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The Life & Times of Early Man
Early Human Life

Why did Cro-Magnon man crawl on his belly through dangerous mazes in deep dark caves? How did the "Upright Man" travel from Africa to America without a boat? Who were the Neandertals? Did man live at the same time as dinosaurs? Find out here! Explore the life and times of Early Man! For those in a hurry, click on the Cheat Sheet for a very quick look at 3 million years of man's history!

Welcome to the Stone Age!

Introduction Cheat Sheet Cave Pictures




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Introduction: Did early man live at the same time as dinosaurs? The answer to that one is simple. Nah! No way. Not a chance. Nobody knows for sure why dinosaurs disappeared, but they do know that dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago. The first hominids (human-like primates) did not appear until 3.6 million years ago. Even if scientists are off a few million years or so, early man simply did not live during the same period in history as dinosaurs. This is not to say that early man had it easy. They did have to face sabre-toothed tigers, cave lions, and woolly mammoths! But, they did not have to fight dinosaurs! (Some of the movies you've seen have men fighting dinosaurs - fortunately for mankind, this is movie nonsense. Dinosaurs were long gone before man first appeared.)

As you learn about Early Man, you may find words with which you are not familiar. If you get stuck, you can look up their definitions at OneLook Dictionaries.  I'll give you three definitions right now, because these are terms you will see quite often!

  • Hominids are the family of mankind and his or her relatives.

  • Fossils are remains of living things (plants, animals, people), not things that were made.

  • Artifacts are remains of things that were made, not remains of living things.

The Old Stone Age people were hunters/gatherers. We know about these people because scientists have found fossils and artifacts, which reveal traces of their life. Human-like hominids first appeared about 3 million years ago! Man went through a lot of different stages to evolve into the human being of today!

Since the evolution of man (and the Stone Age) covers a period of roughly 3 million years, here's a cheat sheet, a sort of who's who for Early Stone Age Man.

 Cheat Sheet: Who's Who of Early Man

Time Period  Name Quick Glimpse      Introduction
3 million BCE

"Southern Ape"

Human-like hominids
Basic traits of humans. Special because he could stand up. Main physical difference between early man and apes are the hands.

2 million BCE

Homo Habilis
"Handy Man"

First true humans
Stone tools - the first tool-maker
Lived in Africa
Taller, had a larger brain
1.5 million BCE

Homo Erectus
"Upright Man"

Made and controlled fire
The first hunters
Traveled over land bridges from Africa, to begin to populate the world, about 1 million years ago
500,000 B.C.

Homo Sapiens
"Wise Man"

& Neandertals

Neandertals Buried their dead with ceremony.
Stone-tipped spears, bone needles, bone fish hooks, sewed their clothes from animal skins, warm boots

25,000 BCE until about 10,000 BCE

Homo Sapiens Sapiens &


Cave Paintings
Cro-Magnon & "Moderns"
Bow and arrows, well constructed huts with central hearths for fires; necklaces & pendants, cave art, little statues made from ivory, antler, bone; tools and weapons for hunting and fishing, oil lamps. Used honey to sweeten food. End of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.

Free Early Humans/Archaeology PowerPoint Presentations

Australopithecus "Southern Ape" 

Human-Like Hominids
3.6 to 1.8 million BCE

About 3 million year ago, the earth was populated with deer, giraffes, hyenas, cattle, sheep, goats, antelope, gazelles, horses, elephants, rhinoceroses, camels, ground squirrels, beavers, cave lions, ants, termites, porpoises, whales, dogs with huge teeth, and sabre-toothed tigers! Giant sharks, about 42 feet long, were plentiful. There were all kinds of birds and plants and fish, similar to birds, plants and fish today. (Dinosaurs, in case you missed the introduction, died out about 65 million years ago. They were long gone.)

About this same time in history, around 3 million years ago, the higher primates, including apes and early man, first appeared. There was a difference between apes and man. Human-like hominids could stand upright. Apes could not. Their hands were different, too. Ape hands were made for climbing and clinging. Early man's hands were jointed differently, which allowed them to not only use tools, but to make tools. No one knows if these very early human-like people actually made tools, but remains of polished bones have been found in South Africa, which suggests they might have made simple digging tools from bone! Their diet was mostly vegetarian, along with some meat, probably obtained by scavenging.

You might wonder how we know anything about hominids who lived over 3 million years ago! How do we know they even existed? Lucy told us!

In 1974, a skeleton was found in Africa. The bones were those of young female, approximately 20 years old when she died. Scientists named this "young lady" Lucy. About 3 million years ago, when Lucy was alive, she was rather short, about 4 feet tall, and probably weighed about 50 pounds. Her brain was about the size of an orange. Her bones showed she probably walked erect, although she still had the ability to climb trees easily. There were no signs of broken bones or teeth marks that might show why she died. Scientists suspect that she probably fell into a lake or river and drowned.
Scientists are like detectives. They can tell a great deal from a skeleton, whether it's a year old, or 3 million years old!

Homo Habilis  "Handy Man"

1.8 to 1.6 million BCE
The first true humans! The first tool-makers!
This early man lived in Africa.

This was the beginning of the Stone Age, and the dawn of early man. This period of time is called the Stone Age because these very early men created tools made of stone. The Stone Age ran from about 2 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago, which was the end of the Ice Age. As far as we know, true humans first appeared in Africa.

Man did not have strong claws to help them fight. They could not out run sabre-toothed tigers or cave lions. Man had to get smart to survive. The Homo habilis man is credited with creating stone tools to help live more comfortably, and to better protect themselves against the many carnivore (meat eating) animals of the time.

Homo habilis were taller than their ancestors, the human-like primates (Lucy's people), and had larger brains. They followed food sources, and set up camp as needed. They sheltered under cliffs, whenever possible. You might think they would look for caves to spend the night, but caves quite often had dangerous occupants, just as they do today. Although this group made stone tools and weapons, these weapons were still pretty basic. Their main diet was probably fruits, roots, nuts and vegetables that they found growing wild.

Small groups banded together for protection and efficiency. The size of the group depended upon the amount of food available. Groups would disband and move on, as food required. Scientists are pretty sure that homo habilis built campfires. But they did not know how to make fire.

Since they did not have fire-making skills, they had to wait until they found something burning from natural causes, set aflame, for example, from a lightening strike. A campfire had to be carefully watched, because if the fire went out, they did not know how to start it again. The area around the campfire was probably used as a sleeping area. A roaring campfire would keep most wild animals away, as most are afraid of fire. When they broke camp, they probably attempted to bring their fire with them by carrying several lit branches, with which to start a new campfire when they stopped again. If their branches went out, they did without fire until they found something burning somewhere.

Remains of their campfires have been found and dated. Scientists have found stone tools at these sites! Animal bones have been found, as well. Technically, although animal bones would be called "trash", they indicate that Homo habilis man hunted game and/or scavenged fat-rich marrow from bones. These remains also tell us that Homo habilis probably did not stay in one place very long, but were always on the move, in search of food.

Homo Erectus  "Upright Man"

1,600,000 BCE to about 300,000 BCE

These early men learned to make fire!
They traveled over land bridges from Africa, and began to populate the world, about 1 million years ago.

It took man another 200,000 years to grow up. Homo erectus man was about the same size as modern humans, although they only had two-thirds the size of our brains. Their tool-making skills were considerably improved. Their weapons included stone axes and knives. Homo erectus man was probably the first hunter.

Very importantly, Homo erectus man had fire-making skills. Like all new, major inventions, this discovery changed life dramatically.

Why was the ability to able to make fire so important? As man had already discovered, most animals were afraid of fire, so a roaring campfire gave protection to the group or tribe. They no longer had to shelter out of the wind, unless they chose to do so. If their fire went out, they could relight it. They could choose where they camped. On a hot night, if they could find a relatively safe place, a breeze might feel good. Control of fire made moving into colder regions possible, as fire they could count on would provide them with warmth. It also changed the way they prepared food.

These people began to cook their food consistently. Food that is cooked is more secure from disease and much softer to eat. As a result, it would have been easier for the young and the old to survive.

The Homo erectus species was the first to look like....people, because their teeth and jaws were shaped somewhat like ours our today. You might think this change in appearance happened over time, because they cooked their food. But, according to Anthropologist, Dr. John J. Shea, that's not true at all. Dr. Shea told us: "The reduction of teeth and jaws due to cooking is a popular idea, but not evolutionarily plausible. If you relax selective pressure for massive jaws--say by cooking food--you get greater variability, not reduced robusticity. Jaw reduction probably had something to do with changes in respiration, maybe speech." (In other words, nah...they looked far more like people do today because that's how they looked!)

Thanks to their fire-making skills, a nightly campfire became a possibility and a routine. What was once comfort and safety, was now also a social occasion. People would collect around the fire each night, to share stories of the day's hunt and activities, to laugh, and to relax.

About one million years ago, these people began to slowly leave Africa and travel to other continents. They did not need a boat. The Ice Age was here! They traveled across giant walkways, natural bridges of solid, frozen ice and land. These "walkways" allowed them to travel over what would later be vast rivers and seas. For a very long time, the earth was frozen, creating giant walkways. Some of these walkways were a hundred miles wide! These early people wandered from Africa to Europe and Asia, and from Asia to America, probably in search of food.

How do we know so much about Homo Erectus? Like the discovery of Lucy, scientists found another skeleton near Peking, China, that dates to this period. This skeleton is referred to as the "Peking Man". Artifacts have also been found of their tools and weapons, which help us to understand how they lived, where they went, and how they got there.

Homo Sapiens "Wise Man"

500,000 BCE to 30,000 BCE

Quick Notes:

Some of the species of man during this period: Homo heidelbergensis (500,000-300,000 BCE), Homo Neandertalensis (300,000-30,000 BCE) and Homo sapiens (130,000 BCE - present CE)
H. heidelbergensis was probably the common ancestor of both Neandertals and modern humans.
Stone-tipped spears appear in the 300,000-30,000 BCE time range.
Neandertals became extinct around 28-30,000 BCE, and almost certainly overlapped in time and space with early modern human Europeans.
No evidence for modern humans killing Neandertals, but competition was likely.
Is it Neandertal or Neanderthal? That's easy! This early man was named after the valley in which the first skeletal remains were found, Neander Tal. But saying Neanderthal is not wrong, and some scientists choose to spell it with an "h" (especially the Brits). What's important is to know that it's the same early man, no matter which of these two spellings you choose to use. After all, it's only a nickname. This early man's real name is: Homo Neandertalensis

From fossils, scientists have discovered that these early men had skeletons shaped like ours are, today. Homo sapien skulls grew more forward than those of Homo erectus man, which left room for more brain to develop. These early men were hunters & gatherers. They created stone tools, bone needles, and bone fish hooks. They sewed clothes from animal skins with thread made from other parts of the animal. They made warm boots.

Neandertals: One of the species of early man during this period was Homo Neandertalensis, the Neandertal man, named after the valley (Neander Tal) in which the skeleton of an old man was discovered.

In the beginning, scientists believed Neandertals were dim-witted brutes with clubs and beast-like features, who walked with bent knees and shambling gaits, with heads slung forward on their big squat necks. These were the ancestors nobody wanted! It was the stuff of horror movies, and just as fictional! Scientists had to rethink a bit when it was later discovered that this old man was suffering from disfiguring arthritis! Thus, this skeleton, the Neandertal man, was not misshapen because of his species; he was misshapen because he had a disease that bent and crippled his bones!

Still, Neandertals were different from other species of early man. They were much taller, and very strong. They had an almost modern mentality. Their brains were actually larger than ours are today. (That doesn't mean anything, really. The size of your brain doesn't necessarily make you smarter. However, the Neandertals do seem to have been very advanced for their time!) They were marvelous hunters. They often used caves as their homes. They were adept at fire-making, and probably cooked their food, routinely. They buried they dead with ceremony, which suggests they may have had religious beliefs. Discoveries of Neandertal grave sites show that they decorated their bodies with paint, possibly for religious reasons, or perhaps for beauty. These sites provide the first evidence of the use of color, and suggest the Neandertals were the first to think about the possibility of an afterlife.

The Neandertals died out around 30,000 BCE. One theory is that they were killed off by some species of Homo sapien man, but there is no evidence of this. Another theory is that they married into other groups, and that over time, they ceased to exist as a separate species. But these are just theories. Nobody knows why they disappeared. Considering how smart they were, and how advanced for their time, it's an especially fascinating puzzle!

Homo Sapiens Sapiens  
Cro-Magnon and "Moderns"

30,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE

Cro-Magnon cave paintings

Quick Notes:

Extinction of the Woolly Mammoth was around 12,000 BCE in Europe, but only 2000 BCE in Siberia. This probably reflects shift in climate, rather than hunting by humans.
New weapon: Bows and arrows appear (after 20,000 BCE)
Most Cro-Magnon cave art was not made with charcoal, but rather with mineral pigments, such as iron oxide (red ochre) or black manganese.

By this time, man had become very capable hunters/gatherers, and had scattered all over the world. Scientists have found remains of these early people in Europe, Asia, America, Africa, all over, really. Life was harsh, but they had plenty of food and warm shelter. Many members of these groups lived to a very old age. The Homo sapiens sapiens who lived in Europe were called Cro-Magnon.

HOMES: These early men built permanent homes, to shelter from the long, harsh winter of the Ice Age. In the summer, they followed the herds, and lived in tents.

Winter homes were Ice Age huts, built tepee style, from branches and mammoth bones, covered with animal skins. These huts were used for many years, so they built them carefully. Holes were dug, deeply into the ground. Poles were inserted into these holes, and then tied tightly together at the point of the tepee, at the top, with string made from animal guts. Warm furs were laid over this structure and sewn tightly in place. Large rocks were piled around the bottom, to help hold the hut together.

Some huts were built to hold only a small group of people. In the Ukraine, remains of "long huts" have been found, large enough to hold an entire tribe. Long huts had several entrances, with rooms for several fires inside.

In the summer, the tribe moved, following the animals. They lived in sturdy tents, that could be moved from place to place. As winter approached, they returned to their winter shelters. Quite often, they had to chase out the wild life that had moved in, during their absence!

FOOD: These hunter-gatherers ate a variety of seeds, berries, roots and nuts, as did their ancestors. They also ate fish and seemed to have an ample supply of freshly caught game. Their lives were not a constant struggle for survival because they were such good hunters. They learned to organize hunts and to cure and store food for the long winter. Hunting was done individually and in groups. They used traps, which allowed them to catch food while they busy doing something else. Fisherman used bows and arrows, nets woven from vines, fish hooks, and even poisons. Some groups built rafts and canoes, to catch bigger fish in deeper waters.

CLOTHING: In colder climates, early man learned to soften leather to make warm, comfortable clothes, sewn together with string made from animal guts, using needles made from bone. In warmer climates, they made cooler clothes from woven grass, and even from bark.

They made necklaces and bracelets out of shells, teeth, feathers, flowers, and bone. Some decorated their bodies with paint and tattoos, made from natural dyes. These may have been signs of social standing or tribal ID's (identification signs).

ART: As well as jewelry, they created pottery, and fired it to give it luster, strength, and durability. They created little statues, carved from ivory and bone.

TOOLS & WEAPONS: Man had learned to be a skilled toolmaker. Weapons included stone axes, knives, spears, harpoons, wooden bows & sharp stone tipped arrows. Both the sabre toothed tiger and the woolly mammoth became extinct during this period, but that more probably reflects a shift in climate rather than hunting by humans.

CAVE PAINTINGS: Cro-Magnon man, for whatever reason, painted marvelous and astonishing paintings on rock walls, deep within caves. Paintings were added, until a cave might have hundreds of different paintings, by many different painters.

Most cave paintings focused on hunters and animals. Early man used natural colors. You may have heard that they used charcoal to create these paintings. Actually, most art was not made with charcoal, but rather with mineral pigments, such as iron oxide (red ochre) or black manganese. They drew stick figures for people, but the animals were well drawn, and usually filled in with natural colors, to give them even more shape and substance.

When you think cave, you might think of a big place, with high ceilings. Not so. In order to reach the places where cave paintings have been found, Cro-Magnon man had to crawl on his belly, through mazes of narrow, dark tunnels, by the light of a flicking torch or a spoon-like oil lamp (which had to be hand carried and balanced carefully to hold the burning oil in the rounded part of the spoon - while crawling along on your belly), and carrying the paints he had carefully prepared, with no idea if he might run into, oh .. a cave lion or a bear, on the way. Certainly he wasn't decorating his home, as these marvelous paintings were hidden deep within the darkest portions of the cave.

The other thing found in cave paintings, besides stick figures of people and well drawn animals, are stencils of hands. It would appear that Cro-Magnon man, after crawling on his belly and creating his addition to these cave walls of art, then put his hand against the cave wall, and outlined it with charcoal or paint. What were they saying? (I was here? I made this?) Was this a way to sign their art? Or to prove they had achieved their ... mission? It's not easy to figure out because not all paintings include a stenciled handprint.

Why did early man seek out these caves, to add their paintings to the many others that had been painted in the cave before them? And why such dark, secret, hidden places? It might have been one of Cro-Magnon man's recreational activities. It might have had something to do with their religion or their rites of manhood. Nobody knows! It's a fascinating mystery.

Like many discoveries, the existence of cave paintings was discovered accidentally. The caves in Lascaux, France were found around 1940, during World War II, by some kids. They stumbled across the entrance to a cave that had been hidden by the roots of a tree. If you would like to see some of these cave paintings, go here!

Once people knew these paintings existed, people went looking for more such caves, and found them! There are probably more caves with cave paintings yet to be found! Wouldn't it be neat to discover such a cave? But, be careful. Caves can be very dangerous places. If you find a cave, it would be wise (very wise!) to get some adult help, before you go tearing inside, and find yourself in some very serious trouble.

Here are some great links
about the life & times of Early Man

Human Prehistory Sites for Kids

Cave Paintings & Rock Art
Cave paintings let us learn about the lives of people long ago.
People painted animals and even painted outlines of their hands. Take a look ...

Prehistoric Rock Paintings in India - This site offers examples of cave art dating back over 20,000 years. One drawing looks remarkably like a man walking a dog!

And more...
A Virtual Tour of Cave Paintings

Cave Art in the Classroom
Cro-Magnum Caves  
Cave Dwellers in the hall of a Middle School

Literature Connections
Maroo of the Winter Caves Lesson Plans

Online Games & Fun Stuff  

Hunt the Ancestor (BBC)  
Human Evolution Shockwave Game (PBS)  

Creation Stories - Ancient stories told to explain the natural wonders and disasters observed by early man.

Ethics & Controversy - Creation vs Evolution, Thinkquest entries

Flints and Stones - You've heard about the Stone Age. Now step into it. Visit this site to learn how the hunters gatherers really lived.

Human Evolution and Natural Selection - BBC Education site on Charles Darwin

Human Evolution: You Try It (PBS) - When did humans evolve? Who are our ancestors? Why did we evolve? Play the Human Evolution Game. Shockwave required.

About Glaciers

Free Early Humans/Archaeology PowerPoint Presentations

Ice Age Animals - Enchanged Learning

During the Ice Age - Thinkquest Junior

Glaciers and Glacial Ages

Prehistoric People

Jan Brett's First Dog Webpages

Institution for Ice Age Studies - Tools and customs for survival, including ice age lamps, shelters, daily life, clothing, religious ceremonies, inventions

McDougal Littell NetActivities: Cave Art - Examples of cave art

Origins of Western Culture - Human evolution from the Smithsonian

Prehistory in the Electronic Passport - Brief history of early man's culture and development

Stone Age Hand-axes - Pictures and information

Technology Throughout History - Simple to read presentation of tools in the stone, bronze and iron age

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Other Ancients
Early Man   Mesopotamia   Egypt   Greece   Rome   Celts Mongols  Vikings
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Our thanks to Anthropologist, Dr. John J. Shea, for
generously sharing with us some very interesting facts about early man!
(Ph.D., 1991, Harvard University)

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