“New Women of the Ice Age” by Heather Pringle, Discover Magazine
“Introduction to Prehistoric Art, 20,000–8000 B.C.” by Laura Anne Tedesco, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"A Brief Look at Neanderthals" by Forrest Marchinton, [CC BY-NC-SA]
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Lesson 1: Prehistory Learning Objectives
(Included in PowerPoint)
Upon successful completion of this lesson, students should be able to:
1. Compare and contrast:
2. Understand the artistic and cultural significance of these locations:
3. Define the “out of Africa” theory and discuss early human migrations.
4. Explain why agriculture was so important in human civilization, particularly in contrast to hunting and gathering.
5. List the characteristics of a “civilization.”
Discussion Questions, Lesson 1: Prehistory
(Uses online links for reading plus PowerPoints)
1. According to the "Discover" article (link in syllabus), what roles did some women play in prehistoric cultures? How do these roles compare with women of today? Are they similar or different?
2. Laura Tedesco, author of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's article on prehistoric art (see syllabus for link), states that the art "superbly characterizes some of the earliest examples of humans’ creative and artistic capacity." Give three examples from her article and/or the online content that support this statement.
by "Guest Lecturer" Forrest B. Marchinton, B.S., M.S.
You may have watched investigative shows like CSI, Bones, or NCIS, that often deal with forensic science – using scientific methodology to determine facts in a criminal case. Forensic anthropology is very valuable to historical – and prehistorical – researchers, allowing them to study bones and related physical evidence to determine the identity of the deceased, how they lived, how they died and who may have killed them. Many of the techniques used today, from DNA retrieval, dating methods, and even basic site mapping have not always been available, so many of the early excavations can tell us little apart from providing the actual bones and stone tools. Still, considering that we are looking at a 100,000+ year span of time that ended some 20,000 years before writing was invented, we have a remarkably clear vision of what Neanderthals were like.
Scientists first identified this ancient people in the mid 19th century, calling them “Neanderthal Man” after the valley where a partial skeleton was found. All told, scientists have collected bones from some 400 individuals across Europe and the Near East. In addition, much can be learned by collecting the bones from (presumably) their prey, stone tools, fireplaces and even a few possible art objects found nearby.
The time of the Neanderthals was one of dramatic climate changes, as great ice sheets ebbed and flowed across the northern hemisphere. Neanderthals remain can be found westward in Britain and Portugal, eastward as far as southern Ukraine, Israel and Iraq, and various places in between.
Neanderthals averaged about 6 inches shorter than modern humans. They had a robust build, with massive joints and thick bones that suggest strength. Their heavy-set body and barrel chest may have been useful in conserving heat in a colder Pleistocene climate. Their heads were longer, with a sloping forehead above heavy brow ridges, and their chins receded. DNA studies suggest that some Neanderthals had pale skin and reddish hair, although this represents very few individuals.
Neanderthals ate lots of meat – mostly from big game, which included bison, mammoths, wooly rhinoceri, giant deer, ibex, and horses. Their hunting methods probably included close- in attacks with spears, clubs, and possibly even grappling. Evidence for this comes in part from the numerous healed fractures that are common features of Neanderthal skeletons.
Life was hard; perhaps 1 in 5 made it to their 40s (though to be fair, their apparent life span was longer than in previous hominids). Those who reached that age were worn out, suffering from arthritis, tooth loss, and the pains of the aforementioned healed fractures. But the fact that the individuals recovered from wounds or survived when age made them infirm points to a social structure that could, and would, care for them. Unfortunately, not much else is known for certain about their group dynamics. Male and female skeletons both show similar wear and tear, suggesting that both sexes hunted and did the other heavy chores necessary to survive; even children did a share of heavy lifting.
There is evidence that at least some Neanderthals were buried, but beyond that is sheer speculation. Were they buried in reverence, or simply to keep the corpse from attracting scavengers? At this time there is no way to tell. Burial in caves was not the standard method of disposing bodies; otherwise, there would be many more.
We know they used caves as dwellings, but it is likely they built shelters – hide tents, and probably more permanent structures using bone, stone and wood – of only a few traces remain.
Although for many years the popular view held that Neanderthals were incapable of more than a very rudimentary form of speech, recent research into their bone structure and DNA point to the likelihood that Neanderthals probably had a language of some sort. Beyond the positive physical evidence, anthropologists debate the issue because of the lack of art objects that the Neanderthals’ successors produced in abundance. Some scientists point to a link between the capacity for abstract thought (necessary to make artistic or instructional representations) and language. It is possible that either such objects did not survive the millennia, or the link between art and words is unfounded in the species. Whether or not they could speak, and what their language sounded like, will likely remain in the realm of conjecture.
Cro-Magnons – one of the terms for the early anatomically-modern humans – arrived in the Middle East from Africa roughly 90,000 years ago, but only really began spreading into Europe around 45,000 years ago. Small groups of Cro-Magnons scattered across a vast landscape wouldn’t have run into the even smaller groups of Neanderthals very often. Yet they probably did at various points. Did they fight? Did they coexist peacefully? Did they avoid each other? It is likely the two species reacted in different ways at different times and places, much like modern humans of different cultures have done in recorded history; but to date there is very little evidence of direct interactions.
One of the big questions about the Neanderthal is why they died out. Their numbers began to decline as the climate worsened, but they had survived several major cold spells over the millennia. It is likely that Cro-Magnons played a part in their demise, although the details elude us. Cro-Magnon spread into Europe and Eurasia, at the same time rapidly developing culturally, creating art and more sophisticated tools and weapons. Thus, they may have simply out-competed their more robust neighbors through better utilization of resources, efficient division of labor, and cooperation among groups. There may have been conflict between the two peoples, with the Cro-Magnon bringing their superior weapons to bear to drive off or exterminate their rivals. Alternately, there may have been interbreeding between the two peoples, leading to the eventual absorption of Neanderthals by modern humans – although genetic research has not yet found evidence for this. What is clear is that in locale after locale, Neanderthal fossils were replaced by Cro-Magnon fossils, indicating the range of the former shrank before the advance of the latter.
The last Neanderthal fossils come from Spain and Croatia, dated around 28,000 years ago. A possible coda can be found in the form of a fire pit estimated to be at least 24,000 years old, the last sign of Neanderthal residency anywhere. Since then, for the first time in millions of years, Homo sapiens has been the only living representative of its genus.
When looking and the Neanderthal, it is important not to underrate them as so many have since their discovery. However they were physically or mentally different from modern humans, they were not failures. They survived through extreme climate changes, hunted large beasts armed only with hand tools and their brains, and endured a harsh, unforgiving land for thousands of generations.
Bar-Yosef, O. and D. Pilbeam (editors) 2000. The geography of Neandertals and modern humans in Europe and the greater Mediterranean. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.
Conard, N. 2006. When Neanderthals and modern humans met. Tübingen Publications in Prehistory.
Finlayson, C. 2004. Neanderthals and Modern Humans: An Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Henry, D. (editor) 2003. Neanderthals in the Levant: behavioral organization and the beginnings of human modernity. London: Continuum.
Leveque, F., A. Backer and M. Guilbaud (editors) 1993. Context of a late Neanderthal. Prehistory Press, Madison, WI.
Schrenk, F., and S. Müller 2005. The Neanderthals. London: Routledge Press.
NOTE: From time to time, these web pages may "disappear." Please notify your instructor if you find broken links, so they may be replaced.
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