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Hunter-Gatherer Societies: Making Tools & Using Fire

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  • 0:08 Fire, Tools & Humanity
  • 0:53 Fire & Tools Before Humans
  • 1:33 Fire in Early Human Culture
  • 3:11 Stone Tools and Early Humans
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the role of fire and stone tools in early human society as both a means of survival and important aspects of culture. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Fire, Tools and Humanity

Picture an ancient human in your mind. What do you see? A caveman wearing some tattered animal furs and holding some stone tools - and maybe with a fire in his cave? Okay, scrap the image of the tattered furs - this is the Ice Age, people. Early humans were smart enough to dress warmer than that.

Other than that, the stone tools and the fire are pretty good things to picture. Tools and fire are two things that are practically synonymous with human evolution. Not only did early humans rely on them, these two aspects may have been leading factors in what makes us human. Fire and stone tools were critical parts of early human culture that went beyond helping people survive. Both of these were central to early societies and served important functions in ceremonies, trade relations and social interaction.

Fire and Tools Before Humans

Our species is called Homo sapiens. We first evolved in Africa around 250,000 years ago, and we had stone tools and fire from the beginning. The evidence of stone tools goes all the way back to 3.5 million years ago, when early members of the Homo genus evolved big enough brains to take two rocks, hit them together and make a sharp edge.

A later species, Homo erectus, had a slightly larger brain and learned how to create and control fire. A larger brain meant that their bodies needed to eat meat for more nutrients, and they started cooking their meals over the fire. Eating meat that was free of bacteria, because it was cooked, allowed for even bigger brains, eventually leading to us.

Fire in Early Human Culture

As you can see, the use of fire and tools is encoded in our DNA. Fire and stone tools were necessary for the evolution of humans as a species, so naturally they were pretty important to early humans. These early humans were living in a time called the Paleolithic era, which roughly means Stone Age. During the Paleolithic, humans lived in small bands that were nomadic, meaning they traveled to follow food sources and did not live permanently in one place. These early humans mostly foraged for food, like nuts or berries, although their diet also included meat that they either hunted or scavenged. A culture that lives like this is called a 'hunter-gatherer' society.

Fire was very important to hunter-gatherer societies. For one, it let them cook their food, making it safe to eat. Fire also kept them warm, protected them from danger and provided light at nighttime, so they could keep working on chores, like cooking, setting up tents or sewing clothes, even after dark. With fire being so critical to the life of a hunter-gatherer society, it should be no surprise that many early humans saw it as sacred.

Archaeologists can observe the importance of fire to hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic through hearths. A hearth is a term for a campfire or a fireplace. In many archaeological sites, hearths show evidence of food, stone tool pieces, clothing fragments, beads and other objects. This indicates that all of these different tasks were taking place around the fire, leading archaeologists to believe that a lot of nomadic society was centered around the hearth. Religious rituals, ceremonies, socializing, gossiping and art were probably all done around the hearth. It's not that surprising; think about when you go camping. Where does everyone hang out? Around the campfire!

Stone Tools and Early Humans

The other aspect of hunter-gather society that was critical to their survival was stone tools. Early humans, whose brains were just as large and creative as our own, had a wide range of tools they made out of stone. Some tools were used to scrape animal skins so they could be made into clothes. Some tools were fishhooks, sewing needles or carving tools to make beads. Some stone tools were used to make other stone tools. Some, called 'projectile points', were tied onto a spear or arrow and used for hunting or defense. Ancient humans made tools for pretty much every part of daily life.

The process of making stone tools, called knapping, is intense. It could take hours, and with a single wrong move, the entire stone could shatter into a hundred pieces. The first step was picking the right stone. Rocks like flint, chert, quartzite and obsidian were very popular because they are strong enough to make good tools but fracture in very predictable ways, which works best with knapping. The earliest human stone tools were made by hitting a large piece of stone, called the core, with a harder rock or bone to chip off several pieces. These pieces were then slowly, carefully, chipped into the desired shape.

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