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Stone Age Environment & Climate

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Human societies went through a lot of changes in the Stone Age, and archeologists have a theory as to why. In this lesson, we'll explore the influence of climate on Stone Age societies and see how they adapted to survive.

Humans and Climate Change

There are a few dominant theories to explain how humans covered the planet, as well as how we developed such amazing technologies. One theory is aliens. We can just put that one aside for now. A more grounded theory (pun intended) is that humans are adaptable. Our brains let us alter our environments and technologies to our needs, which is useful because our needs can change pretty quickly.

Human history is one of extreme climate changes, and without the ability to adapt, we likely wouldn't have survived as a species. This was particularly true in the Stone Age, the era before the advent of metal technologies when human societies tended to be smaller and more susceptible to traumatic upheaval. So while climate change looked very different back then, it was perhaps just as threatening.

The Stone Age Before Humans

The Stone Age is difficult to define, extending back as far as the pre-human ancestors who first created stone tools. While this may date over 3 million years ago, most of this history occurred in geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, which lasted from roughly 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. Most people simply know this as the Ice Age.

The Ice Age was defined by rotating patterns of glacial periods, during which lots of the world's water was trapped in massive sheets of frozen ice, and interglacial periods, when temperatures would become more temperate. During interglacial periods, the Earth could go through rapid cycles of ecological change, ranging from rainforest-like inundations to arid droughts over the course of several decades. Pre-human hominids had to be adaptable, placing evolutionary pressure on creating smarter offspring.

Analyses of carbon dioxide trapped in ice reveals the changing temperatures and climates of glacial and interglacial eras throughout the Pleistocene
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Humans and the Pleistocene

This is the world that humans, homo sapiens, evolved into. Living in Africa, early humans were not surrounded by ice, but they were still subject to the extreme climatic shifts of the Ice Age.

Archeologists in southern Africa compared stone tools against climate data, and found a startling degree of correlation. In periods when rainfall sharply increased, new stone tools emerged, indicating cultural shifts and new innovations. When droughts returned, those tools were replaced by newer styles, again suggesting major cultural shifts.

We can imagine everything that had to change when climates suddenly shifted. These people were hunters and gatherers, relying on naturally available food supplies. In a rainy era, plant resources were likely more available and animals were more spread out. In dry seasons, there were fewer plants and most animals congregated near water sources.

Many archeologists think that wet and dry spells from 80,000 to 40,000 years ago had a huge impact in shaping modern human intelligence, adaptability, and social behaviors. Humans had to be able to pack up their societies and relocate, creating new shelters wherever they went. This was likely an important factor in the human dispersal out of Africa as well, which occurred in increasing rates over this time period.

Human dispersals out of Africa may have been influenced by climatic pressures
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As humans left Africa, perhaps motivated by competition for resources during droughts, they ended up in places, like Europe and Northern Asia, that were colder and often covered in snow. The humans who lived here had to be adaptable and flexible to survive, which led to new styles of stone tools around the world.

In other cases, the Ice Age actually helped human expansion. With so much water trapped in ice, sea levels were dramatically lower. It's likely that early humans were able to walk to Australia from Southeast Asia while following wild animals, or at the most, take canoes over much shorter spans of water. This same theory is used to explain how people made it from northern Asia into North America by crossing a land bridge exposed by low sea levels.

Humans and the Holocene

The Pleistocene ended around 11,700 years ago which means, yes, we are no longer living in the same geological epoch that our species evolved in. We're in the Holocene, in which global temperatures rose just enough to melt the ice sheets but were still cool enough to maintain temperate climates with reliable rainfall around the world.

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