Ancient History For UPSC Unit: Early Societies -1


Ancient History- Early Societies: I 


This topic is about the traces of the beginning of human existence. It was 5.6 million years ago (mya) that the first humanlike creatures appeared on the earth’s surface. After this, several forms of humans emerged and then became extinct. Human beings resembling us (henceforth referred to as ‘modern humans’) originated about 160,000 years ago. During this long period of human history, people obtained food by either scavenging or hunting animals and gathering plant produce. They also learnt how to make stone tools and to communicate with each other. Although other ways of obtaining food were adopted later, hunting-gathering continued.

Discoveries of human fossils, stone tools and cave paintings help us to understand early human history. Each of these discoveries has a history of its own. They were also sceptical about the ability of early humans to make stone tools or paint.

The evidence for human evolution comes from fossils of species of humans which have become extinct. Fossils can be dated either through direct chemical analysis or indirectly by dating the sediments in which they are buried. Once fossils are dated, a sequence of human evolution can be worked out. Many scholars were often reluctant to accept that fossils and other finds including stone tools and paintings were actually connected with early forms of humans when such discoveries were made about 200 years ago. This reluctance generally stemmed from their belief in the Old Testament of the Bible, according to which human origin was regarded as an act of Creation by God.

The Story of Human Evolution

  • The Precursors of Modern Human Beings

The story of human evolution is enormously long and complicated.

It is possible to trace these developments back to between 36 and 24 mya. 36 million years ago was the time when primates, a category of mammals, emerged in Asia and Africa.

Primates are a subgroup of a larger group of mammals. They include monkeys, apes and humans. They have body hair, a relatively long gestation period following birth, mammary glands, different types of teeth, and the ability to maintain a constant body temperature.

By about 24 mya, there emerged a subgroup amongst primates, called hominoids. This included apes. And, much later, about 5.6 mya evidence of the first hominids were found. While hominids have evolved from hominoids and share certain common features, there are major differences as well. Hominoids have a smaller brain than hominids. They are quadrupeds, walking on all fours, but with flexible forelimbs. Hominids, by contrast, have an upright posture and bipedal locomotion (walking on two feet).

Two lines of evidence suggest an African origin for hominids. First, it is the group of African apes that are most closely related to hominids. Second, the earliest hominid fossils, which belong to the genus Australopithecus, have been found in East Africa and date back to about 5.6 mya. In contrast, fossils found outside Africa are no older than 1.8 million years.

Hominoids are different from monkeys in a number of ways. They have a larger body and do not have a tail. Besides, there is a longer period of infant development and dependency amongst hominoids.

Hominids belong to a family known as Hominidae, which includes all forms of human beings. The distinctive characteristics of hominids include a large brain size, upright posture, bipedal locomotion and specialisation of the hand. Hominids are further subdivided into branches, known as genus, of which Australopithecus and Homo are important. Each of these in turn includes several species. The major differences between Australopithecus and Homo relate to brain size, jaws and teeth. The former has a smaller brain size, heavier jaws and larger teeth than the latter. Virtually all the names given by scientists to species are derived from Latin and Greek words. For instance, the name Australopithecus comes from a Latin word, ‘austral’, meaning ‘southern’ and a Greek word, ‘pithekos’, meaning ‘ape.’ The name was given because this earliest form of humans still retained many features of an ape, such as a relatively small brain size in comparison to Homo, large back teeth and limited dexterity of the hands.

The remains of early humans have been classified into different species. These are often distinguished from one another on the basis of differences in bone structure. For instance, species of early humans are differentiated in terms of their skull size and distinctive jaws. These characteristics may have evolved due to what has been called the positive feedback mechanism.

For example, bipedalism enabled hands to be freed for carrying infants or objects. There is indirect evidence of bipedalism as early as 3.6 mya. This comes from the fossilised hominid footprints at Laetoli, Tanzania. Fossil limb bones recovered from Hadar, Ethiopia provide more direct evidence of bipedalism. Around 2.5 mya, with the onset of a phase of glaciation (or an Ice Age), when large parts of the earth were covered with snow, there were major changes in climate and vegetation. Due to the reduction in temperatures as well as rainfall, grassland areas expanded at the expense of forests, leading to the gradual extinction of the early forms of Australopithecus (that were adapted to forests) and the replacement by species that were better adapted to the drier conditions. Among these were the earliest representatives of the genus Homo.

Homo is a Latin word, meaning ‘man’, although there were women as well! Scientists distinguish amongst several types of Homo. The names assigned to these species are derived from what are regarded as their typical characteristics. So fossils are classified as Homo habilis (the tool maker), Homo erectus (the upright man), and Homo sapiens (the wise or thinking man). Fossils of Homo habilis have been discovered at Omo in Ethiopia and at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The earliest fossils of Homo erectus have been found both in Africa and Asia: Koobi Fora, and west Turkana, Kenya, Modjokerto and Sangiran, Java. As the finds in Asia belong to a later date than those in Africa, it is likely that hominids migrated from East Africa to southern and northern Africa, to southern and north-eastern Asia, and perhaps to Europe, sometime between 2 and 1.5 mya. This species survived for nearly a million years.

In some instances, the names for fossils are derived from the places where the first fossils of a particular type were found. So fossils found in Heidelberg, a city in Germany, were called Homo heidelbergensis, while those found in the Neander valley were categorised as Homo neanderthalensis. The earliest fossils from Europe are of Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis. Both belong to the species of archaic (that is, old) Homo sapiens. The fossils of Homo heidelbergensis (0.8-0.1 mya) have a wide distribution, having been found in Africa, Asia and Europe. The Neanderthals occupied Europe and western and Central Asia from roughly 130,000 to 35,000 years ago. They disappeared abruptly in Western Europe around 35,000 years ago. In general, compared with Australopithecus, Homo has a larger brain, jaws with a reduced outward protrusion and smaller teeth. An increase in brain size is associated with more intelligence and a better memory. The changes in the jaws and teeth were probably related to differences in dietary habits.


Table: Peopling of the World

When Where Who
5-1 mya Sub-Saharan Africa Australopithecus, early Homo, Homo erectus
1 mya-40,000 years ago Africa, Asia and Europe in mid-latitudes Homo erectus, archaic Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, Homo sapiens sapiens/modern humans
45,000 years ago Australia Modern humans
40,000 years ago to present Europe in high-latitudes and Asia-Pacific islands

North and South America in deserts, rain forests

Late Neanderthals, modern humans


  • Modern Human Beings

Some of the earliest evidence for Homo sapiens has been found in different parts of Africa. The issue of the place of origin of modern humans has been much debated. Two totally divergent views have been expounded, one advocating the regional continuity model (with multiple regions of origin), the other the replacement model (with a single origin in Africa).

According to the regional continuity model, the archaic Homo sapiens in different regions gradually evolved at different rates into modern humans, and hence the variation in the first appearance of modern humans in different parts of the world. The argument is based on the regional differences in the features of present-day humans. According to those who advocate this view, these dissimilarities are due to differences between the pre-existing Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis populations that occupied the same regions.



WHERE WHEN (years ago)

Omo Kibish


Border Cave Die Kelders Klasies River Mouth


Dar es Solton


Qafzeh Skhul


Lake Mungo


Niah Cave


Cro-Magnon, near Les Eyzies



The Replacement and Regional Continuity Models

The replacement model visualises the complete replacement everywhere of all older forms of humans with modern humans. In support of this view is the evidence of the genetic and anatomical homogeneity of modern humans. Those who suggest this argue that the enormous similarity amongst modern humans is due to their descent from a population that originated in a single region, which is Africa. The evidence of the earliest fossils of modern humans (from Omo in Ethiopia) also supports the replacement model.


Early Humans: Ways of Obtaining Food

Early humans would have obtained food through a number of ways, such as gathering, hunting, scavenging and fishing. Gathering would involve collecting plant foods such as seeds, nuts, berries, fruits and tubers. That gathering was practised is generally assumed rather than conclusively established, as there is very little direct evidence for it. While we get a fair amount of fossil bones, fossilised plant remains are relatively rare. The only other way of getting information about plant intake would be if plant remains were accidentally burnt. This process results in carbonisation. In this form, organic matter is preserved for a long span of time. However, so far archaeologists have not found much evidence of carbonised seeds for this very early period. In recent years, the term hunting has been under discussion by scholars. Increasingly, it is being suggested that the early hominids scavenged or foraged for meat and marrow from the carcasses of animals that had died naturally or had been killed by other predators. It is equally possible that small mammals such as rodents, birds (and their eggs), reptiles and even insects (such as termites) were eaten by early hominids. Hunting probably began later – about 500,000 years ago.

The earliest clear evidence for the deliberate, planned hunting and butchery of large mammals comes from two sites: Boxgrove in southern England (500,000 years ago) and Schoningen in Germany (400,000 years ago). Fishing was also important, as is evident from the discovery of fish bones at different sites. From about 35,000 years ago, there is evidence of planned hunting from some European sites. Some sites, such as Dolni Vestonice (in the Czech Republic), which was near a river, seem to have been deliberately chosen by early people.

Herds of migratory animals such as reindeer and horse probably crossed the river during their autumn and spring migrations and were killed on a large scale. The choice of such sites indicates that people knew about the movement of these animals and also about the means of killing large numbers of animals quickly.

Early Humans

From Trees, to Caves and Open-air Sites

To reconstruct the evidence for patterns of residence the one way of doing this is by plotting the distribution of artefacts. For example, thousands of flake tools and hand axes have been excavated at Kilombe and Olorgesailie (Kenya). These finds are dated between 700,000 and 500,000 years ago.

It is possible that some places, where food resources were abundant, were visited repeatedly. In such areas, people would tend to leave behind traces of their activities and presence, including artefacts. The deposited artefacts would appear as patches on the landscape. The places that were less frequently visited would have fewer artefacts, which may have been scattered over the surface.

Artefacts are objects that are made by human beings. The term can refer to a wide range of things – tools, paintings, sculpture, engravings.

Between 400,000 and 125,000 years ago, caves and open-air sites began to be used. Evidence for this comes from sites in Europe. In the Lazaret cave in southern France, a 12×4 metre shelter was built against the cave wall. Inside it were two hearths and evidence of different food sources: fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, bird eggs and freshwater fish (trout, perch and carp). At another site, Terra Amata on the coast of southern France, flimsy shelters with roofs of wood and grasses were built for short-term, seasonal visits.

Pieces of baked clay and burnt bone along with stone tools, dated between 1.4 and 1 mya, have been found at Chesowanja, Kenya and Swartkrans, South Africa. Hearths, on the other hand, are indications of the controlled use of fire. This had several advantages – fire provided warmth and light inside caves, and could be used for cooking. Besides, fire was used to harden wood, as for instance the tip of the spear. The use of heat also facilitated the flaking of tools. As important, fire could be used to scare away dangerous animals.

Early Humans: Making Tools

Use of tools and tool making are not confined to humans. Birds are known to make objects to assist them with feeding, hygiene and social encounters; and while foraging for food some chimpanzees use tools that they have made.

However, there are some features of human tool making that are not known among apes. Certain anatomical and neurological (related to the nervous system) adaptations have led to the skilled use of hands, probably due to the important role of tools in human lives. Moreover, the ways in which humans use and make tools often require greater memory and complex organisational skills, both of which are absent in apes. The earliest evidence for the making and use of stone tools comes from sites in Ethiopia and Kenya. It is likely that the earliest stone tool makers were the Australopithecus.

It is possible that stone tool makers were both women and men. Women in particular may have made and used tools to obtain food for themselves as well as to sustain their children after weaning. About 35,000 years ago, improvements in the techniques for killing animals are evident from the appearance of new kinds of tools such as spearthrowers and the bow and arrow. The meat thus obtained was probably processed by removing the bones, followed by drying, smoking and storage. Thus, food could be stored for later consumption. There were other changes, such as the trapping of fur-bearing animals (to use the fur for clothing) and the invention of sewing needles. The earliest evidence of sewn clothing comes from about 21,000 years ago. Besides, with the introduction of the punch blade technique to make small chisel-like tools, it was now possible to make engravings on bone, antler, ivory or wood.

Modes of Communication: Language and Art

Among living beings, it is humans alone that have a language. There are several views on language development:

(1) that hominid language involved gestures or hand movements;

(2) that spoken language was preceded by vocal but non-verbal communication such as singing or humming;

(3) that human speech probably began with calls like the ones that have been observed among primates. Humans may have possessed a small number of speech sounds in the initial stage. Gradually, these may have developed into language. It has been suggested that the brain of Homo habilis had certain features which would have made it possible for them to speak. Thus, language may have developed as early as 2 mya. The evolution of the vocal tract was equally important. This occurred around 200,000 years ago. It is more specifically associated with modern humans. A third suggestion is that language developed around the same time as art, that is, around 40,000-35,000 years ago. The development of spoken language has been seen as closely connected with art, since both are media for communication.

Hundreds of paintings of animals (done between 30,000 and12,000 years ago) have been discovered in the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, both in France, and Altamira, in Spain. These include depictions of bison, horses, ibex, deer, mammoths, rhinos, lions, bears, panthers, hyenas and owls. More questions have been raised than answered regarding these paintings. For example, why do some areas of caves have paintings and not others? Why were some animals painted and not others? Why were men painted both individually and in groups, whereas women were depicted only in groups? Why were men painted near animals but never women? Why were groups of animals painted in the sections of caves where sounds carried well? Several explanations have been offered. One is that because of the importance of hunting, the paintings of animals were associated with ritual and magic. The act of painting could have been a ritual to ensure a successful hunt. Another explanation offered is that these caves were possibly meeting places for small groups of people or locations for group activities. These groups could share hunting techniques and knowledge, while paintings and engravings served as the media for passing information from one generation to the next.

Hunter-Gatherer Societies from the Present to the Past

As our knowledge of present-day hunter-gatherers increased through studies by anthropologists, a question that began to be posed was whether the information about living hunters and gatherers could be used to understand past societies.

Anthropology is a discipline that studies human culture and evolutionary aspects of human biology.

Currently, there are two opposing views on this issue. On one side are scholars who have directly applied specific data from present-day hunter-gatherer societies to interpret the archaeological remains of the past. For example, some archaeologists have suggested that the hominid sites, dated to 2 mya, along the margins of Lake Turkana could have been dry season camps of early humans, because such a practice has been observed among the Hadza and the !Kung San.

!Kung San, a hunter-gatherer society living in the Kalahari desert.

Hadza are a small group of hunters and gatherers, living in the vicinity of Lake Eyasi, a salt, rift-valley lake.

On the other side are scholars who feel that ethnographic data cannot be used for understanding past societies as the two are totally different.

Ethnography is the study of contemporary ethnic groups. It includes an examination of their modes of livelihood, technology, gender roles, rituals, political institutions and social customs.

For instance, present-day hunter-gatherer societies pursue several other economic activities along with hunting and gathering. These include engaging in exchange and trade in minor forest produce, or working as paid labourers in the fields of neighbouring farmers. Moreover, these societies are totally marginalised in all senses – geographically, politically and socially. The conditions in which they live are very different from those of early humans. Another problem is that there is tremendous variation amongst living hunter-gatherer societies. There are conflicting data on many issues such as the relative importance of hunting and gathering, group sizes, or the movement from place to place. Also, there is little consensus regarding the division of labour in food procurement. Although today generally women gather and men hunt, there are societies where both women and men hunt and gather and make tools. In any case, the important role of women in contributing to the food supply in such societies cannot be denied. It is perhaps this factor that ensures a relatively equal role for both women and men in present-day hunter-gatherer societies, although there are variations. While this may be the case today, it is difficult to make any such inference for the past.


For several million years, humans lived by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. Then, between 10,000 and 4,500 years ago, people in different parts of the world learnt to domesticate certain plants and animals. This led to the development of farming and pastoralism as a way of life. The shift from foraging to farming was a major turning point in human history.

The last ice age came to an end about 13,000 years ago and with that warmer, wetter conditions prevailed. As a result, conditions were favourable for the growth of grasses such as wild barley and wheat. At the same time, as open forests and grasslands expanded, the population of certain animal species such as wild sheep, goat, cattle, pig and donkey increased. What we find is that human societies began to gradually prefer areas that had an abundance of wild grasses and animals. Now relatively large, permanent communities occupied such areas for most parts of the year. With some areas being clearly preferred, a pressure may have built up to increase the food supply. This may have triggered the process of domestication of certain plants and animals. It is likely that a combination of factors which included climatic change, population pressure, a greater reliance on and knowledge of a few species of plants (such as wheat, barley, rice and millet) and animals (such as sheep, goat, cattle, donkey and pig) played a role in this transformation.

One such area where farming and pastoralism began around 10,000 years ago was the Fertile Crescent, extending from the Mediterranean coast to the Zagros mountains in Iran. With the introduction of agriculture, more people began to stay in one place for even longer periods than they had done before. Thus permanent houses began to be built of mud, mud bricks and even stone. These are some of the earliest villages known to archaeologists.

Farming and pastoralism led to the introduction of many other changes such as the making of pots in which to store grain and other produce, and to cook food.

Besides, new kinds of stone tools came into use. Other new tools such as the plough were used in agriculture. Gradually, people became familiar with metals such as copper and tin. The wheel, important for both pot making and transportation, came into use. About 5,000 years ago, even larger concentrations of people began to live together in cities.