In any discussion of Pre-history it is worthwhile looking at the environment in which humans were living and interacting. While we do not have any direct records of the people of the time, we can look with some certainty at the climate.
As we are coming to recognise in our modern, warming world, climate affects how humans act. We can see the dangers of changing land uses and water availability. Dangers which could overturn civilisation as we have come to know it.
There is a vague idea in most people’s minds that there was an ice age, the glaciers retreated and things warmed up sometime around 20,000 years ago. This allowed the Hunter-Gatherers to gradually learn about agriculture and then settle in one place to protect their crops from marauders.
Like most vague ideas this is both true and false.
I am going to add a disclaimer here because the field of Glaciations and Ice Ages and their dates is difficult and confused as each continent was affected at different stages. I am concentrating on Eurasia and Northern Africa.
The last major glaciations, within the current (yes CURRENT) ice age reached their maximum extent of glaciation approximately 22,000 years ago. Allowing around 2,000 years for the warming to become noticeable, I’m picking a date for the first “warm” time as starting around 20,000BP. There were major variations across the both Eurasian Continent and North America which make absolute dating impossible. What has been agreed is that from around 110,000 years ago to around 10,000 years ago, the weather in the Northern Hemisphere ranged from VERY cold to colder than today.
It is a time covering the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago with a number of proto-human and human ancestors) and the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age which lasted roughly from just after the end of the last glacial maxima till some 5,000 years ago) periods.
The gradual warming was not a smooth process and there were three major interruptions probably caused by major changes in geography and ocean currents as the glaciers retreated. These cooling periods are named after the pollen of a particular plant, the Dryas octopetala (an arctic-alpine flowering plant in the family Rosaceae) the range of which moved up and down the latitudes with the temperature.
So we have the three Dryas periods with warmer interregnums;
We can only imagine the terror felt by generations of post-ice age man as the cold began to return in each of the Dryas Periods. It was not a case of the ice returning, it was a case of less worldwide evaporation and a consequent severe decrease in rainfall. Cold droughts would have stamped out the earliest attempts at agriculture.
Man is a story-telling animal and there would have been explanations for the colding and the warming told and re-told. There was no written record although, as we have seen with the Australian Aboriginal oral tradition, stories can be transmitted and remembered for at least 15,000 years, There is no time period during these European events to match the Australian time span.
In Eurasia writing appeared around 6,000 years ago. It had developed from trading records and marked the end of “Pre-History”. Largely the province of the temples who were due much of the traded produce, some adventurous scribes began to write the stories of their tribes and kingdoms. They naturally included the tales of their non-literate parents and grand-parents.
The tales which were the oral tradition finally became fixed. In those tales are the myths and legends which reveal some of our hidden past. In those tales is much which decides how we live today.
Filed under: mythology