The Paleolithic

The General Picture

The Stone Age

Prehistoric cultural stage, or level of human development, characterized by the creation and use of stone tools.

Robert A. Guisepi


Archaeology is concerned with the origins and development of early human culture between the first appearance of man as a tool-using mammal, which is believed to have occurred about 600,000 or 700,000 years ago, and the beginning of the Recent geologic era, about 8000 BC.

The Stone Age is usually divided into three separate periods--Paleolithic Period, Mesolithic Period, and Neolithic Period--based on the degree of sophistication in the fashioning and use of tools.  


Archaeology is concerned with the origins and development of early human culture between the first appearance of man as a tool-using mammal, which is believed to have occurred about 600,000 or 700,000 years ago, and the beginning of the Recent geologic era, about 8000 BC. It is included in the time span of the Pleistocene, or Glacial, Epoch--an interval of about 1,000,000 years. Although it cannot be proved, modern evidence suggests that the earliest protohuman forms had diverged from the ancestral primate stock by the beginning of the Pleistocene. In any case, the oldest recognizable tools are found in horizons of Lower Pleistocene Age. During the Pleistocene a series of momentous climatic events occurred. The northern latitudes and mountainous areas were subjected on four successive occasions to the advances and retreats of ice sheets (known as Günz, Mindel, Riss, and Würm in the Alps), river valleys and terraces were formed, the present coastlines were established, and great changes were induced in the fauna and flora of the globe. In large measure, the development of culture during Paleolithic times seems to have been profoundly influenced by the environmental factors that characterize the successive stages of the Pleistocene Epoch.

Throughout the Paleolithic, man was a food gatherer, depending for his subsistence on hunting wild animals and birds, fishing, and collecting wild fruits, nuts, and berries. The artifactual record of this exceedingly long interval is very incomplete; it can be studied from such imperishable objects of now-extinct cultures as were made of flint, stone, bone, and antler. These alone have withstood the ravages of time, and, together with the remains of contemporary animals hunted by our prehistoric forerunners, they are all that scholars have to guide them in attempting to reconstruct human activity throughout this vast interval--approximately 98 percent of the time span since the appearance of the first true hominid stock. In general, these materials develop gradually from single, all-purpose tools to an assemblage of varied and highly specialized types of artifacts, each designed to serve in connection with a specific function. Indeed, it is a process of increasingly more complex technologies, each founded on a specific tradition, which characterizes the cultural development of Paleolithic times. In other words, the trend was from simple to complex, from a stage of non-specialization to stages of relatively high degrees of specialization, just as has been the case during historic times.

In the manufacture of stone implements, four fundamental traditions were developed by the Paleolithic ancestors: (1) pebble-tool traditions; (2) bifacial-tool, or hand-ax, traditions; (3) flake-tool traditions; and (4) blade-tool traditions. Only rarely are any of these found in "pure" form, and this fact has led to mistaken notions in many instances concerning the significance of various assemblages. Indeed, though a certain tradition might be superseded in a given region by a more advanced method of producing tools, the older technique persisted as long as it was needed for a given purpose. In general, however, there is an overall trend in the order as given above, starting with simple pebble tools that have a single edge sharpened for cutting or chopping. But no true pebble-tool horizons had yet, by the late 20th century, been recognized in Europe. In southern and eastern Asia, on the other hand, pebble tools of primitive type continued in use throughout Paleolithic times.

French place-names have long been used to designate the various Paleolithic subdivisions, since many of the earliest discoveries were made in France. This terminology has been widely applied in other countries, notwithstanding the very great regional differences that do in fact exist. But the French sequence still serves as the foundation of Paleolithic studies in other parts of the Old World. (H.L.Ms./Ed.) There is reasonable agreement that the Paleolithic ended with the beginning of the recent (Holocene) geologic and climatic era about 8000 BC. It is also increasingly clear that a developmental bifurcation in man's culture history took place at about this time. In most of the world, especially in the temperate and tropical woodland environments or along the southern fringes of Arctic tundra, the older Upper Paleolithic traditions of life were simply readapted toward more or less increasingly intensified levels of food collection. These cultural re-adaptations of older food procedures to the variety and succession of post-Pleistocene environments are generally referred to as occurring in the Mesolithic Period. But also by 8000 BC (if not even somewhat earlier) in certain semi-arid environments of the world's middle latitudes, traces of a quite different course of development began to appear. These traces indicate a movement toward incipient agriculture and (in one or two instances) animal domestication. In the case of southwestern Asia, this movement had already culminated in a level of effective village-farming communities by 7000 BC. In Meso-America, a comparable development--somewhat different in its details and without animal domestication--was taking place almost as early. It may thus be maintained that in the environmentally favorable portions of southwestern Asia, Meso-America, the coastal slopes below the Andes, and perhaps in southeastern Asia (for which little evidence is available), little if any trace of the Mesolithic stage need be anticipated. The general level of culture probably shifted directly from that of the Upper Paleolithic to that of incipient cultivation and domestication.

The picture presented by the culture history of the earlier portion of the Recent period is thus one of two generalized developmental patterns: (1) the cultural re-adaptations to post-Pleistocene environments on a more or less intensified level of food collection; and (2) the appearance and development of an effective level of food production. It is generally agreed that this latter appearance and development was achieved quite independently in various localities in both the Old and New Worlds. As the procedures and the plant or animal domesticates of this new food-producing level gained effectiveness and flexibility to adapt to new environments, the new level expanded at the expense of the older, more conservative one. Finally, it is only within the matrix of a level of food production that any of the world's civilizations have been achieved.


Old Stone Age, the earliest period of human development and the longest phase of mankind’s history. It is approximately coextensive with the Pleistocene geologic epoch, beginning about 2 million years ago and ending in various places between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, when it was succeeded by the Mesolithic period. By far the most outstanding feature of the Paleolithic period was the evolution of the human species from an apelike creature, or near human, to true Homo sapiens. This development was exceedingly slow and continued through the three successive divisions of the period, the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic. The most abundant remains of Paleolithic cultures are a variety of stone tools whose distinct characteristics provide the basis for a system of classification containing several tool making traditions or industries.    1
The Lower Paleolithic Period
The oldest recognizable tools made by members of the family of man are simple stone choppers, such as those discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. These tools may have been made over 1 million years ago by Australopithecus, ancestor of modern man. Fractured stones called eoliths have been considered the earliest tools, but it is impossible to distinguish man-made from naturally produced modifications in such stones. Lower Paleolithic stone industries of the early species of humans called Homo erectus include the Choukoutienian of China and the Clactonian, Chellean-Abbevillian, Acheulian and Levalloisian represented at various sites in Europe, Africa, and Asia, from 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. Stone tools of this period are of the core type, made by chipping the stone to form a cutting edge, or of the flake type, fashioned from fragments struck off a stone. Hand axes were the typical tool of these early hunters and food-gatherers.    2
The Middle Paleolithic Period
The Middle Paleolithic period includes the Mousterian culture, often associated with Neanderthal man, an early form of man, living between 40,000 and 100,000 years ago. Neanderthal remains are often found in caves with evidence of the use of fire. Neanderthals were hunters of prehistoric mammals, and their cultural remains, though unearthed chiefly in Europe, have been found also in N Africa, Palestine, and Siberia. Stone tools of this period are of the flake tradition, and bone implements, such as needles, indicate that crudely sewn furs and skins were used as body coverings. Since the dead were painted before burial, a kind of primitive religion may have been practiced.    3
The Upper Paleolithic Period
In the Upper Paleolithic period Neanderthal man disappears and is replaced by a variety of Homo sapiens such as Cro-Magnon man and Grimaldi man. This, the flowering of the Paleolithic period, saw an astonishing number of human cultures, such as the Aurignacian, Gravettian, Perigordian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian, rise and develop in the Old World. The beginnings of communal hunting and extensive fishing are found here, as is the first conclusive evidence of belief systems centering on magic and the supernatural. Pit houses, the first man-made shelters, were built, sewn clothing was worn, and sculpture and painting originated. Tools were of great variety, including flint and obsidian blades and projectile points. It is probable that the people of the Aurignacian culture migrated to Europe after developing their distinctive culture elsewhere, perhaps in Asia. Their stone tools are finely worked, and they made a typical figure eight–shaped blade. They also used bone, horn, and ivory and made necklaces and other personal ornaments. They carved the so-called Venus figures, ritual statuettes of bone, and made outline drawings on cave walls.    4
The hunters of the Solutrean phase of the Upper Paleolithic entered Europe from the east and ousted many of their Aurignacian predecessors. The Solutrean wrought extremely fine spearheads, shaped like a laurel leaf. The wild horse was their chief quarry. The Solutrean as well as remnants of the Aurignacian were replaced by the Magdalenian, the final, and perhaps most impressive, phase of the Paleolithic period. Here artifacts reflect a society made up of communities of fishermen and reindeer hunters. Surviving Magdalenian tools, which range from tiny microliths to implements of great length and fineness, indicate an advanced technique. Weapons were highly refined and varied, the atlatl first came into use, and along the southern edge of the ice sheet boats and harpoons were developed. However, the crowning achievement of the Magdalenian was its cave paintings, the culmination of Paleolithic art.    5


Middle Stone Age, period in human development between the end of the Paleolithic period and the beginning of the Neolithic period. It began with the end of the last glacial period over 10,000 years ago and evolved into the Neolithic period; this change involved the gradual domestication of plants and animals and the formation of settled communities at various times and places. While Mesolithic cultures lasted in Europe until almost 3000 B.C., Neolithic communities developed in the Middle East between 9000 and 6000 B.C. Mesolithic cultures represent a wide variety of hunting, fishing, and food gathering techniques. This variety may be the result of adaptations to changed ecological conditions associated with the retreat of glaciers, the growth of forests in Europe and deserts in N Africa, and the disappearance of the large game of the Ice Age. Characteristic of the period were hunting and fishing settlements along rivers and on lake shores, where fish and mollusks were abundant. Microliths, the typical stone implements of the Mesolithic period, are smaller and more delicate than those of the late Paleolithic period. Pottery and the use of the bow developed, although their presence in Mesolithic cultures may only indicate contact with early Neolithic peoples. The Azilian culture, which was centered in the Pyrenees region but spread to Switzerland, Belgium, and Scotland, was one of the earliest representatives of Mesolithic culture in Europe. The Azilian was followed by the Tardenoisian culture, which covered much of Europe; most of these settlements are found on dunes or sandy areas. The Maglemosian, named for a site in Denmark, is found in the Baltic region and N England. It occurs in the middle of the Mesolithic period. It is there that hafted axes, an improvement over the Paleolithic hand axe, and bone tools are found. The Ertebolle culture, also named for a site in Denmark, spans most of the late Mesolithic. It is also known as the kitchen-midden culture for the large deposits of mollusk shells found around the settlements. Other late Mesolithic cultures are the Campignian and Asturian, both of which may have had Neolithic contacts. The Mesolithic period in other areas is represented by the Natufian in the Middle East, the Badarian and Gerzean in Egypt, and the Capsian in N Africa. The Natufian culture provides the earliest evidence of an evolution from a Mesolithic to a Neolithic way of life.   

New Stone Age. The term neolithic is used, especially in archaeology and anthropology, to designate a stage of cultural evolution or technological development characterized by the use of stone tools, the existence of settled villages largely dependent on domesticated plants and animals, and the presence of such crafts as pottery and weaving. The time period and cultural content indicated by the term varies with the geographic location of the culture considered and with the particular criteria used by the individual scientist. The domestication of plants and animals usually distinguishes Neolithic culture from earlier Paleolithic or Mesolithic hunting, fishing, and food-gathering cultures. The Mesolithic period in several areas shows a gradual transition from a food-collecting to a food-producing culture. The termination of the Neolithic period is marked by such innovations as the rise of urban civilization or the introduction of metal tools or writing. Again, the criteria vary with each case. The earliest known development of Neolithic culture was in SW Asia between 8000 B.C. and 6000 B.C. There the domestication of plants and animals was probably begun by the Mesolithic Natufian peoples, leading to the establishment of settled villages based on the cultivation of cereals, including wheat, barley, and millet, and the raising of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. In the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, the Neolithic culture of the Middle East developed into the urban civilizations of the Bronze Age by 3500 B.C. Between 6000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. Neolithic culture spread through Europe, the Nile valley (Egypt), the Indus valley (India), and the Huang He valley (N China). The formation of Neolithic cultures throughout the Old World resulted from a combination of local cultural developments with innovations diffused from the Middle East. In SE Asia, a distinct type of Neolithic culture involving rice cultivation developed, perhaps independently, before 2000 B.C. In the New World, the domestication of plants and animals occurred independently of Old World developments. By 1500 B.C., Neolithic cultures based on the cultivation of corn, beans, squash, and other plants were present in Mexico and South America, leading to the rise of the Inca and Aztec civilizations and spreading to other parts of the Americas by the time of European contact. The term Neolithic has also been used in anthropology to designate cultures of more contemporary primitive, independent farming communities.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center