Humanity realized we could do more with stone tools some two and a half million years ago. We made stone hammers and cutting implements made by flaking stone, sharpening deer bone, and sticks, sometimes sharpened into spears. It took 750,000 years, but we figured out we could attach those to sticks to make hand axes and other cutting tools about 1.75 million years ago. Humanity had discovered the first of six simple machines, the wedge.
During this period we also learned to harness fire. Because fire frightened off animals that liked to cart humans off in the night the population increased, we began to cook food, and the mortality rate increased.
More humans. We learned to build rafts and began to cross larger bodies of water. We spread. Out of Africa, into the Levant, up into modern Germany, France, into Asia, Spain, and up to the British isles by 700,000 years ago. And these humanoid ancestors traded. Food, shell beads, bone tools, even arrows.
By 380,000-250,000 years ago we got the first anatomically modern humans. The oldest of those remains has been found in modern day Morocco in Northern Africa. We also have evidence of that spread from the African Rift to Turkey in Western Asia to the Horn of Africa in Ethiopia, Eritraea, across the Red Sea and then down into Israel, South Africa, the Sudan, the UAE, Oman, into China, Indonesia, and the Philopenes.
200,000 years ago we had cored stone on spears, awls, and in the late Stone Age saw the emergence of craftsmanship and cultural identity. This might be cave paintings or art made of stone. We got clothing around 170,000 years ago, when the area of the Sahara Desert was still fertile ground and as people migrated out of there we got the first structures of sandstone blocks at the border of Egypt and modern Sudan. As societies grew, we started to decorate, first with seashell beads around 80,000, with the final wave of humans leaving Africa just in time for the Toba Volcano supereruption to devastate human populations 75,000 years ago.
And still we persisted, with cave art arriving 70,000 years ago. And our populations grew.
Around 50,000 years ago we got the first carved art and the first baby boom. We began to bury our dead and so got the first religions. In the millennia that followed we settled in Australia, Europe, Japan, Siberia, the Arctic Circle, and even into the Americas. This time period was known as the Great Leap Forward and we got microliths, or small geometric blades shaped into different forms. This is when the oldest settlements have been found from Egypt, the Italian peninsula, up to Germany, Great Britain, out to Romania, Russia, Tibet, and France. We got needles and deep sea fishing. Tuna sashimi anyone?
By 40,000 years ago the neanderthals went extinct and modern humans were left to forge our destiny in the world. The first aboriginal Australians settled the areas we now call Sydney and Melbourne. We started to domesticate dogs and create more intricate figurines, often of a Venus. We made ivory beads, and even flutes of bone. We slowly spread. Nomadic peoples, looking for good hunting and gathering spots. In the Pavolv Hills in the modern Czech Republic they started weaving and firing figurines from clay. We began to cremate our dead. Cultures like the Kebaran spread, to just south of Haifa. But as those tribes grew, there was strength in numbers.
The Bhimbetka rock shelters began in the heart of modern-day India, with nearly 800 shelters spread across 8 square miles from 30,000 years ago to well into the Bronze Age. Here, we see elephants, deer, hunters, arrows, battles with swords, and even horses. A snapshot into the lives of of generation after generation. Other cave systems have been found throughout the world including Belum in India but also Germany, France, and most other areas humans settled. As we found good places to settle, we learned that we could do more than forage and hunt for our food.
Our needs became more complex. Over those next ten thousand years we built ovens and began using fibers, twisting some into rope, making clothing out of others, and fishing with nets. We got our first semi-permanent settlements, such as Dolce Vestonice in the modern day Czech Republic, where they had a kiln that could be used to fire clay, such as the Venus statue found there - and a wolf bone possibly used as a counting stick. The people there had woven cloth, a boundary made of mammoth bones, useful to keep animals out - and a communal bonfire in the center of the village.
A similar settlement in modern Siberia shows a 24,000 year old village. Except the homes were a bit more subterranean.
Most parts of the world began to cultivate agriculture between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago according to location. During this period we solved the age old problem of food supplies, which introduced new needs. And so we saw the beginnings of pottery and textiles. Many of the cultures for the next 15,000 years are now often referred to based on the types of pottery they would make.
These cultures settled close to the water, surrounding seas or rivers. And we built large burial mounds. Tools from this time have been found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and in modern Mumbai in India. Some cultures were starting to become sedentary, such as the Natufian culture we collected grains, started making bread, cultivating cereals like rye, we got more complex socioeconomics, and these villages were growing to support upwards of 150 people.
The Paleolithic time of living in caves and huts, which began some two and a half million years ago was ending. By 10,000 BCE, Stone Age technology evolved to include axes, chisels, and gouges. This is a time many parts of the world entered the Mesolithic period. The earth was warming and people were building settlements. Some were used between cycles of hunting. As the plants we left in those settlements grew more plentiful, people started to stay there more, some becoming permanent inhabitants. Settlements like in Nanzhuangtou, China. Where we saw dogs and stones used to grind and the cultivation of seed grasses.
The mesolithic period is when we saw a lot of cave paintings and engraving. And we started to see a division of labor. A greater amount of resources led to further innovation. Some of the inventions would then have been made in multiple times and places again and again until we go them right. One of those was agriculture.
The practice of domesticating barley, grains, and wheat began in the millennia leading up to 10,000 BCE and spread up from Northeast Africa and into Western Asia and throughout. There was enough of a surplus that we got the first granary by 9500 BCE. This is roughly the time we saw the first calendar circles emerge. Tracking time would be done first with rocks used to form early megalithic structures.
Domestication then spread to animals with sheep coming in around the same time, then cattle, all of which could be done in a pastoral or somewhat nomadic lifestyle. Humans then began to domesticate goats and pigs by 8000 BCE, in the Middle East and China. Something else started to appear in the eight millennium BCE: a copper pendant was found in Iraq.
Which brings us to the Neolithic Age. And people were settling along the Indus River, forming larger complexes such as Mehrgarh, also from 7000 BCE. The first known dentistry dates back to this time, showing drilled molars. People in the Timna Valley, located in modern Israel also started to mine copper. This led us to the second real crafting specialists after pottery. Metallurgy was born.
Those specialists sought to improve their works. Potters started using wheels, although we wouldn’t think to use them vertically to pull a cart until somewhere between 6000 BCE and 4000 BCE. Again, there are six simple machines. The next is the wheel and axle.
Humans were nomadic, or mostly nomadic, up until this point but settlements and those who lived in them were growing. We starting to settle in places like Lake Nasser and along the river banks from there, up the Nile to modern day Egypt. Nomadic people settled into areas along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers with Maghzaliyah being another village supporting 150 people. They began to building using packed earth, or clay, for walls and stone for foundations. This is where one of the earliest copper axes has been found. And from those early beginnings, copper and so metallurgy spread for nearly 5,000 years.
Cultures like the Yangshao culture in modern China first began with slash and burn cultivation, or plant a crop until the soil stops producing and move on. They built rammed earth homes with thatched, or wattle, roofs. They were the first to show dragons in artwork. In short, with our bellies full, we could turn our attention to the crafts and increasing our standard of living. And those discoveries were passed from complex to complex in trade, and then in trade networks.
Still, people gotta’ eat. Those who hadn’t settled would raid these small villages, if only out of hunger. And so the cultural complexes grew so neolithic people could protect one another. Strength in numbers. Like a force multiplier.
By 6000 BCE we got predynastic cultures flourishing in Egypt. With the final remnants of the ice age retreating, raiders moved in on the young civilization complexes from the spreading desert in search of food. The area from the Nile Valley in northern Egypt, up the coast of the Mediterranean and into the Tigris and Euphrates is now known as the Fertile Crescent - and given the agriculture and then pottery found there, known as the cradle of civilization. Here, we got farming. We weren’t haphazardly putting crops we liked in the grounds but we started to irrigate and learn to cultivate.
Generations passed down information about when to plant various crops was handed down. Time was kept by the season and the movement of the stars. People began settling into larger groups in various parts of the world. Small settlements at first. Rice was cultivated in China, along the Yangtze River. This led to the rise of the Beifudi and Peiligang cultures, with the first site at Jaihu with over 45 homes and between 250 and 800 people. Here, we see raised altars, carved pottery, and even ceramics.
We also saw the rise of the Houli culture in Neolithic China. Similar to other sites from the time, we see hunting, fishing, early rice and millet production and semi-subterranean housing. But we also see cooked rice, jade artifacts, and enough similarities to show technology transfer between Chinese settlements and so trade. Around 5300 BCE we saw them followed by the Beixin culture, netting fish, harvesting hemp seeds, building burial sites away from settlements, burying the dead with tools and weapons. The foods included fruits, chicken and eggs, and lives began getting longer with more nutritious diets.
Cultures were mingling. Trading. Horses started to be tamed, spreading from around 5000 BCE in Kazakstan. The first use of the third simple machine came around 5000 BCE when the lever was used first, although it wouldn’t truly be understood until Archimedes.
Polished stone axes emerged in Denmark and England. Suddenly people could clear out larger and larger amounts of forest and settlements could grow. Larger settlements meant more to hunt, gather, or farm food - and more specialists to foster innovation. In todays Southern Iraq this led to the growth of a city called Eridu.
Eridu was the city of the first Sumerian kings. The bay on the Persian Gulf allowed trading and being situated at the mouth of the Euphrates it was at the heart of the cradle of civilization. The original neolithic Sumerians had been tribal fishers and told stories of kings from before the floods, tens of thousands of years before the era. They were joined by the Samarra culture, which dates back to 5,700 BCE, to the north who brought knowledge of irrigation and nomadic herders coming up from lands we would think of today as the Middle East. The intermixing of skills and strengths allowed the earliest villages to be settled in 5,300 BCE and grow into an urban center we would consider a city today.
This was the beginning of the Sumerian Empire Going back to 5300, houses had been made of mud bricks and reed. But they would build temples, ziggurats, and grow to cover over 25 acres with over 4,000 people. As the people moved north and gradually merged with other cultural complexes, the civilization grew.
Uruk grew to over 50,000 people and is the etymological source of the name Iraq. And the population of all those cities and the surrounding areas that became Sumer is said to have grown to over a million people. They carved anthropomorphic furniture. They made jewelry of gold and created crude copper plates. They made music with flutes and stringed instruments, like the lyre. They used saws and drills. They went to war with arrows and spears and daggers. They used tablets for writing, using a system we now call cuneiform. Perhaps they wrote to indicate lunar months as they were the first known people to use 12 29-30 day months. They could sign writings with seals, which they are also credited with. How many months would it be before Abraham of Ur would become the central figure of the Old Testament in the Bible?
With scale they needed better instruments to keep track of people, stock, and other calculations. The Sumerian abacus - later used by the Egyptians and then the device we know of as an abacus today entered widespread use in the sixth century in the Persian empire. More and more humans were learning larger precision counting and numbering systems.
They didn’t just irrigate their fields; they built levees to control floodwaters and canals to channel river water into irrigation networks. Because water was so critical to their way of life, the Sumerian city-states would war and so built armies.
Writing and arithmetic don’t learn themselves. The Sumerians also developed the concept of going to school for twelve years. This allowed someone to be a scribe or writer, which were prestigious as they were as necessary in early civilizations as they are today.
In the meantime, metallurgy saw gold appear in 4,000 BCE. Silver and lead in 3,000 BCE, and then copper alloys. Eventually with a little tin added to the copper. By 3000 BCE this ushered in the Bronze Age. And the need for different resources to grow a city or empire moved centers of power to where those resources could be found.
The Mesopotamian region also saw a number of other empires rise and fall. The Akkadians, Babylonians (where Hammurabi would eventually give the first written set of laws), Chaldeans, Assyrians, Hebrews, Phoenicians, and one of the greatest empires in history, the Persians, who came out of villages in Modern Iran that went back past 10,000 BCE to rule much of the known world at the time. The Persians were able to inherit all of the advances of the Sumerians, but also the other cultures of Mesopotamia and those they traded with. One of their trading partners that the Persians conquered later in the life of the empire, was Egypt.
Long before the Persians and then Alexander conquered Egypt they were a great empire. Wadi Halfa had been inhabited going back 100,000 years ago. Industries, complexes, and cultures came and went. Some would die out but most would merge with other cultures. There is not much archaeological evidence of what happened from 9,000 to 6,000 BCE but around this time many from the Levant and Fertile Crescent migrated into the area bringing agriculture, pottery, then metallurgy.
These were the Nabta then Tasian then Badarian then Naqada then Amratian and in around 3500 BCE we got the Gerzean who set the foundation for what we may think of as Ancient Egypt today with a drop in rain and suddenly people moved more quickly from the desert like lands around the Nile into the mincreasingly metropolitan centers. Cities grew and with trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia they frequently mimicked the larger culture.
From 3200 BCE to 3000 BCE we saw irrigation begin in protodynastic Egypt. We saw them importing obsidian from Ethiopia, cedar from Lebanon, and grow. The Canaanites traded with them and often through those types of trading partners, Mesopotamian know-how infused the empire. As did trade with the Nubians to the south, who had pioneered astrological devices. At this point we got Scorpion, Iry-Hor, Ka, Scorpion II, Double Falcon. This represented the confederation of tribes who under Narmer would unite Egypt and he would become the first Pharaoh. They would all be buried in Umm El Qa’ab, along with kings of the first dynasty who went from a confederation to a state to an empire.
The Egyptians would develop their own written language, using hieroglyphs. They took writing to the next level, using ink on papyrus. They took geometry and mathematics. They invented toothpaste. They built locked doors. They took the calendar to the next level as well, giving us 364 day years and three seasons. They’d of added a fourth if they’d of ever visited Minnesota, don’tchaknow. And many of those Obelisks raided by the Romans and then everyone else that occupied Egypt - those were often used as sun clocks. They drank wine, which is traced in its earliest form to China.
Imhotep was arguably one of the first great engineers and philosophers. Not only was he the architect of the first pyramid, but he supposedly wrote a number of great wisdom texts, was a high priest of Ra, and acted as a physician. And for his work in the 27th century BCE, he was made a deity, one of the few outside of the royal family of Egypt to receive such an honor.
Egyptians used a screw cut of wood around 2500 BCE, the fourth simple machine. They used it to press olives and make wine. They used the fifth to build pyramids, the inclined plane. And they helped bring us the last of the simple machines, the pulley. And those pyramids. Where the Mesopotamians built Ziggurats, the Egyptians built more than 130 pyramids from 2700 BCE to 1700 BCE. And the Great Pyramid of Giza would remain the largest building in the world for 3,800 years. It is built out of 2.3 million blocks, some of which weigh as much as 80 tonnes. Can you imagine 100,000 people building a grave for you?
The sundial emerged in 1,500 BCE, presumably in Egypt - and so while humans had always had limited lifespans, our lives could then be divided up into increments of time.
The Chinese cultural complexes grew as well. Technology and evolving social structures allowed the first recorded unification of all those neolithic peoples when You the Great and his father brought flood control, That family, as the Pharos had, claimed direct heritage to the gods, in this case, the Yellow Emperor. The Xia Dynasty began in China in 2070 BCE. They would flourish until 1600 BCE when they were overthrown by the Shang who lasted until 1046 when they were overthrown by the Zhou - the last ancient Chinese dynasty before Imperial China.
Greek civilizations began to grow as well. Minoan civilization from 1600 to 1400 BCE grew to house up to 80,000 people in Knossos. Crete is a large island a little less than half way from Greece to Egypt. There are sites throughout the islands south of Greece that show a strong Aegean and Anatolian Cycladic culture emerging from 4,000 BCE but given the location, Crete became the seat of the Minoans, first an agricultural community and then merchants, facilitating trade with Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean. The population went from less than 2,000 people in 2500 BCE to up to 100,000 in 1600 BCE. They were one of the first to be able to import knowledge, in the form of papyrus from Egypt.
The Mycenaeans in mainland Greece, along with earthquakes that destroyed a number of the buildings on Crete, contributed to the fall of the Minoan civilization and alongside the Hittites, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Babylonians, we got the rise of the first mainland European empire: Mycenaean Greece. Sparta would rise, Athens, Corinth, Thebes. After conquering Troy in the Trojan War the empire went into decline with the Bronze Age collapse. We can read about the war in the Iliad and the return home in the Odyssey, written by Homer nearly 400 years later.
The Bronze Age ended in around 1,200 BCE - as various early empires outgrew the ability to rule ancient metropolises and lands effectively, as climate change forced increasingly urbanized centers to de-urbanize, as the source of tin dried up, and as smaller empires banded together to attack larger empires. Many of these empires became dependent on trade. Trade spread ideas and technology and science. But tribalism and warfare disrupted trade routes and fractured societies. We had to get better at re-using copper to build new things. The fall of cultures caused refugees, as we see today. It’s likely a conflagration of changing cultures and what we now call Sea People caused the collapse. These Sea People include refugees, foreign warlords, and mercenaries used by existing empires. These could have been the former Philistines, Minoans, warriors coming down from the Black Sea, the Italians, people escaping a famine on the Anatolian peninsula, the Mycenaeans as they fled the Dorian invasion, Sardinians, Sicilians, or even Hittites after the fall of that empire. The likely story is a little bit of each of these. But the Neo-Assyrians were weakened in order to take Mesopotamia and then the Neo-Babylonians were. And finally the Persian Empire would ultimately be the biggest winners.
But at the end of the Bronze Age, we had all the components for the birth of the Iron Age. Humans had writing, were formally educating our young, we’d codified laws, we mined, we had metallurgy, we tamed nature with animal husbandry, we developed dense agriculture, we architected, we warred, we destroyed, we rebuilt, we healed, and we began to explain the universe. We started to harness multiple of the six simple machines to do something more in the world. We had epics that taught the next generation to identify places in the stars and pass on important knowledge to the next generation.
And precision was becoming more important. Like being able to predict an eclipse. This led Chaldean astronomers to establish Saros, a period of 223 synodic months to predict the eclipse cycle. And instead of humans computing those times, within just a few hundred years, Archimedes would document the use of and begin putting math behind many of the six simple devices so we could take interdisciplinary approaches to leveraging compound and complex machines to build devices like the Antikythera mechanism. We were computing. We also see that precision in the way buildings were created.
After the collapse of the Bronze Age there would be a time of strife. Warfare, famines, disrupted trade. The great works of the Pharaohs, Mycenaeans and other world powers of the time would be put on hold until a new world order started to form. As those empires grew, the impacts would be lasting and the reach would be greater than ever.
We’ll add a link to the episode that looks at these, taking us from the Bronze Age to antiquity. But humanity slowly woke up to proto-technology. And certain aspects of our lives have been inherited over so many generations from then.