An Overview of the Paleolithic

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

Robert A. Guisepi


The Stone Age is a prehistoric cultural stage, or level of human development, characterized by the creation and use of stone tools. 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, that characterizes the cultural development of Paleolithic times. In other words, the trend was from simple to complex, from a stage of nonspecialization 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 readaptations 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 readaptations 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.


Three major subdivisions--Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic--are recognized in Europe. Although the dividing line between the Lower and Middle stages is not so clearly defined as that separating the Middle and Upper subdivisions, this system is still used by most workers.

Lower Paleolithic

On the basis of the very rich materials from the Somme Valley in the north of France and the Thames Valley in the south of England, two main Lower Paleolithic traditions have been recognized in western Europe. These are as follows: (1) bifacial-tool, or hand-ax, traditions (Abbevillian and Acheulean); and (2) flake-tool traditions (Clactonian and Levalloisian).  The type tools of the Abbevillian (formerly Chellean), which takes its name from the town of Abbeville, France, on the 45-metre (150-foot) terrace of the Somme Valley, consist of pointed, bifacial implements, or hand axes. Their forms vary, and the flaking is generally irregular; it is probable that they were manufactured either with a stone hammer or on a stone anvil. Associated with these crude types of hand axes, simple flake tools are found, but they lack definite form. The Abbevillian has been reported from deposits of lower Pleistocene (First Interglacial) age.

The Acheulean, which begins in the Second Interglacial and persists to the close of the Third Interglacial, covers by far the longest time span of any of the Paleolithic traditions found in western Europe. The type site is on the 30-metre terrace of the Somme Valley at St. Acheul, near Amiens, in northern France. Acheulean hand axes, which display a marked technological refinement over their Abbevillian precursors, were apparently made by employing a wooden or bone billet rather than the more primitive stone-on-stone technique. But, except at the very end of the Acheulean cycle of development, there is very little typological difference in the types of hand axes found in the various layers.

The Micoquian, or Final (Upper) Acheulean, is characterized by elongated hand axes that exhibit very straight and finely chipped edges, in marked contrast with the Lower Acheulean, in which ovate forms predominate. Flake tools occur in all Acheulean levels, the side scrapers being the predominant type. Many of these tools were made from trimming flakes produced during the process of hand-ax manufacture. In general, flake tools, including points with a triangular cross section, are found in greater quantities in Micoquian deposits than in the older horizons.

The evidence from Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, and Swanscombe, Kent, in the Thames Valley of southeastern England clearly shows that the main development of the Clactonian occurred during early Second Interglacial times. The type artifacts are flakes, although core tools--single-edged choppers and chopping tools--do in fact occur. The flakes, which have large, high-angle (greater than 90), plain striking platforms, as well as prominent bulbs of percussion, were detached from roughly prepared, discoidal cores by the stone-hammer or stone-anvil technique. Actual retouching or secondary working of the edge is found in some instances, but for the most part it is crude, and edge chipping resulting from use is far more characteristic.

Named after a locality at Levallois, a suburb of Paris, the Levalloisian is primarily a flake tradition, although hand axes are found in certain of the Middle and Upper Levalloisian stages. It first appears in deposits of the late Second Interglacial in association with hand axes of Middle Acheulean type and persists into Fourth Glacial (Würm) times. It is characterized by a new and improved method of producing flakes, which previously had been obtained in a more or less haphazard manner. This involves the careful shaping of the core by the removal of centrally directed flakes, and the preparation of an extremity for the detachment of a symmetrical oval flake. Since unstruck cores of this type exhibit a plano-convex section suggesting the form of a tortoise, they are known as tortoise cores. On the striking platforms of typical levallois flakes, small vertical flake scars, called facets, may be observed, and the scars of the converging core-preparation flakes are present on the upper surface. The use of this technique resulted in the production not only of symmetrical flakes but also of larger ones in proportion to the size of the core. In the Middle and Upper Levalloisian a variation of this same basic technique was developed whereby it was possible to produce either triangular flakes (or points) or rectangular flakes (or flake blades) by modifying the method of core preparation.


Middle Paleolithic

The Middle Paleolithic comprises the Mousterian, a portion of the Levalloisian, and the Tayacian, all of which are complexes based on the production of flakes, although survivals of the old hand-ax tradition are manifest in many instances. These Middle Paleolithic assemblages first appear in deposits of the third interglacial and persist during the first major oscillation of the Fourth Glacial (Würm) stage. Associated with the Tayacian, in which the artifacts consist of very crude flakes, remains of modern man (Homo sapiens) have been found. Mousterian man, on the other hand, is of the Neanderthal race. By the 1960s no human remains had yet been found associated with the Levalloisian. It is in the Mousterian levels of the caves and rock shelters of central and southern France that the earliest evidence of the use of fire and the first definite burials have been discovered in western Europe. The cave of Le Moustier, near Les Eyzies in the classic Dordogne region of France, is the type site of the Mousterian. The typology of the artifacts is complex; it consists of three distinct increments: (1) the prepared striking-platform-tortoise-core (Levalloisian) tradition; (2) the plain striking-platform-discoidal-core technique of ultimate Clactonian tradition; and (3) a persistence of the bifacial core tool, or Acheulean tradition. The type artifacts from the Mousterian consist of points and side scrapers, in addition to a few hand axes (especially heart- or triangular-shaped forms), and the secondary working is coarse. A crude bone industry appears here for the first time. Judging by what is known concerning modern hunting groups, small bands or tribes of people already had developed simple social institutions, even at this early level of development.


Upper Paleolithic

The Upper Paleolithic, which occupies only approximately one-tenth of the time span of the period as a whole, first appears in horizons referable to the Würm I-II interstadial, and it persists to the very end of late Glacial times. Early man made his greatest cultural progress at this time. The hand axes and flake tools of the earlier assemblages were replaced by diversified and specialized tools made on blades struck from specially prepared cores. Many important inventions appeared, such as needles and thread, skin clothing, hafted stone and bone tools, the harpoon, the spear thrower, and special fishing equipment. Bone, ivory, and antler, in addition to flint, were extensively used. The earliest man-made dwellings are found, consisting of semisubterranean pit houses. Of prime importance and interest is the beginning of the basic techniques of drawing, modelling, sculpture, and painting, as well as the earliest manifestations of dancing, music, the use of masks, ceremonies, and the organization of society into patterns that were apparently fairly complex. Indeed, the location of certain settlements suggests a more complex social life, including perhaps collective hunting. There is evidence for fertility magic, private property, and possible social stratification. Furthermore, primitive types of early man disappeared, and the remains of men of modern type (Homo sapiens) alone are found in Upper Paleolithic sites.

The chronology of this interval in Western Europe shows a succession of cultures known as Lower Périgordian (or Châtelperronian; formerly Lower Aurignacian), Aurignacian, Upper Périgordian (or Gravettian; formerly Upper Aurignacian), Solutrean, and Magdalenian, each characterized by its distinctive types of artifacts. These latter occur, together with gravers (or burins), end scrapers, points, etc., which are common to all levels. The graver itself is a very important tool, for its invention made possible the extensive working of bone and facilitated the development of art. The climate of the Upper Paleolithic varied from cold steppe, or even Arctic tundra, to north temperate (taiga), similar to parts of Siberia and Canada of the present day.



In the Périgordian, named after a region in south central France, blades with steeply retouched backs are typical. The Lower Périgordian is characterized by large curved points with blunted backs that are known as Châtelperron points. These first appear, together with other types of blade tools, in horizons immediately overlying Upper Mousterian levels. It is believed that the straight points with blunted backs, called Gravette points and characteristic of the Upper Périgordian, were evolved from the Châtelperron type. In the final stage of the Upper Périgordian, tanged Font Robert points and diminutive multiangle gravers, known as the Noailles burin, are found. A number of small sculptured human torsos depicting the female form have been found at Upper Périgordian sites.


The type site of the Aurignacian is near the village of Aurignac (Haute-Garonne) in southern France. At many sites it is found intervening between horizons referable to the Lower and the Upper Périgordian, a fact that is considered to indicate that more than one cultural element was present in western Europe at the beginning of Upper Paleolithic times. The tool types include various kinds of steep-ended scrapers, nose scrapers, blades with heavy marginal retouch, strangulated blades, busked gravers (or burins), and split-base bone points. Bone was extensively used, mainly for javelin points, chisels, perforators, and bâtons de commandement, or arrow straighteners. Articles of personal adornment, probably worn as necklaces, such as pierced teeth and shells, as well as decorated bits of bone and ivory, appear for the first time in the Aurignacian.

The oldest manifestations of art were produced during the Aurignacian, and the development continued during Upper Périgordian times. In general, Upper Paleolithic art falls into two closely related categories: mural art and portable art. The former includes finger tracings, paintings, engravings, bas-reliefs, and sculptures on the walls of caves and rock shelters; the latter is characterized by small engravings and sculptures on stone and bone found in the occupation layers. The whole development almost certainly owes its inspiration to the magico-religious idea, especially the custom of hunting magic as practiced today by living primitive peoples.  


The Solutrean, which is named after the site of Solutré, near Mâcon (Saône-et-Loire), is noted for the beautifully made, symmetrical, bifacially flaked, laurel-leaf, and shouldered points, the finest examples of flint workmanship of the Paleolithic in western Europe. In addition, the usual types of gravers, end scrapers, points, perforators, etc., are present. Examples of Solutrean art are comparatively rare; they consist of sculpture in low relief and incised stone slabs. The fauna indicates that this culture flourished in a relatively cold climate.


The rock shelter of La Madeleine, near Les Eyzies (Dordogne), is the type Magdalenian locality. This final culture of the Upper Paleolithic is noted for the dominance of bone and antler tools over those of flint and stone and for the very remarkable works of art that were produced at this time. The wide variety of bone tools include javelin points, barbed bone points (or harpoons), eyed needles, bâtons de commandement (often elaborately decorated), perforators, spear throwers, chisels, etc. The flint and stone tools include a variety of special forms, among which small geometric forms, denticulated blades, scrapers with steeply retouched edges, and the parrot-beak graver are especially distinctive. The six phases of the Magdalenian have been established stratigraphically and are characterized mainly by the contained bone and antler implements. But the heights attained by the people responsible for this culture can best be evaluated on the basis of the art objects they produced. Magdalenian sites have yielded countless fine examples of both mural and portable art. Animals of the period, the usual subject matter, are portrayed in paintings (often polychrome), engravings, and sculptures. The fauna from the various Magdalenian horizons demonstrates that cold conditions prevailed in western Europe at the end of Paleolithic times.

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