The Upper Paleolithic (or Upper Palaeolithic, Late Stone Age) is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. Very broadly, it dates to between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago (the beginning of the Holocene), roughly coinciding with the appearance of behavioral modernity and before the advent of agriculture.
Anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged around 200,000 years ago, although these lifestyles changed very little from that of archaic humans of the Middle Paleolithic, until about 50,000 years ago, when there was a marked increase in the diversity of artefacts. This period coincides with the expansion of modern humans throughout Eurasia, which contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals.
The Upper Paleolithic has the earliest known evidence of organized settlements, in the form of campsites, some with storage pits. Artistic work blossomed, with cave painting, petroglyphs, carvings and engravings on bone or ivory. The first evidence of human fishing is also noted, from artefacts in places such as Blombos cave in South Africa. More complex social groupings emerged, supported by more varied and reliable food sources and specialized tool types. This probably contributed to increasing group identification or ethnicity.
By 50,000–40,000 BP, the first humans set foot in Australia. By 45,000 BP, humans lived at 61° north latitude in Europe. By 30,000 BP, Japan was reached, and by 27,000 BP humans were present in Siberia above the Arctic Circle. At the end of the Upper Paleolithic, a group of humans crossed the Bering land bridge and quickly expanded throughout North and South America.
Lifestyle and technology
Both Homo erectus and Neanderthals used the same crude stone tools. Archaeologist Richard G. Klein, who has worked extensively on ancient stone tools, describes the stone tool kit of archaic hominids as impossible to categorize. It was as if the Neanderthals made stone tools, and were not much concerned about their final forms. He argues that almost everywhere, whether Asia, Africa or Europe, before 50,000 years ago all the stone tools are much alike and unsophisticated.
Firstly among the artefacts of Africa, archeologists found they could differentiate and classify those of less than 50,000 years into many different categories, such as projectile points, engraving tools, knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools. These new stone-tool types have been described as being distinctly differentiated from each other; each tool had a specific purpose. The invaders, commonly referred to as the Cro-Magnons, left many sophisticated stone tools, carved and engraved pieces on bone, ivory and antler, cave paintings and Venus figurines.
The Neanderthals continued to use Mousterian stone tool technology and possibly Chatelperronian technology. These tools disappeared from the archeological record at around the same time the Neanderthals themselves disappeared from the fossil record, about 40,000 years ago. Settlements were often located in narrow valley bottoms, possibly associated with hunting of passing herds of animals. Some of them may have been occupied year round, though more commonly they appear to have been used seasonally; people moved between the sites to exploit different food sources at different times of the year. Hunting was important, and caribou/wild reindeer "may well be the species of single greatest importance in the entire anthropological literature on hunting."
Technological advances included significant developments in flint tool manufacturing, with industries based on fine blades rather than simpler and shorter flakes. Burins and racloirs were used to work bone, antler and hides. Advanced darts and harpoons also appear in this period, along with the fish hook, the oil lamp, rope, and the eyed needle.
The changes in human behavior have been attributed to the changes in climate during the period, which encompasses a number of global temperature drops. This meant a worsening of the already bitter climate of the last glacial period (popularly but incorrectly called the last ice age). Such changes may have reduced the supply of usable timber and forced people to look at other materials. In addition, flint becomes brittle at low temperatures and may not have functioned as a tool.
Some scholars have argued that the appearance of complex or abstract language made these behavior changes possible. The complexity of the new human capabilities hints that humans were less capable of planning or foresight before 40,000 years, while the emergence of cooperative and coherent communication marked a new era of cultural development.
Changes in climate and geography
European LGM refuges, 20,000 BP.
The climate of the period in Europe saw dramatic changes, and included the Last Glacial Maximum, the coldest phase of the last glacial period, which lasted from about 26.5 to 19 kya, being coldest at the end, before a relatively rapid warming (all dates vary somewhat for different areas, and in different studies). During the Maximum, most of Northern Europe was covered by an ice-sheet, forcing human populations into the areas known as Last Glacial Maximum refugia, including modern Italy and the Balkans, parts of the Iberian Peninsula and areas around the Black Sea.
This period saw cultures such as the Solutrean in France and Spain. Human life may have continued on top of the ice sheet, but we know next to nothing about it, and very little about the human life that preceded the European glaciers. In the early part of the period, up to about 30 kya, the Mousterian Pluvial made northern Africa, including the Sahara, well-watered and with lower temperatures than today; after the end of the Pluvial the Sahara became arid.
The Last Glacial Maximum was followed by the Allerød oscillation, a warm and moist global interstadial that occurred around 13.5 to 13.8 kya. Then there was a very rapid onset, perhaps within as little as a decade, of the cold and dry Younger Dryas climate period, giving sub-arctic conditions to much of northern Europe. The Preboreal rise in temperatures also began sharply around 10.3 kya, and by its end around 9.0 kya had brought temperatures nearly to present day levels, although the climate was wetter. This period saw the Upper Paleolithic give way to the start of the following Mesolithic cultural period.
As the glaciers receded sea levels rose; the English Channel, Irish Sea and North Sea were land at this time, and the Black Sea a fresh-water lake. In particular the Atlantic coastline was initially far out to sea in modern terms in most areas, though the Mediterranean coastline has retreated far less, except in the north of the Adriatic and the Aegean. The rise in sea levels continued until at least 7.5 kya (5500 BC), so evidence of human activity along Europe's coasts in the Upper Paleolithic is mostly lost, though some traces have been recovered by fishing boats and marine archaeology, especially from Doggerland, the lost area beneath the North Sea.
Map of findings of Upper Paleolithic art in Europe.
- Numerous Aboriginal stone tools were found in gravel sediments in Castlereagh, Sydney, Australia. At first when these results were new they were controversial, more recently dating of the same strata has revised and corroborated these dates.
- Start of the Mousterian Pluvial in North Africa.
- Earliest evidence of modern humans found in Europe, in Southern Italy.
The Venus of Hohlefels is the oldest undisputed example of a depiction of a human being yet discovered
- Examples of cave art in Spain are dated from around 40,000 BP, making them the oldest examples of art yet discovered in the world (see: Caves of Nerja). Scientists theorise that the paintings may have been made by Neanderthals, rather than by homo sapiens. (BBC) (Science)
- Wall painting with horses, rhinoceroses and aurochs is made at Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardéche gorge, France. Discovered in December 1994.
- Archaeological studies support human presence in the Chek Lap Kok area (now Hong Kong International Airport) from 35,000 to 39,000 years ago.
- Zar, Yataghyeri, Damjili and Taghlar caves in Azerbaijan.
- First evidence of people inhabiting Japan.
- Artifacts suggests early human activity occurred at some point in Canberra, Australia. Archaeological evidence of settlement in the region includes inhabited rock shelters, rock art, burial places, camps and quarry sites, and stone tools and arrangements.
- End of the second Mousterian Pluvial in North Africa.
- Last Glacial Maximum. Mean sea levels are believed to be 110 to 120 metres (360 to 390 ft) lower than present, with the direct implication that many coastal and lower riverine valley archaeological sites of interest are today under water.
- Spotted Horses, Pech Merle cave, Dordogne, France are painted. Discovered in December, 1994.
- Ibex-headed spear-thrower, from Le Mas-d'Azil, Ariège, France, is made. It is now at Musée de la Préhistoire, Le Mas d'Azil.
- Mammoth-bone village in Mezhyrich, Ukraine is inhabited.
- Spotted human hands are painted at Pech Merle cave, Dordogne, France. Discovered in December 1994.
- Oldest Dryas stadial.
- Hall of Bulls at Lascaux in France is painted. Discovered in 1940. Closed to the public in 1963.
- Bird-Headed man with bison and Rhinoceros, Lascaux, is painted.
- Lamp with ibex design, from La Mouthe cave, Dordogne, France, is made. It is now at Musée des Antiquités Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
- Paintings in Cosquer Cave are made, where the cave mouth is now under water at Cap Margiou, France.
- Bølling interstadial.
- Bison, Le Tuc d'Audoubert, Ariège, France.
- Paleo-Indians move across North America, then southward through Central America.
- Pregnant woman and deer (?), from Laugerie-Basse, France was made. It is now at Musée des Antiquités Nationales, St.-Germain-en-Laye.
The Upper Paleolithic in the Franco-Cantabrian region:
- The Châtelperronian culture was located around central and south western France, and northern Spain. It appears to be derived from the Mousterian culture, and represents the period of overlap between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. This culture lasted from approximately 45,000 BP to 40,000 BP.
- The Aurignacian culture was located in Europe and south west Asia, and flourished between 43,000 and 36,000 BP. It may have been contemporary with the Périgordian (a contested grouping of the earlier Châtelperronian and later Gravettian cultures).
- The Gravettian culture was located across Europe. Gravettian sites generally date between 33,000 and 20,000 BP.
- The Solutrean culture was located in eastern France, Spain, and England. Solutrean artifacts have been dated c. 22,000 to 17,000 BP.
- The Magdalenian culture left evidence from Portugal to Poland during the period from 17,000 to 12,000 BP.
- Central and east Europe:
- 33,000 BP, Gravettian culture in southern Ukraine.
- 30,000 BP, Szeletian culture
- 22,000 BP, Pavlovian, Aurignacian cultures
- 13,000 BP, Ahrensburg culture (Western Germany, Netherlands, England)
- 12,000 BP, Epigravettian culture
- North and west Africa, and Sahara:
- 32,000 BP, Aterian culture (Algeria, Libya)
- 12,000 BP, Ibero-Maurusian (a.k.a. Oranian, Ouchtatian), and Sebilian cultures
- 10,000 BP, Capsian culture (Tunisia, Algeria)
- Central, south, and east Africa:
- 50,000 BP, Fauresmithian culture
- 30,000 BP, Stillbayan culture
- 12,000 BP, Lupembian culture
- 11,000 BP, Magosian culture (Zambia, Tanzania)
- 9,000 BP, Wiltonian culture
- West Asia (including Middle East):
- 50,000 BP, Jabroudian culture (Levant)
- 40,000 BP, Amoudian culture
- 30,000 BP, Emireh culture
- 20,000 BP, Aurignacian culture
- 12,000 BP, Kebarian, Athlitian cultures
- South, central and northern Asia:
- East and southeast Asia:
- 50,000 BP, Ngandong culture
- 30,000 BP, Sen-Doki culture
- 16,000 BP, Jōmon period starts in Ancient Japan
- 12,000 BP, pre-Jōmon ceramic culture (Japan)
- 10,000 BP, Hoabinhian culture (Northern Vietnam)
- 9,000 BP, Jōmon culture (Japan)
- 40,000 BP, Whadjuk and Noongar culture (Perth, Australia)
- 35,000 BP, Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Wathaurong culture (Melbourne, Australia)
- 30,000 BP, Eora and Darug culture (Sydney, Australia)
- 30,000 BP, Arrernte culture (Alice Springs, Central Australia)
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