Paleolithic literally means “Old Stone [Age],” but the Paleolithic era more generally refers to a time in human history when foraging, hunting, and fishing were the primary means of obtaining food.


  • Paleolithic societies were largely dependent on foraging and hunting.
  • While hominid species evolved through natural selection for millions of years, cultural evolution accounts for most of the significant changes in the history of Homo sapiens.
  • Small bands of hunter-gatherers lived, worked, and migrated together before the advent of agriculture.

Sociocultural evolution

Paleolithic literally means “Old Stone [Age],” but the Paleolithic era more generally refers to a time in human history when foraging, hunting, and fishing were the primary means of obtaining food. Humans had yet to experiment with domesticating animals and growing plants. Since hunter-gatherers could not rely on agricultural methods to produce food intentionally, their diets were dependent on the fluctuations of natural ecosystems. They had to worry about whether overfishing a lake would deplete a crucial food source or whether a drought would wither up important plants. In order to ensure enough food production for their communities, they worked to manipulate those systems in certain ways, such as rotational hunting and gathering.
This was the case for much of human history; it was not until about 11,000 years ago that these hunter-gatherer systems began to transform. As humans began migrating and adapting to new environments, they began developing tools and methods that equipped them to make the best of their respective environmental constraints.
The study of early humans often focuses on biological evolution and natural selection. However, it is also equally important to focus on sociocultural evolution, or the ways in which early human societies created culture. Paleolithic humans were not simply cavemen who were concerned only with conquering their next meal. Archaeological evidence shows that the Neanderthals in Europe and Southwest Asia had a system of religious beliefs and performed rituals such as funerals. A burial site in Shanidar Cave in modern-day northeastern Iraq suggests that a Neanderthal’s family covered his body with flowers, which indicates a belief in something beyond death and a deep sense of spirituality. They also constructed shelter and tools.
An opening to a cave, surrounded by greenery and some simple roads and structures.
Shanidar Cave, an archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Image courtesy Flickr.
Cultures evolved and developed in specific environmental contexts, enabling their communities to not only survive but to flourish in unique and dynamic ways. But what exactly is culture? Culture is a broad term which encompasses the full range of learned human behavior patterns, behaviors which are often linked to survival.
Homo sapiens has not changed much anatomically over the last 120,000 years, but it has undergone a massive cultural evolution. Accordingly, cultural creativity rather than physical transformation became the central way humans coped with the demands of nature.
Nevertheless cultural evolution cannot be divorced from biological evolution, as the evolution of a more highly developed and advanced human brain, more highly attuned to social structures, enabled cultural growth. In fact, the very large size of a human brain itself necessitated certain cultural adaptations: many scientists have theorized that more difficult births, due to larger skulls, longer gestation periods, and longer periods of infant dependency, required more advanced social organization and communication, which played a big role in the cultural evolution of humans.
Homo sapiens’ unique aptitude for creativity allowed for symbolic expression, particularly in cultural and spiritual contexts, such as artwork and burial rituals. This creative activity is the hallmark of the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens (wise, wise human), which is what we are today, a subspecies that is distinctive for its intellectual abilities.

Small communities

Eventually, with the expansion of the human population, the density of human groups also increased. This often resulted in conflict and competition over the best land and resources, but it also necessitated cooperation. Due to the constraints of available natural resources, these early communities were not very large, but they included enough members to facilitate some degree of division of labor, security, and exogamous reproduction patterns, which means marrying or reproducing outside of one’s group.
Anthropologists were able to draw these conclusions about Paleolithic people by extrapolating from the experiences of modern hunter-gatherer communities, such as the Khoisan of the African Kalahari Desert. Based on the experiences of modern hunter-gatherer societies, who typically have around 500 members, and based on theoretical mathematical models of group process, Paleolithic bands of people were likely around twenty-five members each, and typically about twenty bands constituted a tribe.
A man standing and looking off into the distance. In the background, there is sandy terrain, some green shrubbery, and a wooden rod. He is wearing a kind of beaded necklace and is not wearing a shirt.
A San man from Namibia. Many San still live as hunter-gatherers. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
How much land did these bands of people need to provide the necessary food and water to support life? Anthropologists have estimated that the technology available to Paleolithic humans who lived between 150,000 and 12,000 years ago would have required over seventy miles of relatively unproductive land, with a low density of resources, or over seven miles of fertile land to meet the basic needs of each small community. However, considering how limited these communities were, this land requirement is extremely inefficient compared to modern productivity levels. At such densities, the area of the modern-day United States could sustain no more than 600,000 people, and the entire planet only 10 million. For comparison, the current population of the United States is well over 300 million, and there are 7 billion people on the planet!

Division of labor

Before the advent of agriculture, Paleolithic humans had little control of the environment, so they focused on staking out territory and negotiating relationships with nearby communities. Eventually, groups created small, temporary settlements, often near bodies of water. These settlements allowed for division of labor, and labor was often divided along gender lines, with women doing much of the gathering, cooking, and child-rearing and men doing much of the hunting, though this was certainly not the case across all Paleolithic societies. For example, some archaeological evidence suggests that Middle Paleolithic cultures in Eurasia split work fairly equally between men and women.
However, it is important to note that gender dynamics in Paleolithic times were likely drastically different from our own, and as such, the division of labor between men and women does not necessarily indicate differences in equality or power. There are competing theories about whether hunting or gathering contributed more to group nutrition, but both seemed to have played an important role.

What do you think?

In what ways does the culture of Paleolithic people resemble modern human cultures ?
Archaeologists often extrapolate the behaviors of ancient hunter-gatherers by studying modern hunter-gatherer groups. Do you think this is a valid approach? Is it useful to learn about modern hunter-gatherer groups in order to understand early societies?
Article written by Eman M. Elshaikh
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