We live in a fast-paced age dominated by technology. Happiness is ephemeral and everything is replaceable or disposable. It is understandable that people are attracted to utopian ideas. Many find refuge in the concept of a ‘return’ to an idealized past, one in which humans were not so numerous and animals were plentiful; when the earth was still clean and pure, and our relationship with nature had not been violated.

By Deborah Barsky

But this raises some questions: is this nothing more than utopianism? Can we point to a moment in our evolutionary trajectory when we stray from the path of empathy, compassion, and respect for each other and all life forms? Or are we nihilistic victims of our own natural tendencies and must continue to lead reckless lifestyles, regardless of the outcome?

Studying human prehistory allows us to view the world through a ‘long-term lens’, through which we can discern trends and patterns that can only be identified from a temporal distance. By adopting an evolutionary perspective, it is possible to explain when, how, and why certain human traits and behaviors emerged.

The peculiarity of human prehistory is that there are no written records, so we must try to answer our questions using the limited information provided by the archaeological record.

The Oldowan era, which began in East Africa, can be seen as the beginning of a process that would eventually lead to the enormous technological and social database that humankind comprises today, and which continues to expand with each successive generation, in a spiral of exponential technological and social creativity. The first recognizable Oldowan tool assemblages began to appear 2.6 million years ago. These contain large crushing tools, along with small, sharp-edged flakes that undoubtedly served – among other things – to obtain viscera and meat resources from animals that were scavenged when hominins (humans and their extinct close ancestors) competed with other large carnivores present in their environments. As hominins began to expand their technological knowledge, obtaining this type of protein-rich food was ideal for feeding the developing, energy-intensive brain.

The production of stone tools and the behaviors associated with that process became increasingly complex, eventually requiring relatively high investments [of time and methods] in the teaching of these technologies, in order to successfully pass them on to successive generations. This, in turn, laid the foundations for the [very beneficial] cumulative learning process that was coupled with symbolic thought processes (such as language) ultimately favoring our capacity for exponential development.

All this had enormous implications, for example, in terms of the earliest indications of what we call “tradition” – ways of doing and creating things – which are, in fact, the very foundations of culture. Neuroscientific experiments carried out to study brain synapses and areas involved in tool-making processes show that at least some basic forms of language were probably needed to communicate the technologies needed to make the more complex tools of the Acheulean era, which began in Africa some 1.75 million years ago. Researchers have shown that the areas of the brain that are activated during tool-making are the same as those used for abstract thought processes, including language and volumetric planning.

When we speak of the Acheulean, we refer to an enormously dense cultural phenomenon that took place in Africa and Eurasia and lasted some 1.4 million years. While it cannot be considered a homogeneous phenomenon, it does present several behavioral and techno-social elements that prehistorians believe link it as a kind of unity.

Overall, the Acheulean technocomplex broadly coincides with the emergence of the relatively large-brained hominids attributed to Homo erectus and the African Homo ergaster, as well as Homo heidelbergensis, a broad-brained hominin identified in Eurasia and known to have adapted successfully to relatively colder climatic conditions. Indeed, it was during the Acheulean that hominins developed technologies for it to make fire, and when the first hearths appeared in some sites (especially caves) that also show evidence of seasonal or cyclical patterns of use.

In terms of stone tool technology, Achelian hominins moved from non-standardized Oldowan toolkits to innovate new ways of modeling stone tools that involved comparatively complex volumetric concepts. This allowed them to produce a wide variety of preconceived flake formats that they proceeded to modify into a range of standardized tool types. Conceptually, this is highly significant because it implies that, for the first time, stone was modeled to fit a predetermined mental image. The bifacial and bilateral symmetry of the iconic Acheulean teardrop-shaped hand axes is particularly exemplary in this respect.

The Acheulean archaeological register also bears witness to a whole new range of artifacts manufactured according to a fixed set of newly acquired technological notions and skills. To endure, this knowledge had to be shared through increasingly composite and communicative forms of teaching.

We also know that Acheulean hominins were highly mobile, as we often find in their toolkit’s rocks imported from considerable distances. More importantly, as we move through time and space, we observe that some of the tool-making techniques show special characteristics that can be linked to specific regional contexts. Furthermore, population density increased considerably throughout the period associated with the Late Acheulean phenomenon – approximately 1 million to 350,000 years ago – probably as a result of these technological achievements.

In addition to tool-making, other social and behavioral revolutions are attributed to the Acheulean hominids. The manufacture of fire, whose importance as a transformative techno-social tool cannot be overstated, as well as other achievements, point to the attainment of new thresholds that were to greatly transform the lives of the Acheulean peoples and their descendants. For example, Acheulean sites with evidence of species-specific hunting expeditions and systematized butchery indicate sophisticated organizational skills and certainly also suggest that these hominins mastered at least some form of gestural – and probably also linguistic – communication.

All these skills acquired over thousands of years by Acheulean peoples enabled them not only to settle in new lands at, for example, higher latitudes but also to overcome seasonal climatic stresses and thus to thrive within a relatively restricted geographical area. While they were certainly nomadic, they established home-base-like areas of residence to which they returned on a cyclical basis. Thus, the combined phenomenon of a more standardized and complex culture and regional ways of life led these ancient populations to forge identities for themselves while developing idiosyncratic techno-social behaviors that gave them a sense of “belonging” to a particular social unit: living within a definable geographical area. This was the land on which they settled and in which they deposited their dead (intentional human burials are now only recognized to exist from the Middle Palaeolithic onwards). For me, the Acheulean represents the first great cultural revolution known to mankind.

So, I suggest that it was during the Acheulean that increasing cultural complexity led the peoples of the world to see each other as different, based on differences in their material culture. Particularly in the late Acheulean, when nomadic groups began to return cyclically to the same areas of residence, land-linked identities were formed that, I believe, were the basis for the first culture-based geographic boundaries. As time went on, humanity gave more and more credence to these constructs, increasing their importance. This would eventually lead to the foundation of modern nationalist sentiments that today entrench identity-based disparity, ultimately helping to justify geographical inequality of wealth and power.

Many of the difficult questions about human nature are more easily understood through the prism of prehistory, even as we make new discoveries. Take, for example, the question of where the modern practice of organized violence arose.

Human prehistory, backed by science, has now clearly demonstrated that there is no basis for dividing peoples along biological or anatomical lines, and that the warlike behaviours that involve large numbers of peoples, and which today have virtually global effects on all human lives, are based on constructed ideologies of vision. Geographical borders, identity-based beliefs and religion are some of the conceptual constructs commonly used in our world to justify such behaviors. Moreover, competition underpinned by concepts of identity is now accentuated by the potential and actual scarcity of resources resulting from population density, consumerist lifestyles and now also accelerated climate change.

On the question of whether or not the emergence of warlike behaviour was an inevitable outcome, we must look at such trends from an evolutionary point of view. Like other genetic and even technological traits, the human capacity for mass violence exists as a potential response that lies dormant in our species until triggered by external factors. Of course, this species-specific mode of response also corresponds to our degree of technological readiness that has enabled us to create the tools of mass destruction that we so aptly manipulate today.

Hierarchical societies formed and evolved throughout the middle and late Pleistocene, when a series of hominins co-evolved with the anatomically modern humans that we now know appeared in Africa as early as 300,000 years ago. During the Holocene Epoch, human links to specific regional areas were further reinforced by the sedentary lifestyles that developed in the Neolithic, as was the inclination to protect the resources amassed in this context. We can conjecture the emergence of a wide range of socio-cultural situations that would have arisen once increasing numbers of individuals organized themselves into larger social units that allowed the ability to produce, store and keep considerable quantities of food and other types of goods.

Even among other animals, including primates, increasing population density gives rise to competitive behaviors. In this scenario, that disposition would have been intensified by the idea that the accumulated goods belonged, as it were, to the social unit that produced them.

Bringing technology into play, we can clearly see how humans began to transform their knowledge into ingenious tools to perform different acts of warfare. In the oldest toolkits known to humankind, dating back millions of years, we cannot clearly identify any artifacts that seem suitable to be used for large-scale violence. We have no evidence of organized violence until millions of years after we began to develop tools and intensively modify the environments around us. As we expanded the identity-based, land-bound facet of our social life, we continued to develop ever more effective technological and social solutions that increased our capacity for large-scale warfare.

If we can understand how these behaviors arose, we can also use our technical skills to get to the root of these problems and use what we have learned to finally take control of our future.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Deborah Barsky is a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution and associate professor at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona (Spain) with the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). She is the author of Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2022).