Prehistoric times are a particularly murky spot in the pool of human history. Still, we all have at least some idea of what went down back then: hulking, fur-clad cavemen bashing their prey (and each other) with massive clubs, attempting to invent essentials such as agriculture and the wheel on the side.
Of course, as always, things are a lot more complicated than we tend to assume. It turns out a lot of what we think we know about prehistory is brought to us by Hollywood and Geico commercials.
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Imagine that you live in an alternate reality where the concept of agriculture doesn't exist. You're feeling slightly peckish, so you walk up to the fridge to get that delicious taco you were planning to reheat for lunch. Except that there is no taco. In fact, there is no fridge. All of that "food cultivated by others so you can eat it" stuff was brought on by agriculture, which you now have no concept of. You're a hunter-gatherer: What you have is a spear, and your lunch is somewhere in that forest to your left. Bon appetit!
Yes, at the hunter-gatherer stage of human history, getting groceries sucked giant mammoth balls. You were forced to eat what you could find and/or kill, which led to an unholy amount of dangerous work, not to mention relatively poor nutrition and health. Meanwhile, the tribes that had figured out how to grow their own food were thriving and living large until everyone finally started doing it their way.
"Not going to lie, kind of miss the killing."
The dawn of farming actually made our ancestors' lives far more difficult.
We're not debating the merits of agriculture: It's what enabled humans to settle down, and by extension it's the sole reason you're able to sit in a roofed building reading this article. Still, there is some evidence that prehistoric people actually had a great time being hunter-gatherers. Their "meat and vegetables" diet was in fact very varied and healthy, and obtaining food was no biggie: Tribes living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle today only "work" around 14 hours a week. Compare this to the back-breaking labor of keeping livestock and making things grow, and you'll see why no prehistoric person in their right mind would have voluntarily touched a plow.
Some theories indicate that farming was, in fact, invented out of desperation. The lax schedule of prehistoric hunter-gatherers left them plenty of time to sit around and bone, which in turn led to an expanding population and not enough game to feed them all. Boom! Agriculture or death by starvation, baby!
Had they figuratively "worked their plows" and "tilled their fields," they wouldn't have had to do it literally.
The first farmers soon found out that although agriculture did provide food, manual labor was far more grueling than the relatively bohemian lifestyle hunter-gatherers enjoyed back when food was abundant. This showed in their build: Compared to the big, meat-fed hunter types, agricultural people were a small and bony folk. It wasn't just because of all the hard work, either: Early farmed food was the kind of muck Taco Bell would hesitate to offer its customers, since early herders had no goddamned idea what they were doing in terms of breeding. This, combined with the fact that livestock lived practically under the same roof as their human owners, led to a number of animal diseases becoming more prevalent and figuring out how to jump from animals to people.
"Uh, STDs too ..."
The food the farmers were growing wasn't much better: The sugary grains agricultural societies fed on started decaying their teeth.
Incidentally, the dawn of farming also messed up our relationship with our fellow man: It marked the start of social inequality. Tribal hunter-gatherers had to work together in order to obtain food, so they were all more or less equal. This egalitarian attitude went right down the toilet the second one farmer had enough surplus crop to hire others to do the bullshit manual labor for him. As this trend continued and societies evolved into larger and larger groups, these boss/subordinate roles escalated to the point where we suddenly had kings and slaves.
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Prehistoric people sat around in caves, grunting at each other and dragging potential mates around by their hair. If Doc Brown went back in time to the age of woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers, kidnapped a young caveman, cleaned him up, and brought him to 2013, we would instantly be able to identify the poor brute as barely capable of rudimentary thought. Everyone would think Doc had just shaved a chimp.
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Actually, it's possible that caveman kid would be perfectly equipped to do just as well in school as you if he were raised in the same environment. Modern research shows that you'd find the same modern brain in humans up to 100,000 years ago.
Scientists used to assume that modern human traits exploded into existence some 40,000 years ago during a relatively short period called the human revolution. However, recent research indicates that people didn't just wake up one day and start crapping out the concepts of language, consciousness, and culture. Science calls the human brain's ability for complex thought and creativity "behavioral modernity," and it looks like we've been anatomically suitable for that shit for a thousand centuries or so. So if you gave your time-traveling caveman the right education, he could go out and get a job at Jiffy Lube.
"Oog use black ghost fluid to make steel mammoth move."
One theory even says there is no such thing as "modern man" at all -- we're all basically the same goddamn cavemen who have just adapted to different living environments. The reason prehistoric people were hunting mammoths with stone spears instead of reading poop jokes on their version of the Internet (as far as we know) is the same reason you and your friends would probably go Lord of the Flies within hours if dropped in the middle of a Paleolithic forest. Humans are good at developing particular skill sets required for their living environments.
Sure, hand a caveman an Xbox controller and a bag of Cheetos and he'd probably freak out because his set of skills and knowledge would be totally unequipped to handle that shit. Not because he has a tiny caveman brain, but because he's not going to be familiar with the concepts of gaming, artificial flavorings, or 13-year-olds shouting obscenities at him in an alien language. But imagine yourself in his time, 100,000 years ago: While you're reduced to a whimpering, damp huddle, your "primitive" caveman friend is happily manufacturing specialized weapons, clubbing giant predators in the head with said weapons, burying his dead, and setting up goddamn paint factories.
Then you're stuck offering to get them erectus for shitty leftover mammoth trunk in order to survive.
On a related note ...
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Quick, picture a Neanderthal. Chances are you're able to conjure a pretty vivid image of a big, stupid, hairy man-ape. These unintelligent brutes were little more than an evolutionary dead end: Their main mission in history was to look silly and haul giant clubs around for a while until a brutal ape faction named Homo sapiens got tired of their bullshit and bashed their big, dumb faces in.
What we're saying is that Neanderthals were essentially apes that had figured out how to use clubs.
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Basically a group of smarter Jose Cansecos.
We're going to show you two different sets of tools, one courtesy of the Neanderthals and one by our very own H. sapiens ancestors. Can you guess which is which?
Well, shit. They were able to make almost the same damn tools as us, weren't they? Delving deeper into Neanderthal culture only adds to the "holy crap, they had a brain" evidence pile. Their diets were very similar to that of H. sapiens of the time, they expressed artistic tendencies by dabbling in cave painting (way before we did, too!), and they even got the same cancer tumors as us. They took gentle care of disabled members of their society, something humanity is still struggling with in many parts of the world. But hey, didn't Neanderthals only talk in grunts and other low noises? Surely that's what sets them and us apart.
Or, not. Recent scientific research has discovered that Neanderthals also had the gene that allows humans to speak and develop complex languages. They, alone among all animals, had the exact same capacity for self-expression as humans. Add that to the fact that they were more than capable of creating art, and think of what we missed. If only we'd kept our "let's kill everyone" instinct on a leash for once, we could now be enjoying the works of Neanderthal Shakespeare.
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"Alas, poor Ugluk ..."