The Last Ice Age: Thawing Ice and New Human Opportunities

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  • 0:07 What is an Ice Age?
  • 1:45 Early Humans & the Herds
  • 3:28 Domestication of Animals
  • 5:34 Effects of Animal…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

What is an ice age? How did the latest period of glaciation form our species? How has the abundance of this latest period of interglaciation changed our behavior? Watch this lesson to find out.

What is an 'Ice Age'?

The term ice age refers to a period of time in which the surface of the earth is covered with sheets of ice called glaciers. This does not mean that earth is one big snowball for an entire ice age. While this happens on occasion, most ice ages are made up of a series of warm and cold spells.

In cold periods of glaciation, glaciers extend from poles toward the equator. And in warm periods of interglaciation, the glaciers retreat back to the poles.

During interglaciation, glaciers retreat back to the poles

So while the term ice age might bring to mind images of wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, it is important to remember that we are currently in an ice age, and have been for about 2.8 million years. We just happen to be in a period of interglaciation.

Ice ages create new challenges for life by significantly altering the environment in which life forms compete. Ice ages lower the world's temperature, making it hard for cold-blooded animals to survive. Ice ages also tend to make the world a drier place by locking up the moisture in ice. This makes it difficult for plants to survive on land. This, in turn, makes it very difficult for land-dwelling animals to find food.

Yet these challenges also present new opportunities. Mammals owe their current primacy to ice ages wiping out much of their competition. And while most primates suffered from the reduction of lush rainforests into arid grasslands, one sub-branch of this family would abandon the protection of trees to wander the earth in search of food. These were the first hominids, ancestors of modern humans.

Early Humans and the Herds

I will spare you the details of our development as a species. What is important for this lecture is that at some point we stopped simply foraging and scavenging, and began hunting. Because at the time, the most reliable sources of food were migratory herds.

To keep up with these herds, our ancestors had to be as mobile as the animals they were hunting, so we developed longer legs and upright form of walking. To outsmart and track those herds, we developed bigger brains. To take down large game we combined those bigger brains with finer hands and teamwork, and started making tools. In short, the challenges presented by the ice age forged man into the hyper-intelligent, highly adaptable, upright walking, tool generating creature we know today.

And so now we come to the latest period of interglaciation, a great thaw that began around 10,000 BCE. Human beings had been following the migrations of herd animals for thousands of years. The scarcity of plant life required herds to move constantly. The herds moved to find new vegetation to eat; the humans moved to follow the herds.

With the thaw, plant life thrived again. Herds no longer needed to move such long distances to find fodder. Yet countless generations had made these migrations instinctive to herd animals. Human beings, on the other hand, had no such instincts to constrain them. They quickly realized that the animals they hunted would survive just as well without walking for thousands of miles every year. Now if only they could find a way to convince the animals to abandon their instincts.

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