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9 Ways Stone Age Human Ancestors Were Like Us

Early humans may have been primitive—but they had some sophisticated habits and tastes.

The Stone Age began more than two million years ago, and ended around 3300 BC, as humans began to discover metalwork with the dawn of the Bronze Age. Compared to modern humans, Stone Age humans and human ancestors may have been primitive—but they were far more sophisticated than the grunting cavemen often depicted on screen. In fact, early humans were ingenious problem-solvers who managed to survive and thrive in hostile environments. More and more, researchers are finding we’re not so different.

1. They cured meat to turn it into ‘bacon.’

A 5,300-year-old mummy found frozen in a European glacier in 1991 revealed that people had already begun curing meat. The mummy, known as Ötzi, or the Iceman, was killed by an arrow when he was between 40 and 50 years old and hiking across the Ötztal Alps between modern-day Italy and Austria. When researchers explored the contents of Ötzi’s stomach, they were stunned to discover a kind of rudimentary prosciutto alongside a cooked grain. For his final supper, Ötzi had eaten goat—but it was dry-cured, rather than cooked. Archaeologists believe that he was carrying cured meat with him on his trip through the mountains. “It seems probable that his last meal was very fatty, dried meat,” mummy specialist Albert Zink told The Local, “perhaps a type of Stone Age Speck or bacon.”

2. They played music on instruments.

An early human playing a flute.

An early human playing a flute.

As far back as 43,000 years ago, shortly after they settled in Europe, early humans whiled away their time playing music on flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory. The instruments were found in a cave in southern Germany in 2012, and are believed to have been used in religious ritual or simply as a way to relax.

3. They kept their homes clean, and spent time hanging out on their rooftops.

Neolithic homes at Catalhoyuk in Konya, Turkey.

Neolithic homes at Catalhoyuk in Konya, Turkey.

Though people tend to think of early humans as living in caves, a settlement found in Turkey in the mid-1960s reveal some of the earliest examples of urbanization. Nine thousand years ago, Neolithic people lived in mud-brick houses, packed closely together. Each house was uniform and rectangular, reported the New York Times, “and entered by holes in the roof rather than front doors.” They were simple structures, but they had every modern convenience–a hearth, an oven, and platforms for sleeping on. According to archaeologist Shahina Farid, “A lot of activity would have taken place at the roof level.” People would cross between homes on the rooftops, and use the alleyways between them to throw out their household waste. “It’s those areas that are the richest for us,” said Farid, “because they actually kept their houses very clean.”

4. The women were strong.

Early Neolithic women played the roles of both hunters and gatherers. 

Early Neolithic women played the roles of both hunters and gatherers. 

Many millennia before women were even allowed to compete in the Olympics, Stone Age women were as strong as modern athletes. According to a study published in Science Advances, remains of women from around 7,000 years ago suggest they were almost as strong as “living semi-elite rowers.” The results tell us a little bit about what role women played in everyday life, and that they were likely as involved with manual labor as their male peers.

5. They passed their homes on to their descendants.

Life and activity of prehistoric people in the Stone Age.

Life and activity of prehistoric people in the Stone Age.

When Stone Age people needed somewhere to live, they often didn’t build a new dwelling or seek out an empty cave. Instead, they’d renovate empty homes in their local area, and live there instead. Sometimes, archaeologist Silje Fretheim at NTNU’s Department of Archaeology and Cultural History told Science Nordic, homes would be inhabited near-continuously for as much as 1000 years. “People became more settled and linked to certain sites because they saw them as good places to live.”

6. They went on camping getaways.

Prehistoric men along northern France.

Prehistoric men along northern France.

In Scotland, the Cairngorms are a popular weekend spot for hikers and holiday-makers. In the Stone Age, it wasn’t so different: Some 8,000 years ago, visitors would come for a few nights at a time and stay in a tent with a central campfire. What they were doing there isn’t clear—though a visit to make the most of the area’s excellent hunting is a popular theory, researcher Graeme Warren told The Press and Journal: “They may have gone up there because it is a natural corridor taking you across from the east to the west of Scotland, and while they were there they did some hunting because they were hungry.”

7. They survived climate change.

When the climate changed dramatically 11,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers in what is today northeastern England were forced to make substantial changes to fight off biting cold. Even as temperatures plummeted, researchers found, pioneering early people changed their way of life rather than moving elsewhere, including how they built their homes and the kind of tools that they used.

8. They made bread.

Neolithic grain production.

Neolithic grain production.

A snack eaten 14,400 years ago might not look so different than a modern one, after all. In northern Jordan, archaeologists found the remnants of ancient flatbread in what was once a fireplace. It was a staggering discovery: Making bread would have been an unbelievably labor-intensive process, requiring not just making the dough, but also harvesting the grain and milling it. For now, no one’s really sure how they did it, or how they managed to make such finely ground flour. “Nobody had found any direct evidence for production of bread, so the fact that bread predates agriculture is kind of stunning,” University of Copenhagen archaeologist Tobias Richter told Atlas Obscura.

9. They had pets.

Thousands of years ago, in what is today Germany, people were buried with their pet dogs when they died. Archaeologists say, they even appear to have nursed sick puppies for as long as they could—even when their recovery seemed uncertain. The remains of one dog suggest that the animal caught fatal “canine distemper” at around five months old, and would have been seriously ill on a number of occasions for up to six weeks at a time. Each time, it was brought back to health. “Since distemper is a life-threatening sickness with very high mortality rates, the dog must have been perniciously ill,” researcher Liane Giemsch told National Geographic. “It probably could only have survived thanks to intensive and long-lasting human care and nursing.” A lot of love, a very long time ago.

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