10,000 BC: The Story Behind the Date

February 18, 2008

Hollywood has been known to produce a movie or two on prehistoric and historic themes. On March 7, another title will be added to that list: 10,000 BC. The trailer promises all kinds of spectacular imagery: a satellite view of planet Earth as all the city lights go out; warriors fighting amongst themselves as well as against mammoths; there is even a frightening scene in which a human and a saber tooth cat come face-to-face (literally).

I know that this is escapism at its best. I will probably go see this film too; I might even give it two opposable thumbs up. However, how about we travel back to the real 10,000 B.C. and see for ourselves what really went on at that time?

By 10,000 B.C., humans had made it to the Americas. There is plenty debate about when exactly modern humans made it to the New World. The people traditionally believed to be walking around here 12,000 years ago are called the “Clovis people”. Our current understanding of who got here first has changed, but that is a topic for a future blog.

The Clovis people were hunters and gatherers, and they left behind a good number of archaeological sites throughout North America. By this time, mammoths and mastodons are becoming extinct. Some scientists point an accusing finger at human hunters, others blame that event on a meteorite.

In the Old World, the New Stone Age, or Neolithic, had begun. With it, we see the beginnings of animal domestication. With animal and plant domestication, our ancestors began agriculture. This was a major shift away from the traditional hunting-and-gathering way of life. This change laid the foundation for sedentary lifestyles, as the practice of living in one spot is called.

Architecture starts, first, very humbly. However, these very first dwellings and food storage areas eventually culminate in the “mile-high” sky scrapers of the 21st century.

By 10,000 B.C., the earliest pottery is produced in Japan. On mainland Asia, developments are not far behind: stable agricultural communities dot the countryside in what is now China.  Further West, in what is now Israel and Lebanon, the Natufian people are experimenting with plants as well, setting the stage for agriculture in this part of the world. In Europe, people to move further north as the last Ice Age comes to an end. 

So what does 10,000 B.C. really represent? Rampaging herds of mammoths? A myriad of busy workers building pyramids? A threatening tête-à-tête between a human and a saber tooth cat?


10,000 B.C. is a date that roughly marks the earliest known transition from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and animal domestication. Villages, towns and cities soon followed. Writing eventually came about as well, as a means of keeping track of wealth. Schools were not far behind.

Now that’s progress.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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