The Stone Age

Cave of the Hands, Argentina
Cave art dating from from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #3: Daily Life in the Stone Age

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)

For the vast majority of history, Homo sapiens lived as hunter-gatherers, and this had significant impact on shaping their bodies and minds. Subconsciously, we still live in the stone-age. This is one of the central ideas of evolutionary psychology: our minds are shaped by evolutionary pressures. 

Some scholars believe that stone-age humans lived in communes without marriage or monogamy, and children were raised by the entire tribe. Other scholars strongly disagree. Yes, humans were more communal than now, they say, but even so, the basic cell of that society was a nuclear family of two parents with children. Such discussions are likely to ignore the fact that humans of stone age did not have a unified way of living. There were thousands of different groups living in various different regions and circumstances, and there was no single natural way of life.

Some generalizations, nonetheless, are probably true about human life in stone age:

* People lived in small bands (up to a maximum of a few hundreds). 

* There were no domesticated animals, with the exception of dog. The domestication of dog occurred before the agricultural revolution, with evidence from 15 thousand years ago. Dogs and humans basically co-evolved.

* High level of intimacy among people within groups.

* Relations with neighbouring bands were hostile as well as friendly, and large alliances were formed based on common causes (something which other human species couldn't do).

* They lived in constant movement, in search of food, dictated by seasons and annual migration of animals, the growth cycles of plants etc. Permanent fishing settlements on the coast of Indonesian islands, however, might have appeared as early as 45,000 years ago (might have been the base for invasion of Australia).

* They ate all variety of foods. For most bands, gathering was more important than hunting.

* Humans were physically and mentally in a state of great fitness. Individual humans required an immense amount of knowledge of their immediate world and various skills for survival, much more than we require today for individual survival. Collectively we know much more, but individually much less. There is some evidence that the size of average human brain has been decreasing since agricultural revolution.

* They had a better life in many ways that humans of the post-agricultural revolution era. They probably just worked 35-45 hours per week. Their lives were also more interesting (say, compare a Chinese forager 30 thousands years ago with a Chinese peasant from agricultural age or a Chinese factory worker today). Their nutritional status was much better than peasants of agricultural age, who depended on a very limited number of food stuffs. They suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of infectious disease today actually originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans after agricultural revolution. They lived in small communities, roaming around, which was not conducive for infectious diseases to spread within a tribe.
(The point is that history doesn't always progress from bad to good. Many good things of the past may have been lost in the way. From the perspective of an average peasant or average factory factor, perhaps the agricultural revolution was not such a good idea.)

* They, however, also had very high child mortality, even minor accidents could be fatal, social persecution could make one's life hell, and there was probably more violence.

* Animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers. The world, for them, was suffused with spirits and animated beings. Every place, animal, plant and natural phenomena had mind and awareness, and communication was possible through a variety of ways. There was no hierarchy among the spirits and the humans. Apart from this common characterization, different groups of animists would have held very different and distinct beliefs.

* At Sungir in Russia, there is a 30 thousand year old burial site of a society of mammoth hunters. In one particular grave, the grave of an old male is covered with ivory beads and the skeleton is adorned by a hat of fox-teeth and ivory bracelets. Others skeletons have far fewer decorations. Most likely it was a hierarchical society, and the adorned skeleton is that of a big chief. In another tomb at the same site, they found skeletons of two children, buried head to head, a boy and a girl, with similar extravagant adornments. One option why these children received such an extravagant burial is that they were children of some chief. Another option is that they were identified at birth as a reincarnation of some long dead spirit. A third option is that perhaps these children were sacrificed as a part of burial ritual. Whatever the case, this burial site at Sungir is among the best evidence that socio-political codes already existed among Homo sapiens 30 thousand years ago.

* On the question of large scale conflicts and wars, opinion is divided. Some scholars think wars started only after agricultural revolution with accumulation of private property. Other scholars think that the stone age was an exceptionally cruel and violent world. Evidence in support of either is based on anthropology and archaeology. 
Anthropological observations of hunter gatherers in large and dense populations in North America and North Australia in 19th century showed that there was relatively high frequency of armed conflict between different bands. This, however, is not conclusive, as violent behavior observed in modern times in not proof of such behavior in stone-age as well.
Archaeological evidence is also mixed. At sites such as Portugal and Israel, very few skeletons show clear marks of human violence. Remains at other places tell a different story. For instance, a burial site at the Offnet Cave in Bavaria provides evidence that a whole forager band was massacred. Most likely, different regions of the world at different times had varying violence rates.

* Over-all, however, we have a lot of speculations and very little evidence. We know practically nothing of the first 60 thousand years of the 70 thousand years of human history.