Early Cultures and Societies

Early Cultures and Societies

Background Information

This section examines some of the changes that took place when early people started to form settled groups. The aim is to guide students to think ore deeply about how this kind of living affected the ways in which early people met their common needs.

As described earlier in this manual, culture refers to a group’s shared way of life, including language, beliefs, customs, food, clothing, art, music, and literature. Examples of culture include a Japanese woman’s kimono, or Native Americans rain dance, or an African’s tribe’s unique clicking-tone language. Societies are groups of people living and working together for mutually beneficial reasons, but these groups may or may to share common traditions, beliefs, customs, or even nationalities. When are numbers of people settle on one place, their social organization often evolves into complex civilizations, societies with distinct cultures and complex levels of social organization.

Cultures and societies have been evolving since the time of early people. Scientists have evidence that people began creating permanent sites for villages at least 10,000 years ago ate the beginning of Neolithic Period. This move away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture and settlements was a major development in human history. As hunter-gatherers, early people had been nomadic, moving from place to place to find food or escape  extremes of weather. As time passed, some early people began to settle in one place, usually where the weather was good and there was abundant food.

Abandoning the nomadic lifestyle brought many changes into these early people’s lives. They could have more possessions, the quality of their clothing and shelter improved, and their tool-making became more sophisticated. They could produce more food by planting cropland raising animals, and they could therefore increase the size of their groups, making it possible to develop cultures and then societies.

In addition to developing more complex methods of meeting their common needs for food, shelter, and transportation, settled groups of early people started expressing other common needs, such as music, in more complex ways. The earliest musical instrument was the voice, closely followed by percussion instruments in the form of rocks, sticks, or clapping hands. In time, percussion instruments became more sophisticated and included rattles made of hooves or shells, drums made of planks or hollow logs, and eventually rawhide stretched over circular hoops. In 1995, a flute unearthed in Slovenia was estimated to be around 40,000 years old. Many flutes dating between 7000 and 9000 years old have been found at an early Neolithic site in Henan province in eastern China. Some of those bone flutes date back 5000 years, the first stringed instruments appeared around 4000 years ago, and ancient clay tablets have been found that contained musical notation.

Most early cultures and societies passed on information through myths and legends. The earliest myths and legends were passed down orally. Some of the richest ancient myths and legends come from the native people of North America. These dramatic adventure stories usually included animal– people at were performed as dances, with the dancers wearing elaborate masks and costumes. An example of an early myths comes from the Haida people of Haida Gwaii in Canada. This myth, The Raven and the First People, depicts the first people arriving on Earth through a huge clam shell.

Did you know?

The nomadic lifestyle has not completely vanished. There are modern nomadic societies such as the Penan people of Borneo, who do not grow crops nor raise animals for foos. Today, the Penan culture is at risk from intrusion by the outside world. For more information, see:

The Borneo Project <http://www.borneoproject.org>

Sarawak People Campaign <http://www.rimba.com/spc/spcpenanmain1.html#Borneo>

As well, there are Iranian nomads called the Qashqai. Students can read a first had account of a nomadic lifestyle through the eyes of a US woman who visited a Qashqai family in 2005:

GoNomad Network “Dinner with the Qashqai – Iran’s Nomads.”

Did You Know?

Few cultures can match the Ancient Greeks for mythology, the myths and legends that tell about a culture’s history, including its important events, both triumphs and failures, and the people involved. The Ancient Greeks loved stories. Thy created many wonderful myths. And legends still enjoyed today. For example, Aesop’s Fables, a collection of animal stories written by a Greek man who lived about 600BCE, continues to be read and enjoyed all over the world by people of all ages. The Greeks also created stories for all the constellations in the night sky.

Activity 1: Examining the Differences Between Settled and Nomadic Societies

Purpose: To study the differences in lifestyle between settled and nomadic societies.


  • Timeline of People
  • Reference materials, including pictures of musical instruments made by early people.
  • World History Journals and pencils


Most Montessori teachers present this concept in Year 4.

Place the Timeline of People on the table or floor. With the students, review the time when early humans began to create permanent sites or villages at the beginning of the Neolithic Period).

Review hat is meant by cultures and societies.

Define and discuss hunter-gatherer nomadic groups and contrast them with settled groups that began to grow cropland raise animals. Invite the students to describe the kids of culture and societies that could begin to develop when people began to settle.

Explain that there are still nomadic groups in the world today, and briefly describe an example (e.g., Qashqai in Iran). Emphasize that nomadic people still form cultures and societies.

Discuss how, as early people settled and began to meet their common needs for food, shelter, and transportation, thy began to express other common needs in more complex ways.

Demonstrate the reference materials, showing interesting examples of musical instruments made ny early people. Encourage the students to explore the materials in more detail later.

Invite the students to imagine themselves as part of an early nomadic group. Ask the students to use their journals to write a story describing several advantages and disadvantages to that lifestyle. Encourage the students to use the reference materials to find background information for their stories.


Research and write a report on modern nomadic society (e.g., Penan forest people of Borneo).

Write an essay on the advantages and disadvantages of modern people living in settled groups.

Using as many natural materials as possible, create a replica of a musical instrument made by early people.

Activity 2: Researching Myths and Legends of Early People

Purpose: To study the significance of myths and legends to early vultures.


  • Simple instruments and props
  • One early myth that is short and can be read too or with the students.
  • Reference materials on early myths and legends.
  • World history journals and pencils


Most Montessori teachers introduce this concept in Year 4 and review it in Years 5 and 6.

Announce that the students will have the opportunity to act out some early myths and legends.

Invite the students to name myths and legends with which they are familiar (e.g., Aesop’s Fables). Discuss what role these stories might have played in passing on culture and strengthening societies.

Demonstrate the myth chosen for the activity and invite the students to take turns reading it aloud.

Discuss how a group of early people might act out the myth (e.g., wear masks and costumes and perform a special dance).

Demonstrate the other reference materials on myths and legends. With the students, review several interesting examples. Encourage the students to explore the material in more detail later.

Ask the students to form group, then choose an early myth or legend to rehearse and present to the class.


Find a local, modern myth or legend

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