Prehistoric science | Chad Orzel ? (2023)

We might think of science as a profoundly modern feature of human life, extending our understanding of the world around us far beyond what we can see and touch. But the essence of science - observation, experimentation, adaptation - has been around since the dawn of humanity.

In September 1991, a pair of German hikers in the Ötztal Alps, near the border between Austria and Italy, spotted something brown and human-shaped sticking out of a glacier. They immediately reported this to the authorities, thinking they had discovered the body of someone who had died while hiking. While they were correct about it being a dead body, they were a little off on the timing: what they found turned out to be the mummified corpse of a man who had died sometime before 3100 BCE.

The mummy, quickly nicknamed “Ötzi” after the mountains where he was found, was a middle-aged man from the Copper Age, who had been killed by an arrow in the back. His body was quickly frozen into the glacier, along with his clothes and other possessions, leaving it incredibly well preserved. Over the last 29 years, he has been the subject of intense scientific investigation by a wide range of techniques, down to DNA sequencing to determine the species of the hides used to make his clothing, and isotopic analysis to determine the source of the copper ore for his axe. From all these studies, scientists have been able to reconstruct his final days in considerable detail: he was killed in early summer, having been wounded in a fight a few days earlier. His last two meals consisted of ibex meat and grains, one eaten at a much lower altitude than where he was found, suggesting a vivid narrative of battle and pursuit.

The real essence of science, though, is a process for developing reliable information about the world and how it works.

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There are, of course, a great many things that we’ll never know about the “Alpine Iceman,” including who killed him and why. One thing is absolutely clear from the body and his belongings, though: Ötzi came from a society with a history of doing science.

That may seem a surprising assertion, given the modern tendency to use “science” to refer to a body of facts, or a collection of recently developed institutions such as professional societies, research universities, and national labs. The real essence of science, though, is a process for developing reliable information about the world and how it works. This process has four steps:

Look at the world and identify some phenomenon that you want to understand better.

Think about it carefully, and develop a model for how and why it works.

Test your model by experiments and further observations.

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Tell other people about your results, so they can make use of your findings as well.

This process of science is not a recent invention - it’s as old as the human species. As far back as we have evidence of humans, we see signs of people doing science. Ötzi’s belongings are full of evidence that his culture practiced science.

The most notable of Ötzi’s possessions was an axe with a head of nearly pure copper bound into a fork of a yew branch, held in place with tar and leather cords. The end result is a sophisticated and effective tool — tests with a modern replica show that Ötzi’s axe would have been very effective for felling trees.

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Everything about this axe speaks of the existence of prehistoric science. The head alone requires a large body of scientific knowledge: in order to make it, Ötzi’s people needed to gather ore-bearing rocks, heat them in a fire to separate out the copper and melt it, then cast the head in a stone or clay mold. No step in this process is possible without some science. Somebody had to determine which types of rocks contain copper suitable for smelting. The temperatures needed to melt copper require a charcoal fire and bellows, themselves the result of much research and development. Casting the copper into the appropriate shape, and forming it to fit the handle would require more trial and error. Once the head was made, shaping the handle and attaching the head require yet more basic science.

Ötzi’s other possessions are similarly the product of a substantial history of science. His clothing was stitched together from hides of several different animals, and his shoes were a sophisticated two-layer construction insulated with grass, ideal for walking on snow. He carried a fire-starting kit containing flint and tinder and a container for carrying hot coals, and a “first-aid kit” including bits of a birch fungus now known to contain anti-inflammatory and antibiotic compounds, along with oils that are toxic to a specific parasite that was found in Ötzi’s gut. While the exact purpose of all these items cannot be determined, everything known about them suggests that they were purposefully selected by people who knew what they were doing. That knowledge could only be the result of careful study and experiment: that is, science.

The look-think-test-tell process of science is accessible to every human, a part of our collective heritage. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that science is what makes us human.

We don’t think of things like fire-starting kits and copper axes as the result of science, because the discoverers who enabled them were long forgotten by the time we invented written language. And even if we were able to speak to them, they would not describe their knowledge in terms that we would recognize as science in the modern sense — copper age tribesmen in the Alps 5000 years ago didn’t know modern physics or biochemistry, and wouldn’t explain their tools in terms of atoms and molecules. But they knew how to make fires, how to smelt copper, and what fungus was good for treating wounds. And they knew how to figure things out, and build on earlier knowledge by looking at the world, seeing how things work, and sharing that knowledge with others.

One of the most problematic aspects of our tendency to identify “science” as its products (facts and institutions) rather than the fundamental process is that it feeds the mistaken belief that science is something that requires special abilities beyond the reach of normal humans. This leads to science being set off as an elite pursuit, something arcane and alien. We see this even in the language we use to describe academic pursuits, which sets science in opposition to a collection of disciplines referred to as “the humanities.” The clear implication is that science is fundamentally inhuman.

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Nothing could be further from the truth. The look-think-test-tell process of science is accessible to every human, a part of our collective heritage. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that science is what makes us human. The scientific process of investigation and refinement is what has allowed us, through millennia of steady incremental improvements, to develop the tools that have made us the dominant species on Earth. Stone tools made us hunters of other animals, despite not having impressive natural weaponry. Clothing made from plants and animal skins, and control of fire allowed us to expand into even the most inhospitable climates. The domestication of animals and the development of agriculture allowed us to accumulate resources and free up time for both the pursuit of more forms of science and also the development of art and literature.

That process has carried us inconceivably farther in the millennia since his death, and there’s every reason to hope it will take our descendants to places we can barely imagine.

From our ancient origin as a not especially distinguished offshoot of chimpanzees restricted to a smallish part of Africa, we have expanded our range to cover the entire planet and some distance above it. We have also expanded the reach of our culture to encompass everything from highly refined forms of art and literature, to mathematical theories spanning the range from infinitesimal particles (quarks and leptons) to the large-scale structure of the universe as a whole. All of that is made possible through the process of science: observing the world, making models, testing and refining those models, and passing the results on to others to build on.

Ötzi the iceman thus stands as a testament to the power of science, not just through the modern tools and techniques that have let us learn so much about his life, but through the ancient tools that he carried with him when he died. His metal axe, layered clothing, and fire-making kit are the end products of the essentially human process of science, which even five thousand years ago had carried us to places that would’ve been difficult for the earliest members of our species to comprehend. That process has carried us inconceivably farther in the millennia since his death, and there’s every reason to hope it will take our descendants to places we can barely imagine.


What was the earliest form of science and technology during prehistoric time? ›

Made nearly two million years ago, stone tools such as this are the first known technological invention. This chopping tool and others like it are the oldest objects in the British Museum. It comes from an early human campsite in the bottom layer of deposits in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

What technology was used in the prehistoric age? ›

[23] Paleolithic humans used wood, stone, or animal bones, teeth, and antlers to create early tools for use as digging and scraping implements, hand axes, spears, fishing hooks, choppers, and animal traps. [24] These early tools helped humans collect the food supply necessary for survival.

What is the study of prehistoric? ›

Prehistoric archaeology is a subfield of archaeology, which deals specifically with artefacts, civilisations and other materials from societies that existed before any form of writing system or historical record.

What is evidence of science and technology during pre historic times? ›

Such evidence includes ancient tools, cave paintings, and other prehistoric art, such as the Venus of Willendorf. Human remains also provide direct evidence, both through the examination of bones, and the study of mummies.

What was invented or discovered in prehistory? ›

The prehistoric pattern resembles what we've seen in historic times. Some innovations were developed repeatedly – farming, civilisation, calendars, pyramids, mathematics, writing, and beer were invented independently around the world, for example.

What type of science is the oldest? ›


Many discoveries during the prehistoric and ancient eras were applications of various sciences. However, we can identify the first scientific field, which was studied systematically. That field is astronomy, the study of the universe. The term 'astronomy' refers to the 'laws of stars.

What were the three different types of tools used in prehistoric times? ›

Humans created four types of tools during the Stone Age: pebble tools; bifacial tools, or hand-axes; flake tools; and blade tools.

What are the oldest prehistoric tools? ›

The earliest stone toolmaking developed by at least 2.6 million years ago. The Early Stone Age began with the most basic stone implements made by early humans. These Oldowan toolkits include hammerstones, stone cores, and sharp stone flakes.

What technology did cavemen use? ›

The most common are daggers and spear points for hunting, hand axes and choppers for cutting up meat and scrapers for cleaning animal hides. Other tools were used to dig roots, peel bark and remove the skins of animals. Later, splinters of bones were used as needles and fishhooks.

What science deals with prehistoric remains? ›

Archaeology analyzes the physical remains of the past in pursuit of a broad and comprehensive understanding of human culture.

Which scientist would study prehistoric forms of life? ›

It's not just animals either, palaeontologists also study ancient plants. They use the information they uncover not only to learn about the lives of the animals, but to understand what the Earth was like in the past.

What is scientist who studies prehistoric life called? ›

Paleontologists Study Fossils. Paleontology: New Evidence. Paleontology: Tracks and Traces.

How did scientists learn about things that happened in prehistory? ›

Archaeologists can excavate ancient structures and burial sites and begin to infer how the people lived from fossils (like human remains) and artifacts (human-made items).

How do scientists learn about things that happened in prehistory? ›

Archaeologists use artifacts and features to learn how people lived in specific times and places. They want to know what these people's daily lives were like, how they were governed, how they interacted with each other, and what they believed and valued.

What is the importance of prehistoric age? ›

This "Prehistoric" period — before writing and civilizations — is called the Stone Age and is extremely valuable to our understanding of our earliest hominid ancestors. Hominids comprise humans today, extinct ancestors, and apes that share similarities with humans.

What is science and technology in ancient times? ›

In ancient times, technology was defined by Homer and Hesiod as the spoken word of manual craft or cunning skill (Luna, 1994). By 330 BC, Aristotle coined the Greek term technologia and split scientific knowledge into three parts: theoretical science, practical science, and productive science (technology).

Did humans exist in prehistory? ›

In the Paleolithic period (roughly 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 B.C.), early humans lived in caves or simple huts or tepees and were hunters and gatherers. They used basic stone and bone tools, as well as crude stone axes, for hunting birds and wild animals.

What is a fact about prehistory? ›

The Prehistoric Period dates from 2.5 million years ago to 1,200 B.C. It is categorized in three archaeological periods: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.

What was science called in ancient times? ›

The modern English word 'science' is related to the Latin word 'scientia', the ancient Greek word for knowledge was 'episteme'.

What was science originally called? ›

It originally came from the Latin word scientia which meant knowledge, a knowing, expertness, or experience. By the late 14th century, science meant, in English, collective knowledge.

What was it called before science? ›

Some scholars use the term "protoscience" to label activities in the past that resemble modern science in some but not all features; however, this label has also been criticized as denigrating or too suggestive of presentism, thinking about those activities only in relation to modern categories.

What came before the Stone Age? ›

The Ice Age did come before the Stone Age. It was during the Mesolithic period, or the Middle Stone Age, when the climate started getting warmer, thus marking the end of the Ice Age.

What is the most ancient tool? ›

Oldowan stone tools are simply the oldest recognisable tools which have been preserved in the archaeological record. There is a flourishing of Oldowan tools in eastern Africa, spreading to southern Africa, between 2.4 and 1.7 Ma.

Why did the Stone Age end? ›

Innovation of the technique of smelting ore is regarded as ending the Stone Age and beginning the Bronze Age. The first highly significant metal manufactured was bronze, an alloy of copper and tin or arsenic, each of which was smelted separately.

What is the oldest tool made by human? ›

These implements, known to experts as Oldowan—named after the Olduvai Gorge, an archaeologically rich site nearby in Tanzania—were shaped by our human ancestors into an impressive variety of wedges and hammers between 2.6 million and 1.6 million years ago, at the very start of the Stone Age.

What was the first human tool? ›

Researchers unearth simple cutting stones dated to 3.3 million years ago—before the genus Homo arose. SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Researchers at a meeting here say they have found the oldest tools made by human ancestors—stone flakes dated to 3.3 million years ago.

What is the oldest metal tools ever found? ›

A 7,000-year-old copper awl unearthed at the archaeological site of Tel Tsaf, Israel, is the earliest metal artifact found to date in the Middle East, suggesting that cast metal technology was introduced to the region centuries earlier than previously thought. The 7,000-year-old metal awl from Tel Tsaf upon discovery.

How did early man survive without fire? ›

Summary: Europe's earliest humans did not use fire for cooking, but had a balanced diet of meat and plants -- all eaten raw, new research reveals for the first time.

How did early humans discover fire? ›

Man learnt to produce fire by rubbing together two pieces of stone. That discovery was an accidental invention. He started to use fire for cooking food, for light and heat and to scare wild animals.

What tools did cavemen use to communicate? ›

Early humans could express thoughts and feelings by means of speech or by signs or gestures. They could signal with fire and smoke, drums, or whistles. These early methods of communication had two limitations. First, they were restricted as to the time in which communication could take place.

Which branch of science uses fossils to study life's history? ›

Paleontology is the scientific study of life in the geologic past, based on examination of fossilized remains of once living organisms, such as tracks, bones, teeth, plants, and shells. Fossils are unique, nonrenewable resources that paint a ancient portrait of life on Earth.

What is the oldest archaeological site? ›

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest significant site for humans to ever have been discovered, beaten in age only by a stone wall in Greece. Its age is only made more impressive by the sheer complexity of the site. Excavations have been ongoing for the last 24 years and experts say they could continue for decades more.

What are the 3 types of paleontology? ›

Invertebrate Paleontology: Study of invertebrate animal fossils, such as mollusks, echinoderms, and others. Vertebrate Paleontology: Study of vertebrate fossils, from primitive fishes to mammals. Human Paleontology (Paleoanthropology): The study of prehistoric human and proto-human fossils.

What is study of fossils called? ›

The branch of biology that deals with the study of fossils is called paleontology.

Why is prehistory so difficult to study? ›

Archaeologists who study prehistory (a time before written text) have a tough task. They must reconstruct a story of human history with as much detail as they can glean from a limited set of clues like artifacts, objects made and used by someone in the past, and other pieces of physical remains.

Why do scientists study prehistory and not historians? ›

The written word was not available at the beginning of life, so we cannot look to historians for our answer. Scientists, such as paleontologists, geneticists, biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and so on, have tried to discover the origin of life, using scientific methods.

How did humans survive in prehistory? ›

Although all earlier hominins are now extinct, many of their adaptations for survival—an appetite for a varied diet, making tools to gather food, caring for each other, and using fire for heat and cooking—make up the foundation of our modern survival mechanisms and are among the defining characteristics of our species.

Where were humans 10,000 years ago? ›

If the evidence bears out, it would also mean that humans came to North America a whole lot earlier than previously believed: 10,000 years earlier. Humans were living in the Siberian Arctic prior to the last glacial maximum, when the climate was milder and hunting options were abundant.

What was happening 5000 years ago? ›

The Stone Age marks a period of prehistory in which humans used primitive stone tools. Lasting roughly 2.5 million years, the Stone Age ended around 5,000 years ago when humans in the Near East began working with metal and making tools and weapons from bronze.

When did prehistory end? ›

Answer and Explanation: The prehistoric period ended around 4,000 years ago BCE. The Neolithic was the last age of this period.

Why were prehistoric people so great? ›

First they learned to herd animals and grow crops. Later they discovered the secrets of making bronze and iron. Prehistoric people couldn't read or write, but they were astonishing builders. Their tombs, forts and monuments have survived for thousands of years.

What is the most important source of prehistoric? ›

The main source of information for prehistory is archaeology (a branch of anthropology), but some scholars are beginning to make more use of evidence from the natural and social sciences.

What does prehistoric art reveal about early human life? ›

Prehistoric art reveals the everyday lives of early humans. For example, many of the images painted on the cave walls were of different animals, such as horses, bison, hyenas, wolves, and deer. This shows that these early people valued these creatures.

What is the earliest form of science and technology that was used during prehistoric time about 2.3 million years ago? ›

The first tools were made of stone, such as those of the Oldowan stone type found in Tanzania, and used from 2.3 to 1.4 million years ago. They further mastered the art of shaping stones, and began creating more sophisticated tools such as those of the Acheulean type.

Which came first in prehistoric times? ›

The Paleolithic is the earliest period of the Stone Age. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins c. 3.3 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene c. 11,650 BP (before the present period).

What is science and technology during ancient times? ›

In ancient times, technology was defined by Homer and Hesiod as the spoken word of manual craft or cunning skill (Luna, 1994). By 330 BC, Aristotle coined the Greek term technologia and split scientific knowledge into three parts: theoretical science, practical science, and productive science (technology).

What are the first 3 prehistoric periods from the ancient world? ›

The Prehistoric Period—or when there was human life before records documented human activity—roughly dates from 2.5 million years ago to 1,200 B.C. It is generally categorized in three archaeological periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

What is the oldest technology in history? ›

The earliest technology developed by humans was stone tools. By chipping away at rocks to make shapes, humans were able to create the earliest axes, hammers, knives, and arrowheads. This marks the beginning of the Stone Age. The first societies entered the Stone Age approximately 3.3 million years ago.

Which came first in the scientific timeline of life on Earth? ›

The earliest life forms we know of were microscopic organisms (microbes) that left signals of their presence in rocks about 3.7 billion years old. The signals consisted of a type of carbon molecule that is produced by living things.

What are the four stages of prehistoric times? ›

Prehistoric Age refers to the time when there was no writing and development. It consists of five periods – Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic & Iron Age.

Who was the first human? ›

The likely "first human", she says, was Homo erectus. These short, stocky humans were a real stayer in human evolutionary history. Estimates vary, but they're thought to have lived from around 2 million to 100,000 years ago, and were the first humans to walk out of Africa and push into Europe and Asia.

What is the oldest prehistoric on earth? ›

Western Australia is internationally significant for its variety of stromatolite sites, both living and fossilised. Fossils of the earliest known stromatolites, about 3.5 billion years old, are found about 1,000km north, near Marble Bar in the Pilbara region.

Did science exist in ancient times? ›

The earliest roots of science can be traced to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in around 3000 to 1200 BCE.

What are 5 examples of science and technology of the ancient Greeks? ›

Inventions that are credited to the ancient Greeks include the gear, screw, rotary mills, bronze casting techniques, water clock, water organ, the torsion catapult, the use of steam to operate some experimental machines and toys, and a chart to find prime numbers.


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