Introduction to the Middle Paleolithic

A Neanderthal group in summer

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The Middle Paleolithic period (ca. 200,000 to 45,000 years ago) is when archaic humans including Homo sapiens neanderthalensis appeared and flourished all over the world. Handaxes continued in use, but a new kind of stone tool kit called the Mousterian was created, which included purposefully prepared cores and specialized flake tools.

Early Human Lifestyle

The living method in the Middle Paleolithic for both Homo sapiens and our Neanderthal cousins included scavenging, but there is also clear evidence of hunting and gathering activities. Deliberate human burials, with somewhat controversial evidence of ritual behavior, are found at a handful of sites such as La Ferrassie and Shanidar Cave.

By 55,000 years ago, archaic humans were tending to their elderly, as evidenced at sites like La Chapelle aux Saintes. Some evidence for cannibalism is also found in places such as Krapina and Blombos Cave.

Early Modern Humans in South Africa

The Middle Paleolithic ends with the gradual disappearance of the Neanderthal and the ascendancy of Homo sapiens sapiens, about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago. That didn't happen overnight, however. The beginnings of modern human behaviors are mapped out in the Howiesons Poort/Stillbay Industries of southern Africa, beginning perhaps as long ago as 77,000 years, and leaving Africa along a Southern Dispersal Route.

Middle Stone Age and the Aterian

A handful of sites seem to suggest that the dates for the change to the Upper Paleolithic are way out of whack. The Aterian, a stone tool industry long thought to have been dated to the Upper Paleolithic, is now recognized as Middle Stone Age, dating perhaps as long ago as 90,000 years. One Aterian site—showing early Upper Paleolithic-type behavior but dated much earlier—is at Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco, where shell beads dated 82,000 years old have been discovered. Another problematic site is Pinnacle Point South Africa, where red ochre use has been documented at ca. 165,000 years ago. Only time will tell if these dates remain accurate by scientific reckoning.

Neanderthal hung on, too. The latest known Neanderthal site, from ca. 25,000 years ago, is Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar. Finally, the debate still is unsettled about the Flores individuals, dating to the Middle Paleolithic but extending well into the Upper, who may represent the separate hominin species Homo floresiensis.