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The archeological record encompasses every area of the world that has ever been occupied by humans, as well as all of the material remains contained in those areas.
With its focus on the ancient past, archaeology somewhat resembles paleontologythe study of fossils of long-extinct animals, such as dinosaurs.
However, archaeology is distinct from paleontology and studies only past human life.
The earliest subjects of archaeological study date from the origins of humanity.
These include fossil remains believed to be of human ancestors who lived 3.5 million to 4.5 million years ago.
For the most part, the only things that survive are durable items such as potsherds (small fragments of pottery), tools or buildings of stone, bones, and teeth (which survive because they are covered with hard enamel).
Because many items disintegrate over time, archaeologists get an incomplete view of the past that they must fill in with other kinds of information and educated reasoning.
Archaeologists have also recorded how primitive forms of humans spread out of Africa into Asia about 1.8 million years ago, then into Europe about 900,000 years ago.
The first physically modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, appeared in tropical Africa between 200,000 and 150,000 years agodates determined by molecular biologists and archaeologists working together.
Dozens of archaeological sites throughout Asia and Europe show how people migrated from Africa and settled these two continents during the last Ice Age (100,000 to 15,000 years ago).
Archaeological studies have also provided much information about the people who first arrived in the Americas over 12,000 years ago.