Physical Anthropology

Introduction to the Paleolithic

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"Introduction to the Paleolithic"
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The Stone Age has captured our hearts and minds for centuries. As the evidence of the activities and lives of our earliest humans and human ancestors was discovered, the world became permanently fascinated. To this day, new discoveries are treated as "breaking news" because of modern man's fascination with human history.

When mankind learned how to shape and use tools that were made from stone, the paleo (old) lithic (stone) age began. The stone, or paleolithic age covers the vast majority of mankind's technological age and extended from over 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of the development of agriculture.

Our understanding of the Paleolithic is not only limited because of the deterioration of lesser substances, but because of natural and man made disaster that has served to cover up, burn or destroy the evidence of technology. The building of the Aswan dam, as well as the building of cities upon cities over the Milena are examples of man made cover ups of the record of advancements made by prehistoric man.

But the paleolithic age actually began with homonids who first learned to shape stone and to work with other substances, such as animal skins, plant fiber, bone, and wood. Of course, the stone was the only lasting substance to give us clues as to the technology of late hominids and early man. Of the hominid precursors to human beings, Australopithecus, Homo Erectus, and Homo Ergaster were the most populous, roamed most of the Earth, and are most closely related to the earliest regular use of stone tools.

As a result, the most well known understandings of paleolithic culture come from where artifacts and evidence remained viable enough for study. The Paleolithic era is divided into three groups: the Upper, Middle, and Lower Paleolithic.  Our hominid ancestors populated the Lower Paleolithic, which extended from 2.6 millionyears ago  to 200,000 years ago.  Neanderthals and Early Humanoids populated the Middle Paleolithic from about 200,000 years ago to about 45,000 years ago, and full humans took over for the Upper Paleolithic about 45,000 years ago.

In looking at the broadest understandings of life during the lower Paleolithic, the evolution from animal to human, with walking more and more upright, those wonderful opposing digits on the hands, and the larger brains allowed hominids to transition from living as animals to manipulating objects into tools that made life easier. From scavenging and hunting without weapons, and migrating as needed to  find available plant material and wood, to actually creating clothing and textiles that allowed more protection and efficiency in survival, the Paleolithic was a period of gaining knowledge, basic craft, and basic understanding of the world and nature. Stone tools allowed for safer and more efficient killing of animals, scraping and preparing of animal hides, and better defense against other hominids.

The most well known groups of the Lower Paleolithic begin with the oldest: The Oldawan, of the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. This culture was studied by Dr. Louis Leakey in 1930.  Tools here were mostly used for chopping, scraping, butchering and pounding, rather than for killing or warfare.  Homo Habilis were the ancestors who were given credit for these very old tools.  The Acheulean cultures were homonids of West Asia, Africa and Europe. The Clactonian culture was discovered in England and Northern Europe.

The Middle Paleolithic was populated by transitional beings, from Hominid to Neanderthal to fully Humanoid. A wide range of technological improvements and social development, including formation of tribes, trade between tribes, and more sophisticated tools and textiles can be found from this era. Such cultural developments as concepts of the afterlife, burial, care for the elderly, artistic and symbolic expression, and trading in order to deal with shortages and excesses became well developed. Use of stone tipped weapons, cooking of food, and social stratification began. The Mousterian culture is related to the use of flint to make tools, residing in areas where flint was plentiful, including Africa, France and the Near East.  The Aterian culture and industry was located in the Sahara, and also worked with flint, developing the craft into particular styles of spear tips.

The Upper Paleolithic extends to modern times and to modern humans.  Until about 50,000 years ago, the use of stone tools was about the same, with no real breakthroughs in sophistication. Then, in Africa, such developments as engraving tools, and actual figurines began. Far more refinement in the shaping of spear tips and in the styles of tips and darts for bows and arrows and other projectiles began.

As our understanding of the "Stone Age" was developed, our understanding of the entire cultures, the type of being, the use of all forms of stone, wood, bone, animal and plant material, and the development of social organization and religious concepts has become more detailed and rich. Hopefully, much more will be discovered, as with the "Paleolithic Diet" and the comparisons with modern diets.  As we learn from the past, we head, more well prepared, for the future.

Citations, "Paleolithic-Study Guide"

Wikipedia, "Paleolithic"

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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