The period before humans left written records is called prehistory. Our knowledge of this period depends on archaeological findings. Although fossil remains of apelike human ancestors have been found that date back millions of years, the first generally accepted humans appeared in Europe and the Near East about thirty-seven thousand years ago and are called Homo sapiens, meaning the “one who thinks.”
The First Civilizations
The three centuries from 1100 to 800 B.C. are known as the Dark Age-dark because we have too little evidence to obtain a clear picture of Greek life, and dark also because civilization took dramatic steps backward. Literacy virtually vanished, and writing stopped. Poverty and primitive conditions prevailed, causing suffering, a loss of skills, a shrinkage of the communities, a great forgetting of the past, and a halt in progress.
We still know relatively little about Mycenaean politics and society. We can tell from excavated gold treasures that Mycenae itself was wealthy, which is not surprising considering that it had conquered Crete. But the Mycenaeans seem not to have been overseas empire builders, even in the sense that the Cretans had been; their occupation of Crete may well have been undertaken by an invading captain.
In Greece, too, Bronze Age civilization had taken root. Greece was a largely barren land divided into small valleys and plains separated from each other, with none far from the sea. From earliest times the inhabitants took advantage of the rugged coasts and islands with their many shelters and good harbors to sail from place to place, profiting by the exchange of olive oil and wine for grain and metal and slaves.
Among the notable finds in Ugarit was an ivory relief of a bare-breasted goddess, holding ears of wheat in each hand and seated between two goats standing on their hind legs. She greatly resembles the goddesses frequently found on the large Mediterranean island of Crete. Cretan civilization is often called Minoan, after Minos, the legendary founder of the local dynasty.
Many of the most fundamental ideas of the Hebrew religion go back to the days when the Hebrews were still nomads, before they had adopted a settled life. From the nomadic period of Hebrew life come the feast of Passover, with its offering of a spring lamb and of unleavened bread; the keeping of a sabbath or holy day on the seventh day of the week; an annual day of expiation (Yom Kippur); and other holy days still honored by Jews in our own time.