Paleolithic or Palaeolithic /ˌpæliːəˈlɪθɪk/ is a period in
human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone
tools that covers c. 95% of human technological prehistory. It
extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins c.
3.3 million years ago, to the end of the
11,650 cal BP.
Paleolithic is followed in Europe by the Mesolithic, although the
date of the transition varies geographically by several thousand
During the Paleolithic, hominins grouped together in small societies
such as bands, and subsisted by gathering plants and fishing, hunting
or scavenging wild animals. 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.
About 50,000 years ago, there was a marked increase in the diversity
of artifacts. In Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in
the archaeological record. The first evidence of human fishing is also
noted, from artifacts in places such as
Blombos cave in South Africa.
Archaeologists classify artifacts of the last 50,000 years into many
different categories, such as projectile points, engraving tools,
knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools.
Humankind gradually evolved from early members of the genus
Homo habilis, who used simple stone tools—into
anatomically modern humans as well as behaviorally modern humans by
the Upper Paleolithic. During the end of the Paleolithic,
specifically the Middle and or Upper Paleolithic, humans began to
produce the earliest works of art and began to engage in religious and
spiritual behavior such as burial and ritual. The climate during
Paleolithic consisted of a set of glacial and interglacial periods
in which the climate periodically fluctuated between warm and cool
temperatures. Archaeological and genetic data suggest that the source
Paleolithic humans survived in sparsely wooded areas
and dispersed through areas of high primary productivity while
avoiding dense forest cover.
By c. 50,000 – c. 40,000 BP, the first humans set foot
in Australia. By c. 45,000 BP, humans lived at 61°N latitude
in Europe. By c. 30,000 BP, Japan was reached, and by
c. 27,000 BP humans were present in Siberia, above the Arctic
Circle. At the end of the Upper Paleolithic, a group of humans
Beringia and quickly expanded throughout the Americas.
The term "Palaeolithic" was coined by archaeologist John Lubbock in
1865. It derives from Greek: παλαιός, palaios, "old"; and
λίθος, lithos, "stone", meaning "old age of the stone" or "Old
1 Paleogeography and climate
2 Human way of life
2.2.2 Fire use
2.2.4 Advanced tools
2.2.5 Other inventions
2.3 Social organization
2.4 Sculpture and painting
Religion and beliefs
2.7 Diet and nutrition
3 See also
5 External links
Paleogeography and climate
view • discuss • edit
Earliest stone tools
Earliest exit from Africa
Earliest fire use
Earliest in Europe
Axis scale: million years
Also see: Life timeline and Nature timeline
Pleistocene § Paleogeography and climate,
Pliocene climate, and
Pliocene § Paleogeography
This skull, of
Homo heidelbergensis, a
Lower Paleolithic predecessor
Homo neanderthalensis and possibly
Homo sapiens, dates to sometime
between 500,000 and 400,000 BP.
Paleolithic coincides almost exactly with the
Pleistocene epoch of
geologic time, which lasted from 2.6 million years ago to about
12,000 years ago. This epoch experienced important geographic and
climatic changes that affected human societies.
During the preceding Pliocene, continents had continued to drift from
possibly as far as 250 km (160 mi) from their present
locations to positions only 70 km (43 mi) 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 during the
Pliocene to connect the
continents of North and South America, allowing fauna from these
continents to leave their native habitats and colonize new areas.
Africa's collision with Asia created the Mediterranean, 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
(62 mi) from each other since the beginning of the period.
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 million years ago is
signaled by an abrupt shift in oxygen isotope ratios and ice-rafted
cobbles in the North Atlantic and North
Pacific Ocean beds.
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
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
1,500–3,000 m (4,900–9,800 ft) deep, resulting in
temporary sea level drops of 100 m (330 ft) 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 great mammals such as woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and
cave lions inhabited the mammoth steppe during the Pleistocene.
The effects of glaciation were global.
Antarctica was ice-bound
Pleistocene and the preceding Pliocene. The
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
Cordilleran ice sheet covered the North American
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
the Arctic shelf. The northern seas were frozen. During the late Upper
Paleolithic (Latest Pleistocene) c. 18,000 BP, the Beringia
land bridge between Asia and
North America was blocked by ice,
which may have prevented early
Paleo-Indians such as the Clovis
culture from directly crossing
Beringia to reach the Americas.
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.
Paleolithic is often held to finish at the end of the ice age (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 overhunting by humans. New research suggests that
the extinction of the woolly mammoth may have been caused by the
combined effect of climatic change and human hunting. Scientists
suggest that climate change during the end of the
the mammoths' habitat to shrink in size, resulting in a drop in
population. The small populations were then hunted out by Paleolithic
humans. 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. Small populations of wooly mammoths survived on
isolated Arctic islands, Saint Paul Island and Wrangel Island, until
c. 3700 BCE and c. 1700 BCE respectively. The Wrangel
Island population became extinct around the same time the island was
settled by prehistoric humans. There is no evidence of prehistoric
human presence on Saint Paul island (though early human settlements
dating as far back as 6500 BCE were found on the nearby Aleutian
Currently agreed upon classifications as
Tirreniense II y III
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)
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
Paleolithic predecessors. The economy of a typical
Paleolithic society was a hunter-gatherer economy. Humans hunted
wild animals for meat and gathered food, firewood, and materials for
their tools, clothes, or shelters.
Human population density was very low, around only one person per
square mile. This was most likely due to low body fat, infanticide,
women regularly engaging in intense endurance exercise, late
weaning of infants, and a nomadic lifestyle. Like contemporary
Paleolithic humans enjoyed an abundance of leisure
time unparalleled in both
Neolithic farming societies and modern
industrial societies. 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
At the beginning of the Paleolithic, hominins were found primarily in
eastern Africa, east of the Great Rift Valley. Most known hominin
fossils dating earlier than one million years before present are found
in this area, particularly in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
By c. 2,000,000 – c. 1,500,000 BP, groups of hominins
began leaving Africa and settling southern Europe and Asia. Southern
Caucasus was occupied by c. 1,700,000 BP, and northern China
was reached by c. 1,660,000 BP. By the end of the Lower
Paleolithic, members of the hominin family were living in what is now
China, western Indonesia, and, in Europe, around the Mediterranean and
as far north as England, southern Germany, and Bulgaria. Their further
northward expansion may have been limited by the lack of control of
fire: studies of cave settlements in Europe indicate no regular use of
fire prior to c. 400,000 – c. 300,000 BP.
East Asian fossils from this period are typically placed in the genus
Homo erectus. Very little fossil evidence is available at known Lower
Paleolithic sites in Europe, but it is believed that hominins who
inhabited these sites were likewise
Homo erectus. There is no evidence
of hominins in America, Australia, or almost anywhere in Oceania
during this time period.
Fates of these early colonists, and their relationships to modern
humans, are still subject to debate. According to current
archaeological and genetic models, there were at least two notable
expansion events subsequent to peopling of Eurasia
c. 2,000,000 – c. 1,500,000 BP. Around 500,000 BP
a group of early humans, frequently called
Homo heidelbergensis, came
to Europe from Africa and eventually evolved into Homo
neanderthalensis (Neanderthals). In the Middle Paleolithic,
Neanderthals were present in the region now occupied by Poland.
Homo erectus and
Homo neanderthalensis became extinct by the end
of the Paleolithic. Descended from
Homo Sapiens, the anatomically
Homo sapiens sapiens emerged in eastern Africa
c. 200,000 BP, left Africa around 50,000 BP, and expanded
throughout the planet. Multiple hominid groups coexisted for some time
in certain locations.
Homo neanderthalensis were still found in parts
of Eurasia c. 30,000 BP years, and engaged in an unknown degree
of interbreeding with
Homo sapiens sapiens.
DNA studies also suggest
an unknown degree of interbreeding between
Homo sapiens sapiens and
Homo sapiens denisova.
Hominin fossils not belonging either to
Homo neanderthalensis or to
Homo sapiens species, found in the
Altai Mountains and Indonesia, were
radiocarbon dated to c. 30,000 – c. 40,000 BP and
c. 17,000 BP respectively.
For the duration of the Paleolithic, human populations remained low,
especially outside the equatorial region. The entire population of
Europe between 16,000 and 11,000 BP likely averaged some 30,000
individuals, and between 40,000 and 16,000 BP, it was even lower
at 4,000–6,000 individuals.
Lower Paleolithic biface viewed from both its superior and inferior
Stone ball from a set of
Paleolithic humans made tools of stone, bone, and wood. The early
paleolithic hominins, Australopithecus, were the first users of stone
tools. Excavations in Gona,
Ethiopia have produced thousands of
artifacts, and through radioisotopic dating and magnetostratigraphy,
the sites can be firmly dated to 2.6 million years ago. Evidence
shows these early hominins intentionally selected raw materials with
good flaking qualities and chose appropriate sized stones for their
needs to produce sharp-edged tools for cutting.
Paleolithic stone tool industry, the Oldowan, began
around 2.6 million years ago. It contained tools such as
choppers, burins, and stitching awls. It was completely replaced
around 250,000 years ago by the more complex
Acheulean industry, which
was first conceived by
Homo ergaster around 1.8–1.65 million
years ago. The
Acheulean implements completely vanish from the
archaeological record around 100,000 years ago and were replaced by
Middle Paleolithic tool kits such as the
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, to flaking cores,
to the use in traps, and as a purely ritual significance, perhaps in
William H. Calvin
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 waterhole 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
scrapers 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,
Lower Paleolithic humans constructed shelters, such as the
possible wood hut at Terra Amata.
Fire was used by the
Lower Paleolithic hominins
Homo erectus and Homo
ergaster as early as 300,000 to 1.5 million years ago and
possibly even earlier by the early
Lower Paleolithic (Oldowan) hominin
Homo habilis and/or by robust Australopithecines such as
Paranthropus. However, the use of fire only became common in the
societies of the following Middle
Stone Age and Middle Paleolithic.
Use of fire reduced mortality rates and provided protection against
predators. Early hominins 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). Some scientists have hypothesized that hominins began
cooking food to defrost frozen meat, which would help ensure their
survival in cold regions.
Homo erectus possibly invented rafts
(c. 840,000 – c. 800,000 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 hominin Homo
floresiensis. However, this hypothesis is disputed within the
anthropological community. The possible use of rafts during
Lower Paleolithic may indicate that
Lower Paleolithic hominins
Homo erectus were more advanced than previously believed, and
may have even spoken an early form of modern language.
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.
By 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. This
technique increased efficiency by allowing the creation of more
controlled and consistent flakes. 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 70,000–65,000 BP and were essential to the invention of
bows and spear throwers in the following Upper Paleolithic.
Harpoons were invented and used for the first time during the late
Middle Paleolithic (c. 90,000 BP); the invention of these
devices brought fish into the human diets, which provided a hedge
against starvation and a more abundant food supply. 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. and the Neanderthals in particular may
have likewise hunted with projectile weapons. 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
During the Upper Paleolithic, further inventions were made, such as
the net c. 22,000 or c. 29,000 BP) bolas, the spear
thrower (c. 30,000 BP), the bow and arrow (c. 25,000 or
c. 30,000 BP) and the oldest example of ceramic art, the
Venus of Dolní Věstonice
Venus of Dolní Věstonice (c. 29,000 –
c. 25,000 BCE). Early dogs were domesticated, sometime
between 30,000 and 14,000 BP, presumably to aid in hunting.
However, the earliest instances of successful domestication of dogs
may be much more ancient than this. Evidence from canine
by Robert K. Wayne suggests that dogs may have been first domesticated
in the late
Middle Paleolithic around 100,000 BP or perhaps even
Archaeological 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 Neolithic.
Upper Paleolithic cultures were probably able to time the migration of
game animals such as wild horses and deer. This ability allowed
humans to become efficient hunters and to exploit a wide variety of
game animals. Recent research indicates that the Neanderthals
timed their hunts and the migrations of game animals long before the
beginning of the Upper Paleolithic.
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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) societies remains largely unknown to scientists, though
Lower Paleolithic hominins such as
Homo habilis and
Homo erectus are
likely to have had more complex social structures than chimpanzee
societies. Late Oldowan/Early
Acheulean humans such as Homo
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; however, the earliest solid
evidence for the existence of home bases or central campsites (hearths
and shelters) among humans only dates back to 500,000 years
Similarly, scientists disagree whether
Lower Paleolithic humans were
largely monogamous or polygynous. 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
Lower Paleolithic humans such as
Homo erectus than in
modern humans, who are less polygynous than other primates, which
Lower Paleolithic humans had a largely polygynous
lifestyle, because species that have the most pronounced sexual
dimorphism tend more likely to be polygynous.
Human societies from the
Paleolithic to the early
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, though during the end of the Lower
Paleolithic, the latest populations of the hominin
Homo erectus may
have begun living in small-scale (possibly egalitarian) bands similar
to both Middle and
Upper Paleolithic societies and modern
Middle Paleolithic societies, unlike
Lower Paleolithic and early
Neolithic ones, consisted of bands that ranged from 20–30 or
25–100 members and were usually nomadic. 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. By the end of the
Paleolithic era (c. 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) and raw materials, as early as 120,000 years ago in
Middle Paleolithic. 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). Like in modern hunter-gatherer societies,
Paleolithic societies may have been subordinate to the
band as a whole. Both Neanderthals and modern humans took care
of the elderly members of their societies during the Middle and Upper
Some sources claim that most Middle and
Upper Paleolithic societies
were possibly fundamentally egalitarian and may have
rarely or never engaged in organized violence between groups (i.e.
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.
Some argue that there was no formal leadership during the Middle and
Upper Paleolithic. Like contemporary egalitarian hunter-gatherers such
as the Mbuti pygmies, societies may have made decisions by communal
consensus decision making rather than by appointing permanent rulers
such as chiefs and monarchs. 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. 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. 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. 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.
Anthropologists have typically assumed that in
women were responsible for gathering wild plants and firewood, and men
were responsible for hunting and scavenging dead animals.
However, analogies to existent hunter-gatherer societies such as the
Hadza people and the Aboriginal Austrialians 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. Additionally, recent research by
anthropologist and archaeologist Steven Kuhn from the University of
Arizona is argued to support that this division of labor did not exist
prior to the
Upper Paleolithic and was invented relatively recently in
human pre-history. Sexual division of labor may have been
developed to allow humans to acquire food and other resources more
efficiently. 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.
Archaeological evidence from art and funerary rituals indicates that a
number of individual women enjoyed seemingly high status in their
communities, and it is likely that both sexes participated in decision
making. The earliest known
(c. 30,000 BP) was female.
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. 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 Neolithic.
Sculpture and painting
Venus of Willendorf
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
from Middle Paleolithic/Middle
Stone Age sites such as Blombos Cave
–South Africa– in the form of bracelets, beads, rock
art, and ochre used as body paint and perhaps in ritual.
Undisputed evidence of art only becomes common in the Upper
Acheulean tool users, according to Robert G.
Bednarik, began to engage in symbolic behavior such as art around
850,000 BP. They decorated themselves with beads and collected
exotic stones for aesthetic, rather than utilitarian qualities.
According to him, traces of the pigment ochre from late Lower
Acheulean archaeological sites suggests that Acheulean
societies, like later
Upper Paleolithic societies, collected and used
ochre to create rock art. Nevertheless, it is also possible that
the ochre traces found at
Lower Paleolithic sites is naturally
Vincent W. Fallio interprets Lower and
Middle Paleolithic marking on
rocks at sites such as Bilzingsleben (such as zigzagging lines) as
accounts or representations of altered states of consciousness
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. 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
Cave paintings have been interpreted in a number of ways
by modern archaeologists. The earliest explanation, by the
prehistorian Abbe Breuil, interpreted the paintings as a form of magic
designed to ensure a successful hunt. 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.
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
Venus figurines have evoked similar controversy.
Archaeologists 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
R. Dale Guthrie 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.
Bradshaw rock paintings
Bradshaw rock paintings found in the north-west Kimberley region of
The "Venus" figurines have been theorized, not universally, as
representing a mother goddess; the abundance of such female imagery
has inspired the theory that
Paleolithic (and later Neolithic)
societies centered their religion and societies around women.
Adherents of the theory include archaeologist
Marija Gimbutas and
feminist scholar Merlin Stone, the author of the 1976 book When God
Was a Woman. Other explanations for the purpose of the
figurines have been proposed, such as Catherine McCoid and LeRoy
McDermott's hypothesis that they were self-portraits of woman
artists and R.Dale Gutrie's hypothesis that served as "stone age
The origins of music during the
Paleolithic are unknown. The earliest
forms of music probably did not use musical instruments other than the
human voice and/or natural objects such as rocks. This early music
would not have left an archaeological footprint. Music may have
developed from rhythmic sounds produced by daily chores, for example,
cracking open nuts with stones. Maintaining a rhythm while working may
have helped people to become more efficient at daily activities.
An alternative theory originally proposed by
Charles Darwin explains
that music may have begun as a hominin mating strategy. Bird and other
animal species produce music such as calls to attract mates. This
hypothesis is generally less accepted than the previous hypothesis,
but nonetheless provides a possible alternative. Another explanation
is that humans began to make music simply because it pleased them.
Upper Paleolithic (and possibly Middle Paleolithic) humans used
flute-like bone pipes as musical instruments, and music may
have played a large role in the religious lives of Upper Paleolithic
hunter-gatherers. As with 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
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
Religion and beliefs
Picture of a half-human, half-animal being in a
painting in Dordogne. France. Some archaeologists believe that cave
paintings of half-human, half-animal beings may be evidence for early
shamanic practices during the Paleolithic.
According to James B. Harrod humankind first developed religious and
spiritual beliefs during the
Middle Paleolithic or Upper
Paleolithic. 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 or Early Lower Paleolithic
(Oldowan) societies. 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.
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
archaeologists, 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". 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 archaeological
Homo 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
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 archaeological evidence from Middle
Paleolithic caves) that a bear cult was widespread among Middle
Paleolithic Neanderthals. A claim that evidence was found for
Middle Paleolithic animal worship c. 70,000 BCE originates from
Tsodilo Hills in the African Kalahari desert has been denied by
the original investigators of the site. Animal cults in the Upper
Paleolithic, such as the bear cult, may have had their origins in
Middle Paleolithic animal cults. Animal worship
Upper Paleolithic was intertwined with hunting rites.
For instance, archaeological evidence from art and bear remains
reveals that the bear cult apparently involved a type of sacrificial
bear ceremonialism, in which a bear was sliced with arrows, finished
off by a blast in the lungs, and ritualistically worshipped near a
clay bear statue covered by a bear fur with the skull and the body of
the bear buried separately. 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
Mesolithic or late Upper Paleolithic.
The existence of anthropomorphic images and half-human, half-animal
images in the
Upper Paleolithic may further indicate that Upper
Paleolithic humans were the first people to believe in a pantheon of
gods or supernatural beings, though such images may instead
indicate shamanistic practices similar to those of contemporary tribal
societies. 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. 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. 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
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. 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 folk religion and elite
Religion was possibly apotropaic; specifically, it may have involved
sympathetic magic. The Venus figurines, which are abundant in the
Upper Paleolithic archaeological record, provide an example of
Paleolithic sympathetic magic, as they may have been used for
ensuring success in hunting and to bring about fertility of the land
and women. The
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. James Harrod has described them as representative of
female (and male) shamanistic spiritual transformation processes.
Diet and nutrition
People may have first fermented grapes in animal skin pouches to
create wine during the
Pleistocene human diet
Paleolithic hunting and gathering people ate varying proportions of
vegetables (including tubers and roots), fruit, seeds (including nuts
and wild grass seeds) and insects, meat, fish, and shellfish.
However, there is little direct evidence of the relative proportions
of plant and animal foods. Although the term "paleolithic diet",
without references to a specific timeframe or locale, is sometimes
used with an implication that most humans shared a certain diet during
the entire era, that is not entirely accurate. The
Paleolithic was an
extended period of time, during which multiple technological advances
were made, many of which had impact on human dietary structure. For
example, humans probably did not possess the control of fire until the
Middle Paleolithic, or tools necessary to engage in extensive
fishing. On the other hand, both these technologies
are generally agreed to have been widely available to humans by the
end of the
Paleolithic (consequently, allowing humans in some regions
of the planet to rely heavily on fishing and hunting). In addition,
Paleolithic involved a substantial geographical expansion of human
populations. During the Lower Paleolithic, ancestors of modern humans
are thought to have been constrained to Africa east of the Great Rift
Valley. During the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, humans greatly
expanded their area of settlement, reaching ecosystems as diverse as
New Guinea and Alaska, and adapting their diets to whatever local
resources were available.
Another view is that until the Upper Paleolithic, humans were
frugivores (fruit eaters) who supplemented their meals with carrion,
eggs, and small prey such as baby birds and mussels, and only on rare
occasions managed to kill and consume big game such as antelopes.
This view is supported by studies of higher apes, particularly
chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are the closest to humans genetically,
sharing more than 96% of their
DNA code with humans, and their
digestive tract is functionally very similar to that of humans.
Chimpanzees are primarily frugivores, but they could and would consume
and digest animal flesh, given the opportunity. In general, their
actual diet in the wild is about 95% plant-based, with the remaining
5% filled with insects, eggs, and baby animals. In some
ecosystems, however, chimpanzees are predatory, forming parties to
hunt monkeys. Some comparative studies of human and higher
primate digestive tracts do suggest that humans have evolved to obtain
greater amounts of calories from sources such as animal foods,
allowing them to shrink the size of the gastrointestinal tract
relative to body mass and to increase the brain mass
Anthropologists have diverse opinions about the proportions of plant
and animal foods consumed. Just as with still existing hunters and
gatherers, there were many varied "diets"—in different groups—and
also varying through this vast amount of time. Some paleolithic
hunter-gatherers consumed a significant amount of meat and possibly
obtained most of their food from hunting, while others are shown
as a primarily plant-based diet, Most, if not all, are believed to
have been opportunistic omnivores. One hypothesis is that
carbohydrate tubers (plant underground storage organs) may have been
eaten in high amounts by pre-agricultural humans.
It is thought that the
Paleolithic diet included as much as
1.65–1.9 kg (3.6–4.2 lb) per day of fruit and
vegetables. The relative proportions of plant and animal foods in
the diets of
Paleolithic people often varied between regions, with
more meat being necessary in colder regions (which weren't populated
by anatomically modern humans until c. 30,000 –
c. 50,000 BP). It is generally agreed that many modern
hunting and fishing tools, such as fish hooks, nets, bows, and
poisons, weren't introduced until the
Upper Paleolithic and possibly
even Neolithic. The only hunting tools widely available to humans
during any significant part of the
Paleolithic were hand-held spears
and harpoons. There's evidence of
Paleolithic people killing and
eating seals and elands as far as c. 100,000 BP. On the other
hand, buffalo bones found in African caves from the same period are
typically of very young or very old individuals, and there's no
evidence that pigs, elephants, or rhinos were hunted by humans at the
Paleolithic peoples suffered less famine and malnutrition than the
Neolithic farming tribes that followed them. This was partly
Paleolithic hunter-gatherers accessed a wider variety natural
foods, which allowed them a more nutritious diet and a decreased risk
of famine. Many of the famines experienced by Neolithic
(and some modern) farmers were caused or amplified by their dependence
on a small number of crops. It is thought that wild foods
can have a significantly different nutritional profile than cultivated
foods. The greater amount of meat obtained by hunting big game
Paleolithic diets than
Neolithic diets may have also
Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to enjoy a more nutritious diet
Neolithic agriculturalists. It has been argued that the
shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture resulted in an
increasing focus on a limited variety of foods, with meat likely
taking a back seat to plants. 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, and
because the average lifespan was shorter than the age of common onset
of these conditions.
Large-seeded legumes were part of the human diet long before the
Neolithic Revolution, as evident from archaeobotanical finds from the
Mousterian layers of Kebara Cave, in Israel. There is evidence
Paleolithic societies were gathering wild cereals for
food use at least as early as 30,000 years ago. However,
seeds—such as grains and beans—were rarely eaten and never in
large quantities on a daily basis. Recent archaeological 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.
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. In particular, bananas and tubers may have been
cultivated as early as 25,000 BP in southeast Asia. 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. Humans also probably consumed hallucinogenic
plants during the Paleolithic. The
Aboriginal Australians 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
Upper Paleolithic diets.
People during the Middle Paleolithic, such as the Neanderthals and
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 in
sites at Pinnacle Point, Africa around 164,000 BP.
Although fishing only became common during the Upper
Paleolithic, 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. For example, the
Homo sapiens in the region now occupied by the
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Democratic Republic of the Congo hunted large 6 ft
(1.8 m)-long catfish with specialized barbed fishing points as
early as 90,000 years ago. The invention of fishing allowed
Upper Paleolithic and later hunter-gatherer societies to become
sedentary or semi-nomadic, which altered their social structures.
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.
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. Cannibalism
in the Lower and
Middle Paleolithic may have occurred because of food
shortages. 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. Nonetheless, it
remains possible that
Paleolithic societies never practiced
cannibalism, and that the damage to recovered human bones was either
the result of excarnation or predation by carnivores such as
saber-toothed cats, lions, and hyenas.
A modern-day diet known as the
Paleolithic diet exists, based on
restricting consumption to the foods presumed to be available to
anatomically modern humans prior to the advent of settled
Late Glacial Maximum
List of archaeological sites by continent and age#Palaeolithic
Origins of society
Settlement of the Americas
Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site
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Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Human Timeline (Interactive) – Smithsonian, National Museum of
Natural History (August 2016).
Donsmaps: a vast repository of
Interactive Timeline Simile/Timemap index of Eurasian sites
Middle Stone Age
Later Stone Age
Bronze Age collapse
Bronze Age Levant
Bronze Age in Romania
History of ferrous metallurgy
List of archaeological periods
List of time periods
New Stone Age
New World crops
Ard / plough
Mortar and pestle
Bow and arrow
Game drive system
Langdale axe industry
British megalith architecture
Nordic megalith architecture
Neolithic long house
Abri de la Madeleine
Alp pile dwellings
Wattle and daub
Megalithic architectural elements
Arts and culture
Art of the Upper Paleolithic
Art of the Middle Paleolithic
Stone Age art
Bradshaw rock paintings
Carved Stone Balls
Cup and ring mark
British Isles and Brittany
Mound Builders culture
Stone box grave
Unchambered long cairn
Origin of language
Divje Babe flute
Origin of religion
Spiritual drug use