6.I: Introduction & Geological / Archaeological Terms

At the timescale of a million years, we are now measuring time with an hourglass 2,000 feet tall, about the height of the world’s tallest skyscrapers and towers.  We have arrived at the present-day geological period, the Quaternary.  The lengthy first epoch of the Quaternary, the Pleistocene Epoch, lasted from 2.6 MYA all the way up to Chapter 4. 

For the first time, we encounter parallel time scales used by archaeologists instead of geologists.  Archaeology is the study of humans and their artifacts.  In fact, archaeologists define “humans” as distinct from earlier hominin animals by their use of tools.  The first tools were made of stone, so the earliest archaeological age is called the Stone Age, or in Latin –lithic.  The Stone Age is much longer than scientists realized when they first named it, so it has been divided and subdivided many times over.  The oldest part of the Stone Age is called the Paleolithic, which itself has lower, middle, and upper stages.  Chapter 6 coincides almost perfectly with the lower Paleolithic, also known as the “Early Stone Age” in Africa.  Finally, this layer encompasses the three oldest specific embodiments or “industries” of stone technology.  Those few stone tools known from 3 MYA are called Lomekwian.  The tools in use 2 MYA belong to the Oldowan Industry, and those from 1 MYA fall into the Acheulean Industry.  Not all scientists agree that these classifications are meaningful, 1 but they are the preferred archaeological terms for now. 

For the last few million years, global climate has been characterized by a series of ice ages.  Section II of this chapter discusses the overall causes and effects of these ice ages.  For our purposes, the most important consequence was the evolution of what we now call the Homo genusearly humans.  The paleontological and archaeological record of that evolution – the “hard” data of bones and stones – is the subject of Section III. 

Chapter 7 was the point of departure for the hominin clade from the rest of the great apes.  The commonalities of humans with other apes were discussed in Chapter 7.  Chapter 6 focuses on the differences, which are harder to date but are reserved for this chapter as a practical matter.  Aside from skeletal anatomy, Section IV discusses the major soft-tissue and behavioral traits that set the hominins and humans apart from chimpanzees.    

Up to CHAPTER 6: THE LAST FEW MILLION YEARS

Continue to Section 6.II:  The Ice Ages

  1. John Shea, Stone Tools in Human Evolution, Cambridge University Press (2017).
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