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Stone Age Timelines

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Human prehistory and the Stone Age… a timeline critique

(4th edition - October 2012) by A.O. Kime
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In the 1820’s, in order to address the prehistory of mankind more clearly, it was thought necessary to divide it into time periods, thus a ‘three-age’ system of the (1) Stone Age, (2) Bronze Age and (3) Iron Age was adopted. While this system is still more-or-less in common use today, refinements were inevitable and the Stone Age, so immensely long, was later subdivided into three major periods as follows:

Paleolithic (c 2,000,000 – c 10,000 B.C.) (Old Stone Age)

The Paleolithic time period is by far the longest, beginning some (circa) two million years ago to coincide with the first evidence of toolmaking and ending around 10,000 B.C. to coincide with the end of the last ice age (Pleistocene epoch). Later, as notable advancements in stone toolmaking capabilities were recognized and identified pertaining to the Paleolithic, it was also subdivided thusly:

• Lower Paleolithic (two million – 100,000 B.C.)
• Middle Paleolithic (100,000 – 30,000 B.C.)
• Upper Paleolithic (30,000 – 10,000 B.C.)

Mesolithic (c 10,000 – c 5,500 B.C.) (Middle Stone Age)

This relatively short Mesolithic time period, sometimes called the Epipaleolithic Era in areas where glaciers did not exist, was set-up to cover the period from the last ice age until the introduction of farming considered to have occurred sometime around 5,500 B.C. However, that particular date just represents widespread farming; it apparently was already taking place a few (or several) thousand years earlier in the Middle East. Farming began at different times between the various cultures but was generally more pronounced between continents. From a broad point-of-view, that is, if uniformly applied worldwide, the Mesolithic could overlap the next one (Neolithic) by a few (or several) thousand years. In other words, in one part of the world it could still be Mesolithic (no farming) yet having already advanced to Neolithic (farming) in another. Because of this, its application became regionalized.

Neolithic (c 5,500 – c 2,500 B.C.) (New Stone Age)

This very short Neolithic time period, the last part of the Stone Age, was set-up to cover the period from the onset of farming and ending when metal tools came into widespread use. Again, since ‘widespread’ would be a judgment call as to when the next age (Bronze Age) should begin, it would be a matter of opinion. Metal tools in common use (copper) could have begun as early as 6,000 B.C. within some regions of Europe, Asia and North Africa, effectively eliminating the need to refer to any Neolithic time period at these locations. However, it could apply to less advanced regions like the Americas and the rest of Africa. The Neolithic therefore became regionally applied also.

Stone Age observations

It's apparent archeologists devised and adopted these Stone Age time periods prematurely (1820s), without knowing enough, as if anticipating history, because, as it turned out, the Neolithic period wasn’t applicable to the more advanced societies. And the evidence suggests the Middle East (highly advanced) also snubbed the Mesolithic period as well due to its very early farming (more on 'early farming' further below). And later, some societies, due to their backwardness, never went through any Bronze Age but lingered behind until the Iron Age.

For newer and even past discoveries, in order to more clearly define a time period they should belong to; more relevant regional terms and timelines have crept into archeological lingo because the old system is either too vague or not applicable. This is especially true beginning with the Mesolithic time period and into the Neolithic. Of the time periods occurring later, the Bronze Age and Iron Age are often found nearly as inappropriate. While the idea of a Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age made sense to archeologists in the early 1800s, they weren’t based on enough data. Obviously it was expected progress would be more uniform.

Since far fewer discoveries have been made concerning the Paleolithic time period (the very first time period), and since stone toolmaking capabilities is the basis upon which the Paleolithic was established, the Paleolithic hasn’t been problematic as with the time periods which followed. It is only the differences in stone toolmaking capabilities which separates (characterizes) the Lower, Middle and Upper Paleolithic. However, sometimes scientific references to humans during the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) are tied to geological time frames instead... if, or when, a relationship was important to note.

Still, while the Stone Age needed to be subdivided by distinguishable differences, being so excessively long, it was perhaps premature, presumptuous and shallow to establish stone toolmaking capabilities as the basis. While it may be the only recognized differences by archaeologists, it appears something more distinguishing exists… albeit unproven as yet. This great difference will be pointed out shortly... and, if ever to be considered the single most significant difference, then the Paleolithic should only have two parts, not three.

But first, as to the earliest alleged stone tools, the so-called 'Oldowan pebble tools', of which the Lower Paleolithic was based upon, it should be noted they're barely distinguishable from any other little rock. It's doubtful the livelihood of early man depended entirely upon such featureless tools. Perhaps in most cases, they were no more a tool than say… in lieu of a hammer we might use our shoe. Even today, on occasion, we still use rocks… as a weapon, to prop something up or as handy weights (like to keep a loose tarp from blowing away). Yet, while we still use rocks, we don’t consider them tools.

Besides, early man could have been, after all, vegetarians, with no real need for stone tools. And wooden tools, in the earliest days, assuredly dominated the scene instead. Aside from the fact wood is much lighter than stone and easier to haul around, it would also be easier to construct a wooden tool. Furthermore, wooden tools could be made to serve a thousand purposes. Even a simple stick can serve many purposes… more purposes than any one rock. While stone tools (as weapons) would be more appropriate for killing large animals, whenever that began to occur, stone tools were likely viewed upon by the ancients as ‘heavy construction’ equipment, much like a sledgehammer would be considered today.

In this respect, if our earliest ancestors were vegetarians for the most part, only to occasionally kill small animals and birds for food, perhaps most often by only trapping them, would explain their lack of ‘sophisticated’ stone tools. Nor would fishing require stone tools. While this wouldn’t necessary affect the basis for defining that era (toolmaking capabilities), it throws the wrong light on our most ancient ancestors. To be judged by their stone tools alone is wrong because there is a limit to how sophisticated a stone tool can be. Nobody, nobody at all, could survive reliant on stone tools alone.

Wooden tools

This would not be the case with wooden tools however. The possible variety and useful applications would be innumerable, but sadly because these tools were wooden, few, if any, would survive the ages. Some of their wooden tools could have even consisted of parts, bound together with pegs and sinew. Besides wooden tools, there were also surely wooden ‘devices’ created during the Stone Age on occasion... as sure as the sun rises and sets. Furthermore, some likely had moving parts. After all, to construct something wooden with a moving part doesn't necessarily have to mean 'sophisticated' or 'complex'. A gravity reliant latch would be an example and most likely such a device was employed in a trap… even a jointed (elbow-flexible) shaft perhaps, designed to pivot upon the slightest touch. Nor can we rule out wooden pulleys, hinges and a variety of other devises.

It seems apparent, stone weapons came into being as a result of humans progressively becoming more reliant on meat for food. In order to kill bigger animals for more abundant meat, an efficiency consideration, bigger and more specialized stone tools (as weapons) were needed whereas flint or obsidian stone tools would have existed for cutting and skinning purposes (hides). Only children, or perhaps expediency, would explain those scientifically-heralded (featureless) pebble stones.

From the progressive state of stone toolmaking capabilities over the ages, one cannot conclude the early stages of tool development reflected a time of lesser intelligence. Instead, the earliest humans may have been primarily vegetarians. In that case therefore, which appears a certainty, the Old Stone Age evolved from the passive days of vegetarianism to the aggressive days of carnivorousness. Being of monumental consequences and the most characterizing event of all, It is the reason the Paleolithic period (Old Stone Age) should be divided into two parts, not three.

(more about this in Examples of stone tools and why the earliest cavemen had no heavy weapons)

While the changeover was assuredly gradual and regionally different, the 'sophisticated' types of stone tools found would indicate it had already occurred. The oldest, if determinable, would give us an idea when. Seemingly, from most indications, it occurred towards the end of the upper Paleolithic time period (30,000 – 100,000 B.C.) The profoundness of this great difference is explained next and it concerns vegetarianism.

Most likely they were vegetarians not just because killing large animals required stone weapons- which they didn't have - but because, in their social upbringing, there was a stigma attached to killing. It would then logically follow that a stigma would also be attached to the eating of flesh. Stigmas, of course, are usually rooted in what is considered sinfulness. We must not forget, ancient man was very spiritual. There is testimony galore.

However, to the extent killing (in general) and carnivorousness were considered sins, their analysis would be derived from a 'pure conscience'... not yet polluted by centuries-old influences. Health concerns may have played a roll as well. Any change in our conscience since then (due to 'justifying') would indicate injured spiritual forces in today's societies. In other words, our conclusions about anything with a spiritual flavor are likely much different... and why anthropologists often fail to properly characterize ancient societies.

Of course, having a mindset unable to relate to the original (ancient) mindset, modern-day justifications would make it harder to visualize vegetarians in ancient times... or that this lifestyle existed for spiritual reasons. It wouldn't 'compute'. Nonetheless, the lack of killing tools is evidence of vegetarianism. Anthropologists, of course, mistakenly linked this absence to 'intelligence'.

Sin or not, as much distaste early man likely had for killing and the eating of flesh, to avoid starvation he probably knew it was necessary at times. Survival, after all, is the trump card. Over time, it became more acceptable. It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine how disgusting the eating of animal flesh would seem without precedent. Or if influenced thusly by society... like cannibalism is today. While fish may have been the exception, along with possibly a few other socially established 'exceptions', likely varying in different parts of the world, mankind may not have been carnivorous to any extent for quite some time.

It is the greatest characterizing difference between the earliest days of the Paleolithic to the latter days.

Yet, if the earliest humans were primarily vegetarians, then, it seems, we should expect to find grinding tools like a recognizable metate or mano (handheld 'grinder')... but apparently we haven't. At least not anything older than 8,000 years... although the ability to determine (date) the earliest use of a rock is doubtful. In any case, gathering grain in the wild - if a nomadic lifestyle was the norm - wouldn’t yield enough to require special grinding tools. Gatherable yields of any significance would require the act of farming which, in turn, requires people to stick around. Until then, for only a few handfuls of grain any rock or hard spot would do.

Continuing along these lines, if the ancients were primarily nomads as often suggested, then finding a rock with evidential wear would be unlikely. It would take several decades of daily grinding grain on the same rock for a recognizable metate to take shape. Nobody would carry these heavy rocks to their next location either, not in a sea of rocks.

But for them, that lifestyle would have made no sense. If anything they were only 'seasonal nomads'. Surely farming had to have taken place to some extent since the very beginning. It's only natural this would occur as the benefits would be immediately seen. Only vagrants and the dispossessed might constantly be on the move. However, this contradicts what archaeologists believe, that the practice of farming did not begin until sometime around 5,500 B.C. Apparently that date was established because metates were determined to be in use some 6,000 years ago in Africa at the Standing Stones at Nabta, and some 8,000 years ago at Jia Lake, China. Still, evidence of earlier usage must exist (somewhere). However, such evidence would be increasingly scant the further back in history one tries to go (less and less people).

Whether farming has always occurred or whether humans were once vegetarians, it's all about knowing the mettle of mankind. Of course, there'd be a difference between the originals (ancient man) and their made-over offspring (modern man).

In summary, archeologists have been irresponsible in presenting to the public our ancient past. You can't extrapolate from a few facts the full picture. Nor do they seem to fathom how much the missing data could change it. It is wholly premature to paint a picture based on a single discovery, as if each finding was the Holy Grail, the Rosetta Stone or the 'missing link'. To do so is shamefully grandstanding. While the credo of science is to stick-to-the-facts, except archeologists simply can't draw an accurate picture from a couple of facts. With stone tools effectively being the only evidence of the caveman's existence, the public has been purposefully left with the impression stone tools were the extent of the caveman's sophistication.

Although my spiritually-derived beliefs may belong to the realm of speculation to a great extent - although a logical discourse can often lessen that extent - hopefully you've seen the picture I've painted is far more likely than that of science... who continually tries to make a fraction of the story the whole story.

A.O. Kime

Last modified: 10/25/13