The Jomon people lived in Japan and perhaps spread to many other places starting at least 17,000 years ago, and finally becoming mixed with other groups migrating to Japan only 3,000 years ago. They had stone tools and pottery thousands of years ahead of other cultures. And the fact that their style of pottery is found as far away as South America suggests they may have had ships capable of trans-Pacific travel even before the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago.
One of my favorite and most optimistic topics is permaculture [previous posts 1 and 2]. The conventional history of man is that there were hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, and they settled down and formed agricultural communities starting ~30,000 years ago. But there are suggestions from America and Japan that ancient people knew how to culture sustainable ecosystems that resisted insect predators, that built up more topsoil year after year, and that were enriched in the food species that people could harvest abundantly. Perhaps when Columbus discovered America, it was an Eden not because it was untouched but because it was wisely managed by people with a traditional knowledge of ecology.
For here were a people who had explored their world by land and sea–reaching the Americas at least twice between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago. Here were a people who had used pottery millennia before anyone else and gone on to refine it into a beautiful artform. Here were a people who engineered their landscape to create sacred mountains, circles of stone, temples of rock. Here were a people who lived in harmony with their environment, who made use of an intelligent mix of strategies to insure survival and security for the future, and who succeessfully avoided the pitfalls of militarism, materialism, conspicuous consumption, and overpopulation that so many other cultures of the ancient world lost their way in. Here, above all, were a people whose civilization remained intact and even flourisyed — decently, humanely, and even generously, as far as we can know these things from the archaeological record, for more than 14,000 years.