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The Paleolithic

before Homo (Pliocene)

Lower Paleolithic (c. 2.6 Ma–100 ka) (genus Homo)

Olduwan (2.6–1.8 Ma) earliest stone tools
Acheulean (1.7–0.1 Ma) Controlled fire, earliest large game hunting
Clactonian (0.3–0.2 Ma)

Middle Paleolithic (300–30 ka) (Neanderthal, H. sapiens; earliest evidence of behavioral modernity (art and intentional burials); earliest undisputed evidence of cooking food; migration beyond Africa).

Mousterian (300–30 ka)
Aterian (82 ka)

Upper Paleolithic (50–10 ka) (behavioral modernity: abundant artwork, fully developed language)

Baradostian (36 ka)
Châtelperronian (35–29 ka)
Aurignacian (32–26 ka)
Gravettian (28–22 ka)
Solutrean (21–17 ka)
Magdalenian (18–10 ka)
Hamburg (14 ka)
Ahrensberg (13 ka)
Swiderian (10 ka)

The Paleolithic (from Greek: (paleo-) "old" + (lithos) "stone") Age, Era, or Period, is a prehistoric era distinguished by the development of the first stone tools, and covers roughly 99% of human technological history.[1] It extends from the introduction of stone tools by hominids such as Homo habilis 2.5[2] or 2.6[1][3] million years ago, to the introduction of agriculture and the end of the Pleistocene around 12,000 BP.[1][3][4] The Paleolithic era is followed by the Mesolithic.[5]

During the Paleolithic, humans grouped together in small societies such as bands, and subsisted by gathering plants and hunting or scavenging wild animals.[6] The Paleolithic is characterized by the use of knapped stone tools, although at the time humans also used wood and bone tools. Other organic commodities were adapted for use as tools, including leather and vegetable fibers; however, due to their nature, these have not been preserved to any great degree. Surviving artifacts of the Paleolithic era are known as Paleoliths. Humankind gradually evolved from early members of the genus Homo such as Homo habilis — who used simple stone tools — into fully behaviorally and anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) during the Paleolithic era.[7] During the end of the Paleolithic, specifically the Middle and or Upper Paleolithic, humans began to produce the earliest works of art and engage in religious and spiritual behavior such as burial and ritual.[6][8][9][10] The climate during the Paleolithic consisted of a set of glacial and interglacial periods in which the climate periodically fluctuated between warm and cool temperatures.

The term Paleolithic was coined by archaeologist John Lubbock in 1865. It derives from Greek: παλαιός, palaios, "old"; and λίθος, lithos, "stone", literally meaning "old age of the stone" or "Old Stone Age."



The three-age system divides human technological prehistory into three periods: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The modern periodization of the Stone Age stretches from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic in the following scheme (crossing an epoch boundary on the geologic time scale):

Traditionally, the Paleolithic is divided into three (somewhat overlapping) periods: the Lower Paleolithic, Middle Paleolithic, and the Upper Paleolithic. The three ages mark technological and cultural advances in different human communities.

Age Period Tools Economy Dwelling Sites Society Religion
Stone age Paleolithic Handmade tools and objects found in nature — cudgel, club, sharpened stone, chopper, handaxe, scraper, spear, Bow and arrow, harpoon, needle, scratch awl Hunting and gathering Mobile lifestyle — caves, huts, tooth or skin hovels, mostly by rivers and lakes Bands of edible-plant gatherers and hunters (25–100 people) Evidence for belief in the afterlife first appears in the Middle Paleolithic or Upper Paleolithic, marked by the appearance of burial rituals and ancestor worship. Priests and sanctuary servants appear in prehistory.
Mesolithic (known as the Epipalaeolithic in areas not affected by the Ice Age (such as Africa)) Handmade tools and objects found in nature — bow and arrow, fish baskets, boats Tribes and bands
Neolithic Handmade tools and objects found in nature — chisel, hoe, plough, yoke, reaping-hook, grain pourer, barley, loom, earthenware (pottery) and weapons Agriculture, gathering, hunting, fishing and domestication Farmsteads during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age; Formation of cities during the Bronze Age Tribes and the formation of chiefdoms in some Neolithic societies at the end of the Neolithic period' States and chiefdoms during the Bronze Age.
Bronze Age Copper and bronze tools, potter's wheel Agriculturecattle — breeding, agriculture, craft, trade
Iron Age Iron tools

Human evolution

This cranium, of Homo heidelbergensis, a Lower Paleolithic predecessor to Homo neanderthalensis and possibly Homo sapiens, dates to sometime between 500,000 to 400,000 BP.

Human evolution is the part of biological evolution concerning the emergence of humans as a distinct species.

Paleogeography and climate

The Paleolithic climate consisted of a set of glacial and interglacial periods

The climate of the Paleolithic Period spanned two geologic epochs known as the Pliocene and the Pleistocene. Both of these epochs experienced important geographic and climatic changes that affected human societies.

During the Pliocene, continents continued to drift from possibly as far as 250 km from their present locations to positions only 70 km from their current location. South America became linked to North America through the Isthmus of Panama, bringing a nearly complete end to South America's distinctive marsupial fauna. The formation of the Isthmus had major consequences on global temperatures, because warm equatorial ocean currents were cut off, and the cold Arctic and Antarctic waters lowered temperatures in the now-isolated Atlantic Ocean. Central America formed completely during the Pliocene, allowing fauna from North and South America to leave their native habitats and colonize new areas.[12] Africa's collision with Asia created the Mediterranean Sea, cutting off the remnants of the Tethys Ocean. During the Pleistocene, the modern continents were essentially at their present positions; the tectonic plates on which they sit have probably moved at most 100 km from each other since the beginning of the period.[13]

Climates during the Pliocene became cooler and drier, and seasonal, similar to modern climates. Ice sheets grew on Antarctica. The formation of an Arctic ice cap around 3 Ma is signaled by an abrupt shift in oxygen isotope ratios and ice-rafted cobbles in the North Atlantic and North Pacific ocean beds.[14] Mid-latitude glaciation probably began before the end of the epoch. The global cooling that occurred during the Pliocene may have spurred on the disappearance of forests and the spread of grasslands and savannas.[12]

The Pleistocene climate was characterized by repeated glacial cycles during which continental glaciers pushed to the 40th parallel in some places. Four major glacial events have been identified, as well as many minor intervening events. A major event is a general glacial excursion, termed a "glacial." Glacials are separated by "interglacials." During a glacial, the glacier experiences minor advances and retreats. The minor excursion is a "stadial"; times between stadials are "interstadials." Each glacial advance tied up huge volumes of water in continental ice sheets 1500–3000 m thick, resulting in temporary sea level drops of 100 m or more over the entire surface of the Earth. During interglacial times, such as at present, drowned coastlines were common, mitigated by isostatic or other emergent motion of some regions.

Many large mammals such as wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, and cave lions inhabited places like Siberia during the Pleistocene.

The effects of glaciation were global. Antarctica was ice-bound throughout the Pleistocene and the preceding Pliocene. The Andes were covered in the south by the Patagonian ice cap. There were glaciers in New Zealand and Tasmania. The now decaying glaciers of Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Ruwenzori Range in east and central Africa were larger. Glaciers existed in the mountains of Ethiopia and to the west in the Atlas mountains. In the northern hemisphere, many glaciers fused into one. The Cordilleran ice sheet covered the North American northwest; the Laurentide covered the east. The Fenno-Scandian ice sheet covered northern Europe, including Great Britain; the Alpine ice sheet covered the Alps. Scattered domes stretched across Siberia and the Arctic shelf. The northern seas were frozen. During the late Upper Paleolithic (Latest Pleistocene) c. 18,000 BP, the Beringa land bridge between Asia and North America was blocked by ice[13] which may have prevented early Paleo-Indians such as the Clovis culture from directly crossing Beringa to reach the Americas.

According to Mark Lynas (through collected data), the Pleistocene's overall climate could be characterized as a continuous El Niño with trade winds in the south Pacific weakening or heading east, warm air rising near Peru, warm water spreading from the west Pacific and the Indian Ocean to the east Pacific, and other El Niño markers.[15]

The ice age ended with the end of the Paleolithic era (the end of the Pleistocene epoch), and Earth's climate became warmer. This may have caused or contributed to the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, although it is also possible that the late Pleistocene extinctions were (at least in part) caused by other factors such as disease and over hunting by humans.[16][17] New research suggests that the extinction of the Woolly mammoth may have been caused by the combined effect of climatic change and human hunting.[17] Scientists suggest that climate change during the end of the Pleistocene caused the mammoths' habitat to shrink in size, resulting in a drop in population. The small populations were then hunted out by Paleolithic humans.[17] The global warming that occurred during the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene may have made it easier for humans to reach mammoth habitats that were previously frozen and inaccessible.[17]

Currently agreed upon classifications as Paleolithic geoclimatic episodes[18]
America Atlantic Europe Maghreb Mediterranean Europe Central Europe
10,000 years Flandrian interglacial Flandriense Mellahiense Versiliense Flandrian interglacial
80,000 years Wisconsin Devensiense Regresión Regresión Wisconsin Stage
140,000 years Sangamoniense Ipswichiense Ouljiense Tirreniense II y III Eemian Stage
200,000 years Illinois Wolstoniense Regresión Regresión Wolstonian Stage
450,000 years Yarmouthiense Hoxniense Anfatiense Tirreniense I Hoxnian Stage
580,000 years Kansas Angliense Regresión Regresión Kansan Stage
750,000 years Aftoniense Cromeriense Maarifiense Siciliense Cromerian Stage
1,100,000 years Nebraska Beestoniense Regresión Regresión Beestonian stage
1,400,000 years interglaciar Ludhamiense Messaudiense Calabriense Donau-Günz

Human way of life

An artist's rendering of a temporary wood house, based on evidence found at Terra Amata (in Nice, France) and dated to the Lower Paleolithic (c. 400,000 BP).

Due to a lack of written records from this time period, nearly all of our knowledge of Paleolithic human culture and way of life comes from archaeology and ethnographic comparisons to modern hunter-gatherer cultures such as the Kung San who live similarly to their Paleolithic predecessors.[19] The economy of a typical Paleolithic society was a hunter-gatherer economy.[20] Humans hunted wild animals for meat and gathered food, firewood, and materials for their tools, clothes, or shelters.[20][21] Human population density was very low, around only one person per square mile.[6] This was most likely due to low body fat, infanticide, women regularly engaging in intense endurance exercise,[22] late weaning of infants and a nomadic lifestyle.[6] Like contemporary hunter-gatherers, Paleolithic humans enjoyed an abundance of leisure time unparalleled in both Neolithic farming societies and modern industrial societies.[20][23] At the end of the Paleolithic, specifically the Middle and or Upper Paleolithic, humans began to produce works of art such as cave paintings, rock art and jewellery and began to engage in religious behavior such as burial and ritual.[24]



Picture of two Lower Paleolithic bifaces
Picture of a stone ball from a set of Paleolithic bolas.

Paleolithic humans made tools of stone, bone, and wood.[20] The earliest Paleolithic stone tool industry, the Olduwan, was developed by the earliest members of the genus Homo such as Homo habilis, around 2.6 million years ago.[25] It contained tools such as choppers, burins and awls. It was completely replaced around 250,000 years ago by the more complex Acheulean industry, which was first conceived by Homo ergaster around 1.8 or 1.65 million years ago.[26] The most recent Lower Paleolithic (Acheulean) implements completely vanished from the archeological record around 100,000 years ago and were replaced by more complex Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age tool kits such as the Mousterian and the Aterian industries.[27]

Lower Paleolithic humans used a variety of stone tools, including hand axes and choppers. Although they appear to have used hand axes often, there is disagreement about their use. Interpretations range from cutting and chopping tools, to digging implements, flake cores, the use in traps and a purely ritual significance, maybe in courting behavior. William H. Calvin has suggested that some hand axes could have served as "killer Frisbees" meant to be thrown at a herd of animals at a water hole so as to stun one of them. There are no indications of hafting, and some artifacts are far too large for that. Thus, a thrown hand axe would not usually have penetrated deeply enough to cause very serious injuries. Nevertheless, it could have been an effective weapon for defense against predators. Choppers and s#rappers were likely used for skinning and butchering scavenged animals and sharp ended sticks were often obtained for digging up edible roots. Presumably, early humans used wooden spears as early as 5 million years ago to hunt small animals, much as their relatives, chimpanzees, have been observed to do in Senegal, Africa.[28] Lower Paleolithic humans constructed shelters such as the possible wood hut at Terra Amata.

Fire was used by the Lower Paleolithic hominid Homo erectus/Homo ergaster as early as 300,000 or 1.5 million years ago and possibly even earlier by the early Lower Paleolithic (Oldowan) hominid Homo habilis and/or by robust australopithecines such as Paranthropus.[6] However, the use of fire only became common in the societies of the following Middle Stone Age/Middle Paleolithic Period.[1] Use of fire reduced mortality rates and provided protection against predators.[29] Early hominids may have begun to cook their food as early as the Lower Paleolithic (c. 1.9 million years ago) or at the latest in the early Middle Paleolithic (c. 250,000 years ago).[30] Some scientists have hypothesized that Hominids began cooking food to defrost frozen meat, which would help ensure their survival in cold regions.[30]

The Lower Paleolithic hominid Homo erectus possibly invented rafts (c. 800,000 or 840,000 BP) to travel over large bodies of water, which may have allowed a group of Homo erectus to reach the island of Flores and evolve into the small hominid Homo floresiensis. However, this hypothesis is disputed within the anthropological community.[31][32][33] The possible use of rafts during the Lower Paleolithic may indicate that Lower Paleolithic Hominids such as Homo erectus were more advanced than previously believed, and may have even spoken an early form of modern language.[32] Supplementary evidence from Neanderthal and Modern human sites located around the Mediterranean Sea such as Coa de sa Multa (c. 300,000 BP) has also indicated that both Middle and Upper Paleolithic humans used rafts to travel over large bodies of water (i.e. the Mediterranean Sea) for the purpose of colonizing other bodies of land.[11][32]

Around 200,000 BP, Middle Paleolithic Stone tool manufacturing spawned a tool making technique known as the prepared-core technique, that was more elaborate than previous Acheulean techniques.[7] This technique increased efficiency by allowing the creation of more controlled and consistent flakes.[7] It allowed Middle Paleolithic humans to create stone tipped spears, which were the earliest composite tools, by hafting sharp, pointy stone flakes onto wooden shafts. In addition to improving tool making methods, the Middle Paleolithic also saw an improvement of the tools themselves that allowed access to a wider variety and amount of food sources. For example microliths or small stone tools or points were invented around 70,000 or 65,000 BP and were essential to the invention of bows and spear throwers in the following Upper Paleolithic period.[29] Harpoons were invented and used for the first time during the late Middle Paleolithic (c.90,000 years ago); the invention of these devices brought fish into the human diets, which provided a hedge against starvation and a more abundant food supply.[4][11] Thanks to their technology and their advanced social structures, Paleolithic groups such as the Neanderthals who had a Middle Paleolithic level of technology, appear to have hunted large game just as well as Upper Paleolithic modern humans[34] and the Neanderthals in particular may have likewise hunted with projectile weapons.[35] Nonetheless, Neanderthal use of projectile weapons in hunting occurred very rarely (or perhaps never) and the Neanderthals hunted large game animals mostly by ambushing them and attacking them with mêlée weapons such as thrusting spears rather than attacking them from a distance with projectile weapons.[24][36]

During the Upper Paleolithic, further inventions were made, such as the net (c. 22,000 or 29,000 BP)[29] bolas,[37] the spear thrower (c.30,000 BP), the bow and arrow (c. 25,000 or 30,000 BP)[6][38] and the oldest example of ceramic art, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (c. 29,000–25,000 BP).[6] Early dogs were domesticated, sometime between 30,000 BP and 14,000 BP, presumably to aid in hunting.[39] However, the earliest instances of successful domestication of dogs may be much more ancient than this. Evidence from canine DNA collected by Robert k. Wayne suggests that dogs may have been first domesticated in the late Middle Paleolithic around 100,000 BP or perhaps even earlier[40] Archeological evidence from the Dordogne region of France demonstrates that members of the European early Upper Paleolithic culture known as the Aurignacian used calendars (c. 30,000 BP). This was a lunar calendar that was used to document the phases of the moon. Genuine solar calendars did not appear until the following Neolithic period.[41] It is almost certain that Upper Paleolithic cultures could precisely time the migration of game animals such as wild horses and deer.[4] This ability allowed humans to become efficient hunters and to exploit a wide variety of game animals.[4] Recent research indicates that the Neanderthals timed their hunts and the migrations of game animals long before the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic.[34]

Social organization

Humans may have taken part in long distance trade between bands for rare commodities and raw materials (such as stone needed for making tools) as early as 120,000 years ago in Middle Paleolithic.

The social organization of the earliest Paleolithic (Lower Paleolithic) societies remains largely unknown to scientists, though Lower Paleolithic hominids such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus are likely to have had more complex social structures than chimpanzee societies.[42] Late Oldowan/Early Acheulean humans such as Homo ergaster/Homo erectus may have been the first people to invent central campsites, or home bases and incorporate them into their foraging and hunting strategies like contemporary hunter-gatherers, possibly as early as 1.7 million years ago;[7] however, the earliest solid evidence for the existence of home bases/central campsites (hearths and shelters) among humans only dates back to 500,000 years ago.[7]

Similarly, scientists disagree whether Lower Paleolithic humans were largely monogamous or polygamous.[42] In particular, the Provisional model suggests that bipedalism arose in Pre Paleolithic australopithecine societies as an adaptation to monogamous lifestyles; however, other researchers note that sexual dimorphism is more pronounced in Lower Paleolithic Humans such as Homo erectus than in Modern humans, who are less polygamous than other primates, which suggests that Lower Paleolithic humans had a largely polygamous lifestyle, because species that have the most pronounced sexual dimorphism tend more likely to be polygamous.[43]

Human societies from the Paleolithic to the early Neolithic farming tribes lived without states and organized governments. For most of the Lower Paleolithic, human societies were possibly more hierarchical than their Middle and Upper Paleolithic descendants, and probably were not grouped into bands,[44] though during the end of the Lower Paleolithic, the latest populations of the hominid Homo erectus may have began living in small scale (possibly egalitarian) bands similar to both Middle and Upper Paleolithic societies and modern hunter-gatherers.[44]

Middle Paleolithic societies, unlike Lower Paleolithic and early Neolithic ones, consisted of bands that ranged from 20 to 30 or 25 to 100 members and were usually nomadic.[6][44][45] These bands were formed by several families. Bands sometimes joined together into larger "macrobands" for activities such as acquiring mates and celebrations or where resources were abundant.[6] By the end of the Paleolithic era about 10,000 BP people began to settle down into permanent locations, and began to rely on agriculture for sustenance in many locations. Much evidence exists that humans took part in long-distance trade between bands for rare commodities (such as ochre, which was often used for religious purposes such as ritual[46][47]) and raw materials, as early as 120,000 years ago in Middle Paleolithic.[48] Inter-band trade may have appeared during the Middle Paleolithic because trade between bands would have helped ensure their survival by allowing them to exchange resources and commodities such as raw materials during times of relative scarcity (i.e. famine, drought).[48] Like in modern hunter-gatherer societies, individuals in Paleolithic societies may have been subordinate to the band as a whole.[19][20] Both Neanderthals and modern humans took care of the elderly members of their societies during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic.[48]

Some sources claim that like the societies of our closest existent relative, the Bonobo,[49] most Middle and Upper Paleolithic societies were possibly fundamentally egalitarian[6][11][20][21][44][44] and may have rarely or never engaged in organized violence between groups (i.e. war).[11][50][51][52] Some Upper Paleolithic societies in resource-rich environments (such as societies in Sungir, in what is now Russia) may have had more complex and hierarchical organization (such as tribes with a pronounced hierarchy and a somewhat formal division of labor) and may have engaged in endemic warfare.[11][53] There was no formal leadership during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic. Like contemporary egalitarian hunter-gatherers such as the Mbuti pygmies, societies probably made decisions by communal consensus decision making rather than by appointing permanent rulers such as chiefs and monarchs.[9][21] Nor was there a formal division of labor during the Paleolithic. Each member of the group was skilled at all tasks essential to survival, regardless of individual abilities. Theories to explain the apparent egalitarianism have arisen, notably the Marxist concept of primitive communism.[54][55] Christopher Boehm (1999) has hypothesized that egalitarianism may have evolved in Paleolithic societies because of a need to distribute resources such as food and meat equally to avoid famine and ensure a stable food supply.[44] Raymond C. Kelly speculates that the relative peacefulness of Middle and Upper Paleolithic societies resulted from a low population density, cooperative relationships between groups such as reciprocal exchange of commodities and collaboration on hunting expeditions, and because the invention of projectile weapons such as throwing spears provided less incentive for war, because they increased the damage done to the attacker and decreased the relative amount of territory attackers could gain.[52] However, other sources claim that most Paleolithic groups may have been larger, more complex, sedentary and warlike than most contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, due to occupying more resource-abundant areas than most modern hunter-gatherers who have been pushed into more marginal habitats by agricultural societies.[56]

Anthropologists have typically assumed that in Paleolithic societies, women were responsible for gathering wild plants and firewood, and men were responsible for hunting and scavenging dead animals.[6][11][21] However, analogies to existent hunter-gatherer societies such as the Hadza people and the Australian aborigines suggest that the sexual division of labor in the Paleolithic was relatively flexible. Men may have participated in gathering plants, firewood and insects, and women may have procured small game animals for consumption and assisted men in driving herds of large game animals (such as woolly mammoths and deer) off cliffs.[11][51] Additionally, recent research by anthropologist and archaeologist Steven Kuhn from the University of Arizona shows that this division of labor did not exist prior to the Upper Paleolithic and was invented relatively recently in human pre-history.[57][58] Sexual division of labor may have been developed to allow humans to acquire food and other resources more efficiently.[58] Possibly there was approximate parity between men and women during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, and that period may have been the most gender-equal time in human history.[21][45][50][59][60][61] Archeological evidence from art and funerary rituals indicates that a number of individual women enjoyed seemingly high status in their communities,[60] and it is likely that both sexes participated in decision making.[45] The earliest known Paleolithic shaman (c. 30,000 BP) was female.[62] Jared Diamond suggests that the status of women declined with the adoption of agriculture because women in farming societies typically have more pregnancies and are expected to do more demanding work than women in hunter-gatherer societies.[63] Like most contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, Paleolithic and the Mesolithic groups probably followed mostly matrilineal and ambilineal descent patterns; patrilineal descent patterns were probably rarer than in the following Neolithic period.[29][47]

Art and music

The Venus of Willendorf is one of the most famous Venus figurines.

Early examples of artistic expression, such as the Venus of Tan-Tan and the patterns found on elephant bones from Bilzingsleben in Thuringia, may have been produced by Acheulean tool users such as Homo erectus prior to the start of the Middle Paleolithic period. However, the earliest undisputed evidence of art during the Paleolithic period comes from Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age sites such as Blombos Cave in the form of bracelets,[64] beads,[65] rock art,[46] and ochre used as body paint and perhaps in ritual.[11][46] Undisputed evidence of art only becomes common in the following Upper Paleolithic period.[66]

According to Robert G. Bednarik, Lower Paleolithic Acheulean tool users began to engage in symbolic behavior such as art around 850,000 BP and decorated themselves with beads and collected exotic stones for aesthetic rather than utilitarian qualities.[67] According to Bednarik, traces of the pigment ochre from late Lower Paleolithic Acheulean archeological sites suggests that Acheulean societies, like later Upper Paleolithic societies, collected and used ochre to create rock art.[67] Nevertheless, it is also possible that the ochre traces found at Lower Paleolithic sites is naturally occurring.[68]

Vincent W. Fallio interprets Lower and Middle Paleolithic marking on rocks at sites such as Bilzingsleben (such as zig zagging lines) as accounts or representation of altered states of consciousness[69] though some other scholars interpret them as either simple doodling or as the result of natural processes.

Upper Paleolithic humans produced works of art such as cave paintings, Venus figurines, animal carvings and rock paintings.[4] Upper Paleolithic art can be divided into two broad categories: figurative art such as cave paintings that clearly depicts animals (or more rarely humans); and nonfigurative, which consists of shapes and symbols.[4] Cave paintings have been interpreted in a number of ways by modern archeologists. The earliest explanation, by the prehistorian Abbe Breuil, interpreted the paintings as a form of magic designed to ensure a successful hunt.[70] However, this hypothesis fails to explain the existence of animals such as saber-toothed cats and lions, which were not hunted for food, and the existence of half-human, half-animal beings in cave paintings. The anthropologist David Lewis-Williams has suggested that Paleolithic cave paintings were indications of shamanistic practices, because the paintings of half-human, half-animal paintings and the remoteness of the caves are reminiscent of modern hunter-gatherer shamanistic practices.[70] Symbol-like images are more common in Paleolithic cave paintings than are depictions of animals or humans, and unique symbolic patterns might have been trademarks that represent different Upper Paleolithic ethnic groups.[71] Venus figurines have evoked similar controversy. Archeologists and anthropologists have described the figurines as representations of goddesses, pornographic imagery, apotropaic amulets used for sympathetic magic, and even as self-portraits of women themselves.[11][72]

R. Dale Guthrie[73] has studied not only the most artistic and publicized paintings, but also a variety of lower-quality art and figurines, and he identifies a wide range of skill and ages among the artists. He also points out that the main themes in the paintings and other artifacts (powerful beasts, risky hunting scenes and the over-sexual representation of women) are to be expected in the fantasies of adolescent males during the Upper Paleolithic.

The Venus figurines have sometimes been interpreted as representing a mother goddess; the abundance of such female imagery has led some to believe that Upper Paleolithic (and later Neolithic) societies had a female-centered religion and a female-dominated society. For example, this was proposed by the archeologist Marija Gimbutas and the feminist scholar Merlin Stone who was the author of the 1978 book When God Was a Woman[74][75] Various other explanations for the purpose of the figurines have been proposed, such as Catherine McCoid and LeRoy McDermott’s hypothesis that the figurines were created as self portraits of actual women[72] and R.Dale Gutrie's hypothesis that the venus figurines represented a kind of "stone age pornography".

The origins of music during the Paleolithic are unknown, since the earliest forms of music probably did not use musical instruments but instead used the human voice and or natural objects such as rocks, which leave no trace in the archaeological record. However, the anthropological and archeological designation suggests that human music first arose when language, art and other modern behaviors developed in the Middle or the Upper Paleolithic period. Music may have developed from rhythmic sounds produced by daily activities such as cracking nuts by hitting them with stones, because maintaining a rhythm while working may have helped people to become more efficient at daily activities.[76] An alternative theory originally proposed by Charles Darwin explains that music may have begun as a hominid mating strategy as many birds and some other animals produce music like calls to attract mates.[77] This hypothesis is generally less accepted than the previous hypothesis, but it nonetheless provides a possible alternative.

Upper Paleolithic (and possibly Middle Paleolithic[78]) humans used flute-like bone pipes as musical instruments,[11][79] Music may have played a large role in the religious lives of Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Like in modern hunter-gatherer societies, music may have been used in ritual or to help induce trances. In particular, it appears that animal skin drums may have been used in religious events by Upper Paleolithic shamans, as shown by the remains of drum-like instruments from some Upper Paleolithic graves of shamans and the ethnographic record of contemporary hunter-gatherer shamanic and ritual practices.[4][62]

Religion and beliefs

Picture of a half-human, half-animal being in a Paleolithic cave painting in Dordogne. France. Archeologists believe that cave paintings of half-human, half-animal beings may be evidence for early shamanic practices during the Paleolithic.

The established anthropological view is that it is more probable that humankind first developed religious and spiritual beliefs during the Middle Paleolithic or Upper Paleolithic.[80] Controversial scholars of prehistoric religion and anthropology, James Harrod and Vincent W. Fallio, have recently proposed that religion and spirituality (and art) may have first arisen in Pre-Paleolithic chimpanzees[81] or Early Lower Paleolithic (Oldowan) societies.[69][82] According to Fallio, the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans experienced altered states of consciousness and partook in ritual, and ritual was used in their societies to strengthen social bonding and group cohesion.[69]

Middle Paleolithic humans' use of burials at sites such as Krapina, Croatia (c. 130,000 BP) and Qafzeh, Israel (c. 100,000 BP) have led some anthropologists and archeologists, such as Philip Lieberman, to believe that Middle Paleolithic humans may have possessed a belief in an afterlife and a "concern for the dead that transcends daily life".[83] Cut marks on Neanderthal bones from various sites, such as Combe-Grenal and Abri Moula in France, suggest that the Neanderthals like some contemporary human cultures may have practiced ritual defleshing for (presumably) religious reasons. According to recent archeological findings from H. heidelbergensis sites in Atapuerca, humans may have begun burying their dead much earlier, during the late Lower Paleolithic; but this theory is widely questioned in the scientific community.

Likewise, some scientists have proposed that Middle Paleolithic societies such as Neanderthal societies may also have practiced the earliest form of totemism or animal worship, in addition to their (presumably religious) burial of the dead. In particular, Emil Bächler suggested (based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves) that a bear cult was widespread among Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals.[84] Additional evidence of Middle Paleolithic animal worship has been discovered in the Tsodilo Hills (c. 70,000 BP) in the Kalahari desert in Africa; here, a giant rock resembling a python is accompanied by large amounts of colored, broken spear points, and a secret chamber inside a cave. The broken spear points were most likely sacrificial offerings, and the python is also important to and worshipped by contemporary !Kung San hunter-gatherers who are the descendants of the people who devised the ritual at the Tsodilo Hills, and may have inherited their worship of the python from their distant Middle Paleolithic ancestors.[10] Animal cults in the following Upper Paleolithic period, such as the bear cult, may have had their origins in these hypothetical Middle Paleolithic animal cults.[85] Animal worship during the Upper Paleolithic was intertwined with hunting rites.[85] For instance, archeological evidence from art and bear remains reveals that the bear cult apparently involved a type of sacrificial bear ceremonialism, in which a bear was shot with arrows, finished off by a shot in the lungs, and ritualistically buried near a clay bear statue covered by a bear fur with the skull and the body of the bear buried separately.[85] Barbara Ehrenreich controversially theorizes that the sacrificial hunting rites of the Upper Paleolithic (and by extension Paleolithic cooperative big-game hunting) gave rise to war or warlike raiding during the following Epi-Paleolithic/Mesolithic or late Upper Paleolithic period.[51]

The existence of anthropomorphic images and half-human, half-animal images in the Upper Paleolithic period may further indicate that Upper Paleolithic humans were the first people to believe in a pantheon of gods or supernatural beings,[86] though such images may instead indicate shamanistic practices similar to those of contemporary tribal societies.[70] The earliest known undisputed burial of a shaman (and by extension the earliest undisputed evidence of shamans and shamanic practices) dates back to the early Upper Paleolithic era (c. 30,000 BP) in what is now the Czech Republic.[62] However, during the early Upper Paleolithic it was probably more common for all members of the band to participate equally and fully in religious ceremonies, in contrast to the religious traditions of later periods when religious authorities and part-time ritual specialists such as shamans, priests and medicine men were relatively common and integral to religious life.[20] Additionally, it is also possible that Upper Paleolithic religions, like contemporary and historical animistic and polytheistic religions, believed in the existence of a single creator deity in addition to other supernatural beings such as animistic spirits.[87]

Vincent W. Fallio writes that ancestor cults first emerged in complex Upper Paleolithic societies. He argues that the elites of these societies (like the elites of many more contemporary complex hunter-gatherers such as the Tlingit) may have used special rituals and ancestor worship to solidify control over their societies, by convincing their subjects that they possess a link to the spirit world that also gives them control over the earthly realm.[69] Secret societies may have served a similar function in these complex quasi-theocratic societies, by dividing the religious practices of these cultures into the separate spheres of Popular Religion and Elite Religion.[69]

Religion was possibly apotropaic; specifically, it may have involved sympathetic magic.[11] The Venus figurines, which are abundant in the Upper Paleolithic archeological record, provide an example of possible Paleolithic sympathetic magic, as they may have been used for ensuring success in hunting and to bring about fertility of the land and women.[6] The Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines have sometimes been explained as depictions of an earth goddess similar to Gaia, or as representations of a goddess who is the ruler or mother of the animals.[85][88] James Harrod has described them as representative of female (and male) shamanistic spiritual transformation processes.[89]

Diet and nutrition

People may have first fermented grapes in animal skin pouches to create wine during the Paleolithic.[90]

Paleolithic hunting and gathering peoples ate primarily meat, fish, shellfish, leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts and insects in varying proportions.[91][92] However, there is little direct evidence of the relative proportions of plant and animal foods.[93] According to some anthropologists and advocates of the modern Paleolithic diet, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers consumed a significant amount of meat and possibly obtained most of their food from hunting.[94] Competing hypotheses suggest that Paleolithic humans may have consumed a plant-based diet in general,[57] or that hunting and gathering possibly contributed equally to their diet.[95] One hypothesis is that carbohydrate tubers (plant underground storage organs) may have been eaten in high amounts by our pre-agricultural humans.[96][97][98][99] However, the relative proportions of plant and animal foods in the diets of Paleolithic peoples probably varied between regions. For instance, hunter gatherers in tropical regions such as Africa probably consumed a plant-based diet, while populations in colder regions such as Northern Europe most likely obtained most of their food from meat.[100]

Overall, they experienced less famine and malnutrition than the Neolithic farming tribes that followed them.[19][101] This was partly because Paleolithic hunter-gatherers had access to a wider variety of plants and other foods, which allowed them a more nutritious diet and a decreased risk of famine.[19][22][63] Many of the famines experienced by Neolithic (and some modern) farmers were caused or amplified by their dependence on a small number of crops.[19][22][63] The greater amount of meat obtained by hunting big game animals in Paleolithic diets than in Mesolithic and Neolithic diets may have also allowed Paleolithic Hunter-gatherers to enjoy a more nutritious diet than both Epipaleolithic/Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic agriculturalists.[101] It is also unlikely that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were affected by modern diseases of affluence such as Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease, because they ate mostly lean meats and plants and frequently engaged in intense physical activity.[102][103] The Paleolithic diet (also known as the paleodiet or the caveman diet) is a modern diet that seeks to eliminate these diseases of affluence from contemporary industrial society, by replicating the dietary habits of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.[104]

Large-seeded legumes were part of the human diet long before the Neolithic agricultural revolution, as evident from archaeobotanical finds from the Mousterian layers of Kebara Cave, in Israel.[105] Moreover, recent evidence indicates that humans processed and consumed wild cereal grains as far back as 23,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic.[106] However, seeds, such as grains and beans, were rarely eaten and never in large quantities on a daily basis.[104] Recent archeological evidence also indicates that winemaking may have originated in the Paleolithic, when early humans drank the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes from animal-skin pouches.[90] Paleolithic humans consumed animal organ meats, including the livers, kidneys and brains. Upper Paleolithic cultures appear to have had significant knowledge about plants and herbs and may have, albeit very rarely, practiced rudimentary forms of horticulture.[107] In particular, bananas and tubers may have been cultivated as early as 25,000 BP in southeast Asia.[56] Late Upper Paleolithic societies also appear to have occasionally practiced pastoralism and animal husbandry, presumably for dietary reasons. For instance, some European late Upper Paleolithic cultures domesticated and raised reindeer, presumably for their meat or milk, as early as 14,000 BP.[39] Humans also probably consumed hallucinogenic plants during the Paleolithic period.[6] The Australian Aborigines have been consuming a variety of native animal and plant foods, called bushfood, for an estimated 60,000 years, since the Middle Paleolithic.

Large game animals such as deer were an important source of protein in Middle and Upper Paleolithic diets.

People during the Middle Paleolithic, such as the Neanderthals and Middle Paleolithic Homo sapiens in Africa, began to catch shellfish for food as revealed by shellfish cooking in Neanderthal sites in Italy about 110,000 years ago and Middle Paleolithic Homo sapiens sites at Pinnacle Point, in Africa around 164,000 BP.[11][108] Although fishing only became common during the Upper Paleolithic,[11][109] fish have been part of human diets long before the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic and have certainly been consumed by humans since at least the Middle Paleolithic.[4] For example, the Middle Paleolithic Homo sapiens in the region now occupied by the Democratic Republic of the Congo hunted large 6-foot (1.8 m)-long catfish with specialized barbed fishing points as early as 90,000 years ago.[4][11] The invention of fishing allowed some Upper Paleolithic and later hunter-gatherer societies to become sedentary or semi-nomadic, which altered their social structures.[79] Example societies are the Lepenski Vir as well as some contemporary hunter-gatherers such as the Tlingit. In some instances (at least the Tlingit) they developed social stratification, slavery and complex social structures such as chiefdoms.[29]

Anthropologists such as Tim White suggest that cannibalism was common in human societies prior to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, based on the large amount of “butchered human" bones found in Neanderthal and other Lower/Middle Paleolithic sites.[110] Cannibalism in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic may have occurred because of food shortages.[111] However, it may have been for religious reasons, and would coincide with the development of religious practices thought to have occurred during the Upper Paleolithic.[112][85] Nonetheless, it remains possible that Paleolithic societies never practiced cannibalism, and that the damage to recovered human bones was either the result of ritual post-mortem bone cleaning or predation by carnivores such as saber tooth cats, lions and hyenas.[85]

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PALAEOLITHIC (Gr. 7raXat6s, old, and Mos, stone), in anthropology, the characteristic epithet of the Drift or early Stone Age when Man shared the possession of Europe with the mammoth, the cave-bear, the woolly-haired rhinoceros and other extinct animals. The epoch is characterized by flint implements of the rudest type and never polished. The fully authenticated remains of palaeolithic man are few, and discoveries are confined to certain areas, e.g. France and north Italy. The reason is that interment appears not to have been practised by the river-drift hunters, and the only bones likely to be found would be those accidentally preserved in caves or rock-shelters. The first actual find of a palaeolithic implement was that of a rudely fashioned flint in a sandbank at Menchecourt in 1841 by Boucher de Perthes. Further discoveries have resulted in the division of the Palaeolithic Age into various epochs or sequences according to the faunas associated with the implements or the localities where found. One classification makes three divisions for the epoch, characterized respectively by the existence of the cavebear, the mammoth and reindeer; another, two, marked by the prevalence of the mammoth and reindeer respectively. These divisions are, however, unsatisfactory, as the fauna relied on as characteristic must have existed synchronously. The four epochs or culture-sequences of G. de Mortillet have met with the most general acceptance. They are called from the places in France where the most typical finds of palaeolithic remains have been made - Chellian from Chelles, a few miles east of Paris; Mousterian from the cave of Moustier on the river V ezere, Dordogne; Solutrian from the cave at Solutre near Macon; and Madelenian from the rocky shelter of La Madeleine, Dordogne.

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File:Bifaz de Atapuerca (TG10).jpg
Two sides of a stone hand axe: Spain 350kya

[[File:|thumb|180px|A group of typical hand axes]]

File:Burins and blades - Bernifal - Meyrals -
Later Palaeolithic blades made by Homo sapiens

The Palaeolithic, (or Paleolithic),[1] refers to the prehistoric period when stone tools were made by humans. They are found in the Rift Valley of Africa from about 2.6 million years ago. They are found in Europe somewhat later, from about 1 mya (0.7mya for Britain). The Palaeolithic is by far the longest period of humanity's time, about 99% of human history.[2] The geological period which corresponds to the Palaeolithic is the Pleistocene.

Stone tools were not only made by our own species, Homo sapiens. They were made by all previous members of the genus, starting with relatively crude tools made by Homo habilis and Homo erectus. In Europe, the large-brained Neanderthal Man (Homo neanderthalensis) made tools of high quality, and was in turn outshone by the many tools made by our own species. These tools are the first cultural products which have survived.[3][4]

The Palaeolithic dates from about 2.6 million years ago [2][5] and ended around 15,000BC with the Mesolithic in Western Europe, and with the Epipaleolithic in warmer climates such as Africa.[6][7][8] The Palaeolithic age began when hominids (early humans) started to use stones as tools for bashing, cutting and scraping. The age ended when humans began to make small, fine tools (Mesolithic) and finally when plant crops and have other types of agriculture (Neolithic). In some areas, such as Western Europe, the way that people lived was affected by the Ice age. The move towards agriculture started in the Middle East.

During the Palaeolithic Age humans grouped together in small bands. They lived by gathering plants and hunting wild animals.[9] As well as using stone tools, they used tools of wood and bone. They probably also used leather and vegetable fibers but these have not lasted from that time.




The Oldowan is the archaeological term used to refer to the stone tool industry that was used by Hominids during the earliest Palaeolithic period. The Oldowan is the earliest stone tool industry in prehistory, from 2.6 million years ago up until 1.7 million years ago. It was followed by the more sophisticated Acheulean industry. Oldowan tools were therefore the earliest tools in human history, and mark the beginning of the archaeological record. The term "Oldowan" is taken from the site of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where the first Oldowan tools were discovered by the archaeologist Louis Leakey in the 1930s.

It is not known for sure which species actually created and used Oldowan tools. It reached its peak with early species of Homo such as H. habilis and H. ergaster. Early Homo erectus appears to inherit Oldowan technology and refines it into the Acheulean industry beginning 1.7 million years ago.[10] Oldowan tools are sometimes called pebble tools, so named because the blanks chosen for their production already resemble, in pebble form, the final product.[11] Oldowan tools are sometimes subdivided into types, such as chopper, scrapers and pounders, as these appear to have been their main uses.[12]


Acheulean is the industry of stone tool manufacture by early humans of the Lower Palaeolithic era in Africa and much of West Asia and Europe. Acheulean tools are typically found with Homo erectus remains. They are first developed out of the more primitive Oldowan technology some 1.8 million years ago, by Homo habilis.

It was the dominant technology for the vast majority of human history. More than a million years ago Acheulean tool users left Africa to colonize Eurasia.[3] Their distinctive oval and pear-shaped hand axes have been found over a wide area. Some examples attained a very high level of sophistication. Although it developed in Africa, the industry is named after the type site of Saint-Acheul, now a suburb of Amiens in northern France where some of the first examples were identified in the 19th century.

John Frere is generally credited as being the first to suggest a very ancient date for Acheulean hand-axes. In 1797 he sent two examples to the Royal Academy in London from Hoxne in Suffolk. He had found them in prehistoric lake deposits along with the bones of extinct animals and concluded that they were made by people "who had not the use of metals" and that they belonged to a "very ancient period indeed, even beyond the present world". His ideas were ignored by his contemporaries however, who subscribed to a pre-Darwinian view of human evolution.

Dating the Acheulean

]] Radiometric dating, often potassium-argon dating, of deposits containing Acheulean material is able to broadly place Acheulean techniques from around 1.65 million years ago[4] to about 100,000 years ago.[5] The earliest accepted examples of the type, at 1.65 m years old, come from the West Turkana region of Kenya[6] although some have argued for its emergence from as early as 1.8 million years ago.[7]

In individual regions, this dating can be considerably refined; in Europe for example, Acheulean methods did not reach the continent until around 400 thousand years ago and in smaller study areas, the date ranges can be much shorter. Numerical dates can be misleading however, and it is common to associate examples of this early human tool industry with one or more glacial or interglacial periods or with a particular early species of human. The earliest user of Acheulean tools was Homo ergaster who first appeared about 1.8 million years ago. Not all researchers use this formal name however and instead prefer to call these users early Homo erectus.[8] Later forms of early humans also used Acheulean techniques and are described below.

There is considerable chronological overlap in early prehistoric stone-working industries and in some regions Acheulean tool-using groups were contemporary with other, less sophisticated industries such as the Clactonian[9] and then later, with the more sophisticated Mousterian also. The Acheulean was not a neatly defined period, but a tool-making technique which flourished especially well in early prehistory. The term Acheulean does not represent a common culture in the modern sense, rather it is a basic method for making stone tools that was shared across much of the Old World.


A huge Clactonian core made of quartzite. Quite small flakes would be struck off it.

The Clactonian is an industry of European flint tool manufacture that dates to the early part of the interglacial period 400,000 years ago. [13] Clactonian tools were made by Homo erectus rather than modern humans. Early, crude flint tools from other regions using similar methods are called either Clactonian or core & flake technology.

The Clactonian is named after finds made at Clacton-on-Sea in the English county of Essex in 1911. The artefacts found there included flint chopping tools, flint flakes and the tip of a worked wooden shaft along with the remains of a giant elephant and hippopotamus. Further examples of the tools have been found at sites in Swanscombe, Kent, and Barnham in Suffolk; similar industries have been identified across Northern Europe.

The Clactonian industry involved striking thick, irregular flakes from a core of flint, which was then employed as a chopper. The flakes would have been used as crude knives or scrapers. Unlike the Oldowan tools from which Clactonian ones derived, some were notched implying that they were attached to a handle or shaft.

The Clactonian industry may have co-existed with the Acheulean industry, which used identical basic techniques but which also had handaxe technology; tools made by bifacially working a flint core. However, the 2004 excavation of a butchered Pleistocene elephant at the Southfleet Road site of High Speed 1 in Kent recovered numerous Clactonian flint tools but no handaxes. A handaxe would have been more useful than a chopper in dismembering an elephant carcass, so this is evidence of the Clactonian being a separate industry. Flint of sufficient quality was available in the area and probably the people who carved up the elephant did not possess the knowledge to make the more advanced bifacial handaxe.


The Mousterian is an industry of stone tools associated with Neanderthal Man, Homo neanderthalensis. It dates from about 300,000 years to about 30,000 years ago. There are up to thirty types of tools in the Mousterian as contrasted with about six in the Acheulean.

The Mousterian was named after the type site of Le Moustier, a rock shelter in the Dordogne region of France.[14] Similar flintwork has been found all over unglaciated Europe and also the Near East and North Africa. Handaxes, long blades and points typify the industry. Overall, the items are more perfectly finished than any previous work. The method used to get the blades and flakes is called the Levallois technique. It is a prepared-core technique: the core is worked on so that a long, fine blade can be struck off. For this quality of work, a 'soft' hammer made of something like deer antler is necessary, rather than a stone hammer. The extra brain size of the Neanderthals is probably relevant to these advances.

The cultures which follow the Mousterian are all cultures of modern humans, Homo sapiens. It is characteristic of our species to produce many more tools, all specialised for particular tasks. There are at least 100 types of tools in the Upper Palaeolithic compared to a maximum of 30 tools in the Mousterian.

Chronology of Palaeolithic and following periods

The Palaeolithic is sometimes divided into three (somewhat overlapping) periods which mark technological and cultural advances in different human communities:

  • Palaeolithic
    • Lower Palaeolithic (c2.6 or 2.5 million years ago–100,000 years ago)[2][15]
    • Middle Palaeolithic (c300,000–30,000 years ago)[16]
    • Upper Palaeolithic (c45,000 or 40,000–10,000 years ago).[16]

After the Palaeolithic follows the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, which marks the end of Stone Age. The Bronze Age and the Iron Age come right after the Stone Age.

Overview of the main features of these periods

Age Period Tools Economy Dwelling Sites Society Religion
Stone age Palaeolithic Tools: sharpened flint or stone tools: hand axes, scrapers, wooden spears Hunting and gathering Mobile lifestyle – caves, huts, tooth or skin hovels, mostly by rivers and lakes Tribes of plant gatherers and hunters (25-100 people) Evidence for belief in the afterlife in the Upper Palaeolithic: appearance of burial rituals and ancestor worship. Priests and sanctuary servants appear in prehistory.
Mesolithic (known as the Epipalaeolithic in areas with no trend towards agricultural lifestyles) Fine small tools: bow and arrow, harpoons, fish-basket, boats Tribes and Bands
Neolithic Tools: chisel, hoe, plough, reaping-hook, grain pourer, barley, loom, pottery and weapons Agriculture, Hunting and gathering, fishing and domestication Farmsteads during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age Formation of cities during the Bronze Age Tribes and chiefdoms in some Neolithic societies at the end of the Neolithic. States and civilisations during the Bronze Age.
Bronze Age Writing; copper and bronze tools, potter's wheel Agriculture; cattle-breeding; crafts, trade
Iron Age Iron tools

Venus figurines

File:Venus von Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf is a well-known figurine. It was made about 25.000 years ago

Possibly among the earliest traces of art are Venus figurines. These are figurines (very small statues) of women, mostly pregnant with visible breasts. The figurines were found in areas of Western Europe to Siberia. Most are between 20,000 and 30,000 years old. Two figurines have been found that are much older: the Venus of Tan-Tan, dated to 300,000 to 500,000 years ago was found in Morocco. The Venus of Berekhat Ram was found on the Golan Heights. It has been dated to 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. It may be the one of the earliest things that show the human form.

Different kinds of stone, bones and ivory were used to make the figurines. Some are also made of clay which was then burned in a fire. This is one of the earliest known traces of the use of ceramics.

Today it is not known what the figurines meant to the people who made them. There are two basic theories:

  • They may be representations of human fertility, or they may have been made to help it.
  • They may represent (fertility) goddesses.

Scientists have excluded that these figurines were linked to the fertility of fields, because agriculture had not been discovered at the time the figurines were made.

The two figurines that are older may have mostly formed by natural processes. The Venus of Tan-Tan was covered with a substance that could have been some kind of paint.[17] The substance contained traces of iron and manganese.[17] The figurine of Berekhat Ram shows traces that someone worked on it with a tool. A study done in 1997 states that these traces could not have been left by nature alone.[18]

Cave paintings

Cave paintings are paintings that were made on the walls or roofs of caves. Many cave paintings belong to the Palaeolothic Age, and date from about 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. Among the most famous are those in the caves of Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France.[3]p545 There are about 350 caves in Europe where cave paintings have been found. Usually, animals have been painted, like aurochs, bisons or horses. Why these paintings were done is not known. They are not simply decorations of places where people lived. The caves they were found in usually do not show signs that someone lived in them. [[File:|thumb|200px|left|A horse, from Lascaux caves, in France, about 16.000 years old]] One of the oldest caves is that of Chauvet in France. Paintings in the cave fall into two groups. One has been dated to around 30,000 to 33,000 years ago, the other to 26,000 or 27,000 years ago.[3]p546 The oldest known cave paintings, based on radiocarbon dating of "black from drawings, from torch marks and from the floors".[19] As of 1999, the dates of 31 samples from the cave have been reported. The oldest paintings have been dated from 32,900±490 years ago.[20][21]

Some archaeologists have questioned the dating. Züchner believe the two groups date from 23,000–24,000, and 10,000–18,000 years ago.[22] Pettitt and Bahn believe the dating is inconsistent. They say the people at that periods of time painted things differently. They also do not know where the charcoal used to paint some things is from, and how big the painted area is.[23]

People from the Palaeolithic era drew well. They knew about perspective, and they knew of different ways to draw things. They also were able to observe the behavior of animals they painted. Some of the paintings show how the painted animals behaved. The paintings may have had a importance for rituals.


  1. Ancient Greek: palaios = old; and lithos = stone. Coined by John Lubbock in 1865.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick (2007). Handbook of Paleoanthropology. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. pp. 1963. ISBN 978-3-540-32474-4 (Print) 978-3-540-33761-4 (Online). 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Klein, Richard G. 2009. The human career: human biological and cultural origins. 3rd ed, Chicago.
  4. Hosfield R.T., Wenban-Smith F.F. & Pope M.I. 2009. Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859–2009. Lithics 30.
  5. Grolier Incorporated (1989). The Encyclopedia Americana. University of Michigan: Grolier Incorporated. p. 542. ISBN ISBN 0-7172-0120-1. 
  6. Mesolithic Period. 2008. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 10, 2008, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  7. "Stone Age," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. Contributed by Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth
  8. Grolier Incorporated (1989). The Encyclopedia Americana. University of Michigan: Grolier Incorporated. p. 542. ISBN ISBN 0-7172-0120-1. 
  9. McClellan (2006). Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction. Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press. ISBN 0-8018-8360-1.  Page 6-12
  10. [1].
  11. Napier, John. 1960. Fossil hand bones from Olduvai Gorge. Nature, December 17th.
  12. Vrba E. & Y.H.-Selassie 1994. African Homo erectus: old radiometric ages and young Oldowan assemblages in the middle Awash Valley, Ethiopia. Science 264: 1907-1909.
  13. known as the Hoxnian, the Mindel-Riss or the Holstein stage
  14. [2] Smithsonian: Middle Stone Age tools.
  15. Grolier Incorporated (1989). The Encyclopedia Americana. University of Michigan: Grolier Incorporated. p. 542. ISBN ISBN 0-7172-0120-1. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Miller, Barbra; Bernard Wood, Andrew Balansky, Julio Mercader, Melissa Panger (2006). Anthropology. Boston Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon. pp. 768. ISBN 0205320244. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 "'Oldest sculpture' found in Morocco". BBC News online. 23 May 2003. 
  18. Alexander Marshack (1997). "The Berekhat Ram figurine: a late Acheulian carving from the Middle East" (pdf). 
  19. Quotes from Clottes 2003b p214.
  20. Archaeologists sometimes use the phrase "B.P." (before the present day) to mean "years ago"
  21. Clottes 2003b p33. The oldest is sample Gifa 99776 from "zone 10". See also Chauvet (1996 p131, for a chronology of dates from various caves. Bahn's foreword and Clottes' epilogue to Chauvet 1996 discuss dating.
  22. Züchner, Christian (September 1998). "Grotte Chauvet Archaeologically Dated". Communication at the International Rock Art Congress IRAC ´98. Retrieved 2007-12-23. 
    Clottes (2003b), pp. 213-214, has a response by Clottes.
  23. Pettitt, Paul; Paul Bahn (March 2003). "Current problems in dating Palaeolithic cave art: Candamo and Chauvet". Antiquity 77 (295): 134–141. 


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  • Christopher Boehm 1999. "Hierarchy in the forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior" page 198 Harvard University Press.
  • Leften Stavros Stavrianos 1991. A global history from prehistory to the present. New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-357005-3
  • Bahn, Paul 1996. The atlas of world archeology. The Brown Reference Group PLC.

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