What is the Paleolithic Era? (with photos)

Artworks such as the animal paintings found in the Lascaux caves in France were first created by humans during the Upper Paleolithic.

The Paleolithic era, which means “Ancient Stone Age”, is a very long period of human prehistory, stretching from the earliest tool-using hominids at least 2.6 million years ago to around 10,000 BP. Based on tools and other artifacts, the age is subdivided into Lower (2.6 million years ago – 300,000 years ago), Middle (300,000 years ago – 30,000 years ago), and Upper (50,000 years ago – 10,000 years ago); there is some overlap in time periods as the transitions occurred at different times in different places. The end of the era was marked by a general warming of the Earth’s climate, causing continental glaciers to retreat. This appears to have led to the development of agriculture, resulting in established communities and the end of the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle that characterized this period.

Composite tools and weapons, including spears with sharp stones or bone points, began to appear after the beginning of the Middle Paleolithic, 300,000 years ago.

Humans come from an evolutionary line that split off from chimpanzees about 6 million years ago. The Paleolithic era saw the emergence of many early species of Homo – collectively known as hominids – the immediate ancestors of modern humans. This period of prehistory was a time of slow population expansion, migration, evolution and development of stone tools. As it contains no written records, there is a lot of uncertainty as to the details of how these early hominids lived, but archaeologists have managed to piece together a lot of information about Paleolithic technology, migration, society, and art.

Tools and Technology

Several species of the genus Homo, including Neanderthals, evolved during the Paleolithic, or “Old Stone Age,” era.

The development of technology during the Paleolithic was slow, especially before the evolution of modern humans in East Africa around 250,000 years ago, but it was the making of stone tools during this era that gave rise to the term “stone age”. The oldest prehistoric tools date from the beginning of the era to around 1.4 million – 600,000 years ago, a part of the Lower Paleolithic known as the Oldowan period. The tools consist of chippers, cleavers, scrapers and awls, with only one side of the tool worked into one edge. This period of tool making gave rise to the Acheulean tool industry over a period of almost a million years, at different times and in different places. Acheulean tools consist of characteristic oval and pear-shaped axes, created by cutting off both edges and reworking to obtain a sharp edge.

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Homo erectus, who lived during the Paleolithic, is believed to have been the first member of the genus Homo to leave Africa.

The transition to the Middle Paleolithic was marked by the appearance of the first composite tools, such as spears consisting of sharp stones attached to wooden shafts. Harpoons, used to launch fish may also have been used. It was during this period that the use of fire became common, although it may have been first employed during the Lower Paleolithic.

DNA tests have revealed that the humans who colonized Asia and Europe originated in East Africa.

During the Upper Paleolithic period, there was great diversification in tool making, with a wide variety of relatively specialized tools appearing. For example, new hunting instruments such as the bow and arrow and balls seem to have been invented in this period. New materials such as bone were also used. This period saw the emergence of the first works of art, in the form of cave paintings and carved stones, along with the necessary pigments and tools.

Expansion and Migration

10,000 years ago, people lived in almost every part of the Earth except Antarctica and islands like New Zealand.

Population densities during the Paleolithic were low: about one human per square mile. The total population of hominids probably never exceeded one million until near the end of the era, by which time all species of Homo except modern humans – Homo sapiens – had become extinct. The global population is estimated to be around 5 million at this point, and the distribution spans all continents except Antarctica.

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Around 1.8 million years ago (mya), some hominids tentatively began to colonize areas just outside Africa, such as modern-day Israel. Around 1.4 mya, Acheulian tool users, in the form of Homo erectus, left Africa to colonize Asia, where numerous artifacts have been found, particularly in China. Hominids first arrived in Europe around 1.2 million years ago. About 250,000 years ago, modern humans evolved in Africa, and beginning around 80,000 years ago, quickly spread across Eurasia, replacing other species of Homo that came before them. By about 10,000 years ago, humans had inhabited every part of the Earth except Antarctica and a few isolated islands such as New Zealand and Hawaii.


What is known about Paleolithic societies is based partly on archeological and other scientific evidence and partly on studies of “stone age” tribes that survived into relatively modern times. The Paleolithic era is defined as pre-agricultural and its societies would have been of the “hunter-gatherer” type, featuring groups, or tribes, of perhaps 20-50 individuals. It is thought that the hunting of animals for meat was carried out primarily by men, while women were mainly responsible for gathering various types of plant-based foods, such as fruit, nuts and edible stems and roots. It has been estimated that plants made up about 70% of the diet and meat only about 30%, making women the main providers of food. It is possible that because of this, women at this time may have played a greater role in society than in post-Paleolithic times.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle a nomadic existence, imposed with people having to move around frequently because of seasonal fluctuations in the availability of plant and animal food. This made permanent settlements impossible and limited the amount of material goods that individuals or families could accumulate. It seems likely, therefore, that these societies did not have the marked divisions based on wealth and social status that appeared with the establishment of fixed communities based on an agricultural way of life. Tribes may have had leaders, but there was probably little in the way of a social hierarchy.

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Many paintings and carvings have been preserved from the Upper Paleolithic period. Paintings were made using red and yellow pigments from iron compounds found in rocks. It seems that these were ground into powder and mixed with saliva to form a kind of paint that was then applied to suitable rock surfaces in caves. These paintings generally depict animals that early humans would have hunted for food, as well as explicit hunting scenes. There are also some representations of half-human, half-animal creatures that are thought to be related to religious or magical beliefs.

Numerous carvings from this period have been found. They are made from a variety of materials, including stone, bone and horn. While there are many carvings of animals, a lot of interest has focused on carvings of female figures. These are sometimes called “Venus figures” and many researchers have speculated that they may be fertility symbols, or that they may represent a “mother goddess.” Others have suggested that they may have simply been a form of stone-age pornography.

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