Preliterate Cultures: Paleolithic vs Neolithic

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  • 0:00 Pre-Literate Cultures
  • 0:51 Origins of Humanity
  • 2:00 Paleolithic
  • 3:43 Neolithic
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we briefly explore the origins of Homo sapiens before discovering the differences between the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras of human civilization.

Pre-Literate Cultures

When you want to learn something new about a subject or figure in our past, what do you do? Chances are, you simply go to the library or get online and read as much as you can about it. If you're lucky, the person or people have even written their own books that you can read to discover just what they were like and what they thought. Things get more difficult the farther back in history you go as resources become less available.

What, then, are you supposed to do about humans who didn't even have a written language? Fortunately, historians, anthropologists, and paleontologists have gotten increasingly crafty over the years and have deciphered a large amount of information about our prehistoric ancestors. In this lesson, we'll explore the two main periods these cultures lived in, the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, and discover the differences between them.

Origins of Humanity

Long before the emergence of either of these civilizations, the evolutionary branches of primates went in several directions. Over millions of years, the branch that eventually resulted in humans developed various skills and adaptations which help distinguish mankind from the other primates. For example, the ancestors of today's humans were the only primates to develop bipedalism, or the ability to walk upright on two feet. Researchers theorize this was possibly so these primates could see over the tall grass of the African savannah and see predators before the predators were on top of them.

They also developed larger and larger brains. For example, the human ancestor Homo habilis first evolved around 2.4 million years ago and had an average brain size of 650 cubic centimeters. When its descendant and our ancestor, Homo erectus, first appeared 500,000 years later, its brain size had almost doubled, with scientists' finding some specimens whose brain capacity was as high as 1225 cubic centimeters! Our current species, Homo sapiens, first appeared somewhere between 250,000 and 200,000 years ago.


Whatever the exact date as to the arrival of Homo sapiens, this is when most paleontologists place the beginning of the Paleolithic period. First beginning in Africa, Paleolithic humans spread over the entire world over the following millennia. Paleolithic people adapted well to their surroundings but very rarely built permanent dwellings; any homes that were built tended to be made of amalgamations of mud, wood, and animal skins, depending on the environment. Often Paleolithic people lived wherever there was natural shelter, such as the mouths of caves. Unsurprisingly, it's in these caves that some of the oldest forms of human artistic and linguistic expression still exist today, in the form of cave paintings.

Paleolithic people did not build sophisticated houses because they had little use for them; Paleolithic people lived in nomadic societies. They often migrated along with the herds of animals they hunted for food. Because of the mobile nature of Paleolithic society, bands were relatively small, rarely numbering more than fifty. Likely, these bands were generally the members of large extended families. Political apparatuses were virtually nonexistent, and major decisions about the bands' actions were likely made by either the eldest members of the group or the strongest.

Because of the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles Paleolithic people conducted, there was very little time for complex tool-making or technology. The few tools that were created usually were made from chipped stone, wood, or animal bone. This technology was often as practical as possible, such as arrowheads that were created to tip spears to hunt fish and game. The Paleolithic period continued until about 10,000 years ago.

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