Paleolithic problems

A decorated ostrich egg from Paleolithic Africa

Today’s goal is to finish a draft of page 1, the Paleolithic (40,000 years ago). I’m sketching and writing captions for eight panels, each showing what was going on in that part of the world about 40,000 BC. So what was going on?

I’ve got several main points to make: 1) There were several species of hominid sharing the planet at that time (Neanderthals, Denisovans, Flores man, and us), 2) Nobody was living in the Americas yet, and 3) All of these people were pretty much like us: they talked, they sang, they cooked their food on fires, they built houses, they had boats and could swim, their kids played games, and they had necklaces and tattoos. If my child-readers take away that much from this page, I’ll be delighted.

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A reconstruction of a woman who was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan

But suppose they come back and re-read this page, looking for more details, really getting into it? I’ve got some subtler points to make too. For example, they had baskets but not pottery. They wove baskets, and looser things like fishnets, Nobody knows for sure if these early humans made straw mats or straw hats, but it seems likely.  But they didn’t weave clothing yet; they wore loosely draped leather and sheepskin capes and skirts rather than shirts or pants.

Paleolithic people lived mostly outside rather than inside, and they lived surrounded by birds and animals much more than we do. While the things they ate are mostly familiar to us – bananas, peaches, nuts, honey and sugar, beef and pork, tuna fish, oatmeal – each group had only some of those things, because they hadn’t started to exchange foods yet.

It appears that pretty much all of these people were dark-skinned, or darker-skinned than most modern Europeans anyway. They cared for (at least some) disabled people and elders among them. Did they oppress women? That’s difficult to say.

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Mousterian (Paleolithic) stone tools

Finally, I’d like to make one more point on this page, but it’s a harder sell. I’d love if people came away understanding that even so long ago, even in the Paleolithic, people specialized and co-operated. Making flint and obsidian tools wasn’t something everyone did; flint-knappers did it.

Probably not everyone knew how to cook well either, and a third group of people wove the baskets and straw hats. Making shell and stone beads,  and deep sea fishing, were probably also specialized activities. It’s possible that telling stories, singing, and playing music were already specialties in the Paleolithic.

Anyway, there has never been a time in human history when humans took care of themselves as individuals, not depending on other people for help. People hate that and resist knowing it, because we all think other people are a little untrustworthy. We’d prefer to think that in a pinch, we could manage on our own. Hence the enormous appeal of books like Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, or Clan of the Cave Bear. But our strength lies in cooperation, not independence. That’s emerging as a theme for the book. Next up: the Ice Age!


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