The Paleolithic Era: from about 1.8 Million to 20,000 years ago. Though, professor Garland “throws in at no extra charge” an extra four million previous years so as to begin right at the very beginning.
Beginning at such a late point in pre-history, what record do we have to trace the evolution of our earliest ancestors? Fossils: or, Paleo-Anthropology.
The human story begins about six million years ago, at the point where chimpanzees and hominins (re: any species, alive or extinct, which would vaguely resemble humanity) separate from one another. This is the point where our ancestors came down from the trees, for unknown reasons, and began to move on the ground. This is the Lucy skeleton in Ethiopia which dates to about four million.
Lucy’s family were on the Earth for about three million years. Then, at about 1.8 million years ago, a new type of hominins emerges in Indonesia, China, and Africa– homo-erectus, the standing man. This is the first entry in the “homo” family that leads to Homo-Sapiens. To us: it was this ancestor who was the first to hunt, build fires, tend to and care for the weak, and use complex tools.
Early hominins, however, wouldn’t have hunted. They would have used stone tools to work the flesh of deceased animals that other animals had killed. Your goal here would have been to obtain bone marrow as it was highly nutritious.
At about 300,000 to 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals began to emerge. As for the point of their emergence as a unique species in Europe, it was about 130,000 years ago.
Though it remains a highly contentious point of debate, it is possible that Neanderthals interbred with homo sapiens; whether these unions could produce offspring, however, remains hotly debated. Neanderthals were muscular and barrel-chested with short legs with protruding foreheads. They stood at about five foot four inches (give or take) with a large brain (perhaps even larger than our own). Due to their bulky build, they were well-adapted to the cold, and could easily warm the cold air to protect their brain.
Imagine being a Neanderthal: you are constantly exposed to the elements, paranoid of all humanoids outside of your limited circle, you know nothing about the natural world, you are stalked by death (in the form of animals and nature) 24/7, you live through protracted periods of agonizing pain of which you can do absolutely nothing about, and you do all this without the comfort or consolation of religion.
Neanderthals would hunt and fish with pointed weapons. They would cleave away the meat and muscle of previously killed animals and, in select cases, other hominids. Yes, they were cannibals. Thankfully, not all is cannibalism, as you would, on occasion, exchange supplies with other tribes. And, to top it off, you do bury your dead (something done not merely for practical purpose, as the archeology finds associated burial elements nearby which suggest mourning).
Neanderthals were the first to make fire and use it to cook food, a great discovery. Cooking is a way to consolidate culture and so represents a huge breakthrough in hominid relations.
Neanderthals lived in groups of about 100-150. More importantly, they cared for one another, even the sick and the lame, suggesting that multiple social roles existed within Neanderthal tribes.
What happened to Neanderthals? Around 35-40,000 years ago, Neanderthals began to be replaced by Homo Sapiens (by us). How they were “replaced” is unknown. Many guesses exist, from outright genocide to simply losing the competition in gathering resources. No one answer has been selected as the definitive answer.
Evidence suggests that contact between Neanderthals and the Homo Sapiens took place about 40k years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Astoundingly, research suggests that no less than four, maybe more, direct ancestors shared the Earth with homo sapiens at this time.
Somewhere between 60k and 20k years ago, our ancestors acquired minds– the capacity to think and reason beyond the immediate perception of the moment. They were able to focus on aesthetics and think about the past and the future abstractly. This is connected with the development of language. Though we do not know when humans first began using language, we think that it first happened somewhere around 40,000 years ago. It was language, after all, that solidified a culture and made hunting and artistic potential possible (think of cave art).
Around ten thousand years ago, you become a hunter-gatherer. This corresponds with a rise in temperature and the end of the ice age.