Upper Paleolithic - Modern Humans Take the World

Guide to the Upper Paleolithic

Lascaux II - Image from the Reconstruction of Lascaux Cave
Lascaux II - Image from the Reconstruction of Lascaux Cave. Jack Versloot

The Upper Paleolithic (ca 40,000-10,000 years BP) was a period of great transition in the world. The Neanderthals in Europe became edged out and disappeared by 33,000 years ago, and modern humans began to have the world to themselves. While the notion of a "creative explosion" has given way to a recognition of a long history of the development of human behaviors long before we humans left Africa, there is no doubt that things really got cooking during the UP.

Timeline of the Upper Paleolithic

In Europe, it is traditional to split the Upper Paleolithic into five overlapping and somewhat regional variants, based on differences between stone and bone tool assemblages.

Tools of the Upper Paleolithic

Stone tools of the Upper Paleolithic were primarily blade-based technology. Blades are stone pieces that are twice as long as they are wide and, generally, have parallel sides. They were used to create an astonishing range of formal tools, tools created to specific, wide-spread patterns with specific purposes.

In addition, bone, antler, shell and wood were used to a great degree for both artistic and working tool types, including the first eyed needles presumably for making clothing about 21,000 years ago.

The UP is perhaps best known for the cave art, wall paintings and engravings of animals and abstractions at caves such as Altamira, Lascaux, and Coa. Another development during the UP is mobiliary art (basically, mobiliary art is that which can be carried), including the famous Venus figurines and sculpted batons of antler and bone carved with representations of animals.

Upper Paleolithic Lifestyles

People living during the Upper Paleolithic lived in houses, some built of mammoth bone, but most huts with semi-subterranean (dugout) floors, hearths, and windbreaks.

Hunting became specialized, and sophisticated planning is shown by the culling of animals, selective choices by season, and selective butchery: the first hunter-gatherer economy. Occasional mass animal killings suggest that in some places and at some times, food storage was practiced. Some evidence (different site types and the so-called schlep effect) suggest that small groups of people went on hunting trips and returned with meat to the base camps.

The first domesticated animal appears during the Upper Paleolithic: the dog, companion to us humans for over 15,000 years.

Colonization during the UP

Humans colonized Australia and the Americas by the end of the Upper Paleolithic and moved into hitherto unexploited regions such as deserts and tundras.

The End of the Upper Paleolithic

The end of the UP came about because of climate change: global warming, which affected humanity's ability to fend for itself. Archaeologists have called that period of adjustment the Azilian.

Upper Paleolithic Sites


See specific sites and issues for additional references.

Cunliffe, Barry. 1998. Prehistoric Europe: An Illustrated History. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Fagan, Brian (editor). 1996 The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Brian Fagan. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Upper Paleolithic - Modern Humans Take the World." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/upper-paleolithic-modern-humans-173073. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Upper Paleolithic - Modern Humans Take the World. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/upper-paleolithic-modern-humans-173073 Hirst, K. Kris. "Upper Paleolithic - Modern Humans Take the World." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/upper-paleolithic-modern-humans-173073 (accessed June 2, 2023).