Millions of years ago, Earth and its inhabitants looked very different than they do today. Long before people drove cars or invented electricity, Earth was home to early humans, or Neanderthals, who used stone tools, cooked over fires, and hunted and gathered food. Large mammals, including woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers, and giant sloths, roamed the land. While there exist no written records of these events, fossils and artifacts, along with advanced technology, allow scientists to piece together details about prehistoric life and the origins of humans. This collection features the discoveries of archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, and others who bring to light the mysteries of prehistoric Earth and the lives of our earliest human ancestors.
One of the first instances of a plague was found during the Roman Empire. The plague, which occurred during the 6th century, spread through Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today, an ancient burial site may hold DNA evidence of why and how it occurred. Listen to this story to learn the difference between ancient and modern bacteria.
Cave painting has long been thought to be developed by early humans in Europe. A new discovery of equally old cave paintings on an island in Indonesia has upset this perspective and is pushing scientists to look even farther back to our human origins in Africa. Listen to this public radio story to hear more about the cave paintings themselves and to learn how archeologists discovered their true age.
The earliest known fossil that lead to humans was recently discovered in Ethiopia. Scientists have uncovered a lower jaw with five teeth. The jaw is estimated at about 2.8 million years old, and is nearly half a million years older than the previous record for a human-related fossil. This bone could help explain a branch in the human family tree. Listen to the story to find out how this fossil could fill a gap in the history of human evolution.
Woolly mammoths were large, elephant-like creatures that lived tens of thousands of years ago, during the last great ice age. The thick, furry coat is one of several traits that gave woolly mammoths an advantage in a very cold environment. Today, the closest biological relative is the Asian elephant, which prefers warmer climates. Scientists were curious about the genetic variations between the woolly mammoth and the Asian elephant, and what might account for the differences between the two species. In this audio story, we hear from a scientist who studied the DNA from the extinct mammoth and compared it to its contemporary descendant. Listen to learn more about what researchers discovered.
Migration has been a huge part of human history. Experts agree that early humans started out in Africa and began to migrate out of Africa to different parts of Europe and Asia around 100,000 years ago. This migration occurred in waves but we don’t know why early humans left Africa. Recent research supports the theory that climate change may have been the force that drove early humans out. Looking at things such as dust, buried pollen, and coral, scientists have been able to show a correlation between changes in these things and periods in early human history of migration. As early humans looked for new food sources, the research indicates, they began to relocate. Listen to hear more about what may have caused humans to migrate.
Scientists have long debated when early humans learned that they could use fire to cook their food. Some believe this occurred soon after humans learned to control fire, others argue there isn’t enough evidence. A scientific study in a chimpanzee sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has shed new light on these persistent questions. The experiment gave chimps a machine to “cook” their food and tracked their preference for cooked food and how it changed their eating behaviors. Listen to learn more about this experiment and how it plays into the debate about when early humans began to cook.
A new species that tells us something about humans origins was recently discovered deep inside a cave in South Africa. This discovery is a mystery in many ways. How did the bones get there? What is their significance? The bones are so deep inside the cave they were almost inaccessible; scientists had to climb down a steep cliff and crawl through a cave to collect them. This new species appears to have very small brains but similar feet and hands to modern humans. It has been named Homo naledi, the newest addition to the genus Homo. Where do they fit in the story of human evolution? Listen to hear more about this remarkable discovery.
Early humans and their ancestors survived by successfully mastering their environments to meet their daily needs. They learned to control fire for cooking food, developed early stone tools, and over time, created increasingly more complex and finely-crafted tools. Recent research suggests that as far back as 165,000 years ago in southern Africa, early humans understood that fire could help them craft more effective tools. Listen to hear a scientist describe the evidence for early human “pyro engineering” and what it tells us about our evolution and development.
Scientists interested in learning what prehistoric animals and humans sounded like may get some answers from art. The artist featured in this audio story researched the anatomy of extinct animals, including the woolly mammoth. She used her findings to reconstruct vocal chords that emit woolly mammoth blasts, sounds that she believes are close to the way the animals sounded in prehistoric times. Listen to hear the reconstructed sounds of a woolly mammoth, and learn about the art and science of rebuilding ancient voice boxes.
At an ancient burial site in Sudan called Al Khiday, archaeologists discovered dental plaque on the teeth of skeletons. By analyzing the plaque, they gained a greater understanding of the daily diet and lifestyle of our prehistoric ancestors. Listen to hear about this fascinating research into dental plaque, and learn about a 7000-year-old weed that may have prevented tooth decay.
In 1991, hikers discovered a corpse frozen in the Alps. Investigators discovered that the body was 5,300 years old and had been so well-preserved in the ice that it served as a time capsule from the early Copper Age. They named the natural mummy Otzi after the region where he was found. Scientists have examined Otzi’s body and his belongings, which were surprisingly intact, and learned a great deal about his origins, diet, health, and lifestyle. Listen to learn what scientists have discovered about Otzi and his life in the mountains thousands of years ago.
Early humans traded goods to get what they needed, but bartering was not practical when one person did not want or need what the other had to offer. Eventually money was invented to make economic exchanges easier and more practical. Listen to hear how our money system evolved, what early currencies looked like, and why people must agree on the worth of currency for it to have value.
In 2013, a treasure trove of ancient remains was found hidden in a deep underground cave in South Africa. The bones belonged to a previously unknown human relative called Homo naledi that lived about 250,000 years ago. The fossils were found within the Rising Star cave system, inside the Dinaledi Chamber, which is very difficult to reach. Listen to hear from a team of archaeologists working at the site and learn how the recently discovered species is both similar to and different from modern humans.
Human beings have a long-standing fascination with dinosaurs that dates back to the discovery of the first fossils. To this day, people of all ages visit museums and fossil sites to study and learn more about these prehistoric creatures. This audio story features the answer to a seemingly simple question: how did the dinosaur age begin? Listen to hear what scientists know about the beginning of the age of dinosaurs. The story may contain a few surprises!
What can be learned about the past by studying prehistoric tools? For at least the past 200 years, archaeologists have examined bits and pieces found in caves to learn more about the tools made by Neanderthals. Over the years, the process for digging out the bits and pieces has changed, but the curiosity that surrounds the tools has not. This audio story examines the surprisingly advanced methods Neanderthals used when making their tools and what these findings may suggest about modern humans.
Over the past 125,000 years, mammals on Earth have become smaller. Ten thousand years ago the average mass of a mammal was 200 pounds and today the average mass is about 15 pounds. After dinosaurs became extinct, mammals became larger and new species developed. But when ancient humans evolved, they began hunting bigger animals. Eventually, in all areas populated by humans, the size of mammals became smaller and led to extinction in many cases. Listen to hear more about the effects humans have had on the size of mammals.
About 250 million years ago, there was a widespread extinction on earth. Scientific investigations into the climate conditions leading to this prehistoric “Great Dying” can shed light on how climate change in the modern world might impact life on the planet. The “Deep Time” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History explores the state of the earth and its inhabitants in that era. Listen to hear about how the “Great Dying” happened and why it is relevant today.
A chunk of chewed birch resin has revealed surprisingly detailed information about a woman who lived 5,700 years ago. Scientists investigated a brownish blob discovered at an archaeological site and were able to extract and analyze a complete strand of DNA that revealed details about the diet, health, and appearance of the Stone Age woman who had chewed it. Listen to learn why ancient people chewed birch pitch and how this very old piece of gum could inspire archaeologists to look in new places for clues to the past.
A recent discovery indicates that our prehistoric relatives may have been smarter than previously thought. A team of paleo-anthropologists, scientists who study the origins of early humans and their relatives, found a bit of string on a prehistoric tool. This artifact offers evidence that Neanderthals had developed an important technology for survival. Listen to learn how Neanderthals made string and why the find is changing views of their intelligence.
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