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August 31, 2009 2:56 AM   Subscribe

What was grandpa doing in the ice-age?

I'm trying to understand pre-ice age archaeology; I was asked recently about the earliest people in Scotland and realised that I dont know much anything pre-neolithic.

Climate obviously plays a large part; ice-ages made much of the area uninhabitable, but I dont really have a perspective on when ice-ages happened and where mankind was at, geographically evolutionary and culturally.

Is there a nice simple timeline which brings this all together?
posted by BadMiker to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you should try the timeline viewer, if you dont already know about it.
posted by vacapinta at 3:01 AM on August 31, 2009 [3 favorites]

Slightly off topic, but this book is a great bit of macrohistory that covers humanity post-ice age.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 4:01 AM on August 31, 2009

This will give you an overview of human migration on a global scale. INAA (I'm not an anthropologist) so I can't vouch for it's correctness but it gives an overview of human migration.
posted by rdr at 4:01 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not a pre-historian, and somebody may well be along in a moment who is better equipped than I to answer your question, but, in the most general terms, the effects of glaciation in northern Europe were probably receding by ca. 9000 BCE. This rendered previously uninhabitable swathes of land, that had been covered by ice sheets, habitable once again. 'Habitable', in this sense, means available for use in a hunter-gatherer sense, with presumably small groups of relatively transient people moving across the landscape. The name used to describe this period is the Mesolithic, and it is most common associations seem to be an increased exploitation of the coastlands for food resources. Most common finds from the period are microliths, small frequently triangular-shaped fragments of knapped stone, several of which could be attached to wood shafts to be used as barbed spears or arrows. Because of the transient nature of society during the Mesolithic, we have an extremely limited knowledge of what settlement structures looked like. People were presumably staying in one place for a relatively brief amount of time, in seasonal patterns; they would exploit one food resources through hunting or trapping, and then move on. Probably the best preserved site is Star Carr in North Yorkshire; if you want to imagine how people were living in general in northern Britain, then think along these lines of a temporary hunting camp, which is revisited every year. The period lasted, give or take, 4000-5000 years, although this varies significantly depending on region. The Neolithic Revolution/Package is endlessly debated in archaeology, but a cultural/social/economic change clearly did take place sometime around 4000BCE, with the arrival of agriculture, more permanent settlement, pottery, and large stone-built mortuary sites. But no-one woke up one morning and The Neolithic was knocking on their door. IANAP, and prehistorians may well be out there, so please go right ahead and demolish the fuck out of anything that's wrong.
posted by hydatius at 4:09 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the 'After the Ice' recommendation, even if it's not quite what you're looking for.

If you're particularly interested in the UK (given your comment about Scotland), then Homo Britannicus does a good overview for the British Isles.
posted by Coobeastie at 4:11 AM on August 31, 2009

You can find it with a little poking around, but here is the short version:

The last 2.5 million years (which is also about how long ago bipedalism emerged in the genus Homo) has been generally colder than average, a period known as the Pleistocene. During this time there have been fairly regular and predicable cycles of glaciation seperated by warm periods known as inter-glacials. The glaciation periods have lasted about 100-150 thousand years and the interglacials 10-20 thousand years. We are currently about 12 thousand years into an interglacial. So to answer your question, Europe was experiencing a period of glaciation from about 110,000 years ago until just 12,000 years ago. That covers most of the time that completely modern humans have been around (starting around 160,000 years ago). Some nifty charts of global temperatures for the last 400,000 years can be found on Wikipedia.

From a historical point of view, there are a few notable points:
* For most of the time modern humans have been around (160,000 years), the earth has been relatively cold and Europe was glaciated.
* During the last interglacial (known as the Eemian) there were very few modern humans around and there were also some Archaic humans (Neandertals). There is some evidence that the humans that were around began doing some slightly more complex human-y things. Evidence for this is in some of the Near Eastern cave sites.
* Human "civilization" as we know it is entirely a product of the current interglacial (known as the Holocene). Pretty soon after the earth warned up, humans in the Near East that were already exploiting plants in pretty unique ways began to transform (domesticate) them, and the rest is history.
* Most interglacials have lasted about 12 thousand years, and we are currently 12 thousand years into an interglacial. So it would be reasonable to expect that without any anthropogenic climate change that a new period of glaciation could start soon, from a geological point of view. Of course now, all bets are off.
posted by Tallguy at 8:41 PM on August 31, 2009

Thanks to all for some great answers.

This is a fascingating ares and I'm very much looking forward to reading 'After the Ice'. Looking at history on this scale really does highlight the dramatic acceleration in human change, increasingly rapid of the past millenia, the past 300 years, the past 100 years and makes you really wonder about the what the future holds! From this distant perspective it looks like mankind is coming to some sort of crisis when we either transcend or implode!
posted by BadMiker at 3:49 AM on September 4, 2009

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