A Guide to the Paleolithic - Study Guide, Chronology of the Stone Age

A Beginner's Guide to the Paleolithic Period or Stone Age

Human Evolution
Conceptual image showing four stages of human evolution; Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens. Science Picture Co / Getty Images

The Stone Age (or Paleolithic Period also spelled Palaeolithic) in human prehistory is the name given to the period between about 2.7 million and 10,000 years ago--you'll see different dates for the starting and stopping points of the Paleolithic periods, in part because we're still learning about these ancient occurrences. The Paleolithic is all about us--our species Homo sapiens and how we got to be what we are today.

The people who study the past of humans are called archaeologists, and archaeologists mark the recent past of our planet in chunks that pertain to ourselves--the evolution of physical human beings and their behaviors. The Paleolithic is the earliest archaeology; anything older is called paleontology. So, the Paleolithic period begins in Africa with the earliest human-like behaviors of crude stone tool manufacture about 2.7 million years ago and ends when we were physically and intellectually what we are today, fully modern human hunting and gathering societies. Domestication of plants and animals marks the beginning of modern human society.

Leaving Africa

After decades of debate, the majority of scientists are now convinced that our earliest human ancestors evolved in Africa. In Europe, where humans finally arrived after about a million years in Africa, the Paleolithic was marked by a cycle of glacial and interglacial periods, during which time glaciers grew and shrank, covering mass portions of land and forcing a cycle of human depopulation and recolonization.

Today scholars divide the Paleolithic into three categories, called Lower Paleolithic, Middle Paleolithic, and Upper Paleolithic in Europe and Asia; and Early Stone Age, Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age in Africa.

Lower Paleolithic (or Early Stone Age) about 2.7 million-300,000 years ago

In Africa, where the earliest humans arose, the Early Stone Age begins some 2.7 million years ago, with the earliest stone tools recognized to date called Oldowan tradition in the Olduvai Gorge of East Africa.

These tools were simple fist-sized cores and whole flakes created by two ancient hominins, Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis. The earliest hominins left Africa about 1.7 million years ago, arriving at sites such as Dmanisi in Georgia, where hominins--probably Homo erectus--made stone tools suggestive of those from Africa.

Human ancestors are called as a group hominins, and the species who evolved in the Lower Paleolithic include AustralopithecusHomo habilisHomo erectus,  and Homo ergaster, among others. 

Middle Paleolithic / Middle Stone Age (about 300,000-45,000 BP)

The Middle Paleolithic period (ca 300,000 to 45,000 years ago) witnessed the evolution of Neanderthals and the first anatomically and eventually behaviorally modern Homo sapiens .

All of the living members of our species, Homo sapiens, are descended from a single population in Africa. During the Middle Paleolithic, H. sapiens first left from northern Africa to colonize the Levant between about 100,000-90,000 years ago, but those colonies failed. The earliest successful and permanent Homo sapiens occupations outside of Africa date to about 60,000 years ago.

Achieving what scholars call behavioral modernity was a long, slow process, but some of the first glimmers arose in the Middle Paleolithic, such as the development of sophisticated stone tools, caring for the elderly, hunting and gathering and some amount of symbolic or ritual behavior.

Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age) 45,000-10,000 BP

By the Upper Paleolithic (45,000-10,000 years ago), the Neanderthals were in decline, and by 30,000 BP, they were gone. Modern humans spread all over the planet, including the Sahul (Australia) about 50,000 years ago, mainland Asia about 28,000 years ago and finally the Americas, about 16,000 years ago.

The Upper Paleolithic is characterized by fully modern behaviors such as cave art, hunting a range of techniques including bows and arrows, and making a wide range of tools in stone, bone, ivory and antler.

Sources

This article is part of the About.com guide to World History, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology

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