Before History Began
By Patrick F. Cannon
I have always been puzzled by the word “prehistoric”, particularly since a good many people seem to write about what presumably happened before anything actually happened. How can something be called a prehistoric animal if we know all about it?
One supposes that what is really meant by prehistoric is that no-one around then was able to write things down, leaving it to later historians and archeologists to poke around in the rubble and try to figure out what might have gone on. Proper history only began when man began to scratch something intelligible on damp clay or a block of wood.
While I can’t actually vouch for the validity of what experts have written about prehistoric times, I’ll try to summarize their better guesses.
Prehistoric man lived in caves and wore animal skins. Since most animals don’t give up their skins willingly, we also presume that these early people were hunters. They used clubs and primitive spears. The human population was rather small in those days, so we know they didn’t succeed in all the encounters with their prey; indeed, it was sometimes hard to decide who was the prey.
In their hunting excursions, they naturally attempted to kill slow and toothless animals if at all possible. If they ran into a saber-toothed tiger or a wooly mammoth, they ran like the dickens.
There is a common misconception that man and the great dinosaurs lived at the same time. They did not, regardless of what Hollywood might indicate to the contrary. Man evolved later from the apes. Pro-magnum man evolved from the great apes and anti-magnum man from the chimps. Both rose in Africa and scattered around the world. For a more detailed description of how this happened, you might consult the classic Out of Africa.
Ultimately, of course, the two strains met and began to intermix. While you might not think that humans as diverse as the French and Swedes share the same ancestors, they really are the same under the skin. So, for that matter, are Danny DeVito and Shaquille O’Neil.
Why did people live in caves? Was it because they didn’t yet know how to build houses? Actually, houses had been tried, but did not prove to be strong enough to withstand the attentions of determined wooly mammoths or breathy wolves. Where caves were available, their openings were usually too small to admit the larger animals. They were also proof against wind and weather.
This was important because the prehistoric world was a pretty chilly place. Remember, the dinosaurs died out because their reptilian systems couldn’t abide the cold. There are many theories about why the earth suddenly turned cold. One posits that a giant comet hit the earth somewhere near Miami, tossing up a giant dust cloud that obscured the sun for hundreds of years. This makes some sense, since even now it generally seems a bit cooler when the sun goes down at night.
But whether it was the comet or a gigantic volcanic eruption, as another but more dubious theory holds, we know that much of the world was as cold as Northern Minnesota for quite some time. It was also pretty dark, but fortunately man had discovered fire. Without it, cave life would have been quite unpleasant.
We often read that civilization advanced greatly when man “invented” fire. How silly! Man of course did not invent fire, but he did notice that when fires burned they made things brighter at night and took the chill out of the air. One can imagine an early Frenchman walking through a dark forest one night with a Stag over his back when a sudden thunderstorm arose. Lightning flashed! Before him, a bolt hit a tree, setting it ablaze! All at once, the dark forest wasn’t so black! What if (he thought as he was dodging the flames) I could myself create lightning and use it to set pieces of wood ablaze? Then maybe one could create a fire in one’s cave and be actually able to see one’s fellows after dark. One could even draw pictures of animals on the walls to while away the dreary evening hours.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. Like many great advances (e.g., Newton’s apple leading to gravity), it came about by accident. In those days, spears and other weapons had stones shaped into points at the business end. We’ll never know whom, but one day a hunter was in need of a new spear and cast about for some likely stones. He picked up two, planning to whack them together to see if he could make one pointy enough to pierce a sloth. Well, they turned out to be flintstones. When he struck them together, lo and behold, a spark! Not exactly lightning, but nonetheless suggestive.
He pondered this phenomenon for a bit, and somehow connected it with the lightning/trees effect. He gathered some dry leaves and kept hitting the stones together until the leaves caught fire. Pretty soon, cavemen all over Europe were picking up flintstones and starting fires. One unintended, but fortunate, consequence of the fires was the first instance of global warming, which put an end to the Ice Age.
When all that ice melted, it created many lakes and rivers. While the frigid winters were to stay for a quite long time in Northern Europe, in more Southern climes the newly abundant water soon created verdant river valleys, whose nomadic inhabitants saw that formerly scrawny plants seemed to grow bigger and faster. Through trial and error, they noticed that some were edible. It occurred to some that eating plants made more sense, and was eminently safer, than hunting the wooly mammoth, which in any case seemed to be dying out due to the increased heat.
As it turned out, the last prehistoric man was also the first historic one. For he was the first one to notice that the little grains of some plants, if buried in the ground, would soon create new little plants. This likely happened in the area between what are now knows as the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers in modern Iraq. The rest, as they say, is History.
(Next week – Chapter 2, unless my math is faulty.)
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon