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Prehistory - the last fifty thousand years
Ice age fauna of northern Spain, painting by Mauricio Antón. Woolly mammoths were driven to extinction by climate change and human impacts. The image depicts a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain with woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius), equids, a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), and European cave lions (Panthera leo spelaea) with a reindeer carcass. National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic - original page
Now we’re down to the 50,000 year interval, too long for history but too short for paleontology. As with the next higher order of magnitude period of 500,000 years, the fifty thousand time interval is part of the no-man’ land between the deep time of geology and paleontology, and the comprehensible time periods of history.
Zooming out, 50,000 years, this could be considered the threshold of Deep Time. Here paleoclimatology, paleoanthropology, and paleontology all enter the picture. Zooming in, there is the shift from paleontology to prehistory
On the imaginal (mythical and mythopoetic) level, this is where both history (the past) and prediction and futurism the future turns into mythology. For the past, there are novels like Jean Auel’s 1980 Clan of the Cave Bear, or William Golding’s 1955 The Inheritors, both describing in different ways the meeting between the two hominid species of Late Pleistocene Europe (Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon)
Set a similar distance in the future there are various epic space opera settings. There is for example an entire science fantasy universe, built with incredible attention to detail, and a complete history, called “Warhammer 40k”. This is set at the seemingly unimaginable distance in the future of forty thousand years. For a storyteller, this is at the end of time (Warhammer 40k is about the death of the galaxy). That is the “feeling” orientation. But for a geologist or a paleontologist this time scale is a blink of an eye. It doesn’t even qualify as deep time. This is the difference between the feeling (short term) and thinking (long term) modes of comprehension.
Anyway, to give this period of the last 50 thousand years a name, I’m just calling it Prehistory. Technically, prehistory includes the two next larger intervals. While 50k includes history as well, but that's only right at the end.
During this time, early humans developed a wide range of sophisticated tools and technologies, humans developed language and culture, created art and music, made significant advances in communication and social organization, and right at the end - 10k years ago - developed early forms of agriculture.
This period covers the Late Pleistocene and the entire Holocene. Almost all this period is taken up by the last ice age. It saw the rise of Homo sapiens and the widespread use of tools and weapons, the Late Paleolithic, Music, Art, Cave paintings, human migration, Neanderthal flourishing and then extinction.
It covers the flourishing and then sudden extinction of megafauna in various parts of the world (but not Africa or SE Asia), and right at the end the Mesolithic and Neolithic and the agriculture revolution, in the Near East: The development of agriculture allowed for the growth of settled communities and the rise of civilization. With civilization there is religion, philosophy, monarchy, priesthood, the standing army, the monetary system, colonialism and conquest, and finally a tiny blip (half a percent of this overall period) for the rise of science, technology, and the industrial and information revolution.
Grandfather’s Path - Danel Paleolithic and Neolithic migrations in Europe and the Near East - Image by Jack Danel
The last fifty thousand years
- 50 Kya. Modern humans begin to migrate across the world.
- 40 Kya. Aurignacian culture, he advent of anatomically modern humans (AMHs) in Europe, replacing the previous human species, Homo neanderthalensis. Last giant monitor lizards (Varanus priscus) die out.
- 40 Kya. Oldest known figurative art the zoomorphic Löwenmensch figurine. Gwion Gwion rock paintings found in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia.
- 35 Kya. Anatomically modern humans had colonized large parts of the world, from Europe to Asia and Africa; oldest known figurative art of a human figure as opposed to a zoomorphic figure (Venus of Hohle Fels). Extinction of Neanderthals.
- 35-25 Kya. Domestication of dogs.
- 31 to 16 Kya. Last Glacial Maximum (peak at 26,500 years ago).
- 30.5 to 22 Kya. Gravettian culture in Europe
- 30 Kya. rock paintings tradition begins in Bhimbetka rock shelters in India, the densest known concentration of rock art.
- 29 Kya. Earliest ovens found.
- 28.5 Kya. New Guinea is populated by colonists from Asia or Australia.
- 28 Kya. Oldest known twisted rope.
- 28–24 Kya. Oldest known pottery, used to make figurines rather than cooking or storage vessels (Venus of Dolní Věstonice).
- 28 to 20 Kya. Gravettian period in Europe. Harpoons and saws invented.
- 25 Kya. A hamlet consisting of huts built of rocks and of mammoth bones was found in what is now Dolní Věstonice in Moravia in the Czech Republic. This is the oldest human permanent settlement that has yet been found by archaeologists.
- 24 Kya. The cave bear goes extinct.
- 15 Kya. Last woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) are believed to have gone extinct.
- 12.9 to 11.7 Kya. The Younger Dryas, a return to glacial conditions which temporarily reversed the gradual climatic warming.
- 12 Kya. Domestication of Animals and Plants: The domestication of animals and plants marked the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.
- 11,7 Kya. The Pleistocene epoch ends and the Holocene (the current epoch) begins
- 11 Kya. Short-faced bears vanish from North America, with the last giant ground sloths dying out. Equidae go extinct in North America. Domestication of various ungulates.
- 10 Kya. Arctic tundra, cold, last of megafauna; last mainland species of woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenus) die out, as does the last Smilodon species..
- 10.3 to 9.0 Kya. Pre boreal age; cool but getting milder.
- 9.5 Kya. Çatalhöyük urban settlement founded in Anatolia. Earliest supposed date for the domestication of the cat.
- 9.0 to 7.8 Kya: Boreal age, rather dry.
- 8 Kya. The Giant Lemur dies out.
- 7.8 to 5.0 Kya. Atlantic age - warm and moist.
- 5 Kya. Civilisation / recorded history.
- 2.8 to 2.2 Kya. Axial age; revolution in culture, religion, art, philosophy etc.
- 0.5 Kya. Modern age.
- 0.2 Kya. Industrial revolution.
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Page by M Alan Kazlev, 2023