fossils have been found in caves and date back 40,000 years.

WHAT IS PREHISTORY?: Prehistory is the time before written language. It is a time we have to discover through archaeology, and sociology, because no one was able to write down what they were doing and how they were living. Although historians are usually referring to a time beyond the last 5000 years, many cultures developed in isolation, without written language. Some of these people might still be living in a prehistoric time.

How we know this: All those -ologists!

archaeologists: study the remains of ancient humans
anthropologists: study human culture
paleontologists: study fossils
paleoanthropologists: study prehistoric remains. They combine all the -ologies above.

As you learn about the early people, it is important to remember, no matter what your beliefs about evolution are, that what we teach as fact is only a guess, based on the current evidence. We have changed our minds many times in the past and will continue to do so as new evidences are found. That is what makes history so exciting. It is not a dead subject. It is continuing every day.

HOW DID THESE PEOPLE LIVE? Various groups probably developed their own traditions and customs, but we know, or think we know, something about the way people lived in general. Hunting and gathering, of course, was the means of getting food. There weren't any stores to go to. (Many children will find that hard to comprehend.) They probably lived in small groups of twenty or thirty people, moving around with the seasons. When a way of making fire, instead of waiting for lightening to create it, was discovered, they were able to make better use of meat, and to survive in colder climates.

Cro-Magnons enjoyed art, just as we do today. They painted on rocks and the walls of their caves.They carved, engraved, made sculptures and even made jewelry. They drew what was around them: people, plants and animals.The animals they drew tell us about the animals they saw, hunted and ate. Carved symbols tell us there might even have been the start of written language.

They used fire to shape tools, and used tools to make other tools. They are thought to have had their own religions. They took care of their elderly and disabled people.

FARMING changed everything. Eventually, if you always take from the earth, and never give back, supplies become limited. People learned to farm. We don't, of course have any idea how people came to realize it was possible to plant and grow, but eventually it happened. Once this discovery was made, it became possible for people to settle down and stay in one place. Ask your children to decide how people might have felt about this dramatic change in their lifestyles. Would everyone have felt the same way? Ask your children to write stories about this time in history. How was farming discovered? Who will make the decision to stay in one place and why? How will everyone feel? What kind of place should they choose to stay in? They will need a source of water, for example. What else will they need?

People may have made the decision gradually. Perhaps they stopped because people were ill, or just because they liked a spot. Perhaps each year, they stayed a little longer, and eventually began creating nicer homes. After a time, they may have just stayed. Perhaps as they stayed longer, they worked to protect the animals needed for food, and even to create herds. Sheep, goats and dogs were some of the first animals domesticated (tamed).

Farming changed the ways people lived. Since it didn't take the entire community to run the farms, some peple began to do other things, introducing specailization. Some might have just made tools. Others might have become builders. At first, this could have been a scary change. You had to trust that someone else would provide you with food in exchange for the tools you make. People had to take risks when they first chose not to grow food, or to go on the hunt.

Farming changed the environment as well. Before hunting,all the land was available for plants to grow as they chose, and for animals to live in as they chose. Now trees and wild plants would have to be cleared to make room for the farms and communities. Wild animals had to be kept out of these locations permanantly. This is still a problem we struggle with today, and you can make connections in science by studying deforestation (the clearing away of the forests) and extinction of animals.

All of these changes took place during the Neolithic Age. Neolithic comes from the Greek words for new and stone. This was the new stone age, a major step towards the way most of us live today. People developed villages, and began trading with other nearby villages. Remember that there were now people who specailized, but perhaps they didn't have enough people to do everything, so they would trade with other villages, who specialized in different things.

The beginnings of villages, and the connections they make as the villages work out trade agreements and peace agreements lead to bigger connections. Soon cities develop, larger than the little clans, we first saw, larger than the villages that developed as people settled down. Civilizations require good leaders, an economic system, a good food supply that can even get you through times of poor crops, and a culture. They usually have varying levels of social class as well. Where in the past, everyone shared all they had, now some will have more than others, based on what they have to offer, their family background, their training, and their luck. Discuss these changes. how would people feel as things gradually began to change? Which system do they prefer? In an ancient civilization, what kinds of jobs would have been available? What job would they have wanted? Would they have been able to choose?


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Terrie Bittner

terrie@sunrise-sunset.com



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