by Tim Lambert

About 1.8 million years ago a new species called Homo erectus appeared in East Africa. Later (about 1 million years ago) they spread to Asia.

Homo erectus inhabited caves and they made stone tools such as hand axes and cleavers. They probably also made wooden tools but they have not survived. Scientists believe that in Asia Homo erectus used bamboo tools.

There is a debate about when hominids first used fire. However between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago there is evidence of hearths. Charred bones were found on them so it seems Homo erectus had learned to cook. Obviously fire was also useful in cold weather and Homo erectus may have made tools by firelight after dark.

From about 500,000 onwards a slightly different species called Home Heidelbergensis lived in Europe. Homo Heidelbergensis had a larger brain than Homo erectus and they hunted animals like horses and deer with spears.

The Neanderthals first evolved about 250,000 years ago and they disappeared about 28,000 BC. Clearly the Neanderthals were not stupid. They must have been resourceful to survive in a very harsh and dangerous environment. Nevertheless Neanderthal technology was primitive. They made simple tools of wood, stone and antler. Using spears they hunted reindeer, horses, red deer and bison. They also sometimes ate mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.

The Neanderthals made simple clothes from animal skins. They used stone borers to make holes in the edges of skins and threaded leather thongs through.

Modern humans appeared in Africa about 100,000 years ago. About 35,000 years ago they entered Europe when it was in the grip of an ice age. (They are sometimes called Cro-Magnons).

In harsh environment the Cro-Magnons hunted mammoth, reindeer, red deer, bison and wild horses. They invented the spear thrower, which allowed them to hurl spears much further than before. The Cro-Magnons also used bows and arrows. They also fished using harpoons tipped with bone points.

Although we often call them cave men in fact caves were absent from much of Europe. In those places the Cro-Magnons made tents using mammoth bones as supports.

The Cro-Magnons were not stupid or brutish. On the contrary they were highly skilled at making efficient tools from stone, bone, wood and antler.

The Cro-Magnons made warm clothes such as trousers, coats and boots from animal skins using bone needles.

Stone hammers with wooden handles were used as early as 10,000 BC. So were nets made of vines.

The Agricultural Revolution

After 9,000 BC a great change came over the world. Previously humans lived by hunting animals and gathering plants. Then about 8,500 BC people began to grow wheat, barley, peas and lentils instead of gathering them wild. By 7,000 BC they domesticated sheep, pigs and goats. By 6,000 BC they also domesticated cattle.

Farming first began in the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from Israel north to southeast Turkey then curves southeast to the Persian Gulf. However agriculture was invented independently in other parts of the world as well.

The invention of agriculture took place over millenia but it fundamentally changed human life. People began to live in settled communities instead of being nomadic or semi-nomadic. When the food supply improved the population increased. Most of all people developed new skills, first making pottery then using metals. Finally they invented writing.

Pottery was first made in the Middle East and North Africa about 7,000 BC. Pottery was, of course, no use to people living a nomadic or semi-nomadic life but it was very useful to people living in settled villages.

Catal Huyuk was one of the world's first towns. It was built in what is now Turkey about 6,500 BC not long after farming began.

In Catal Huyuk the houses were made of mud brick. Houses were built touching against each other. They did not have doors and houses were entered through hatches in roofs. Since houses were built touching each other the roofs must have acted as streets! People must have walked across them.

People in Catal Huyuk wore clothes woven from wool. They also wore jewellery made of stone, bone and shell.

The people of Catal Huyuk wove baskets of reeds. They also made pottery and they used obsidian, a hard volcanic rock to make tools and weapons. Craftsmen made dishes of wood. They also made carved wooden boxes for storage.

Meanwhile about 7,000 BC Chinese farmers began growing millet. About 6,500 BC they began growing rice. By about 6,000 BC farming had also begun in the Indus Valley. Then, about 3,500 BC people in Mexico began growing maize and beans.

Meanwhile farming spread from the Middle East to Europe. By about 4,000 BC people in central Europe were using oxen to pull ploughs and wagons. About the same time people in the Middle East began using donkeys as beasts of burden. Also about 4,000 BC horses were domesticated on the steppes of Eurasia.

Furthermore about 4,500 BC people began using copper tools. By about 3,500 they used bronze tools.

Farming reached England about 4,500 BC. The early farmers mined flint for making tools. They dug shafts, some of them 15 metres (50 feet) deep. They used deer antlers as picks and oxen shoulder blades as shovels. They also made pottery vessels but they still wore clothes made from skins. They erected simple wooden huts to live in.

After 2,000 BC English society was changed by the invention of Bronze. Metal artefacts appeared in England as early as 2,700 BC although it is believed they were imported. By about 2,000 BC bronze was being made in England.

Bronze is made of 9 parts copper and one part tin. It is, of course, harder than stone and provided more efficient tools and weapons. The Bronze Age people also rode horses and they were the first people in England to weave cloth. Bronze age women held their hair with bone pins and they wore crescent shaped necklaces.

Meanwhile by 5,000 BC people had learned to dig canals to bring water from rivers to their crops. As a result they began to farm the arid lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates. It was here that the world's first civilisation arose.

More about Prehistoric people