HOW WE LEARN about Prehistoric Men
Prehistory means the time before written history began. Actually, more than 99 per cent of man's story is prehistory. Man is at least half a million years old, but he did not begin to write history (or to write anything) until about 5,000 years ago.
The men who lived in prehistoric times left us no history books, but they did unintentionally leave a record of their presence and their way of life. This record is studied and interpreted by different kinds of scientists.
SCIENTISTS WHO FIND OUT ABOUT PREHISTORIC MEN
The scientists who study the bones and teeth and any other parts they find of the bodies of prehistoric men, are called physical anthropologists . Physical anthropologists are trained, much like doctors, to know all about the human body. They study living people, too; they know more about the biological facts of human "races" than anybody else. If the police find a badly decayed body in a trunk, they ask a physical anthropologist to tell them what the person originally looked like. The physical anthropologists who specialize in prehistoric men work with fossils, so they are sometimes called human paleontologists .
There is a kind of scientist who studies the things that prehistoric men made and did. Such a scientist is called an archeologist . It is the archeologist's business to look for the stone and metal tools, the pottery, the graves, and the caves or huts of the men who lived before history began.
But there is more to archeology than just looking for things. In Professor V. Gordon Childe's words, archeology "furnishes a sort of history of human activity, provided always that the actions have produced concrete results and left recognizable material traces." You will see that there are at least three points in what Childe says:
1. The archeologists have to find the traces of things left behind by ancient man, and
2. Only a few objects may be found, for most of these were probably too soft or too breakable to last through the years. However,
3. The archeologist must use whatever he can find to tell a story-to make a "sort of history"-from the objects and living-places and graves that have escaped destruction.
What I mean is this: Let us say you are walking through a dump yard, and you find a rusty old spark plug. If you want to think about what the spark plug means, you quickly remember that it is a part of an automobile motor. This tells you something about the man who threw the spark plug on the dump. He either had an automobile, or he knew or lived near someone who did. He can't have lived so very long ago, you'll remember, because spark plugs and automobiles are only about sixty years old.
When you think about the old spark plug in this way you have just been making the beginnings of what we call an archeological interpretation ; you have been making the spark plug tell a story. It is the same way with the man-made things we archeologists find and put in museums. Usually, only a few of these objects are pretty to look at; but each of them has some sort of story to tell. Making the interpretation of his finds is the most important part of the archeologist's job. It is the way he gets at the "sort of history of human activity" which is expected of archeology.
SOME OTHER SCIENTISTS
There are many other scientists who help the archeologist and the physical anthropologist find out about prehistoric men. The geologists help us tell the age of the rocks or caves or gravel beds in which human bones or man-made objects are found. There are other scientists with