Recently, I have developed an interest in human origins and migration. This started from my job as a teacher of English as a Second Language, which made me think about how different languages communicate, which made me think about the linguistic and genetic origins of ethnic groups, and cultural diffusion, and of some of the fallacies of how we view people in their "natural" state. All of this, however, is very technical, and not something I can comment on with any authority. I poke around with search terms on my phone late at night when I should be sleeping, and my mind spins as I try to figure out the placement of MtDNA Haplogroups. But there are some things I can comment on, many of them a step removed. I can't comment on all the scientific evidence of prehistory, but I can comment on misconceptions about prehistory, including my own.
Which brings us to Civilization, a series of games that has now kept two generations of people blurry eyed at 3 AM, wanting to play just one more turn. I started by playing the first game, but the one that really grabbed my attention and held it for two decades was Civilization II. I know that there have been other, more sophisticated games in the series, but Civilization II was my template. As a game, Civilization was superb, and it also was one of the most educationally important game for a generation, showing the connection between resource utilization and cultural expansion. All without the risk of dying of dysentery. But Civilization was meant to model human development for gaming purposes, but in its simplification, it might have spread some anthropological misconceptions. It certainly did for me, and now as I learn more about prehistory, I am starting to think how much those gaming simplifications have changed my thinking. Not that the game Civilization invented these simplifications, but it is a good example of a mass purveyor of them.
The Civilization game starts you out with a single "settler" in the year 4000 BC. This year is significant because it is closely matched to the often-mocked October 22, 4004 BC that James Ussher suggested for the creation. Although believing that the world was created around 4000 BC is widely mocked as a sign of religious credulousness, the date still seems to reverbate. Not without reason: it is a fairly accurate estimate for the beginning of urbanization in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Your view of the world is confined to two squares around your settler, and based on that, you can decide where to build your city. Once you build a city, you can start developing technology. When you start, you (normally) don't have any technology. You are given a list of researches to advance. Alphabet. Bronze Working. Pottery. Ceremonial Burial. These advances lead to more complicated advances, that you research one at a time: Alphabet leads to Code of Laws, which together with Ceremonial Burial, leads to Monarchy. There is actually some type of general anthropological truth here: societies need to combine objective laws with ceremonial constructs to form a monarchy. And as a game, it is challenging. The problem is that the settlers have apparently been dropped into the world, with no technology or knowledge of the world around them before the first city is founded. Developing technology and exploring the world only come as a function of urbanization and the beginning of history. People only expand and migrate as they are dictated to by a centralized authority. Occasionally, in your explorations, you find an "advanced tribe" that becomes a city, or "ancient scrolls of wisdom" that give you a new technology, but these are mainly gaming constructs. The story of humanity is told by the story of civilizations, which start in the year 4000, with a tiny version of the world around them.
Humans that are considered to be genetically modern, that is, that could have fully interbred with modern humans, are considered to be some two to four hundred thousand years old. By 50,000 years ago, humans had spread to all corners of the Old World, followed shortly afterwards by the settlement of Australia, and by 15,000 years ago, had probably moved to North America. Monte Verde, in the south of Chile, has human settlements dated to 15,000 years before present, possibly earlier. 10,000 years before our story of Civilization begins, humans had moved to almost every inhabitable part of the world. This involved both the usage of physical technologies (such as boat building, which was necessary for the large scale settlement of Australia, and probably the Americas), as well as social technologies. Humans had to have sophisticated mapmaking, and navigation skills, and probably had a good practical knowledge of astronomy and seasonal change. They also had to have had fairly cohesive social groups and the language and customs needed to plan and make decisions. The settlement of the planet doesn't seem to be the action of naive hunter-gatherers who drifted through the world, looking for berries or unwary rabbits. We can't know exactly how socially cohesive prehistorical people were, how much they knew or theorized about the world, or how far their communications went, but my own guess based on the settlement of the world is that they had some idea of how large the world was, and of the benefits of traveling to a new area. These were humans, basically the same as the humans who now have vehicles driving around on Mars. They weren't stupid. They could have noticed birds flying northwards in the spring, and thought "They must be flying somewhere, lets go there". Especially since even "sedentary" hunter-gatherers may have had to regularly travel long distances between summer and winter grounds.
The Civilization series of games was one of the things that shaped my understanding of human development, and while it is a great gaming concept, it tends to be based on some anthropological fallacies. That pre-modern people were passive and unaware of the world around them. That human exploration and expansion began with urbanization and centralized governments. That physical and social technology didn't exist, or weren't important, before the urbanization era. That the human world begin in 4000 BC. That, in effect, around 80-95% of human history could be dismissed as being a time of no progress and no self-determination. As a game concept, this makes sense. But as a subtle template or framework for people to think about anthropology, it is misleading.
Most of the physical artifacts of prehistoric people have been lost. And it seems that guessing at things like languages, mythologies, philosophies, social structures and arts is even more improbable. But just because we can't know much about the cultures and lives of those people, doesn't mean that they weren't the equal to us in many ways.