Prehistoric Cultures

Pamela Hayes-Bohanan. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

The study of prehistoric culture concerns preliterate societies from their earliest development until the beginnings of the first political structures—the Greek and Roman empires. Neanderthals, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens were among some of these early peoples. Of these, only the Homo sapiens survived. Some of these peoples coexisted for periods of time. There is not always a clear indication of the time frame when different societies lived, as some developed at faster rates than others. Evidence of humans in Africa is millions of years older than evidence in the Americas. Even today, there are some hunter-gatherer societies that are without written language. The study of these societies is called protohistory.

Anthropologists make determinations about prehistoric cultures based on the best available evidence. Interpretations of artifacts and settlements are open to debate, and as more evidence is found, or uncovered, new interpretations are made.

Out of Africa

Current evidence suggests that the first hominids walked the earth over 5 million years ago. The earliest fossils indicate that there were people in Africa perhaps as long as 5.5 million years ago. These early people were much smaller than modern humans and had a much smaller brain capacity. They were of the genera Australopithecus and Paranthropus. These comprised several species that lived in Africa from approximately 5 million to 1.3 million years ago. As the Australopithecus and Paranthropus moved toward extinction, the first Homo erectus began to appear approximately 2.5 million years ago. The first humans to leave Africa were probably the Homo erectus. Bones of Homo erectus dating 1.5 million years old have been found in Indonesia. Humans continued to evolve and migrate across Asia and Europe, eventually crossing the Bering Strait into Alaska during the last Ice Age and ultimately populating North and South America. Different theories put this at between 13,500 and 20,000 years ago. Some say that this population expansion would have taken place on foot, but new evidence indicates that some of it may have taken place along the western coast of the Americas in boats. Evidence of people in Australia dates to approximately 100,000 years ago. There was no land bridge from Asia to Australia; the migration would have taken place in boats.

More recent theories suggest that hominids may have evolved in Asia separately from those in Africa or even that the migration took place in reverse (Asia to Africa). However, evidence for these theories is sparse. As more paleoanthropological work is done in Asia, more light may be shed on the question. The focus during the late 20th and early 21st century has been on Africa.

There is some debate as to when the very first humans appeared in Europe. Evidence from findings of stone tools can put the very earliest people as far back as 1.5 million years ago. However, the oldest bones discovered come from a cave called Gran Dolina in Northern Spain. These bones are about 800,000 years old. The bones are similar to the Homo ergaster found in Africa, but because of facial differences, a new species name was suggested by excavators—Homo antecessor. Because of these differences, some suggest that this species evolved from a separate, much later wave of movement out of Africa rather than from those who peopled Asia.


Human Paleontology and Archaeology

The study of human fossils involves the recovery and interpretation of remains. These remains are usually bones, wood, and stone. Under certain conditions, however, muscle, tissue, skin, and feces have also been preserved. Cultural adaptations (use of fire, toolmaking, and language) have made the interpretation of these remains more difficult. The earliest humans adapted to the environment biologically and behaviorally. Later humans manipulated their environment. Interpretation is also made difficult by the fact that most fossil records are incomplete. Bones get scattered, and pieces are missing. Skeletons and bones that are missing pieces were historically pieced together with glue and plaster; today, however, computer technology is used to fill in the gaps and to generate images of facial features.

In addition, interpretations are made based on found artifacts and on excavations of settlements and burial sites. Interpretation of the finds can be difficult, as archaeologists cannot always tell if a site has been disturbed by other societies. It is often difficult to study death rituals as grave sites are places where significant wealth can be found and therefore are common targets of looters.

Written History

For the most recent prehistoric societies, anthropologists have some written records; for instance, the Greek and Roman records of the Iron Age reference other pre-literate societies. The conquistadores of what is now Latin America have written records of the people they encountered. And the Europeans who came to Australia in the 17th century have records of the Aborigines. However, researchers must keep in mind that these records are necessarily written by those whose culture was quite different and who would have found the customs of others strange, although they were perfectly normal to those practicing them.

Observation of Modern Societies and Primates

Anthropologists can draw some conclusions by observing preliterate societies today. However, caution must be taken when making these conclusions. Although modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) have existed for about 40,000 years, today’s hunter-gatherer societies are living in a much changed world from that of the original hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers in the 21st century may have contact with those who practice agriculture. They are often living in areas with poor soil, and their hunting practices may be different as the type and range of game available has changed drastically.

Three Ages of Prehistory

The study of prehistoric peoples in Europe, Africa, and Asia is divided into three broad periods, the Stone Age (which is further divided into the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods), the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The ages are defined by the types of tools used during the period. There are no clear beginning and ending dates for these ages as people in different parts of the world progressed through them at different times.

Stone Age: Paleolithic

The Stone Age is the longest of the three ages, beginning from about 2.5 million years ago and continuing until the beginning of the use of metals for toolmaking (about 5,000 years ago). Tools in the Stone Age were made of stone, bone, and antler.

Lower Paleolithic

The earliest stone tools were formed of flakes and cores, and they appeared about 2.6 million years ago. They were apparently used for hammering, cutting, and smashing. Fossils in East Africa indicate that early hominids of the Pliocene epoch lived in forests and other wooded areas.

Although humans are omnivores, diet was probably primarily vegetarian. Animal protein was probably derived from all types of animals, including birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and insects. Although bones from very large animals (including elephants and rhinoceroses) have been uncovered at some very early archaeological sites, it is unlikely that they were hunted by the early hominids and instead were scavenged. Early humans did not have tools sophisticated enough to kill the animals, and evidence indicates that they would not have hunted any animal larger than themselves. Rotten food was probably routinely eaten—and a taste developed for it—as scavengers ate what they found, and there was no way to keep food fresh.

The earliest fossil specimens of Homo erectus date from 1.78 million years ago at Koobi Fori. The range covers most of the African continent, with exceptions in the western and central forest areas. Fossils indicate that some Homo erectus were cave dwellers while others lived in open sites. They were the first hominid to leave Africa; early bones were found in Indonesia from about 1.5 million years ago. These bones were given the name Java man after the site where the bones were first discovered. At about the same time, tools evolved from course pebble chopping tools and flakes to bifacial hand axes. Homo erectus hominids were hunter-gatherers and were well used to fire. They were probably the first to cook food.

There is still debate as to how much speech capacity Homo erectus may have had. Some say grunts and basic guttural noises were possible; others say that they could not have lived and hunted cooperatively without a more developed speech.

Social groups were probably small, about 40 to 50 people, with foraging groups 10% of that. Female and male foraging ranges were different. Female ranges would have been less wide. It is unlikely that Homo erectus would have foraged more than a day’s walk beyond their water source as they would have had no watertight containers with which to carry water for longer hunts. The social organization of the early hominids is still open to debate. Some evidence suggests polygyny, the practice of men having more than one female mate, was observed.

Middle Paleolithic

Several different hominids lived during the earliest part of the Stone Age (approximately 2 million to 10,000 years ago). Some of these peoples coexisted, and there is still debate as to whether some of these human species may have interbred or if some became extinct all together or if one species evolved from another. The Neanderthal (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) is named for the Neander Valley in Germany where many of the remains have been found. Neanderthal remains have also been found in Spain, Britain, Asia, and the Middle East. The Neanderthals’ appearance was marked by a short, stocky stature; wide brow; and protruding bun at the base of the skull. These remains date from as long ago as 230,000 years to 10,000 years ago. These hunter-gatherers traveled in small groups (fewer than 30 people) and did not set up permanent settlements. Some lived in caves, although there is also evidence that some of the Neanderthals lived in open sites. The fact that they lived in caves has helped us to study them, as the limestone has preserved their bones well. They appear to have moved frequently over short distances and used whatever materials were on hand rather than taking things with them when they moved. The cooperative hunting they practiced involved big game. Because they used spears rather than bows and arrows, surrounding and herding the game was essential. Thrusting of spears at close range after driving the game into a bog was probably the common practice; however, this also meant that the hunters were easily put in harm’s way, and in fact, skeletal remains often indicate numerous injuries. Very few Neanderthals lived beyond 40 years of age. Neanderthals’ diet also included small prey, such as tortoises, shellfish, and lizards. These would have been easy to catch and would require less planning than a big-game hunt and were certainly less dangerous. At many of the Neanderthal sites, there is clearly an indication of taste preference as shown by a preponderance of certain types of animal bones, providing evidence of a hunter-gatherer culture rather than a scavenger culture. Plants were a very small part of the Neanderthal diet.

There is still debate as to whether the Neanderthals practiced any kind of ritual. There is evidence that they buried their dead; however, whether this was part of a ritual or simply an efficient way of disposal is not known. Bodies have been found in most instances placed in rectangular pits in flexed positions and covered with stone slabs and sometimes with “grave goods”—flowers, animal parts, tools, and semiprecious stones. In other cases, bodies were not covered but were found in shelters; however, even these appear to have been placed with some sort of ritual—two bodies placed head-to-head, for example. Grave goods have also been discovered with some but not all of these bodies. Some archaeologists argue, however, that none of these were ritualistic, and can be explained through natural processes.

There is also debate concerning the practice of cannibalism. Cutmarks on some human bones are consistent with those seen on animal bones, indicating flesh removal; bones were broken in a way that would have exposed the marrow. It is not known whether this was a death ritual or if it was a desperate act to get food; indeed, some suggest it does not indicate cannibalism at all and that the cutmarks were ceremonial. There is other evidence that interpersonal violence was not uncommon among the Neanderthals. Skeletal remains show signs of healed wounds; although some appear to be accidental or inflicted by nonhuman predators, others were obviously inflicted intentionally.

Upper Paleolithic

The Upper Paleolithic period marks the transition from the Neanderthals to the “fully modern” human (Homo sapiens sapiens). This period was roughly from 45,000 to 30,000 years ago. By 10,000 years ago, all the Neanderthals had disappeared. Humans during the Upper Paleolithic wove clothing and nets, and they began to build huts or other shelters from bones and animal hides or rocks. It is not known whether this indicates that the inhabitants stayed at the shelters year-round or returned to them on a regular basis.

Tools from this period are carved and polished rather than chipped, and show other technological advances. Blades are long and narrow and have parallel sides; other tools include the eyed needle and the bow and arrow. In addition, we see a profusion of items used as ornaments. Beads and pendants made from bone, ivory tusks, animal teeth, shells, stones, and antlers are in abundance. Art is also in evidence during this period. Carvings of animals and humans have been discovered as well as cave art in the form of painting and carving and fired clay to make figurines.

There is evidence of exchange of goods during this period. Shells and fossils from one area appear to have been transported very long distances (800-1,000 kilometers) to other areas. This exchange can indicate a desire for adornment and/or a social and economic “safety net.”

Stone Age: Mesolithic

The Mesolithic time period (approximately 10,000-7,000 years ago) is marked by the end of the last Ice Age. There were major climactic changes as glaciers melted, and people began to migrate north.

The Mesolithic period also saw the earliest stages of agriculture. Animals such as goats, sheep, cows, pigs, and chickens were first domesticated in Asia and the Near East approximately from 9,000 to 8,000 years ago. Meat was essentially kept fresh by keeping livestock alive until needed.

Tools of the Early Mesolithic were microliths—composite tools inserted into shafts made of replaceable parts. Stone, antler, teeth, and bone were all used in making tools.

Big-game hunting, as well as fishing, was a large part of the subsistence economy of this time period. Shellfish became more important during the late Mesolithic period. This may be due to stabilization of sea levels. Some animals such as beaver, lynx, wildcat, and wolf appeared to have been hunted only for their fur. “Gathering” became more important as legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables comprised more of the diet.

Shelter was in the form of caves, rock shelters, and huts. Evidence from these settlements suggests that the Early Mesolithic groups were rather small and somewhat mobile, traveling within a diameter of 80 to 100 kilometers from their settlements. During the later Mesolithic period, groups became more sedentary. There is also evidence of some trade between groups whose settlements were up to 250 kilometers apart.

Art forms began to take on geometric patterns as well as animal and human forms. Beads and other artwork were made from amber, animal teeth, stone, bone, antler, shells, fossils, and red ochre. Jewelry was used during the Late Mesolithic, and tools were decorated with geometric patterns. Pottery and wood were also used during the Late Mesolithic. Hunting and fishing are themes in the petroglyphs found from this time period.

The first real cemetery is dated from this time period. Bodies were placed in a variety of positions (supine, flexed, and sitting). Grave goods were common. There appears to be a real distinction of gender with men being buried with tools and women with jewelry. There are also indications of segregation by status during this time, with special status given to the wealthy (usually adult males) or shamans. Also, in some areas, there is evidence of a “skull cult” in which skulls are separated from the bodies and buried separately.

Stone Age: Neolithic

The Neolithic ranged from approximately 7,000 to 5,000 years ago. The first farmers practiced mixed farming, using plants and animals. As plants and animals were domesticated, some competition for land between the farmers and the hunter-gatherers would have been expected. It is not known how long these two cultures coexisted or to what extent they cooperated. Some anthropologists believe there may have been an exchange of goods between the two groups (labor for domesticated goods during harvest time). Others believe that as the two groups competed there may have been an increase of warfare. There are several theories as to how farming grew across Europe: Perhaps farmers migrated from the Middle East, or one group of people may have learned about agriculture through trade with others. Slash-and-burn agriculture was probably the method of cultivation. Horses, Bactrian camels, ducks, dogs, and water buffalo were domesticated in Asia during this period. “Aquaculture” (the cultivation of water plants and animals) began in Northern China. In river valleys in China, the importance of fishing is evident in the use of canoes and in tools such as fishhooks, harpoons, spears, and stone net sinkers.

Early Neolithic peoples probably were part of groups larger than those in the previous epochs, perhaps 250 people interconnected through kinship links. These were egalitarian societies. Status was not something that could be inherited but perhaps could be obtained through age, achievement, or talent. It appears, though, that men had a higher status than women. Rituals became important in household and community life.

Exchange of goods across geographic areas was evident as not all raw materials were naturally available in all areas where goods produced from the resources were found. Some of this trade would have been done directly within kin systems and probably involved reciprocity. Trade with strangers, however, may have been more deviant, and included robbery, cheating, and violence.

These early cultivators likely moved frequently, returning to the same place on repeated occasions. People built shelters of wooden posts and mud walls—rather than using already-formed rocks and caves—and lived in villages. Settlements consisted of longhouses and pits. Most long-houses were living spaces, but some appear to have been used for communal or ritual purposes. These buildings were longer than the living spaces and had some structural differences. Structures were rebuilt on the same spot over generations. Some archaeologists believe that the houses were occupied seasonally; others say that they were lived in year-round and rebuilt when they collapsed. Long-term occupation of specific spots is indicated by the buildup of debris. Some believe that status may have been afforded to those whose family occupied the same spot for a long period of time.

The Neolithic period is marked by the beginning of a pottery culture. Pottery vessels indicate first use of storage for grains and seeds as well as drinking vessels and burials. Pottery was decorated with patterns, using shapes, lines, bands, and whorls. In river valleys where fishing was common, fish designs were used as decorations. Pottery was made from coiling techniques and finished with bone scrapers, stone polishers, and pigment and other decorating techniques using impressions and appliqués. In some areas, kilns were found; in others, it appears pottery was burned on the ground.

In Europe, figurines believed to be part of a ritual or religious icons have been found in what appear to be communal areas. Clay figures of men, women, asexual humans, and human figures with penises and breasts have been discovered as well as animal figurines. The majority of figures, however, are of women. It does appear that goddess worship was part of their religious practices. One theory suggests that there are so many women figures because they represented fertility. This would have been especially important in an agricultural society.

In China, a separate cemetery was part of the village. There was clearly a ritual aspect to the burials. Ornaments, including pottery vessels, beads, and grains were often placed in the graves, with some singular burials standing out as especially elaborate compared with multiple burials. Some burial sites segregated the deceased by gender or age. Placement of bodies was deliberate. They were clearly placed in specific positions and pointed in specific directions. Others appear to be segregated by clan or wealth status; still others did not segregate at all. European burial customs involved burying and cremation. Grave goods were evident, with some of these being gender specific (arrowheads for men, jewelry for women), and as in China, placement of bodies was intentional.

Evidence of violence during this period demonstrates that brutal raids for mates or resources may have taken place. Several sites with mass graves of people who died of similar wounds have been discovered.

Bronze Age

The Bronze Age is marked by the beginning of the use of metals for toolmaking. Ore extraction took place in mines, and alloys (combinations of metals) were developed along with mold forms and other technological developments for an early type of “mass production.” Decorations were added to pieces after they were smoothed, and seams were removed, providing evidence that aesthetics, in addition to function, was becoming more important.

The Bronze Age began at different times for different societies, as early as 3000 BCE in Greece. But in other parts of Europe, it did not start for another 1,000 years. While some trade of raw and manufactured materials took place in the Mediterranean, farming was still the principal occupation, with subsistence agriculture an essential aspect of the culture. Most settlements were in small villages. Houses were made of wooden posts with daub-and-wattle walls (mud, clay, woven branches) or log cabins. Some houses were small, one-room buildings; others were larger multiroom structures. In some settlements, particularly in the East Mediterranean, there were central palaces, indicating a status given to one family or kin group that was unavailable to others.

Trade of raw materials and of manufactured “commodities,” such as beads, ornaments, pottery, and weapons, is evident. Movement of goods took place not only over land but also by water.

Woodworking continued to be important for building of trackways across wet ground, for making bowls and other containers, and for making farm implements, such as hoes, plows, and rakes. Bone and antler continued to be used for the manufacture of weapons and tools. In the later Bronze Age, elaborate armor and shields were developed for protection during warfare.

Weaving of cloth is evident, and new techniques were developed. Wool and flax were the most commonly used fabrics. Textiles were woven on looms. As the Bronze Age progressed, the weaving became more complex to create patterns; this, in addition to the use of decorations and ornaments on clothes, indicates the desire to express oneself. The ornaments on the pottery became more elaborate during the Bronze Age and included bones, teeth, and jade.

The typical means of disposing of dead bodies was burial or cremation. Urns were used to dispose of ashes. Cemeteries and cremation pits were the norm, and there was often a distinct placement of the bodies when burial was used. Often, there was a difference by sex as to how the head was oriented or on which side (left or right) the body was placed. Grave goods might indicate the occupation of the occupant, such as metallurgical equipment. Men were sometimes buried with swords, perhaps indicating status gained from a warrior society. Women were commonly buried with “ornament sets,” which could have indicated marital status and age. The types of goods placed in the graves as well as the positions and different treatments of the bodies indicate that there was some social status afforded to few that the many did not have.

Iron Age

As iron replaced bronze as the principal material for tools and weapons, new technologies were developed. The Iron Age ended around the time of Christ with the Roman conquest of Europe. As with other ages, the movement from one manufacturing material to another was a gradual process that developed over hundreds of years. And many of the technologies and industries used in previous times continued to be important. Flint and bronze remained in common use for tools and other purposes, and farming continued to be an essential part of the subsistence economy.

Cereals and domestic animals continued to be an important aspect of the subsistence economy although food production was made more efficient by several technological advances. Iron plowshares allowing for exploitation of richer soils and scythes allowing for more efficient harvesting of hay for feeding animals as well as other tools made farming a more efficient operation, and fewer farmers were needed to feed people. During the Late Iron Age, rotary querns (an early form of mill) made from stone came into widespread use for grinding grains, creating yet another more efficient method for providing more food.

Even as methods for extracting and refining iron came into use, bronze was still commonly used for some tools, jewelry, ornaments, and vessels. Pottery also remained widely used for several purposes: storage containers for grain, seed, and water; tripod cooking utensils; cups and bowls for eating and drinking; and burial urns. The use of the potter’s wheel is evident and would have made production of pottery more efficient. Wool, linen, silk (imported from the orient), and animal hair are all evident as textiles and cloths.

Trade between geographically distant areas was a regular feature of the Iron Age. Amber, bronze, precious metals, and salt were among some of the most commonly traded items. A barter system was certainly in place, and by the end of the Iron Age there is clear evidence of the use of coins.

Fortified stone and earth walls; weapons such as lances, spears, shields, and battle axes; and art work depicting soldiers wearing armor all indicate warfare. Lances and shields in graves were common in burials of men who were believed to be warriors.

Complex social and political structures started to form during the Iron Age. Wooden tracks to ease commerce and trade demonstrate political structures beyond subsistence farming. Manufacturing and trade of goods across Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East is evident. Luxury goods at certain burial sites and houses with clay floors at some settlements indicate the emergence of an elite class.

Deposits of metal objects in special locations, such as hot springs, have been interpreted as being offerings to gods or part of another ceremonial practice. This interpretation is made possible by the fact that Greek and Roman societies began using written language, and some of the offerings were inscribed. However, the practice is evident in many parts of Europe, in both pre-literate and literate societies.


The Aboriginal culture of Australia dates from approximately 40,000 years ago, although there is evidence of humans in Australia (stone tools and cave art) from as long ago as 100,000 years. Tools were generally made of stone, shell, and bone. The Aborigines were among the first to use stone-ground tools (10,000 years before Europeans) and used the tools for woodworking to make hunting implements, such as spears, clubs, and boomerangs. Designs on these implements as well as on sacred objects were carved or painted, making all objects sacred. Music and dance rituals that called on theDreamtime (the time before the collective memory of the tribe) ancestors gave the implements power.

The Aborigines were organized into tribes, which were governed by elders. Size ranged from several hundred to over 1,000. A variety of factors affected this number such as abundance or scarcity of food. There is evidence of trade between tribes over long distances. Mobility of the tribe may have been based on resources; where there were more, there was less mobility.

Tribes were subdivided into clans based on kinship of genealogy and marriage. A person with whom one could not find a common relative was a stranger, but if a pair had any relative in common, whether through a genealogic line or through marriage, they would be considered kin. Depending on the tribe, a marriage might have been arranged by the families of the man and woman, or the partners may have arranged it themselves. In other cases, camps were raided by others, and the women were taken by force. Polygyny was widely practiced among the Aborigines.

Europeans encountered the Aborigines in the 17th century, which drastically altered the Aborigines’ way of life with regard to how land was viewed. Aborigines did not see land as something that could be owned or bought and sold.


The peopling of the Americas probably begins with the first migration across the Bering Strait, which may have been as long ago as 20,000 years. The migration continued along the west coast of North America and eventually into Central and South America, where evidence shows that the first people arrived approximately 10,000 years ago.

North America

There are not clear divisions of time periods for North American prehistoric cultures, although several attempts have been made to divide these cultures into time periods based on culture traits, artifacts, and projectile points. The earliest people are usually referred to by the term Paleo-Indians; the Clovis and Folsom cultures are two of these very early hunter-gatherer cultures. This period is followed by the Archaic period, the preagricultural cultures of North America. And then came the Woodland cultures, marked by agriculture and ceramics. This final period in some areas of North America did not end until after colonization.

The first people to arrive in North America were likely to have been mammoth and mastodon hunters. Tools found on the continent are dated from about 9,000 to 20,000 years ago and were designed to be used in group hunting to stab a large animal at close range. By 6000 BCE, other game was being hunted such as moose, bison, bear, and caribou.


The Clovis culture hunting tools are identified by fluted points, the first of which were found embedded in some now extinct mammals (bison and mammoth) in New Mexico. It appears that these points were attached to the end of a handle or shaft and used as a knife. Evidence of Clovis culture has been identified throughout North America and into Central and South America. Later Folsom culture tools indicate that these fluted points were used as projectiles. Some Folsom sites appear to have been used as gathering places for communal hunts. Post-Folsom Paleo-Indian sites have been discovered west of the Mississippi. These sites include a variety of point styles, indicating there were several different groups of Paleo-Indians, with differing styles of hunting and diets. Those on the Great Plains appear to have hunted large mammals, whereas those in the foothills and mountains hunted smaller game and ate more plants.

Archaic Indians

As the Pleistocene period ended and the climate began to warm, people of the Holocene period in North America had to adapt to the changes in the environment. Large mammals became extinct, weather became warmer, and lakes in southwestern North America began to dry out. Archaic culture refers to the nonagricultural adaptations prehistoric peoples made in response to these climactic changes.

Drier climates in southwestern North America forced some people to migrate into the mountains; others stayed and adapted by taking advantage of seasonal changes and new flora and fauna. Archaic people of California learned to manage the changing conditions by exploiting a variety of resources, including acorns, plants, fish and other sea food, and large animals. Early Californians also learned to control fires when dry conditions threatened the danger of chaparral fires and understood that these controlled burns promoted new growth. Plains people hunted bison as well as gathering nuts and berries.

There is a definite correlation between large-scale outbreaks of violence and catastrophic climactic changes. Violence and homicide were not uncommon among hunter-gatherers of North America. Evidence from various parts of the continent shows intentional projectile wounds, scalping, decapitation, and forearm trophy taking. One especially remarkable case involves a site at Saunaktuk (Eskimo Lakes region of the Northwest Territories). Human remains from the massacre show various signs of trauma, including cuts, slashes, and long bone splitting. The latter almost always is an indication of cannibalism. And while it appears that males were usually the victims and perpetrators of violence, most of the victims in this massacre were women and children. The men of the victimized group may have been out on a beluga whale hunt. This case is especially interesting because oral tradition confirms what was found in the excavation site.

Woodland Phase Indians

The Woodland phase is determined by three traits: manufacture of pottery, agriculture, and the appearance of burial mounds.

The gathering of plant foods became more controlled, and people began to select seeds from the best wild plants to sow and harvest themselves. They also began to store food for later use so that migration was less frequent. As populations grew, villages became too big to sustain agricultural productivity. Trade of foods and other goods between distant populations began.

Burial of the dead is clear in several sites. Some burial sites were simple; others, like the Hopewell complex, a large, precisely built burial mound dating from about 2,000 to 1,500 years ago, show an elaborate ritual associated with funerals. Grave goods brought from distant locations and carved into artifacts were buried with the dead.


Prehistoric culture in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) is divided into several time periods dating from about 10000 BCE, the earliest evidence of humans in the area, through the time of colonization by Europeans in the 16th century CE. These periods are the Paleo-Indian (10000-3500 BCE); Archaic (3500-1800 BCE); Preclassic (2000 BCE-CE 250); Classic (CE 200-900); Postclassic (CE 900-1519); and Postconquest (up to CE 1697).


It is believed that the first inhabitants of Mesoamerica arrived during the last Ice Age. Tools similar to those found in North America indicating the Clovis culture have been discovered in Central America as well. There is evidence as far south as Brazil of the peopling of South America from as long ago as 12,000 years. The first people in Central and South America were hunter-gatherers.

Archaic to Preclassic Eras

During the Archaic era, people began to cultivate plant food rather than forage. Agriculture continued to be developed in the Preclassic era through the cultivation of maize, and the first cities began to appear.

The earliest of the preclassic cultures was the Olmec (1200-500 BCE). The name was provided by scholars; it is unknown what the inhabitants actually called themselves. The Olmec Empire was centered in what is now Veracruz, Mexico, on the southern Gulf Coast. This was the first culture to build stone monuments. Most of these monuments appear to be of rulers. Many have been mutilated. It is not known if the mutilation was intentional for ritual purposes or if it was the work of non-Olmec vandals.


Perhaps the largest and best known of the classic cultures is the Mayan, although evidence from the Preclassic period indicates they had villages as early as 1800 BCE, and there are still over 6 million Mayans in Central America today. The ancient Mayans occupied an area that included eastern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.

City centers were built in rain forests and were therefore sparsely populated. They were used for ceremonial purposes, including human sacrifice. The farmers lived much farther out, as each needed space for crops. Farming would have been difficult in the humid areas. Slash-and-burn agriculture was practiced, and new land would have had to be cultivated every 7 years.

The Mayans were the first in the Americas to develop writing. Their system was based on hieroglyphics and phonetic symbols. There are some records in the form of codices, books made of bark, and writings on stones and wood, which provide mythological and historic accounts of these peoples. The Maya also developed a calendar based on a 365-day year with 18 months of 20 days each plus 5 “unnamed” days. They were also the first civilization to develop a mathematical system using zero.


During the Postclassic era, the autonomous villages began to give way to a more hierarchical structure in which some villages were under the control of others during the period from 1200-500 BCE. Along with this hierarchy came palaces for kings and temples for worship of ancestors. Temples were often built on pyramids in order to be seen from distances. These would necessarily have required intense labor. Empires were formed as different groups began to conquer neighboring towns and provinces. Some of the early empires were the Teotihuacán (CE 400-600), the Toltecs (CE 900-1200), the Mixtec (or Aztec), and the Incas. These last two were still in existence when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century.

Aztecs of Central Mexico

Aztec legend has it that Huitzilopochtli (their god) came in a vision and told them to find Tenochtitlan, which they would recognize by finding the place where an eagle lived on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. There, they developed their empire by conquering 489 towns. Tenochtitlan was very well developed with a system of paved streets and canals for transportation.

The Aztecs’ hierarchical structure included three levels of nobility: the tlatoque (“major nobility”), teuctlatoque (“lesser nobility”), and pipiltin (“nobles in general”). These levels were achieved through birth. Others (“commoners”) could earn a certain level of nobility (quauhpipiltin) through achievement but never to the same status of the pipiltin. Those without status included the macehualtin (“commoners”), mayeque (“landless peasants”), tlalmaitl (“farmhands”), andtlacotin (“slaves”).

Human sacrifices were common and believed to be necessary to appease the gods. The people “harvested” for these sacrifices came from wars and battles with neighboring armies, although in some cases a threat of an attack was enough to simply cause the neighboring army to provide captives for sacrifice. Counterattacks were unknown, as the Aztecs believed that the outcome of the battle was decided by the gods. This fatalism would prove to be their downfall when confronted by invaders from Spain.

Inca—Bolivia and Peru

The earliest Incas lived on coastal lowlands and cultivated beans, squash, chili pepper, and cotton. Later, their descendants moved into the lower Andes and eventually into the highlands. As they moved into the foothills, they began cultivating tubers. Moving farther up the mountains, they figured out how to cultivate the land by building soil terraces and upslopes and digging ditches to bring water down the mountain. They domesticated the llama (as a beast of burden), the alpaca and guinea pig (for meat), and the vicuña (for its wool).

Although they had no written records, the Incas created a “record-keeping system” of colored knots and cords calledquipu. It was used by priests to keep historic and religious records and was also an accounting method, which could be used for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.

Machu Picchu, located in the Andean mountains, was a sacred city of the Incan empire. Built with huge granite blocks and without cement, how this grand city was constructed is still unknown. Mystery also surrounds the use of this archaeological wonder. For every 10 women’s skeletons found there, there is only one man’s remains. Some suggest that the city was a refuge for virgins.

The Incas had no royalty until the 15th century when a small group moved into the Cuzco valley of what is now Peru, and rulers Pachauti and his son Tupac began an empire of some 2 million people. There, they developed a system of roads and bridges through the Andes. This society was based on wealth, power, and political stability.

Future Directions

The study of prehistoric cultures has implications in the fields of medicine, agriculture, and engineering. A rather new field of study called evolutionary medicine, or Darwinian medicine, is beginning to emerge. Through the study of diet and activity levels of early societies, health care professionals may gain insight into diseases and obesity that may be connected with a sedentary lifestyle that hunter-gatherer societies did not experience. Questions about how structures such as pyramids, Machu Picchu, and the Olmec sculptures were built and how the materials were transported without modern technology are still unanswered. Early agricultural practices involved mixed farming. Today, most farms are run by agribusinesses that specialize in a single type of crop or livestock. Genetic variability in these products is small and can lead an entire harvest to be wiped out by disease or plague. Some smaller farms are working on preserving genetic diversity by raising heritage breeds of livestock and planting heirloom seeds of crops. Further archaeological work in areas outside of Africa may yield new theories on how and where people evolved.


While contemporary cultures may be studied through direct observation, anthropologists study prehistoric cultures through the things they left behind. Some of these societies had sophisticated rituals for hunting, religion, death, and warfare and in addition built monuments and other structures that defy explanation today. There is much to study and learn from these cultures. Prehistoric peoples span a time period of over 5 million years, and they ultimately populated the earth on six of the seven continents. Despite popular images to the contrary, not all prehistoric people were “cavemen.” Some of the first prehistoric peoples lived in wooded areas or open sites, and later prehistoric people lived in shelters constructed from wood and other materials. The time periods generally associated with the study of prehistoric cultures (Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age) are specific to Africa, Europe, and Asia. The names of these ages refer to the types of tools used. Tools became more sophisticated as people progressed through these three ages, leading to the development of trade routes as roads were built and agricultural societies replaced the hunter-gatherer societies.

Evidence of humans in Australia is only about 100,000 years old. And people arrived in the Americas only about 20,000 years ago. Only the remains of the modern Homo sapiens sapiens have been found in North and South America.

Europeans who arrived in Australia and the Americas during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries encountered people who were living in cultures vastly different from their own.