When most people think about our distant ancestors, many envision a group of ape-like creatures huddled in a cave trying to break bones open with a rock. While this isn’t entirely wrong, early humans also made incredible strides in innovation and survival that resulted in the modern man and the dominant species on planet Earth. Take a look to see what life was really like in the days of early Homo sapiens, and how far we’ve come from being a species with little organization, no language, and just trying to survive.
The “Out Of Africa” Theory
It has been concluded by scientists that our human ancestors originated in Africa. The theory suggests that our ancestors left the continent and migrated to the continents of Europe and Asia. In doing this, they also began eliminating earlier examples of the human species, such as the Homo erectus.
Supposedly, the migration took place around 80,0000 years ago with the now-extinct Homo erectus taking the same route around one million years ago. Apparently, they had the same idea.
Cooking Food Changed Our Anatomy
Early humans began cooking food on controlled fires around 790,000 years ago, which resulted in humans consuming much less bacteria than eating it raw. This changed the anatomy of early humans leading to shorter digestive tracts since there was less of a need to process food.
Cooking meat over fire also led to humans receiving more energy from the meat which resulted in taller bodies and larger brains. Humans would look much different if we never discovered the magic of cooking food.
They Were Extremely Social Beings
Being social was a fundamental part of early human survival and evolution. Humans began building communal shelters around 400,000 to 800,000 years ago, although they didn’t start trading resources until around 130,000 years ago.
Researchers have concluded that being social and living together significantly increased our chance of survival, and is what helped make us successful as a species. Even though it may not seem like it today, it’s most likely that early humans were extremely good at working together because their survival depended on it.
They Were Artistic
Around 17,000 years ago, early humans had developed many of the tools needed in order to help their survival. However, with the help of tools and other kinds of technology, humans also had more time on their hands. This led to them becoming more artistic, decorating their tools and giving their pottery individual flare.
However, prehistoric art dates far further back than 17,000 years. The oldest known use of color to make art was 250,000 years ago, which can be found in the form of a doodle in a cave in Zambia.
Our Brain Size Has Tripled
Over the course of human evolution, the human brain size has tripled, which is the main reason that we were able to survive as a species. However, our brain size didn’t just allow us to survive, but to thrive, becoming the dominant species on Earth.
Interestingly, scientists are still not totally sure why we developed such large brains in the first place. Some believe that it was the result of climate change, or our need to evaluate new locations and unknown terrain.
Early Humans Had Incredibly Low Genetic Diversity
Humans are one of the least genetically diverse species, most likely because we evolved from a small group of early humans that lived in East Africa. Scientists measure genetic diversity with what’s known as “effective population size.” Effective population size is how many people you would need to reproduce the genetic diversity of our full population.
For humans, this is only about 15,000, which is a minuscule number compared to our population of 7 billion. On the other hand, species such as mice have an effective population size of around 733,000.
There Was A Massive Population Decline 80,000 Years Ago
Around 80,000 years ago, there was a significant decline in the human population. Scientists still aren’t entirely certain of what happened, but they know that something definitely did. Some theorize that there was a massive volcanic eruption, which filled the sky with ash, blocking out the sun.
They believe that the ash particles blocked the sun’s heat for many years, resulting in freezing temperatures, which seriously affected human life and population growth during that time on Earth.
A Pointless Leg Muscle
Around nine percent of the human population has a completely useless muscle in their leg. It’s what’s known as the Plantaris muscle and actually did have a purpose back when humans resembled monkeys more so than a person.
It helped us to grip and manipulate objects with our toes, but we eventually stopped having a need for it thanks to our fingers, and especially our thumbs! The Plantaris muscle is actually so useless that surgeons take from it when reconstructing other parts of the body during surgery.
The Purpose Of Our Fists
Like the rest of our body, our hands changed over time as our species evolved. However, some researchers claim that our hands evolved not for dexterity, but in order to make fists, a theory that came about during the study of anatomical changes in the human body.
The theory goes on to claim that around the time we started walking upright, our hands became short and square with opposable thumbs. While some believe that this was to help make tools, others claim that it was in order to make a fist to fight.
The Changing Of Skin Tone
Lighter skin tone in humans only began to become noticeable around 5,8000 years ago. At this time, early humans began to resemble modern Europeans of today. They began to develop lighter skin after they began to migrate and settle farther north where there was less sunshine, and pale skin synthesizes more vitamin D when light is scarce.
This is opposed to those who remained in areas with more intense sunlight, resulting in the needed higher levels of melanin for protection against the sun’s radiation.
Starting To Wear Clothes
Although scientists aren’t entirely sure when early humans began wearing animal skin as a way to stay warm, it’s assumed that the practice started around 1 million years ago, based on the genetic skin-coloration of our ancestors around this time.
Humans most likely began doing so after losing a large portion of their body hair and needed to substitute it with something. In colder areas during the winter, it is estimated that early humans covered up to 90% of their bodies in animal furs to protect themselves against the elements.
Cancer Was An Issue
Interestingly, bone cancer has been found in several remains of the early human species of Homo Kanamensis. One of the remains was discovered in Kenya by the leading paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, who was surprised to find a lump by a left tumor on the jaw.
This discovery proved that while most people might assume that cancer is more of a modern disease that came about after mankind became civilized, that’s certainly not the case. It’s been afflicting humans for far longer.
Why We Walk On Two Legs
Our ancestors began walking on two legs long before we developed our large brains or started utilizing stone tools. But the question remains, which is why do we walk upright? One of the leading theories that we do is because walking as bipeds might actually use less energy than walking on all fours.
Freeing up the arms also might have enabled early humans to carry more food or even help them control their body temperature by reducing the amount of skin exposed to the sun.
Why We Lost A Lot Of Our Hair
It’s no shock to learn that humans are one of the most naked species on the planet, especially when compared to our much harrier ape cousins. However, we didn’t always use to be this way.
A common belief is that our ancestors shed their excess hair when migrating across the savannas in Africa to keep cool. On top of that, it is believed that we lost our hair in order to keep us free of parasites and disease that is brought about by having so much body hair.
Discovery Of “The Hobbits”
The “hobbit” or “Flores Man,” is the nickname given to a small skeleton found on the Indonesia isle of Flores in 2003. Currently, the remains are the subject of extensive research to determine if the individual could be an extinct species that were different from modern humans.
The individual would have stood around 3 feet and seven inches in height and is believed to have lived around 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. Stone tools were also found around the remains.
The Development Of Language
Many researchers have concluded that all languages throughout the world can be traced back to a common dialect that was spoken by our ancestors when they were still in Africa. Granted, this wasn’t a complex form of communication by any means, most likely consisting of a series of grunts and noises, but were still used to express emotion and meaning.
With over 5,000 languages spoken on Earth today, this would be quite an impressive feat. However, today, linguists and anthropologists believe real language most likely started to develop around 100,000 years ago.
Homo Sapiens Have Always Used Fire As A Tool
Although controlling fire is what allowed Homo sapiens to evolve and become the dominant species on Earth, we never actually had to discover fire.
As a species, we never existed without fire, which was learned to be controlled by our previous hominid relatives such as the Homo erectus, who then passed the knowledge onto us. So, in essence, we had a head start in terms of evolution, and somebody else to thank for it.
The Purpose Of Goosebumps
While goosebumps are a natural biological response among humans, if you think about it, they don’t serve much of a purpose anymore. However, they used to back in the days of early humans.
Back when first Homo sapiens had large amounts of hair, goosebumps served an actual purpose. They made us look bigger by raising our hair follicles, so we looked more formidable so that predators or enemies might think twice about attacking. Now, we get goosebumps for far less threatening reasons.
We Might Have Neanderthal Genes
Neanderthals are humans’ closest extinct ancestors. These ancestors lived in Europe and Asia from as early as 200,000 years ago until 30,000 years ago. Although we shared many similarities with Neanderthals, they were shorter and thicker than us, with angled cheekbones, wide noses, and prominent eyebrow ridges.
However, their appearance wasn’t by chance, they were necessary for survival in Europe’s cold climate and for hunting large game. Yet, it’s possible that early humans bred with Neanderthals, meaning that some of us may have Neanderthal genes in our genetic makeup.
Blue Eyes Were Extremely Rare
The oldest evidence of someone having blue eyes dates back around 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. The evidence was uncovered in Northwest Spain and belonged to someone with a dark complexion, similar to sub-Saharan Africans. Today, blue eyes are still considered to be less common than other eye colors, but they’re even rarer than most people think.
Studies show that it’s possible that everyone with blue eyes today has a single, common ancestor. The trait of blue eyes likely survived because early humans found them attractive, making it easy for them to reproduce.
Homo Sapiens Are Still Rapidly Evolving
Although it might seem like we’ve reached the peak of our evolutionary growth as a species, that’s far from the truth. According to evolutionary biologists, there are a few isolated areas of the human genome that are currently under rapid selection, which can result in mutations spreading throughout the population.
Our species is also still evolving given the way we live. Constantly looking at screens, sitting at desks, the way we eat, are all having an impact on the evolution of our species.
Neanderthals Made Complex Tools And Weapons
Although Neanderthals are often cast in a negative light as being simplistic and brutish cave dwellers, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, it’s been discovered that Neanderthals were far more capable than previously assumed and were even capable of trading among groups and even making glue.
Neanderthals made a wide variety of weapons and tools, even developing a type of tar from plant resin that acted as a type of glue to fix stone tools onto wooden handles. Not so brutish after all!
They Played Music
Like modern human beings, the early homo sapiens also enjoyed playing and listening to music. As far back as 43,000 years ago, after early humans began to settle in what is now Europe, they were playing music on flutes typically made from either bird bone or mammoth ivory.
These first instruments were found in a cave in southern Germany in 2012 and it is believed that they were utilized for both religious purposes as well as social interaction.
They Built Uniform Urban Dwellings
While many people assume that early humans lived in caves only mere step-above wild animals, a discovery in Turkey in the 1960s revealed something else. What was found was one of the first signs of evidence of urbanization among early humans. Nine thousand years prior, these Neolithic people lived in houses made of brick and mud in a sort of neighborhood.
Each structure was built in the shape of a rectangle and around the same size, using a hole in the roof as the front door. The houses were also simple with most simply consisting of a hearth, an oven, and platforms to sleep on. It’s assumed that most of their time was spent on the roof.
They Navigated The Indian Ocean
Around 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens first arrived in Australia. But how did they get there from Africa? Well, it’s assumed that they fashioned boats that were most likely lashed together with reeds.
At the time, it was essentially an impossible task, with no way to navigate the treacherous waters, and who knows how many attempts it took for someone to land on the shores of an island. Yet, they eventually succeeded. Over time, they utilized these boats on several occasions, eventually populating the entire continent of Australia.
The Women Were Astonishingly Physically Strong
It should come as no surprise that the women during the time of the early Homo sapiens are described as being as physically fit as many professional athletes today.
This is because they weren’t exempt from many of the laborious tasks that it took to stay alive, doing an equal amount as the men, if not more considering childbearing. According to a study from Science Advances, the remains of women found from around 7,000 years ago show that they would have been as strong as “semi-elite rowers.”
They Would Go Camping
Today, in Scotland, the Cairngorms are a popular destination for hikers and vacationers. However, this is not a new tradition, but has been going on for 8,000 years. Back then, people would come to this location and stay in tents for a few nights around central campfires.
However, it’s still unclear exactly what they were doing there, although it’s possible that it was a popular hunting location. Researchers at The Press and Journal note that they could have stayed there because it is a natural corridor between east and west Scotland and food was abundant.
It Was Not Uncommon For Homes To Be Passed Down To Future Generations
When prehistoric people needed a place to live, they didn’t always go find a nice cave like most people think. What they would typically do is refurbish old homes in the area and take up residence there.
According to Silje Fretheim at NTNU’s Department of Archaeology and Cultural History, “People became more settled and linked to certain sites because they saw them as good places to live.” In some places, some homes would be continuously lived in for over a thousand years.
They Survived Climate Change
Around 11,000 years ago, the climate changed drastically, which posed a serious threat to the early humans of the time, especially those in what is today northeastern England. In order to survive, they had to make some serious lifestyle changes to fight off the cold.
Researchers have found, however, that many groups decided to acclimate to the new climate rather than move elsewhere. this can be seen in how they built the structures of their home, their diet, and the kinds of tools that they used.
Some Of Them Made Bread
Almost 14,400 years ago, the early humans were snacking on food that doesn’t look all that much different from what we eat today. In northern Jordan, archaeologists found the remains of a fireplace that contained the remnants of flatbread. This was an impressive find for researchers, considering the labor-intensive and lengthy process that it takes just to make the dough.
This doesn’t even include harvesting the grain, milling it, and grinding it down into a flour. Tobias Richter, an archeologist at the University of Copenhagen, commented, “Nobody had found any direct evidence for the production of bread, so the fact that bread predates agriculture is kind of stunning.”
Vikings Washed Their Faces Daily
It was common practice for many Vikings to wash their faces and hair at least once each day. According to the Arabic traveler Ibn Fadlan, a servant would bring a basin of water to their master, in which he would wash his hands and hair before combing his hair with a comb dipped into the water.
He would then blow his nose and spit in the water before passing it to the next person. However, it’s most likely that the water was changed first.
Some Homes Had Latrines Inside
For the most part, a Viking community had communal latrines typically located away from homes or other frequently trafficked areas. However, there has been evidence of some members of the community having latrines in their actual longhouses.
One of these personal bathrooms was discovered at the ruins of Stöng, which featured a latrine with trenches that carried the waste away from the home and to a distant location outdoors. These were likely reserved for people of status.
They Might Have Filed Their Teeth
Although not much is known about Vikings and teeth modifications, in 2005 and 2009, archaeologists discovered filed teeth in the remains at a Scandinavian burial site. Some theories as to why these teeth were filed are that they could have been used as an intimidation tactic against their enemies or to show their victories.
Regardless of why the teeth were filed, archaeologist David Score noted that the filing was done by someone who knew what they were doing.
It Was A Criminal Act To Tarnish A Fellow Viking’s Appearance
In The Laws of Early Iceland, it’s made clear that humiliating a Viking by harming his appearance is a clear offense.
It reads: “If a man cuts hair from someone’s head or makes him dirty anywhere to disgrace him or tears or cuts clothing off him… and for anything a man does to disgrace someone else, however, he sets about it, the penalty in every case is outlawry.” If someone was deemed an outlaw, they could be stripped of their legal and social protections.
Combs Were A Big Deal
Much like a weapon, jewelry, or other meaningful possession, a Viking’s comb was of particular importance. Essentially, each Viking had their own that they would keep with them at almost all times.
They could be made out of wood, ivory, bone, or even antler and were usually customized and decorated by the owner. Often, these combs were kept in wooden cases to protect the teeth while Vikings were traveling and were considered a special piece of their equipment.
They Had A Number Of Tools To Stay Well-Groomed
Although keeping one’s nails clean may not seem like a priority when trying to survive in the harsh lands of Scandinavia, history has proven otherwise. Over the years, countless artifacts have been discovered that resemble modern-day combs, tweezers, ear cleaners, and more.
Of course, many of these were made from animal bones and antlers, as Vikings didn’t have the benefits of driving to the nearest drug store after losing their favorite pair of tweezers.
They Were Buried With Their Grooming Utensils
When a Viking was laid to rest, not only were they buried with their meaningful personal belongings and other items such as weapons, they also had grooming tools such as razors and tweezers.
These items had significance because they were typically ornate and usually worn around their neck or attached elsewhere on their bodies, indicated by the holes drilled in them. Some items, such as their brushes, were so cherished that they had their own boxes.
They Lived Inside With Their Livestock At Times
Typically, Viking families lived in longhouses made from wood and roofed with straw or turf. With a fire in the middle for warmth and cooking, these structures didn’t have windows and had very little privacy.
During the cold months, the Vikings would bring their livestock into the longhouse to prevent them from freezing to death. Unsurprisingly, sharing a living space with livestock resulted in the Vikings contracting numerous parasites and diseases, which have been discovered in ancient latrines.
They Used Utensils To Eat
Although Vikings frequently ate with their hands, like many cultures around the world still do today, they also had utensils. While they may not have had forks, they did have spoons and knives that they used for eating.
Their knives were particularly important because they were used for eating, hunting, grooming, and even fighting. Like their grooming tools, Vikings often kept their eating utensils on them, as they never knew when they would need them.
They Bathed Every Saturday
By no means were the Middle Ages the cleanest of times for the human population. Today, the Vikings are considered to be one of the cleanest cultures at the time, considering how often they bathed. It was a ritual for all members of a Viking community to bathe each Saturday in nearby lakes and streams.
Bathing weekly was essentially unheard of in most other parts of Europe at the time, which made the Vikings far cleaner than most other people they would have encountered.
Their Oral Health Was Generally Good
In a time when oral care was low on people’s list of priorities, Vikings had surprisingly decent oral care despite not doing much to maintain it. Compared to other Western diets, the Viking diet had less refined sugar, which helped their teeth last longer.
However, their food was relatively coarse. This would cause considerable wear on their teeth, as seen on many of the Viking remains that have been excavated over the years.
They Were Particular About Their Hair
One aspect of their look that Vikings were very particular about was their hair. Men mostly wore their hair long and had their slaves’ hair cut short for quick identification.
Sometimes, Viking men were also known to wear their hair long in the front and short in the back and they’d wear it in a braid or ponytail. Because they had long hair, they cared about how it looked and would comb it frequently throughout the day.
They Constructed Their Own Saunas
While taking a dip in a nearby lake or stream may have been refreshing in the summer months, the Vikings devised another way to keep warm during the depths of winter. They constructed bathhouses and saunas that served as meeting places and were thought to provide medicinal value by causing people to sweat.
For the most part, these saunas were built on top of or near hot springs. However, if there weren’t a hot spring nearby, they would heat water in large vats.
They Trimmed Their Beards Diligently
Another aspect of their appearance that Vikings took great pride in was their facial hair. Although Hollywood might portray Vikings as having great out-of-control beards, that certainly wasn’t the case.
While they did sport facial hair, they also kept it well maintained and trimmed. The length of one’s beard was a sign of maturity and masculinity, but how clean and well-kept a Viking had it was also important. This is why it was common for many Vikings to also carry a shaving razor on them.
They Wouldn’t Wash Themselves While In Mourning
While Vikings were known for washing their bodies weekly, combing their hair regularly, and other hygienic practices, they would often show their grief by no longer washing if they lost a loved one.
This is detailed in the sagas, such as the one describing the death of Baldr in the poem Völuspá. It reads: “His hands he washed not nor his hair combed Till Baldr’s bane was borne to the pyre.” Once their time of mourning was over, they would then return to their typical cleaning rituals.
Vikings Would Dye Their Hair As Blonde As Possible
For Vikings, the blonder the hair, the better, which applied for both men and women. Although having blonde hair wasn’t necessary (which would be impossible), it was the preferred color.
Vikings who were born with darker hair would use lye to bleach it as much as possible. By chance, lye also helps to kill lice, so not only did it help make hair more blonde but kept the Vikings clean as well.
Only Women Would Wash And Cut A Man’s Hair
While the Viking men may have taken care of their own beards and other parts of their bodies that needed to be cleaned, men rarely washed and cut their own hair.
This task was reserved for the women, although it is not known whether wives did it for their husbands or if there were specific women that all the men came to. Literary accounts have also been discovered that state it would be considered an honor for women to wash a certain man’s hair.
It Was Law For Women To Have Long Hair
Much like Viking men, when it came to women’s hair, the more of it and the longer it was, the better. However, women didn’t even have a choice in how they wanted to wear their hair. It was dictated by law that women were forbidden to wear their hair short.
Of course, the women also took great pride in their hair and made sure to wash and comb it as much as possible to keep up their looks.
They Cared About How They Dressed
Both men and women in Viking society wore clothing made mostly of wool and linen, which were frequently washed by the women in nearby streams and lakes. On top of keeping their clothes clean, they also cared about what they wore and how they looked.
John of Wallingford commented on this, saying that the Vikings were so focused on how they looked that they would “change their clothes frequently to draw attention to themselves by means of many such frivolous whims.”
Vikings Used Moss For Their Toilet Paper
When it came to going to the bathroom, most Viking communities shared a latrine, but it was most likely up to the individual to bring their own “toilet paper.”
Archaeologists have discovered that the Vikings preferred to use the moss they collected from the surrounding forests to do their business. Some of the used moss has even been unearthed from latrine excavation sites. The discovery of this moss has also helped us learn more about the Viking diet.