There is lots that we still don’t know about prehistoric life, but new discoveries are being made every year. If you can’t find the answer to your question here, please email Taryn Bell at firstname.lastname@example.org, who will be happy to help!
The case studies used in the project are drawn from the Palaeolithic - a term used to cover a huge span of human history. Use this timeline to get your bearings.Timeline
Prehistory is the period before the invention of writing. Human prehistory is usually said to begin around 3.3 million years ago, the point at which the first stone tools were used.
Different human cultures began writing at different times, so there is no specific date for the end of prehistory. In Egypt, for example, prehistory ended over 5000 years ago around 3200BC, while in Britain the end of prehistory is over 3000 years later, about 43AD.
Eurasian prehistory is generally split into 3 smaller periods: the Stone Age (consisting of the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic), the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Africa and America both have different prehistoric periods.
The Palaeolithic is the earliest part of the Stone Age. The word ‘Palaeolithic’ means ‘Old Stone Age’.
The Palaeolithic period lasted roughly 2.5 million years. During this time, our species and many other human species evolved and lived on earth. People made and used stone tools, hunted and gathered foods and lived nomadic lives, moving from place to place.
All humans alive today are the same species, Homo sapiens, which is Latin for ‘wise man’. We come from a larger group of species, or ‘genus’, called Homo, but we are the only human species left alive today.
We know that humans evolved from apelike ancestors.
The question of who we are descended from is a difficult one, and we still aren’t sure who our direct ancestor was. Archaeological evidence seems to suggest that Homo sapiens evolved from a number of different early human populations, and as you can see from the diagram below, there has been a lot of mixture between species over the last million years.
A nice diagram to show the number of different species that have been around can be found here: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-family-tree.
No, though we are closely related. While Neanderthals evolved before modern humans, both species co-existed in Europe for a few thousand years. DNA evidence also shows us that there was some interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans.
Hominid - the biological group containing all ‘great apes’, including both living and extinct species. The current living hominid species are humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.
Hominin - the biological group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species (like Neanderthals) and all of our immediate ancestors.
No. Humans and chimpanzees (and bonobos) actually share a common ancestor that probably lived between 8 and 6 million years ago.
They would have eaten different kinds of meat (such as horse and red deer), fish, nuts and seeds, berries and even honey, but early humans would have had to have been very flexible in what they ate, adapting to what was available around them.
We don’t know! We’re not even sure when humans or their ancestors gained the ability to speak, nor do we know what kinds of languages Palaeolithic people might have spoken. As there is no written evidence, it is difficult to even guess at what languages might have been used during the Palaeolithic, and when they originated.
There was violence in the Palaeolithic, but not as much as you might think. Violence between humans was largely restrained, and severe violent conflict was rare, though early humans were prey for a number of animals. The first possible evidence for warfare was in Jebel Sahaba, 13,000 years ago, right at the end of the Palaeolithic.
Overall, though, violent conflict would not have been a good strategy for long-term survival, and we see a lot less of it in archaeological evidence than you might expect.
Dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, so early humans would never have met them! However, early humans were prey for many different animals, such as eagles, hyenas and lions. Humans had to learn to cooperate with one another in order to survive these dangers, and many early humans became successful predators themselves.
This subject has caused a lot of debate for many years, and will continue to do so. We know that Neanderthals disappeared around 40,000 years ago and a number of possible causes have been suggested, such as:
Realistically, it’s likely that a combination of factors caused Neanderthal extinction.
Archaeological evidence shows that early humans have lived in parts of Britain on and off for at least 800,000 years. The first Palaeolithic site that we know of is Happisburgh, on the Norfolk coast. At this time, Britain was connected to the rest of Europe by a wide land bridge called Doggerland (see picture below).
Britain has not been constantly occupied, however. Over the years, Britain has been occupied by a range of human species, but there have been periods spanning tens of thousands of years where Britain appears to have been unoccupied. Britain has only been permanently occupied since about 11,000 years ago.
Creswell Crags, Worksop - a world-famous archaeological site, with limestone caves containing prehistoric art. For more information, go to https://www.creswell-crags.org.uk/.
Cheddar Gorge, Cheddar, Somerset - for more information, go to https://www.cheddargorge.co.uk/.
Kent’s Cavern, Torquay - for more information, go to https://www.kents-cavern.co.uk/.
Wookey Hole Caves, Wells, Somerset - for more information, go to https://www.wookey.co.uk/.
There are also a number of museums in the UK with Palaeolithic galleries, exhibits or collections. Many also offer school visits or resources on the subject of the Stone Age. These include:
The Natural History Museum, London - http://www.nhm.ac.uk/
The British Museum, London - https://www.britishmuseum.org/
Oxford University Museum of Natural History - http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/
National Museum Cardiff - https://museum.wales/cardiff/
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh - https://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery - https://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery/
Ipswich Museum and Gallery - https://cimuseums.org.uk/visit/venues/ipswich-museum/
Manchester Museum - http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/
Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro - https://www.royalcornwallmuseum.org.uk/
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge - http://www.sedgwickmuseum.org/
Yorkshire Museum - https://www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk/
It’s also worth asking your local museum if they have any prehistoric artefacts or exhibitions.