Paleolithic groups developed increasingly complex tools and objects made of stone and natural fibers.

Overview

  • Paleolithic groups developed increasingly complex tools and objects made of stone and natural fibers.
  • Language, art, scientific inquiry, and spiritual life were some of the most important innovations of the Paleolithic era.

Technological innovation

Stone tools are perhaps the first cultural artifacts which historians can use to reconstruct the worlds of Paleolithic peoples. In fact, stone tools were so important in the Paleolithic age that the names of Paleolithic periods are based on the progression of tools: Lower Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), and Neolithic (New Stone Age).1^1
Stone tools also give us insight into the development of culture. Anthropologists think Paleolithic people likely hunted, foraged, and employed a communal system for dividing labor and resources. Anthropologists have inferred this by drawing analogies to modern hunter-gatherer groups and by interpreting cave art which depicts group hunting.
Seven tools which appear to be made of stone displayed against a grey backdrop. Four tools are in the top row and appear to be sharpened to a point. Three relatively smaller tools are in the bottom row and are not as sharp.
Paleolithic tools found in Bernifal cave in Meyrals, Dordogne, France, estimated to be 12,000 - 10,000 years old. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
By approximately 40,000 years ago, narrow stone blades and tools made of bone, ivory, and antler appeared, along with simple wood instruments. Closer to 20,000 years ago, the first known needles were produced. Eventually, between 17,000 and 8,000 years ago, humans produced more complicated instruments like barbed harpoons and spear-throwers.
It is likely that many tools made out of materials besides stone were prevalent but simply did not survive to the present day for scientists to observe. One exception is the Neolithic “Ice Man”, found by two hikers in the Ötztal Alps, who was preserved in ice for 5,000 years! He was found with a robust set of stone and natural-fiber tools, including a six-foot longbow, deerskin case, fourteen arrows, a stick with an antler tip for sharpening flint blades, a small flint dagger in a woven sheath, a copper axe, and a medicine bag.
An image of a model of a pre-historic man. He is wearing garments made of fur and hide and carries a stick. He has significant facial hair.
Naturalistic reconstruction of Ötzi the Paleolithic Ice Man in South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Language, culture and art

Language was perhaps the most important innovation of the Paleolithic era. Scientists can infer the early use of language from the fact that humans traversed large swaths of land, established settlements, created tools, traded, and instituted social hierarchies and cultures. Without the aid of language, these things would likely have been impossible.
Examinations of the craniums of archaic Homo sapiens suggest large brains with indentations that imply the development of brain areas associated with speech. Exactly how humans developed a capacity for language is a matter of considerable debate. However, the historical record shows that language allowed for increasingly complex social structures, with an enhanced capacity for deliberation, morality, spirituality, and meaning-making.
Artwork such as cave painting and portable art demonstrates creativity and group structures as well. They show an interest in sharing knowledge, expressing feelings, and transmitting cultural information to later generations. Though artwork from over 35,000 years ago is rare, there is ample evidence of cave paintings and statuettes from later periods.
A bison figure painted with red pigment on a smooth tan-colored surface with some visible cracks. The painter also utilized black strokes to add detail.
Reproduction of a bison illustration nearly 14,000 years old, from the Cave of Altamira located near Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain. The cave was first rediscovered in 1868 Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In addition to cave art, portable figurines dated to Paleolithic times have been found. Many of these include finely carved facial features, while others accentuate sexual organs and buttocks, such as the 25,000 year old figurine found at Dolni Vestonice in the modern-day Czech Republic. Such an object shows a desire to create beautiful figurines, but some also suggest that objects like this are tied to an interest in human fertility.
A statue made of polished dark stone representing a female figure with exaggerated breasts and hips. There are no defined facial features and distinct arms are not visible.
Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a Venus figurine, a ceramic statuette of a nude female figure dated to 29,000–25,000 BCE. It was found at the Paleolithic site Dolní Věstonice in the Moravian basin south of Brno, in the base of Děvín Mountain. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What do you think?

What evidence do we have that Paleolithic people had developed a capacity for language? Could Paleolithic people have survived in the ways that they did without language?
What do you think was the purpose of Paleolithic art such as cave paintings and figurines?
Article written by Eman M. Elshaikh
  1. Partially adapted from "Mesolithic Art" from Boundless Art History, "CC BY-SA 4.0"
Additional References:
Beck, Roger B., Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, and Dahia Ibo Shabaka. World History: Patterns of Interaction. McDougal LIttel, 2005.
Bulliet, Richard W., Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Steven W. Hirsch, Lyman L. Johnson, and David Northrup. The Earth and Its Peoples: a Global History. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011.
Spodek, Howard. The World's History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.
Strayer, Robert W. Ways of the World. Bedford St. Martin's, 2016.
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