*** chronologies : Stone Age eras

The Stone Age: Eras

stone age eras
Figure 1.--Here is an artist's depiction of people in tbe Mesolithic era or Mid-Stone Age, a relatively short period marking the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic era. The scene is set in the Coa Valley of Portugal. We are not sure about the accuracy of the clothing depictions, especially the man's pants. Artist: Marcos Oliveira.

The Stone Age lasted about 2 million years--before the appearance of Homo sapiens as well as much of the life of our species. This is important because much of our species' physiological and social roots are genetic adaptations to the Stone Age. Only in the relatively recent period has man emerged from the Stone Age. is generally divided into three periods: Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. Man was not the first being to use tools, but man was a unique being when it came to fashioning and using stone tools. The Neolithic begins even before the evolution of modern humans (Homo sapiens) with the appearance of the tool maker (Homo habilis). For most of human history there was little improvement on the basic stone tools. Only with the migration out of Africa do we begin to see more advanced stone tools. The Stone Age ends at about the time that agriculture appears--the Neolithic Revolution. Of course the passing of the Stone Age did not occur at the same time all over the globe. As late as the 20th century there were still isolated pockets of people living with Stone Age technology.

Australopithecus (4-2 million years ago)

Australopithecus is an extinct genus of hominids, the direct ancestors of modern humans. This is the hominoid genus that diverged from earlier ape-like species. Australopithecus means 'southern ape' and is part of our evolutionary path. There were many species of Australopithecus. The precise number is in dispute, in part because some proposed species may be simply specimens of known species which diverged from the mean. Australopithecus afarensis is a long-lived and relatively well studies species. Remains from more than 300 individuals have been found. This is a rather large number for early hominoids. They have been found in East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania) and dated to 3.85-2.95 million years ago. The finds in East Africa are largely due to the Great Rift Valley which passes north to south through these countries. A. afarensis is known to have survived for more than 900,000 years, which is over four times greater than modern humans (Homo sapiens. And the relatively large number of findings may mean that it was a prolific species. The species is perhaps best known for Lucy. A. afarensis was very similar to chimpanzees, even more so than humans. The children grew very rapidly after birth and thus reached adulthood at an earlier age than modern humans. This meant A. afarensis had a shorter period of growing up and maturation than modern humans. This meant that the young received less parental guidance and socialization. A. afarensis was essentially a bridge between apes and humans, the missing link that was so often sought after Darwin published his concept of evolution. The various Australopithecus species had a mixture of ape and human characteristics. They tended to have apelike faces, a flat nose, a projecting lower jaw. The brain case was much smaller than that of modern man. This was an estimated 500 cubic centimeters which would be about 1/3 the size of a modern human brain. Australopithecus had long, strong arms with curved fingers. This would be the characteristics needed for climbing trees which provides insights into behavior and habitat. They had small canine teeth which was more like humans than apes. They also had a body that stood on two legs and commonly regularly walked upright. These adaptations meant that they could live in a wide range of environments. They could live both in trees and on the ground. This was surely a factor that enabled them to survive for about a million years over which both climate and environments changed. Archaeologists and paleontologists 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. A. africanus was initially regarded as ancestral to the genus Homo and some anthropologists identified Homo erectus as directly related. Anthropologists have since found genus Homo fossils that are older than A. africanus, complicating the evolutionary story.

Birth of Humanity (about 3-2 million years ago)

Australopithecus species clearly were a significant part of human evolution. The genus Homo was derived from Australopithecus about 3 million years ago. Australopithecus primarily had ape-like characteristics, but exhibited some human characteristics. They were the first hominids to show the presence of a gene that causes increased length and ability of neurons in the brain--the duplicated SRGAP2 gene. One of the australopith species eventually evolved into the Homo genus in Africa, bout 2 million years ago. The stone age, however, does not begin until we find stone tools associated with the fossil finds. This is more complicated than it sounds. Early stone tools would not have seen the finely crafted tools of the late-stone age. Some stones found it nature could have been used as tools or with only minor actions worked as tools. After all, several species use stone tools, including birds and mammals like sea otters. This XXX archaeologists have the very difficult task of deciding is stones found near fossils are just old stones or fashioned and used as tools. Often this is a matter of considerable debate.

Paleolithic (2 million years ago-about 10,000 BP)

The Paleolithic was the early stone age. It is by far the earliest and longest 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 humanoid species was Homo habilis, demonstrating the importance of tools in the making of modern man. Habilis lived in Africa. A successor 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 limited food 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/preparation 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, ornaments, 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 sounds could be. Over time people learned how to actually make fire. Hunting was critical 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.

Mesolithic (20,000-5,000 BC)

The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age is a relatively recent term. Other terms have been used. The term represents the need felt by archeologists to better describe the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic (late-stone age). The chronological dates for the Mesolithic vary regionally. Anatomically Modern Man (AMH) occurred at the very end of the Paleolithic Era, especially the post-glacial/gracile sub types, meaning smaller and more fine-boned skeleton beginning (50,000-30,000 BP). [Hawks, et. al.] This means that in the Mesolithic we are talking about AMH. And we see technologically change at a much faster pace. During this period ground stone tools appeared they were much more finely fashioned than those used in the Paleolithic. The tools were commonly used for cutting and smoothing. Some may have been used for ornamentation. The people involved were still hunter gathers. They still simply collected food. without modifying the food they found or the environment in which they found it. Hunting habits might change from targeting large game to small game which was often more plentiful. A major technological change affecting hunting was the appearance of the bow and arrow. This allowed kills at a safe distance. And it occurred right at the transition between from the late-Paleolithic to the Mesolithic. It was also available locally, this less nomadic food strategy that probably played a role in the development of agriculture. People began asking increasing adaptations to localized territories and gradually improved the efficiency with which they utilized the resources available to them. They by now knew where and when resources were available. There are increasingly complex devices including traps, nets, fishhooks built from composite pieces and materials. Small tools were used to make other other more complex tools. There is evidence of small villages where people lived at least part of the year. There were major climatic changes. It was during the Mesolithic that the Ice Age ended (about 8,000 B.C.). The mass extinction of the Pleistocene mega-fauna occurred at this time. Giant mammals like mammoths, mastodons, giant bison, and ground sloths disappeared. This was a factor in shifting hunting strategies to smaller game like antelope and gazelles. Various strategies were developed to hunt these faster more evasive prey. This included driving the prey toward nets and cliffs.

Neolithic (10,000/4,500-2,000 BC)

The Neolithic was the Late Stone age, an ever shorter period of time. The short period reflects the spiraling affect of developing technology. And it can be dated more precisely than the other periods because of the much greater availability of archeological evidence. The Neolithic Era was when man began to settle down to form agricultural communities. Many people mixed foraging with agriculture. The Neolithic Revolution is a term introduced by Gordon Childe (1941). He used it to describe the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. It is during this period that the beginnings of civilization appear in the great River Valleys where the first steps toward agriculture were taken. This meant that people began manipulating their environment. People domesticating plants and animals. Some of the most important early plants were wheat and barley. The most important animals were sheep and goats. This was a critical step and very complex. It including selecting crops and seeds, finding the best sites suitable for each crop, planting and harvesting at the proper time. Similar methods needed to be developed for animal husbandry. And the development of such complex methods and the social structure necessary to pursue them meant in effect the rise of civilization. The results were harvests on a level never before experienced. The wealth produced was another factor in the rise of civilization as it supported a class of people who did not have to labor daily to fulfill their basic needs. This first occurred in the Middle East. The climate and geography were factors. The availability of suitable crops and animals that could be domesticated were also important. One problem in describing the Neolithic period is that the time period varied so widely in different areas and in fact there are even to this day Neolithic peoples such as the Native Americans in the Amazon such as the Yanomano. The Neolithic Era end with the development of metal technology, especially the Bronze Age (about 3,300 BC), although this varied regionally.


Childe (1941).

Diamond, Jereny. Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). "Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 104, No. 52 (2007), pp. 20753-58.


Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to the Main Stone Age page]
[Return to the Main Chronology page]
[About Us]
[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]

Created: 6:17 PM 4/3/2012
Spell checked: 1:28 PM 9/10/2022
Last updated: 1:28 PM 9/10/2022