What Happened in the Paleolithic Age?

“Paleolithic” comes from Greek words for old, “palaios,” and stone, “lithos.”
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If you can’t wait for the next version of your phone, tablet or computer, be patient. It’s probably coming relatively soon. Just be glad you didn’t live during the Paleolithic Age, which lasted from about 2.6 million to about 10,500 years ago. Because of the simple tools used by the people living during this time, this era is commonly referred to as the Stone Age. However, many species of early humans lived during the period, and some great advances were made in their societies.

Out of Africa

Though the first early humans started off living in Africa, by the end of the Paleolithic Age, they had spread to the other continents. The four periods of climate change -- ice ages -- that occurred during this period were part of early humans' motivation to migrate. Temperatures plunged, glaciers expanded and sea levels dropped.

In response, some early humans adjusted to the change, while others journeyed to new areas. Land bridges connected continents, so about 150,000 years ago humans began to move into the Middle East. It took another 90,000 years until they headed to Australia, and even longer to reach central and east Asia.

Stone Age Toolkit

Early humans didn’t have jigsaws or power drills to complete complex tasks or construction, but they developed a number of useful everyday tools. The earliest ones included sturdy stone chips or "flakes" for cutting meat, plant products and wood. Large handheld stones became hammers to prepare foods, such as cracking bones to obtain marrow.

After about a million years, bigger cutting tools were created. Teardrop-shaped flat stones served as axes and were so practical they lasted another million years. About 40,000 years ago, ancient humans found new toolmaking materials. They repurposed the bones of many prey animals to fashion harpoon-like spears, fish hooks and sewing needles. Finding food became more sophisticated with the invention of a spear thrower. The hunter held the gadget in his hand and used it to guide the spear as he hurled it, improving the distance, accuracy and force of the throw.

Painting 101

You may not picture Cro-Magnons as artists, but it was during their era – about 31,000 B.C. – that cave painting began. Walls and ceilings were the canvases, minerals were used as paint and fingers and animal hair became brushes. These painters also spread paint by blowing through a tube. Though most of the illustrations were horses and bison, other animal icons, including cattle, deer, goats and bears, have also been discovered in caves.

Humans were seldom the artists’ subjects. The painters didn’t sign their work, but they did leave handprints as identification. Researchers believe that these paintings may have had a religious nature. It's possible that Cro-Magnons idolized certain animals, or that they prayed to spirits for a successful hunt of the animals depicted. European Cro-Magnons also fashioned jewelry from bone, teeth, shells and clay and sculpted figures of animals, people and fertility symbols.

Food, Glorious Food

Early humans were largely nomads, probably traveling in extended family groups. Food came from two sources. The hunters of the group, the males, hunted animals for food. The group females gathered plants to supplement their meals. During the Paleolithic Era, fire was used to prepare food, making it easier to eat.

Over 300,000 years ago, Neanderthal hunter-gathers lived in Africa and Asia. They searched in groups for animals, using fire, stone tools and spears to make the kill. However, the hunters were often the ones killed. Cro-Magnon were more skilled at finding food. They understood animal migration, so they followed their prey. Weapons also improved: they had bows and arrows and spear-throwing devices.

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