Life in Prehistoric Times

By Tim Lambert

The Cro-Magnon people

Modern humans appeared in Africa about 100,000 years ago. About 35,000 years ago they entered Europe. (They are sometimes called Cro-Magnons). At that time Europe was in the grip of an ice age. Forests only grew in the extreme south of Europe and most of it was covered in tundra or grassland.

In this harsh environment, Cro-Magnon men hunted animals like mammoths, 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.

The Cro-Magnons also made pendants from animal teeth (from fox, bear, and wolf) and from ivory. They also made necklaces of ivory beads and shells. They may also have painted or tattooed themselves.

The Cro-Magnons buried their dead. Bodies were sometimes covered in red ocher. We don’t know why although it has been suggested that the red ocher represented the blood of the living.

The Cro-Magnons were also an artistic people. They made small statuettes from ivory, bone, and stone. Some of the statuettes are pregnant women. They are sometimes called Venuses. We don’t know what they were for but they may have been fertility charms.

The Cro-Magnons are most famous for their cave paintings. We are not sure what the paintings were made for but they are impressive. Colors include black, red, yellow, and white. The Cro-Magnons used charcoal, ocher, and manganese to make them. Curiously humans were rarely painted on cave walls but many animals were. They include horses, bison, mammoths, reindeer, bears, and rhinoceroses. There is nothing crude about the paintings. On the contrary, the people who made them were highly skilled.

A woolly mammoth

We don’t know what the cave paintings were for but they may have been for sympathetic magic. Primitive peoples often believed that if a model or painting was made of a person or animal and a spell was cast on it that would somehow influence the real thing. Perhaps the cave paintings of animals were made so spells could be cast on them to make hunting them easier.

In 15,000 BC people were still living in caves but they made much more sophisticated tools of bone and stone. They also made clothes from animal skins and they made ‘jewelry’ of animal teeth and shells. These early people hunted animals like horses, deer, and wild cattle.

The end of the Ice Age

In those days what is now England was covered in tundra but about 8,500 BC the climate grew much warmer. Forests spread across England. At the same time, Britain was cut off from Europe.

About 7,500 BC a group of humans lived at Star Carr in what is now Yorkshire. They were hunter-gatherers. They hunted deer, wild cattle, pigs, and elk. They also ate birds, fish, and shellfish. By this time humans had also domesticated dogs. They may also have made boats. n Early Farmers in England

Then about 4,500 BC farming was introduced into what is now England. Using stone axes the farmers began clearing the forests that covered England. They grew crops of wheat and barley and they raised herds of cattle, pigs, and sheep. However as well as farming they also hunted animals such as deer, horse, and wild boar and smaller animals such as beavers, badgers, and hares. They also gathered fruit and nuts.

At the same time, the early farmers mined flint to make tools. They dug shafts, some of them 15 meters (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.

Moreover, the early farmers made elaborate tombs for their dead. They dug burial chambers and then lined them with wood or stone. Over them, they created mounds of earth called barrows.

From about 2,500 BC the Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers made circular monuments called henges. At first, they were simple ditches with stones or wooden poles erected in them. The most famous henge is, of course, Stonehenge. It began as a simple ditch with an internal bank of earth. Outside the entrance stood the Heel Stone. The famous circles of stones were erected hundreds of years later. Stonehenge was altered and added to over a thousand years from 2250 BC to 1250 BC before it was finished.

After 2,500 BC a new culture had spread across what is now England. The inhabitants are known as the Beaker People because of the pottery beakers they made. They were bell-shaped and were often decorated with bone or cords. However, it is not known if the Beaker People were a new race who migrated to England from Europe or if the people of England simply adopted a new culture. At any rate, by 2,000 BC English society was changed by the invention of Bronze. Metal artifacts 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 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.

In the late Bronze Age (1,000 BC-650 BC) forts were built on hills so warfare was, it seems, becoming common. This may have been because the population was rising and fertile land was becoming harder to obtain.

Meanwhile, the Bronze Age people continued to build barrows, although cremation was practiced. The dead were buried with useful artifacts. Presumably, the living believed the dead would need these in the afterlife. Unfortunately, since they had no written records nothing is known about the Bronze Age religion.

We know that Bronze Age people lived in round wooden huts with thatched roofs but nothing is known about their society or how it was organised. However, there were almost certainly different classes by that time. Tin and copper were exported from Britain along with animal hides. Jet and amber were imported for the rich.