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5,000 years ago, what was the most enjoyable thing that humans could accomplish?

The next time you’re dissociating on designer Dark Web drugs, porn in one tab and Succession in the other, group chat going strong on the phone with which, at any time of day, you might meet a cute stranger online, or read two or even three moderately funny tweets, take a moment to feel for your fun-deprived forebears—not your parents, who at least had Quaaludes, or your grandparents, but the bored-as-fuck subjects of late prehistory, c.a. 3,000 B.C., who could not even read to pass the time, the invention of writing being four long centuries off. What, in those few moments not spent foraging, or fashioning rudimentary vases, was the absolute most fun thing these people could do, assuming that it was not, in fact, making historically significant pottery? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts in early human history to find out.

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Jennifer Matthews

Professor and Chair, Sociology and Anthropology, Trinity University, who studies ancient and historical Maya archaeology

As an archaeologist, I mostly think about how hard life would have been 5,000 years ago—most humans lived relatively short lives, children were expected to behave like adults at a much younger age, and humans had to go out and get or make everything that they needed for their survival. However, they did make things such as musical instruments. As early as 40,000 years ago we find bone flutes in the archaeological record, and by 100 AD, we even find an elaborately carved flute in Oaxaca, Mexico that was placed in the musician’s hand in his grave.

For ancient Maya peoples, we see the significance of music and instruments in the murals of Bonampak (dating to approximately 900 AD) in the Chiapas, Mexico. Inside one of the three small rooms at the top of a temple, the Maya represented costumed musicians, some dressed as giant river lobsters known as pigua, as they played horns, drums, rattles, and maracas. However, these scenes are part of formal ceremonies for the installation of a new king, and murals in the other rooms show the capture of captives and human sacrifice, so I don’t know how fun they were.

I am also intrigued by the presence of Aztec toys in the archaeological record, such as dogs on wheels that may have been pull toys—although they generally show little wear and tear and may have simply been burial offerings. We do find the presence of small dolls and other miniatures that were do think were toys, although realistically they were likely used to teach children how to be adults.

So although I am sure there were moments of fun 50,000 or 5,000 years ago, such as storytelling around a campfire or the pride of a parent as they watched their child learn to master a skill such as tool-making, these simply don’t preserve in the archaeological record. I think for the most part, life thousands of years ago was about survival in a harsh world. It is safe to say that fun is truly a luxury of the contemporary world.

Luke Kaiser

PhD student, Anthropology, University of Arizona

One of the more fun things you could do 5,000 years ago was: drink communally. Though there are many different drinking shapes that appear in the Early Bronze Age, the “depas amphikypellon” is definitely the best example of communal drinking. Most other drinking vessels from other contexts are flat bottomed with only a single handle. However, the round bottom and paired handles means that this cup has to keep moving around the drinking circle. In fact, this vessel is a piece of the Southwest Anatolian drinking set which also includes a series of pouring vessels such as pitchers and even cooking wares. As communal drinking increased in popularity, these vessels spread from the area known as Turkey today into the Aegean, signaling the movement of the practice of communal drinking.

An important background piece is where the world is, particularly Europe, 5,000 years ago. That would be after the fully-formed Neolithic revolution which saw sedentary lifestyles, the emergence of agriculture, and people just generally being more permanent. So that’s how drinking can actually occur really in a large-scale manner—there’s time to ferment wine or brew beer, because you’re not picking up in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and moving all around a much larger landscape. Most likely, you’re in a family group, living near other family groups. So you brew some beer, and I brew some wine, and we kind of meet up one day and have a party. At first it was just because you’re creating excess—because you have more than you can consume, and stuff goes bad, and they don’t have the preservatives that we have. Though some fermented things are naturally preserved, they still want to move through their stock.

Today, we’re super-comfortable interacting face-to-face with strangers. In the ancient past, people were more wary of their interactions. Communal drinking allowed people to drop their guards and cooperate in things like building canal systems, or going out and getting raw materials, or building a trade network. In the Bronze Age, especially in Europe and the Mediterranean, you see the emergence of a highly complex trade network that incorporated 20-30 or more different cultures, and this kind of communal drinking is, it seems, the way that some of these kinds of soft contracts were being enacted.

Dr Julia Best (Cardiff University), Dr Penny Bickle (University of York), Professor Oliver Craig (University of York), Dr Richard Madgwick (Cardiff University) Professor Jacqui Mulville (Cardiff University)

Archaeologists working on food and feasting in prehistory

There is good archaeological evidence to suggest that one of the most fun things you could do 5,000 years ago was feasting. Stonehenge in southern Britain may have been the focus point for some rather excellent parties. At the settlement nearest to Stonehenge, called Durrington Walls, thousands of animal bones and pieces of broken pottery were found, suggesting that people held large feasts. The animal bones reveal that most of the meat came from pigs, and burning marks on their feet indicate that they were roasted over open fires. The pigs were about nine months old when they died meaning that these events could have happened around the time of the winter solstice. A few of the pig bones were still articulated when excavated by archaeologists, because when they were thrown away thousands of years ago, they still had some meat on them, holding them together. Many of the pig bones were complete and not heavily butchered, indicating that the pigs were being cooked in large chunks, and not broken up to extract every last nutrient (such as the bone marrow).

These parties may have been lavish and deliberately wasteful to show excess. Chemical analysis of the fats trapped in the ancient pottery suggests people were also making cheese. Using isotope analysis, which identifies chemical signals from the food and water that animals have consumed, archaeologists were able to estimate geographical areas where the pigs were raised. The results indicate that people came from across the UK with their animals to join in the feasts—a Neolithic version of Glastonbury.

Barbara Olsen

Associate Professor, Greek and Roman Studies, Vassar College

5,000 years ago is a little tough: pretty much all they were doing was spending an hour or two every day breaking pottery for us to later study. But if you can cheat on the dates a little bit, it’s worth looking at the Minoans, on the island of Crete. By the time Minoan palace culture arises, we’ve got these giant mega-palaces three football fields in length; we’ve got writing; we’ve got water piped in from as many as ten kilometers away. And they used to have a sport of bull-leaping: aristocratic teenagers, loaded up to the gills in gold and jewelry, swinging themselves over bulls.

Most of us guess this was either a sport practiced by professional acrobats or—based on the amount of jewelry involved—maybe an elite-teenager initiation ritual. It seems both men and women did this, and from the images it looks like they did so successfully—the Minoans tend not to give us too much violent imagery, so the bull-leaping usually ends pretty well.

Bulls are fantastically important to Minoan religion: we get them all over the place. We have scenes of bulls about to be sacrificed from altars, and we have scenes of acrobats leaping over them, usually from the front—someone’s hanging onto the horns, and other people go flying over them.

This was a pre-Greek culture—it looks like they’re the first European society to arrive. They were heavily influenced by the Egyptians, and the Greeks on the mainland will go on to learn a lot from them. But their favorite sport, as far as we can tell, doesn’t seem to be military-related, so much as it was throwing oneself over an angry running hamburger.

Do you have a question for Giz Asks? Email us at [email protected].


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