The Neolithic time period begins about 10,000 years ago as the last glacial age faded and a warmer, wetter climate began to provide more opportunities for human expansion across the Earth. The only remaining hominid left to take advantage of the new environment was Homo sapiens, modern man. The major Neolithic development was an entirely new agricultural lifestyle, which permitted permanent settlement and a significant increase in population. The Paleolithic period, starting approximately 2.5 million years ago, was focused on the hunter-gathering lifestyle and during the glacial period was heavily dependent on the vast herds populating the predominantly savannah landscape.

Hominid Transitions up to Neolithic Time

A sculptor's rendering of Australopithicus species
A sculptor's rendering of Australopithicus species

The earliest Paleolithic hominids to use stone (lithic) tools were likely Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis, both in Africa living as hunter-gatherers. There are some indications that earlier Australopithicus species used stone and so the beginning of the Stone Age may be earlier still. As time continued first Homo erectus and then Homo neanderthalensis came to dominate the scene and the Neanderthals were certainly around at the same time as modern humans, Homo sapiens, came on the scene. However, by 10,000 years ago only Homo sapiens remained.

Climate and Environment

Circa 1920 Drawing of prehistoric man supposively living in the Thames Valley, England
Circa 1920 Drawing of prehistoric man supposively living in the Thames Valley, England

For much of the last 2 million years the Earth has been locked into a pattern of ice ages followed by warmer periods and then the return of an ice age. The Paleolithic hominids survived these shifts by following the large herds of animals that roamed the grasslands created by the much drier climate of ice ages. Very little changed in the way of life until the retreat of the last glacial period. With increased moisture forests returned in abundance and finding prey animals became much harder. Both Neanderthals and modern humans populated what is now Europe and much of the Asian continent once the ice was gone.

Tool Use in the Stone Age

Unearthed neolithic flint blade
Unearthed neolithic flint blade

The fundamental tool set of the Paleolithic hominids consisted of flake knives and hand axes with spears developed in the later periods. Bone was increasingly used to create smaller tools and both sewing and nets were developed. With the Neolithic came the development of further “hafted” stone tools particularly the polished stone axe and the adze. Though still Stone Age technology the Neolithic manufacturing was much more consistent and produced a far wider range of specialized tools.

Plant and Animal Domestication

3.2 million year old fossilized remains of "Lucy", the most complete skeleton found of Australopithicus humanoid
3.2 million year old fossilized remains of "Lucy", the most complete skeleton found of Australopithicus humanoid

The real difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures was the domestication of plants and animals and the resultant agricultural revolution. Whereas the Paleolithic people were nomads, moving in search of both game and edible plant material, the Neolithic farmers began to settle down into organized communities. Wheat, barley and rye and other cereal grains became crucial sources of food along with sheep and goats. Dogs were almost certainly the earliest domesticated animals presumably used in hunting but they were certainly eaten as well. Cattle and pigs came later in the Neolithic period and added a tremendous amount of protein to the possible diets. The stability and surplus of food supply then lead to the development of the first large scale societies in the Middle East.