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The Past

2 million - 20,000 years ago

Archaeologists working in the Arabian peninsula, including those who work in the UAE, often find stone tools, carefully chipped flint knives and arrowheads and scrapers. In other parts of the world, the vast majority of such stone tools date to the Pleistocene.

The Pleistocene epoch is the earlier of the two sub-division of the Quaternary period. It lasted from c. 1.6 million years ago to roughly 10,000 years ago and is popularly termed the ‘Ice Age’ because of the extensive glaciers which covered as much as 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface at that time. Amongst the more important of these were the so-called Laurentide Ice Sheet in North America, which extended as far south as the state of Illinois; the Scandinavian Ice Sheet, which covered most of Great Britain; and the Patagonia Ice Sheet, which enveloped much of the southern Andes mountain range. The waxing and waning of these ice sheets had a profound effect on world-wide sea-levels. At times of greater glaciation more land surface was exposed and the world’s oceans were smaller. Yet subsequent infilling of areas formerly above water has meant that many Pleistocene land surfaces are now lost beneath the Earth’s seas and oceans.

Such great changes in the Earth’s surface and climate naturally impacted on both flora and fauna everywhere. The Pleistocene was also a time of huge steps forward in human evolution. Homo habilis, which probably evolved from the Australopithecenes of the preceding Pliocene epoch, was active between c. 2 and 1.5 million years ago, while Homo erectus appeared near the beginning of the Pleistocene (1.6 million years ago), and the first Homo sapiens probably date to about 400,000 years ago. Neanderthals appeared about 100,000 years ago, disappearing c. 35-30,000 years ago, by which time fully modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, were on the scene.

The end of the Pleistocene seems to have coincided with a number of megafaunal extinctions, as large animals such as mastodons and mammoths found it increasingly difficult to survive. Human exploitation and climate change have both been invoked as explanations for the demise of the Earth’s Pleistocene megafauna.

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