The Paleolithic was the early stone age. It is by far the eariest period of human existence. There is no precise date for the beginning of the Paleolithic period, but about 2 million years ago is a good rough estimate. It approximately marks the point at which people became human. The first humonoid species was Homo habilis, demonstrating the importance of tools in the making of modern man. Habilis lived in Africa. A sucessor species, was also found in Africa about 1.8 million years ago, but spread all over the Old World. Erectus had a larger brain reflected in more sophisticated tools. He may also have discovered the use of fire. Homo sapiens or modern man originated in Africa about 0.4 million years ago. These people also spread throughout the Old World and even reaching the New World. These Paleolithic people were nomadic hunter gatherers. They were nomadic because they would quickly exhaust the available food supply in any area they may settle for any time. They also made seasonal migrations to capitalize on the different resources available at different time. The limitedcfood available in nature and the constant movement meant that human communities were primarily small bands. The demands of this life style, the dangers, and problems finding food meant that most people had fairly short life spans. People fashioned stone tools. At first they simply used items found in nature like rocks, bones, antlers, teeth, and other items. Gradually Paleolithic began to manipulate and modify these tools to make them more effective. The earliest tools were probably weapons (defense and hunting) or food production/prepration tools. Of course we can not know just how these people thought, there are some indications such as cave paintings. They suggest that people developed religious beliefs from a very early period. A hint of such beliefs is offered by cave paintings. Early religious beliefs wee animistic. Burials tells us that there was a developing belief in life after death because food, tools, ornamrents, and weapons are often found in graves. Language developed during the Paleolithic which may have begun as grunts and other simple sounds. An early discovery was how useful fire could be. Over time people learned how to actually make fire. Hunting was critcal to early people and they learned to use every part of the prey. They meat was used for food, but people gradually learned to use much more of the carcass. The pelt could be used for for food and shelter. The bones, teeth, horns, and antlers were useful for tools and weapons. Anthropologists debate as to the social roles of men and women. Anthropologists have debated at what stage in human evolution did people begin to wear clothes. Almost certainly the first clothes were animal skins. More contentious is when people started wearing animal furs, presumably initially for warmth. There is little evidence that anthropolgists have been able to develop about clothing worn in prehistory. One aspect that is difficult to determine is the extent of body hair of early men like Neanderthals. Man's transition from hairy to hairless and the development of clothing are critical stages in both biological and cuktural evolution. While anthropolgists can sudy focilized bones to assess physical evolution, the fact that fur and fabric rot mean that there is not physical evidence available to provide insights as to when people first began to wear clothes. Some fascinating finds in the Middle Eastern desserts or the Ice man in the alps provide fascinating information about the clothing of erly man, but not about when man began wearing clothes. Interesting DNA evidence from lice are providing some possible insights.
Early Homonoid Species
There is no precise date for the beginning of the Paleolithic period, but about 2 million years ago is a good rough estimate. It approximately marks the point at which homonids began to become human. Anthropolgists have found many early ape species in Africa. Most are evolutioinary dead ends. A few are in the lineage of modern man, but that line is not yet understood with percision. There were many species of Australopithecus. This is the homonoid genus that diverged from ape-like species. Archaeologists and palaeontologists generally believe that australopiths played a key role in human evolution. One of the australopith species is believed to have evolved into the Homo genus in Africa around 2 million years ago. Homo erectus was probably the first hominid to ldevelop a hunter-gatherer society--the life style of humans for most of our history.
Most anthropologists identify H. erectus as the first homonid to look much like modern humans and to develop social relationships more like modern humans than the more ape-like Australopithecus species that preceeded it. The Homo specis tended to have increased cranial capacity which generally coincides with the increasingly sophisticated tools some times found with the fossils. Another important species was H. ergaster. Scientists are not entirely sure about the relationship between H. erectus and H. egaster These early fosil remains are extrenely rare and thus it is dificuklt to know for sure if they are really different species. Scientists are, however, making important strides in fitting together the relationship of these different species. A sucessor species, was also found in Africa about 1.8 million years ago, but spread all over the Old World. Erectus had a larger brain reflected in more sophisticated tools. He may also have discovered the use of fire. A key early Homo species was Homo habilis--the tool maker. The neolithic species can be dated with the appearance of H. habalis. This of course demonstrates the importance of tools is the making of modern man. H. habilis, like all the ape species in the human evolutionary line, lived in Africa. Homo sapiens or modern man originated in Africa about 0.4 million years ago. These people also spread throughout the Old World and eventually reaching the New World. One notable characteristic of H. sapiens is aack of genetic diversity, far less than most other species. It is believed that this reflects a kind of genetic bottle neck in which obnly a small number of humans survived. Some believe that this genetic bottle neck was caused by the eruption of the Toba mega-volcano and resulting in a mini-ice age about 75.000 years ago.
Anthropolgists have studied a variety of stages in pre-history which generally refers to the history of man before the development of writing. It is generally synonpomous with the stone age. The stone age is the earliest period human development. It was during the stone age that homonoids became truly human. Dating periods and developments is a mater of controversy, but it can be roughly dated at about 2 million years ago. Some anthropolgists extend the Stone Age to as far back as 2.6 million years or evebn 3 millionyears. This means before the dvelopment of anatomically modern humans. It signifies when homanoid species began working with stone tools. The stone age is commonly divided into three periods (Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic). The paleolithic or Old Stone Age is by far the longest of these three era. This is beccause the rate of change was at first very slow. The most important development during the Paleolithic was the development of anatomically modern humans--the human species (Homo sapiens). After this the pace of change quickens. The various Paleolithic peoples are generally pictured as nomadic hunters and gatherers. At first scavengers may be a better description. Early man before the development of weapons would have been limited as to what he could catch and kill. After descending from trees, homonoids at first sheltered in caves. They developed the ability to make and use fire. And they began fashioning stone tools of increasing complexity and utility. Human development was exceedingly slow and continued through the three successive divisions of the period, the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic. Anthropolgists identify cultures by distinctive stone-tool industries. By the Upper Paleolithic modern humans appear. We see evidence of communal hunting, shelter construction, and belief systems contructed around magic and the supernatural. And we niotice the appearance of art.
One aspect that is difficult to determine is the extent of body hair of early men like Neanderthals. Man's transition from hairy to hairless and the development of clothing are critical stages in both biological and cultural evolution. A new report based on Human DNA suggests that peole became hareless about 1 million years ago. [Rodgers] This of course oplayed a role in the development of clothing. As hair disappeared, clothing became increasingly important.
Neanderthals were a neolithic people that dominated Europe for 100,000 years. They inhabited most of Europe and western Asia. Neanderthals developed a culture similar to that of early man. They wore clothes and used fire. They were nomadic hunters. I am not sure to what extent if any that they developed agriculture. They made stone, but no metal tools. Their principal weapons were spears and clubs. Neanderthals disappeared after the arrival of modern man. It is widely believed that they perished because they could not compete with modern man, but there is little actual evidence. Neanderthals were heavily built and squat, more powerful, but apparently less intelligent than modern man. The last Neaderthal traces date back to about 30,000 BC. One enduring debate in anthropology is whether is how Neanderthals are related to modern men. We know that the two groups coexisted before Neanderthals disappeared. Some believe that modern man outcompeted and displaced Neanderthals. Others that Neanderthals merged with and interbread with modern man. A recent study based on an assessment of sculls have found substantial differences which suggest that the two were different species rather than related sub-species. [Harvati] Teeth studies suggest that Neanderthal children grew faster than human children. Some anthropologists believe that Neandethals may have been anatomically adult by about age 15, but not all anthropologists accept this theory. Prelininary DNA studies also suggest there was little or no mixing.
The primary ecomic organization for much of pre-history was hunter-gathering including fishing. This by its very nature was small tribal activity. These Paleolithic people were nomadic hunter gatherers. They were nomadic because they would quickly exhaust the available food supply in any area they may settle for any time. They also made seasonal migrations to capitalize on the different resources available at different time. The limitedcfood available in nature and the constant movement meant that human communities were primarily small bands. The demands of this life style, the dangers, and problems finding food meant that most people had fairly short life spans. Hunting was critcal to early people and they learned to use every part of the prey. They meat was used for food, but people gradually learned to use much more of the carcass. The pelt could be used for for food and shelter. The bones, teeth, horns, and antlers were useful for tools and weapons. Anthropologists debate as to the social roles of men and women.
People fashioned stone tools. At first they simply used items found in nature like rocks, bones, antlers, teeth, and other items. Gradually Paleolithic began to manipulate and modify these tools to make them more effective. The earliest tools were probably weapons (defense and hunting) or food production/prepration tools.
An early discovery was how useful fire could be. Over time people learned how to actually make fire.
Of course we can not know just how these people thought, there are some indications such as cave paintings. They suggest that peopke developed religious beliefs from a very early period. A hint of such beliefs is offered by cave paintings. Early religious beliefs were animistic. Burials tells us that there was a developing belief in life after death because food, tools, ornamrents, and weapons are often found in graves.
Language developed during the Paleolithic which may have begun as grunts and other simple sounds. Many anthropolgists believe that labguage ability and the resulting development of language was the key step that led to the technological advance of modern man. Some anatomical chages were required for sophticated language.
Art was a huge step forward in human history. The development of art is one of the most intresting question in the history of the Paleolithic era and the intelectual development of man. Art is clear evidence of abstract thought. Animals have been shown to use anhd even fashion primitive tools. Man is the only species to create art.
And this notably occurred some 2 million years after the appearance of the first tools. There is considerable debate as to when the first art appeared and to just what can be classified as art. There is general aggreement, however, that it occurred in the Upper Paleolithic and occurred roughly at the same time as anatomically modern man. It is also roughly cintemopranheous with the appearance of clothing. Most art experts focus on the Late Upper Paleolithic period beginning about 40,000 BC through the Pleistocene ice age, the end of which is commonly thought to have occurred near 8,000 BC when we begin to see the appearance of agriculture and ealy writing systems.
Anthropologists have found evidence of two kinds of art, both portable and or stationary. Both of the art forms which have been found are limited in scope. Portable art by definition had to be small and light weight. This meant small figurines or various decorated objects. These objects were carved from various materials (stone, bone or antler) or modeled with clay. Most was figurative. Somke of the best known items are Venus figures. Stationary art has also been found. The best known examples here are the cave paintings found in in western Europe. These are mahgnificent works of art by any definition. And theyvrequired considerablec thought and effort to produce. The paints had to be manufactured by mixing minerals, ochres, burnt bone meal and charcoal into mediums of water, blood, animal fats and tree saps. Anthropolgists abd art experts do not yet kniow about the purpose of these paintings. They may not have been just the creaion of something beautiful. Their location (far from the living spaces in the caves) suggest ritualistic or magical purposes. Cave paintings include many non-figurative representatiins, although it is the beautiful realistic depictions of animAks that are the best known. Strangeky humans are either absent or depictee as crude stick figures.
Almost certainly the first clothes were animal skins. More contentious is when people started wearing animal furs, presumably initially for warmth. This was a major development because until man could make clothing, he could not survive in the colder climate found north of Africa in Europe and Asia. There is little evidence that anthropolgists have been able to develop about clothing worn in prehistory, primarily because clothing deteriorates over time. Some fascinating finds in the Middle Eastern deserts or the Ice man in the Alps provide fascinating information about the clothing of early man, but not about when man began wearing clothes. Anthropolgists believe that needles and other artifacts suggest that people were sewing clothes at least 25,000 years ago and possibly as much as 40,000 years ago. Some anthropolgists speculate that man first using animal skins about 100,000 years ago, but these are only rough estimates with no real evidence to support them. Also unknown us precisely when people first took the step from just draping animal skins on them to actually fashioning crude garments.
Clothing was a major step in the human experience. Clothing was an enormous step in the expansion of human inhabitation and the appearance of culture. The key activity to early humans became food production, but the production of clothing became the second most important activity. Determining when people began fashioning clothes is of interest to antrhropolgusts because it represents a cultural step of huge importance. Once people began creating clothing it expanded the environments which they could exploit. It also meant the fise of fashion, affording people to convey information about tribal identity, social status, fertility, and other mnatters--all imprtat cultural matters.
While anthropolgists can sudy focilized bones to assess physical evolution, the fact that fur and fabric rot mean that there is not physical evidence available to provide insights as to when people first began to wear clothes. As such any evidence from this era is extremely tantilizing. One fascinating glimse is the preserved impressions seen here of pre-historic foot steps (figure 2). This is an actual piece of pre-historic evidence. This is an actual adult and child foot print. The story seems to be that a mother and child probably went to a river to collect water. They leave their foot prints behind and the sun bakes them. Hundreds of thousands of years later the
Leaky family find them. Actually there is even more to the footprint story. The Leaky's believe that there are three sets of footprints. The third set is inside the larger adult one. The scene from thousands odf years ago comes to life. A child, laughing as the little one plays a game of walking inside the footprints of mum while the other child walks in the water by mum's side.
Interesting anthriopolgists are developing new DNA evidence to uncover information about man's pre-history. Here information can be gleaned not only from human DNA, but also the DNA of plants, animals, and insects associated with man. These effirts are just behinning ans anthropolgists are just beginning to develop promising tecniques. Much of the initial worknis still quite controversial. One intreaguing study has detected subtle difference in the DNA of head lice and body lice (which live in clothing) and are using the difference to assess just when clothing was first worn. Initial assessments suggest that man may have lived in Europe after arriving from Africa for tens of thousands of years before beginning to fashion clothing. There are large numbers of lice species and they are increadibly specialized to live on specific hosts or even specificlocations in those hosts. Initial studies compiled by a group at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropolgy in Leipzig, Germany led by Mark Stoneking suggest that body lice developed destinctly from head lice about 72,000 year ago, suggesting that this is when clothing appeared, althogh the inprecission of exiting methods means that the actual range is some time between 30,000 to 114,000 years ago. While these studies are still controversial, as our understanding of DNA expands, it is likely that increasingly sophisticated techniques will lead to important insights on prehistory. DNA work has, for example, provided important evidence about human migration out of Africa.
Anthropolgists by the mid-20th century after WorldWwar II finally conclusively proved through the discovery of the fosil remains of a number of early Homonoid that man evolved in Africa. They were unable to reach agreement on any accepted theory on just which homonid migrated out of Africa, just when this occurred, and what path they took. DNA work at the turn of the 21st century has combined with the earlier anthropolgical work to provide new theories that seem to provide a coherent theory as to how man peopled the globe. Before a migration out of Africa was possible, however, humonoids needed to develop a mind capable of creating the technolgies (tools, clothing, ect.) necessary for such a migration. Here the intelectual leap early homonoid took was probably strongly related to language development. The impetus for the movement out of Africa is not known. It could have been climate change, over population, or other developments. The first homomoid to move out of Africa could have been Homo rhodesiensis, Rhodesian man who appeared about 0.8 million years ago. He has a strong resemblence to Homo heidelbergensis which peoples Western Asia and Europe as Neatherthals. Next Homo erectus evolved into Homo spaiens. Anthropolgists are not yet sure if the transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapien took place before the migration began or during the migration. The transition appears to have occurred about 120,000 years ago which suggests that it was H. sapiens. DNA researchers believe that a remarakably small number of individuals were involved in these migrations. Some people believe that the first homonoids that moved out of Africa were related to the modern San people in southern Africa. There seems to have been an initial migrration that followed the coast of Asia and finally reached Indonesia and Australia. As this migration was a coastal one. This may have been explained by climate and resource availability. Basically only beach combing skills were necessary, although the final stage to Australia involved a sea crossing of about 150 miles. This seems to have occurred about 50,000 years ago. Virtually no physical evidence exists of this coastal migration in terms of tools and other remains. The evidence is purely genetic. And genetic evidence has been found in southern India. The Australian aborigenes are the modern descendants of these peoples. This migration constitutes about 10 percent of the modern world population. The coastal migration out of Africa was followed by a second wave of Homo sapiens. This second wave is responsible for about 90 percent of the modern world population. A range of inter-related factors appear to have driven the migration, including weather, droughts, rains, and grass graising heard animals.
These early people are believed to have headed north first into the Middle East. Here they split into two groups. One moved east into India and overwealmed the first wave out of Africa that had followed the coast. Another group moved north into Central Asia, again probably following migrating heards. They did not move into Europe through Asia Minor as earlier believed. It is not clear just why. Perhaps the mega fauna of the great Eurasian plain attracted them. Some researchers speculate that the existing Neanderthal populations blocked their way east into Europre. This suggests that at the beginning of the their migration, Homo spaien may not yet have been technologically more advanced than Neanderthal. From central Asia Homo Sapiens split. Two waves moved east, one into north china and another into south china. Another wave moved west from central Asia into Europe. This is believed to have occurred about 40,000 years ago. Thus Central Asia was thev nursery for modern humans. It is after this split that modern races developed as climatic adaptations. Some groups headed west into Europe. Others moved east into eastern Asia and others into south Asia. The East Asians split into China and southeast Asia. Some of the northern east Asians continud into the far north, evenually crossing the Bearing Sea land bridge and populating the Americas. [Wells]
The fragility of prehistoric clothing makes the discovery of the iceman Italy/Austria and the bog peoplein northern Europe especially important. The icemam wore a cape made out of plant leaves. His footwear was made out of grass.
Harvati, Katerina. New York University. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2004 .
Rodgers, Alan. Universiuty of Utah.
Weiss, Rick. "Creative search for naked truth," Washington Post August 19, 2003, p. A1, 7.
Wells, Spencer. Journey of Man: A Genetic Odessy.
Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to the Main stone age page]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Freedom] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]