First a definition: Pre-history is basically the time "before civilization" emerged; in other words, the time before the emergence of cities and the time before the use of writing (the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras).
Humans, and their hominid ancestors, have
seemingly inhabited the earth for a very long time now--but still not
nearly as long as those dinosaurs--but the period of time studied in this
course, that is, the history of world civilizations, occupies only a
comparably small fraction of that existence, the last five thousand
years. One of the key precursor conditions to the successful
emergence of civilization was the domestication of certain animals and
the development of settled, systematic agriculture. This occurred
between 10,000 and 4,000 bce. Only then could cities, one of the defining
features of historical "civilization," develop.
In recent years, archaeologists
and anthropologists have made a number of discoveries at various sites around
the world that have pushed back the date of the Agricultural Revolution of the Neolithic period and
that have located it in far more places around the world than once thought possible. Scientists, such
as Mary Leakey, have also filled in some missing information about the evolution of early
humans and hominids (the human-ape family), although much still remains unknown
or is just fragmentary. What is now somewhat certain is that the earliest hominid
fossils have been dated to four million years ago, while the emergence of
Homo sapiens dates to only forty-to-fifty thousand years ago.
If you are interested, check out the
Genographic Project, administered by
National Geographic, which focuses on
ancient human ancestors and migrations. The project also allows
you to check your own ancient
ancestors via a DNA test. (Catherine Damer has shared her experiences with the project; Catherine has also shared some pictures and information on petroglyphs of the Taino that can be seen in Puerto Rico.)
Some recommended online lectures and websites:
- Frank Thadeusz, Brewing Up a Civilization ("Did our Neolithic ancestors turn to agriculture so that they could be sure of a tipple?")
- The Journey of Mankind: The Peopling of the Earth is a website that uses an animated video to explain the origins of mankind and the spread of the human population around the world.
- The Smithsonian Institution Human Origins Program has a good explanation of the evolutionary steps from one species to another and also has an ancestor tree format that is particularly useful.
- Robert Guisepi, Human Origins, part of the
International History Project
- The Neolithic Revolution
- History of the Man in Ice
- Mother of Man - 3.2 Million Years Ago from BBC Science
- Becoming Human, journey through the story of human evolution.
- The Cave of Chauvet and also Lascaux.
- Short page, with some pictures, devoted to art of the Paleolithic era
- Andrew Curry, Gobekli Tepe: The World's First Temple, an article from Smithsonian magazine that examines an 11,000-year-old site.
- Discovering Ardi (ardipithecus and human evolution). This is the Discovery channel’s documentary on ardipithecus, the early hominid.
- Art of the First Cities, exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum from 2003.
- Çatalhöyük: Another time, another life (*.pdf)
- Some scholars have argued that the development of settled agriculture, and the resulting and ensuing movement into cities, was not a step forward for humans. See, for example, Jared Diamond "The Worst Mistake" or Sanjida O'Connell, Is Farming the Root of All Evil, which is a critique of Diamond's ideas.
- Neolithic Agriculture: The Slow Birth of Agriculture by Heather Pringle. From Stephen Westerfiled, "In this essay, the two different lifestyles
are blended over the course of thousands of years until eventually, most
likely due to the increasing population, humans were forced to rely on
farming to survive. I found it interesting because as the text book seems to
herald agriculture as a revolutionary technology that changed the course of
our history, this essay paints a much different picture. Here, agriculture
is seen as a much older technology that became a necessity as its negative
effects forced humans to accept the lifestyle in order to survive."
- There are quite a few videos on Youtube dealing with the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Here are some of the better ones: Stories from the Stone Age and Neolithic (focused on Çatalhöyük).
- For extra credit please suggest to your instructor a
relevant website for this unit of the course.
Send the title of the site, the url and a
brief explanation why you find the information interesting and applicable to
the material being studied in this unit.