Glossary

  • Acheulean
    (a-SHOO-le-an) The stone age industry associated with hand axes, about a million years ago.
  • anthropology
    The over-arching study of humans, including ancestral and related apes.
  • arboreal
    Living in trees
  • archaeology
    The study of human-made artifacts
  • atom
    The smallest unit of matter that is (usually) stable.  It consists of a nucleus of protons and neutrons, surrounded by electron clouds.  There are about 100 kinds of atoms, the elements of chemistry.
  • Australopithecus
    (AWE-struh-lo-PITH-a-cus) A hominin genus found in Africa 1 - 4 MYA, believed to be ancestral to the first humans.
  • basal
    "At the base" of a phylogenetic tree.  This may refer to a species that lived long ago, or a living species that still resembles such an older one.
  • Beringia
    The geographic region where Asia (Siberia) meets North America (Alaska).  Currently submerged, Beringia is above sea level during some ice ages, and has formed a land bridge between these continents at various times.
  • big bang
    A physical event that marked the beginning of the known universe.  It is called a "bang" because it started small and then expanded rapidly, and in fact the universe is still expanding.
  • biped
    An animal that walks on two legs.
  • bonobo
    Pan paniscus, a species of chimpanzee also sometimes called "pygmy chimps".  There are subtle physical differences and major behavioral differences between "common" chimps and bonobos.  The two species were permanently separated by the Congo River 1 - 3 MYA.
  • brachiate
    To hang and / or swing by the arms.
  • bronze age
    The period of time in which a culture's most advanced tools and weapons were bronze.  Differs by region.  The most important bronze ages were 3 - 7 KYA in the Old World.
  • canines
    The teeth that are third from the center line in the human jaw; canines are "fangs" in non-human apes, carnivores, and many other animals. Dogs (the teeth are named after the dogs).
  • carbohydrate
    An organic molecule formed from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.  Fibers, starches, syrups, and blood sugar are carbohydrates.
  • caste
    A class in India's social system.
  • catarrhine
    The clade including humans, apes, and Old World monkeys.
  • Cenozoic
    The present era of geological time, dating back to the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 MYA.
  • cerebellum
    The part of the brain responsible for control of voluntary movements.
  • chiefdom
    A level of social organization intermediate between a clan and a civilization, characterized by one or several villages under the command of a hereditary chief.
  • civilization
    A stably unified polity with population on the order of 100,000 or more, including at least one city on the order of 10,000 or more.  Most historians attempt to define civilizations by their achievements, but those achievements are either the direct result of large populations or are not common to all polities commonly referred to as civilizations.
  • clade
    A biological grouping based on actual genetic descent rather than physical similarities.
  • cortex
    The outer layer of the brain, which plays a role in higher-level conscious thought.
  • country
    The land associated with a civilization.
  • cranium
    The dome of the skull, containing the brain.
  • cultivation
    The practice of managing or fostering certain favored plants, without going so far as to plant fields dedicated to them.
  • culture
    Goods and ideas that can spread among people with or without political organization.
  • dimorphic
    Having two different sizes / shapes, especially between the sexes of a single species.
  • domestication
    Human involvement in the reproductive cycles of other living things, for purposes of evolution toward human needs.
  • ecosystem
    A community of plants, animals, and other organisms interacting with each other and with their environment.
  • egalitarianism
    A social structure without class or hierarchy, in which all members play nearly identical roles.
  • electron
    A fundamental particle with negative charge.  Electrons make up the outsides of atoms, and their interactions define chemical reactions.  The free movement of electrons is electricity.
  • enamel
    The outer layer of teeth.  Enamel is a mineral, the hardest part of the body.
  • eon
    The longest unit of geological time, spanning hundreds of millions or billions of years.  Not a constant duration.  Scientists divide the history of Earth into four eons according to overall characteristics of the planet and its life.
  • epoch
    The fourth-longest unit of geological time, generally spanning tens of millions of years.  Recent epochs (which are the only ones to be concerned about) end in the suffix -cene.
  • erect bipedalism
    Walking on two feet and with an upright back.
  • erectus
    One of the earliest human species, ranging across Africa and southern / eastern Asia roughly 2 MYA - 300 KYA.  In this book, erectus includes ergaster, an early African version sometimes classified as a separate species.
  • eukaryote
    An organism with large nucleated cells; not bacteria.  Protists, fungi, plants, animals.
  • evolutionary pressure
    An environmental condition that favors one particular inheritable trait over another one, thus allowing the favored trait to be more rapidly reproduced.
  • Fertile Crescent
    The region of historically fertile riverbeds arcing from Egypt in the southwest to Syria in the north and then to Iraq / Iran in the southeast.
  • forage
    To search widely for food, i.e. to hunt animals and / or gather wild edible plant matter over a wide range.
  • free-rider problem
    The tendency for people to enjoy a benefit without working or paying for it.
  • fundamental particles
    The smallest, simplest, indivisible particles of matter and energy.
  • gene pool
    The set of genes shared within a species, hypothetically available to all members of the next generation through mating.
  • general relativity
    The study of gravity as an interaction between energy-matter and space-time.
  • generalist
    The opposite of a specialist.  A species is a generalist if it is well-adapted to a wide variety of conditions.
  • genus
    The biological classification level above species; multiple species grouped together by common ancestry and / or similar appearance.
  • geography
    The physical layout of landforms, water, air, and their resources, sometimes in the context of political boundaries.
  • geology
    The study of Earth's history: layers, features, and the processes that formed them.
  • glacier
    A perennial accumulation of snowfall on land.
  • GR
  • gracile
    Thin-boned; the opposite of robust.
  • Gulf Stream
    A warm Atlantic current from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle via North America and Europe.
  • heidelbergensis
    An early human species ranging across Africa and Europe, currently seen as a viable common ancestor for modern humans and Neanderthals.
  • Holocene
    The geological epoch beginning with the end of the most recent ice age 12,000 years ago and continuing until the next ice age.  Also called the present interglacial or Marine Isotope Stage 1.
  • hominin
    A fossil ape of 2 - 7 MYA, ancestral to humans and no other living apes.  Characterized by bipedalism and small, non-honing canines.  The line between hominins and humans is arbitrarily drawn at the evolution of genus Homo 2 MYA.
  • Homo
    The genus consisting of all past and present human species, dating back approximately 2 MYA before blurring into Australopithecus.
  • honing
    A form of chewing in which the canines rub up against pre-molars of the opposite jaw to keep the canines sharpened.
  • incisors
    The wedge-shaped, "scraping" teeth at the front of the mouth; first and second from the center line in the human jaw.
  • inflation theory
    A model of the big bang as an unstable and exponentially growing vacuum fluctuation, due to the influence of gravity.
  • interglacial
    A warm period between glacial episodes in an ice age.
  • iron age
    The period of time in which a culture's most advanced tools and weapons were made of iron.  Differs by region.  The first iron ages date to -1200 in western and southern Eurasia.  There is no definite end to the iron age, but the term fades out gradually in the 1st millennium in light of gunpowder and overshadowing historic events.
  • Kenyanthropus
    A proposed genus for a flat-faced hominin living 3.2 - 3.5 MYA in Kenya, near the Lomekwian tool site.
  • knapping
    Striking stones together in such a way as to shape them into useful tools.
  • KYA
    Kiloyears ago (thousands of years ago)
  • Levant
    The eastern shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea
  • light year
    The distance that light travels in a year. Approximately 9 trillion kilometers or 6 trillion miles.
  • Linnaean
    The 18th century system of classifying living things by their physical similarities rather than common ancestry.  Named for its creator Carl Linnaeus, this system gave us the classic divisions of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species, and the binomial Latin nomenclature of "scientific names" such as Homo sapiens.
  • logarithmic
    Counting multiplications rather than additions.  This entire book is a logarithmic history because each chapter is ten times longer than the next one.
  • Lomekwian
    The oldest known stone age industry, known from only one site near Lomekwi, Kenya, and dated to about 3 MYA.
  • macromolecule
    A very large molecule, esp. one of the four classes of molecules that make up living things: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
  • Mesoamerica
    The geographic region also known as "Central America", from Mexico to Panama.
  • Mesolithic
    The "middle stone age", a narrow period defined by small stone tools and the first settler-cultivators, roughly 7 - 12 KYA.  Also sometimes called the epipaleolithic.
  • Milankovitch Cycles
    Astronomical cycles related to Earth's orbit around the sun.  They affect climate on time scales of 10,000 - 100,000 years and have been especially impactful during the present ice ages.
  • Miocene
    The first epoch of the Neogene Period, spanning roughly 23 - 5 MYA.  Characterized by global cooling and the evolution of apes.
  • molars
    Large teeth at the back of the jaw; 6th - 8th from the center line in the human jaw.
  • monophyletic clade
    A closed and complete line of descent, consisting of a particular ancestor and all of its descendants.
  • MYA
    million years ago
  • nation
    The people historically associated with a civilization, generally tied together by a common language.  A people is more enduring than a state, so state / national boundaries get displaced in the long term.
  • Neanderthal
    A species of early human ranging across Europe and central Asia roughly 300 - 30 KYA.
  • Neogene
    The second period of the present Cenozoic Era, spanning roughly 3 - 23 MYA.
  • Neolithic
    The "new stone age", an archaeological term.  Characterized by polished stone tools and the earliest agriculture, until the advent of metallurgy.  Began as early as 10 KYA in some regions.
  • neuron
    A cell of the brain and nervous system.
  • neurotransmitter
    A chemical in the brain or nervous system that is required for signals to pass between neurons.
  • neutron
    A subatomic particle with no electric charge.  Neutrons are found in the nuclei of atoms.  Each neutron is made of three quarks.
  • niche
    The role played by a species within its ecosystem.  Examples of niches are "large carnivore", "small seed-eater", "tall broad-leafed tree" etc.  A rule of thumb is that an ecosystem can only support one species in any given niche.
  • Norte Chico
    The earliest recognized civilization in South America, centered around Caral, Peru in the -4th to -2nd millennia.
  • nuclear DNA
    The DNA found within the nucleus of every cell of a eukaryotic organism, providing the codes for synthesizing all the proteins that make up that organism.  It includes the X and Y chromosomes but not mitochondrial DNA.
  • nuclear family
    A family unit consisting of two parents and their biological children, living separately from the rest of their community and relatives.
  • obligate
    Compelled by physiology, such as a fish being an obligate water-breather while an amphibian can choose air or water.
  • Oldowan
    The earliest widespread stone age industry, characterized by pebble tools.
  • Oligocene
    The last epoch of the Paleogene Period, spanning 34 - 23 MYA.
  • Olmec
    The earliest recognized civilization in Mesoamerica, centered around gulf coast Mexico in the -2nd to -1st millennia.
  • omnivore
    An animal that eats large percentages of both plant and animal products.
  • empire
    A polity organized under one state authority, but spanning multiple nations.
  • organized religion
    A supernatural belief system that is standardized, practiced on a large scale, and historically controlled by the state.
  • orogeny
    The formation of mountains, especially when continental plates collide.
  • Paleogene
    The first period of the present Cenozoic Eon, spanning 66 - 23 MYA.
  • paleontology
    The study of fossils.
  • paternal
    Relating to the father.
  • pathogen
    A bacteria, virus, or similar microorganism that causes diseases.
  • patrilineal
    Tracing descent (or rank or property etc.) through the male line.
  • Phanerozoic
    The present eon of geological time, dating back to the Cambrian Explosion about 540 MYA.  Characterized by macroscopic organisms with hard body parts.
  • phylogeny
    "Family tree" analysis on the evolutionary time scale; the relationships of living things at the levels of species and higher.
  • physics
    The study of space, time, matter, energy, and forces at their most fundamental levels, before getting to any emergent properties of complex things.
  • PIE
  • Pleistocene
    (PLICE-toh-seen) The geological epoch spanning roughly 3 MYA - 12 KYA.  Includes all of the Quaternary ice age cycles up until (and not including) the present interglacial.
  • Pliocene
    The shorter and latter epoch of the Neogene Period, spanning roughly 5 - 3 MYA.
  • polity
    A political body (village, city-state, nation, empire, etc.)
  • positive feedback
    A cycle by which a condition causes itself to increase, like sound picked up and increasingly amplified by a microphone / speaker system.
  • potential energy
    Energy that is stored up or contained and is not currently being used to excite matter.
  • prehensile
    Flexible and capable of grabbing.
  • present interglacial
    The period of time beginning with the end of the most recent ice age 12,000 years ago, and continuing until the next ice age.  Also called the Holocene Epoch.
  • primate
    An order of mammals characterized by hands and forward-facing eyes.
  • primogeniture
    Succession of property and / or title to the first-born child
  • Proto-Indo-European
    A theoretical culture from which today's Indo-European language family descended.
  • proton
    A subatomic particle with positive charge.  Protons are found in the nucleus of an atom, and they define which element that atom is.  Each proton is made of three quarks.
  • quantum physics
    The study of matter, energy, and forces at the atomic and sub-atomic level.  At this level, matter and energy are not continuous but discrete.
  • quarks
    Fundamental particles that combine in triplets to produce protons and neutrons.  Quarks are never found in isolation, except perhaps in the very tiniest fraction of a second after the big bang.
  • Quaternary
    The geological period from about 3 MYA to the present.  Defined by the ice ages, including the present interglacial.
  • robust
    When referring to bones, "robust" means "thick and strong."  The opposite of gracile.
  • savanna
    The boundary between a grassland and woodland.  A favorite habitat of hominins and early humans.
  • space-time
    The four-dimensional integration of space and time, used as a way to measure physical changes but also in recognition that space and time are bound together in relativity.
  • speciate
    To evolve into a new species after becoming isolated from sister populations, especially to the point of mating incompatibility.
  • spindle neuron
    A unique type of brain cell found only in great apes and a few other large-brained species.  It seems to be involved in higher thought functions such as self-awareness and social intelligence.
  • standard model
    The theory of fundamental particles.
  • steppe
    A large area of flat unforested grassland, esp. in southeastern Europe or Siberia.
  • temperate
    Neither equatorial nor polar; moderate in climate.  Technically, the temperate zone ranges from latitudes of 23.5 degrees to 66.5 degrees in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • terrestrial
    On land.  Can be used as the opposite of aquatic or arboreal.
  • tetrapod
    A vertebrate with four limbs: amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals are tetrapods.
  • theory of mind
    The ability to understand someone else's behavior as being driven by a mind like your own, but with a different perspective, interests, and needs.
  • TYA
    thousand years ago
  • vacuum fluctuation
    A fluctuation in the energy at a point in empty space.
  • vertebrate
    An animal with an internal skeleton.
  • woodland
    Tree cover less dense than a forest, and predominantly at a single height.
  • xenophobia
    Fear, loathing, or distrust of "outsiders", however that may be defined in the hater's mind.
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