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READ: Paleolithic Culture and Common Human Experiences

In their quest to survive, Paleolithic humans joined together, leading to the beginnings of what we today call “culture.”
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. According to the author, why do humans group together to form communities and how is this similar to how other species interact?
  2. Why did early foraging communities come together and why might these communities come together to form networks?
  3. What’s the difference between the stereotypical ideas about Paleolithic foraging practices and family relationships compared to what new evidence suggests about these tasks and relationships?
  4. Why was language an important tool for foraging communities and how might different communities form language networks?
  5. How did the formation of communities and language networks lead to the creation of distinct but similar human cultures?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. The author makes many claims about the creation of culture in her article but what evidence does she use to back up these claims, and how can we trust that she is a reliable source?
  2. In the article “Art of the Paleolithic” you read about the Venus of Willendorf and similar figurines found from this time period. This image shows up again in this article. How might these figures represent the shared culture of early humans while also showing how human cultures varied?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Paleolithic Culture and Common Human Experiences

A photo of rock art made up of handprints
By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
In their quest to survive, Paleolithic humans joined together, leading to the beginnings of what we today call “culture.”


Most animals are social creatures. They come together in family groups or herds for protection, to raise their young, and find food, which are all factors to their survival. Humans are in many ways similar to other animals in that they form groups such as families or clans (a group of people linked together through family ties and imagined or adopted kinship) to help the species survive. We still do this today except many of our goals are not necessarily survival but rather more social in nature. For example, in your school community you might be a member of the art club or play a sport. You and your family might be members of a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue in your local community. Your parents might support causes by becoming members of an organization like Greenpeace. Maybe one of your parents owns a business and they've joined the local chamber of commerce or Rotary club to meet with other business owners in their community. Humans are most certainly social animals and we tend to bond in groups over shared interests or experiences. Early foraging communities were very similar but their main goal of joining together in groups was survival. Yet, in creating these groups, they also began developing human cultures.

The human cultural experience

Culture is a difficult word to define. Some people define it as the way of life of people. But if we use that broad definition, then everything that people do can be counted as culture. Others use the term culture to describe someone who is well read or knows a great deal about art. For our purposes, we're going to use historian Bob Bain's definition for this term as "ideas, beliefs, and practices that are acquired, created, or learned as a member of a group to manage human challenges." For early humans living in the Paleolithic Era, these challenges might include:
  • How to maintain order and manage conflicts between group members and with strangers
  • How to produce and distribute food, shelter, and other important aspects of survival
  • How to develop ways to communicate
  • How to deal with nature
  • How to organize labor to ensure survival
  • How to build relationships between old and young, men and women, and parents and children in one’s group
  • How to design and use tools
Paleolithic humans often organized themselves into family groups with about 25 people or fewer in them. Making decisions about how to cope with challenges among a group of 25 family members might have been relatively easy. However, Paleolithic humans often joined multiple family groups to form a larger group with many as 100 people. As the group grows, making decisions and coordinating members becomes more difficult. The members of the group must collectively decide on the best ways to organize the group in order to ensure food, safety, and ultimately, survival.

Shared human experiences

Different Paleolithic human communities devised similar ways of dealing with their challenges because the types of issues they faced were similar wherever they lived. For example, all Paleolithic peoples foraged (hunted and gathered) because that was the only way to get food before the creation of farming. Therefore, early human groups had to decide which members would gather and which ones would hunt or fish. But who did what kind of foraging is difficult to tell from the remaining skeletal or archeological evidence, and modern hunting and gathering cultures show a range of patterns. Stereotypical representations of Paleolithic people often portray men going off to hunt while women and children crouch around a fire, waiting for the men to bring back great slabs of meat. But much hunting was done by driving herds of animals toward a cliff or throwing nets over them, types of hunting in which we know women participated in more recent eras. We know that Paleolithic infants were nursed by their mothers or other women who had recently given birth, as there was nothing else that they could eat. But among modern hunting and gathering cultures, childcare beyond infancy is a highly valued and culturally important task shared by everyone, and it may also have been for Paleolithic groups.
A piece of wood sharpened to a point and smoothed by fire
Spear head in wood hardened on fire, from Clacton (Essex, UK). It is one of the oldest wooden tools in the world (about 400,000 years ago). By José-Manuel Benito Alvarez, CC BY-SA
Hunting and gathering also required communication between humans. These human groups developed names for certain animals or plants in order to tell others where to find them, how to prepare them, or the best way to capture them. Communication was also necessary for safety: to keep the fire burning at night to ward off animals or learn how to interact with other groups in the local area. Decisions had to be made about the best way to raise children and how to teach them the necessary skills to survive. Information was passed down orally from one generation to the next about what plants were poisonous or which ones might help to cure an illness, all of which was a trial-and-error process. Stories were also shared about common beliefs or how certain groups explained natural phenomena like a flood or an eclipse. Additionally, language networks played a crucial role in allowing humans to share information and beliefs. Communities that lived close to one another usually spoke similar languages or they were able to speak the languages of their community and of the other communities in their region. Sometimes, a particular set of skills or even a specific culture was invented by members of a language network in one region and then shared or adopted by others in that area. The Venus of Willendorf figure shown below is an example of these shared ideas. Figures of this shape, size, and structure were found in multiple areas across Afro-Eurasia during the Paleolithic era, which indicates that beliefs and ideas were communicated and shared by many communities. All of these practices combined to form a particular group or community's culture, or how they acquired, created, or learned the best ways to survive in their particular set of circumstances.
Faceless, rounded sculpture of a woman’s body
Venus of Willendorf (small religious figure, possible fertility symbol, Paleolithic, c. 30,000 BCE). By Matthias Kabel, CC BY 2.5.
While Paleolithic communities shared the same challenges and created cultures to deal with these issues, each culture was somewhat different. These differences were based on a number of factors such as the geography or environment where the group lived, the resources available, the language and tools they developed, and the stories they created. The farther apart the human groups were, the greater the differences between these communities. For example, a foraging group that lived in the rainforests of central Africa might develop tools and techniques based upon their local resources. Information would be passed down about certain varieties of food and the best ways to construct tools and weapons to hunt local game. Their language, means of survival, and their stories about nature and creation would be very different than a group that lived on the coasts in Southeast Asia or those that resided in the mountains of Mesoamerica. Therefore, humans as a species developed shared responses to challenges and these responses make up human culture. However, human culture can vary greatly, which is why there is such a variety of beliefs, practices, and experiences among humans. Sometimes these differences lead to arguments, violence, and distrust, but overall, these differences make humans unique, and our ability to share and mix these cultures adds diversity to the world.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

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