Nomadic habits, whether over wide plains, or through the dense forests of the tropics, or along the shores of the sea, have in every case been highly detrimental. Whilst observing the barbarous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, it struck me that the possession of some property, a fixed abode, and the union of many families under a chief, were the indispensable requisites for civilisation. Such habits almost necessitate the cultivation of the ground; and the first steps in cultivation would probably result, as I have elsewhere shewn, from some such accident as the seeds of a fruit-tree falling on a heap of refuse, and producing an unusually fine variety. The problem, however, of the first advance of savages towards civilisation is at present much too difficult to be solved.
CHARLES DARWIN, THE DESCENT OF MAN
BY 30,000 YEARS AGO, with the Neanderthals ousted from Europe, and Homo erectus confined to a relict population in the forests of Flores, modern humans had replaced the archaic people who had occupied the world outside Africa for more than a million years. But in a sense, nothing had changed. The more modern humans, like the archaics whom they evicted, were foragers who lived off nature's bounty. They built nothing and left almost nothing behind, save for their stone tools. The newer humans crafted tools of far greater sophistication, including many of bone, and made works of art such as ivory figurines and the decorated caves of France and Spain. But they were still nomads, barred by their mobile way of life from all the material and intellectual possibilities of civilization.
These hunter-gatherers had one more great transition to make before entering the history of civilization. They had first to abandon their nomadic way of life and settle down in fixed communities. Given the great advantages of settled life, presumably settlement was not a previously available option. But why not? What made it so impossible for early people to put a roof over their heads and enjoy the comforts of a fixed abode? What had to happen to make the transition to settlement possible? Why did ancestral humans need to spend 35,000 years wandering in the wilderness before conceiving the benefits of settled life and civilization?
Just as a physical change leading to pygmy form has often evolved in people who live in forests, so a behavioral change may have been necessary for people to abandon the nomadic life they had always known. Settlement may seem a natural choice to us, but it requires a set of wrenching adjustments for hunter-gatherers. They must learn to live with strangers. They must abandon the freedom to move away from danger or from people they don't get along with. They must yield their firmly egalitarian way of life for a hateful social order of superior and inferior, rife with rules and priests and officials. Whether or not some genetic change was required to make it happen, the development of settled societies was a transition of profound importance. The interval from 50,000 years ago to 15,000 years ago, when the first settlements appear, is a formative period in human history, even though the precise road to settlement remains obscure.
This pre-settlement period is the subject of the present chapter, and the developments from settlement to agriculture are covered in the next. This division of the human past rests on the assumption that settlement was a decisive step in human evolutionary history and of considerably greater significance than one of its consequences, the expansion of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Such a demarcation, however, cuts across the usual division recognized by archaeologists. They call the period from about 45,000 to 10,000 years ago the Upper Paleolithic age, based on its characteristic suites of stone tools. These gave way 10,000 years ago to tools of the Neolithic age, which is also equated with the beginning of agriculture.
The shift from the Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic occurred at the same time as a major climatic transition, the ending of the great Pleistocene ice age that began 1.8 million years ago and the beginning of the Holocene, the warm period that has lasted to the present day. As with the Upper Paleolithic age, the end of the Pleistocene epoch is also set at around 10,000 years ago. With Africa and Australia already inhabited, the principal developments in human history during the period from 50,000 to 15,000 years ago were those taking place in the Eurasian land mass. Though Europe and East Asia have long had separate and distinctive histories, during the Upper Paleolithic age the peoples of Eurasia followed the same way of life, hunted the same animals across the Eurasian steppe, and endured the same vicissitudes of climate. At the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, there must have been some intertwining of the populations of west and east Eurasia since both were drawn from a common source, that of the first emigrants who reached India. Women who belong to the mitochondrial lineage known as X are wit nesses of this distant bond. Some of X's daughters migrated northwest from India and are European; others traveled northeast, crossed Siberia and the land bridge to Alaska, and are now American Indians.
Only gradually did east and west diverge. The vastness of Eurasia inevitably pushed its Upper Paleolithic people into separate trajectories. This chapter follows the peoples of the west, as they took the slow and difficult steps toward settlement, and the peoples of the east as they domesticated the dog and discovered the Americas.
During the Pleistocene, much of northern Europe and northern Asia, or Siberia, was covered in glaciers, and the climate was much drier than now, with frigid deserts skirting the glaciers' southern edges. Because so much of the oceans' water was locked up in ice, sea level was more than 200 feet lower for much of the period and the map of the world, could people of the Upper Paleolithic have envisioned any such thing, was very different. Besides the since shrunken continents of Sunda and Sahul, a third land mass, one that is now totally submerged, lay between Siberia and Alaska. Beringia would serve as a broad land bridge to the Americas, but not immediately; for much of the time it was too dry to support vegetation and game, or the travelers who might depend on them.
With their talent for innovation, the people of the Upper Paleolithic quickly learned to live in the frozen north, drawn by the rivers of reindeer that flowed across the vast expanse of the Eurasian tundra. Over the millennia, as the climate and ecological conditions changed, they would switch to mammoth, then to ibex and red deer, and back to reindeer. One culture succeeded another in the archaeological record, but the foraging way of life remained a constant. As the Pleistocene ice age drew toward its close, a dramatic change occurred in the world's climate. About 20,000 years ago, in an unparalleled catastrophe known as the Last Glacial Maximum, the glaciers came surging back for a last time, rendering most of northern Europe and Siberia uninhabitable. The world's population was probably between 1 and 10 million people at the time. A large proportion would have been affected by the sudden chill in climate. The people and animals of Eurasia survived only in southern refuges. Five thousand years later, the glaciers relaxed their hold on the Eurasian continent and retreated, allowing the survivors to move north once more.
Because Europe's archaeology, languages and genetics have so far received more attention than those of any other region of the world, Europe is the best theater in which to follow the history of human foraging societies. On the basis of stone tools, archaeologists have distinguished a succession of European cultures in the Upper Paleolithic age. The earliest, the Aurignacian, lasted from 45,000 to 28,000 years ago. Sites with Aurignacian tools occur in France, Italy and much of eastern Europe, with an outlying province in the Levant. The Aurignacians were presumably accomplished fighters since it was they who steadily drove back and eventually exterminated the fierce Neanderthals. But their culture was not purely martial; it included the magnificent artists who decorated the Chauvet cave in the Ardeche Valley of France, the earliest known of the great painted caves of Europe. The cave, according to the evidence of radiocarbon dates, was occupied at two periods, first from 32,000 to 30,000 years ago, and then again from 27,000 to
25,000 years ago. Its walls are dominated by paintings of lions, mammoths and rhinoceroses, animals that were rarely hunted, according to archaeological evidence, as well as horses, reindeer, aurochsen, and an owl. The beauty and expressiveness of the paintings speak directly to contemporary observers. Yet despite the empathy they may arouse, the paintings' meaning, and the intent of their makers, is simply unknown. The natural assumption is that only people like ourselves could create such appealing works of art. But it is also possible that these are works of a savage intelligence that saw the world with the same visual system and a profoundly different mind.
Because of the cold climate that then prevailed, Europe and much of the Eurasian steppe were covered not in forest but in vast grasslands that supported abundant reindeer, woolly mammoths, bison and antelope. These animals provided ample subsistence for hunters, as well as valuable materials like hide, bone, ivory and antler.
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