Lower Paleolithic - The Changes Marked by the Early Stone Age

What Human Evolution Took Place During the Early Stone Age?

Homo Erectus with Skull
Depiction of a Homo Erectus next to a Homo Erectus skull for comparison. Homo Erectus is an extinct genus of hominids and ancestor to Homo Sapiens. Science Picture Co / Getty Images

The Lower Paleolithic period, also known as the Early Stone Age, is currently believed to have lasted from between about 2.7 million years ago to 200,000 years ago. It is the first archaeological period in prehistory: that is to say, that period when the first evidence of what scientists consider human behaviors has been found, including stone tool making and the human use and control of fire.

The beginning of the Lower Paleolithic is traditionally marked when the first known stone tool manufacture occurred, and so that date changes as we continue to find evidence for tool-making behavior.

Currently, the earliest stone tool tradition is called the Oldowan tradition, and Oldowan tools have been found at sites in the Olduvai Gorge in Africa dated to 2.5-1.5 million years ago. The earliest stone tools discovered so far are at Gona and Bouri in Ethiopia, and (a little later) Lokalalei in Kenya.

The Lower Paleolithic diet was based on the consumption of scavenged or (at least by the Acheulean period of 1.4 million years ago) hunted large-sized (elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus) and medium-sized (horse, cattle, deer) mammals.

The Rise of the Hominins

The behavioral changes seen during the Lower Paleolithic are ascribed to the evolution of the hominin ancestors of human beings, including Australopithecus, and especially Homo erectus / Homo ergaster.

Stone tools of the Paleolithic include Acheulean handaxes and cleavers; these suggest that most humans of the earliest period were scavengers rather than hunters.

Lower Paleolithic sites are also characterized by the presence of extinct animal types dated to the Early or Middle Pleistocene. Evidence seems to suggest that the controlled use of fire was figured out sometime during the LP.

Leaving Africa

It is currently believed that the human beings known as Homo erectus left Africa and traveled into Eurasia along the Levantine belt.

The earliest yet discovered H. erectus / H. ergaster site outside of Africa is the Dmanisi site in Georgia, dated about 1.7 million years ago. 'Ubeidiya, located close to the Sea of Galilee, is another early H. erectus site, dated to 1.4-1.7 million years ago.

The Acheulean sequence (sometimes spelled Acheulian), a Lower to Middle Paleolithic stone tool tradition, was established in sub-Sarahan Africa, about 1.4 million years ago. The Acheulean tool kit is dominated by stone flakes, but also includes the first bifacially worked tools--tools made by working both sides of a cobble. The Acheulean is divided into three major categories: Lower, Middle and Upper. The Lower and Middle have been assigned to the Lower Paleolithic period.

Over 200 Lower Paleolithic sites are known in the Levant corridor, although only a handful have been excavated:

  • Israel: Evron Quarry, Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Holon, Revadim, Tabun cave, Umm Qatafa
  • Syria: Latamne, Gharmachi
  • Jordan: Ain Soda, Lion's Spring
  • Turkey: Sehrmuz and Kaltepe

Ending the Lower Paleolithic

The end of the LP is debatable and varies from place to place, and so some scholars just consider the period one long sequence, referring to it as the 'Earlier Paleolithic'.

I chose 200,000 as an ending point rather arbitrarily, but it is about the point when Mousterian technologies take over from Acheulean industries as the tool of choice for our hominin ancestors.

Behavioral patterns for the end of the Lower Paleolithic (400,000-200,000 years ago) include blade production, systematic hunting and butchering techniques, and meat-sharing habits. Late Lower Paleolithic hominins probably hunted large game animals with hand-held wooden spears, used cooperative hunting strategies and delayed consumption of high-quality meat parts until they could be moved to a home base.

Lower Paleolithic Hominins: Australopithecus

4.4-2.2 million years ago. Australopithecus was small and gracile, with an average brain size of 440 cubic centimeters. They were scavengers ​and were the first to walk on two legs.

Lower Paleolithic Hominins: Homo erectus / Homo ergaster

ca. 1.8 million to 250,000 years ago. First early human to find its way out of Africa. H. erectus was both heavier and taller than Australopithecus, and a more efficient walker, with an average brain size of about 820 cc. They were the first human with a projecting nose, and their skulls were long and low with large brow ridges.


This article is part of the About.com guide to The Stone Age and Before, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology