The Paleolithic Era

40,000 – 8000 B.C.E.

The period known as the Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age, which dates from about 40,000  to 10,000 years ago, was a time of notable advances in human mental development and technology. More sophisticated tools and artifacts were produced, the first settlements were established, the first languages were spoken and the first works of art created. Humans also began to travel, building boats or rafts that took them to Australia and crossing the freezing land bridge into the Americas.

Scientists have puzzled over the causes of the ‘Upper Paleolithic Revolution’ – the sudden acceleration in human development 40,000 years ago. Some say climate change played a part in this. The Earth, already in the midst of an ice age, grew colder during this period. Necessity of survival in these harsh conditions may well have been the mother of human invention. Lower global temperatures may have, for example, reduced the availability of timber and made flint brittle and unusable as a tool, forcing people to consider other materials. According to another theory, the development of language may have actually changed people’s behavior, giving humans the capacity to plan for the future and communicate complex and abstract ideas.



Modern humans had arrived in China and South-east Asia by around 75,000 years ago. Here they learned how to build rafts or boats, and by 40,000 years ago they had reached New Guinea and Australia (then joined into one giant continent), probably by a series of great island-hopping voyages. At about the same time, modern humans moved into Europe, where they hunted the vast herds of reindeer, horse, bison, and mammoth that moved across the Eurasina steppes and tundras.

North-eastern Siberia was settled around 20,000  years ago, perhaps by people moving up from northern China. At that time, Asia was connected to North America by a frozen landbridge, which was first crossed by people some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. These original American gradually spread through the new continent, reaching the southernmost tip of South America 11,000 years ago.

The earliest organized settlements date to around 27,000 years ago. These took the form of campsites, some with storage pits, and they were often located in the bottoms of narrow valleys, perhaps to make it easier to hunt passing herds. Most were probably not settled all year round, but were inhabited at certain times of the year to take advantage of seasonal food sources.





One changing aspect of our Earth affected Stone Age people more than anything else – the climate. Over many thousands of years, the climate gradually grew cooler and then just as slowly warmed up again. This cycle happened many times, changing the landscape and the plants and animals that lived in it.

During cool periods, called glacials, sea levels dropped, exposing more land. Herds of animals grazed vast grasslands and the cold, bare tundra farther north. When temperatures rose, so did sea levels, isolating people on newly formed islands. Woodlands gradually covered the plains.

Prehistoric people faced severe challenges from the environment. During several ice ages, the Earth cooled. Thick glaciers, or sheets of ice, spread across parts of Asia, Europe, and North America. To endure the cold, Paleolithic people invented clothing. Wrapped in animal skins, they took refuge in caves or under rocky overhangs during the long winters. They also learned to build fires for warmth and cooking. In this harsh life, only the hardy survived.

Glacier Photographs taken during my visit to Alaska (2010)


Mr. Martinez @ Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

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Ancient ice still forms many worldwide glaciers. The height of the last glacial was reached about 18,000 years ago. At this time almost 30 percent of the Earth was covered by ice, including large parts of North America, Europe and Asia, as well as New Zealand and southern Argentina. Temperatures dropped, and sea levels fell by over 100 meters.
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Hunters and Gatherers


Foraging societies were composed of small groups of people who traveled from point to point as the climate and availability of plants and animals dictated. Because they were tied to nature for sustenance, they were also at the mercy of nature. Climate changes, disease, famine, and natural disasters could endanger or eliminate entire communities. Even when times were good, foraging societies were limited by the capacity of their surroundings. Members of these societies did not build permanent shelters and had only a few personal belongings.

Paleolithic people lived in small hunting and food-gathering bands numbering about 20 to 30 people. Everyone contributed to feeding the group. In general, men hunted and fished. Women,, with their small children, gathered berries, fruit, nuts, wild grain, roots, or even shellfish. This food kept the band alive when game was scarce. Paoleolithic people were nomads, moving from place to place as they followed game animals and ripening fruit.

People depended wholly on thier environment for survival. At the same time, they found ways to adapt to their surroundings. They made simple tools and weapons out of the materials at hand – stone, bone, or wood. At some point, Stone Age people developed spoken language language, which let them cooperate during the hunt and perhaps discuss plans for the future.



Before the Upper Paleolithic period, all tools were made of stone. Most were crude in appearance and could be used for a number of functions. Around 40,000 years ago, the archaeological record shows a dramatic improvement in the range and sophistication of tools. Bone, ivory and antler were used to obtain more refined and complex designs than was possible with stone or wood, and tools came to serve more specialized functions, such as cutting, slicing, carving, piercing, engraving or drilling. Eyed needles of bone, oil lamps and rope all appeared for the first time during this period, and bone needles in particular were important in the development of close-fitting clothing. As people became more skillful and ambitious at hunting and fishing, they created better equipment, including sturdy spears, darts, harpoons and fish hooks.

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One of the most fascinating developments of this period was the first art. As people progressed beyond mere subsistence they began to decorate themselves with jewelry, such as beads made from polished shells. Then, from about 30.000 years ago, the first carvings appeared –  sculptures and engravings of animals and people, made from bone, ivory or stone. At about this time, the first cave art appeared in Europe – paintings of hunted animals, such as mammoths, horses and bison, many of them of very high artistic quality. Some show animals that have been speared. The colors they used – black, red and yellow – were obtained from charcoal, clay, iron and other minerals. Late-Stone Age Europeans also made clay, ivory or stone figurines of women, which may have represented fertility.



Exactly when spoken language developed is a mystery. It is possible that Neanderthals had a crude language. Studies of the anatomy of their vocal tracts show they were certainly capable of it. However, many anthropologists believe that speech first developed during the late Stone Age. They argue that the development of complex tools, the increasing specialization of human activity and the invention of art, all required greater cooperation between individuals, necessitating long speech.



We can only speculate about what life was like in the late Stone Age. It is estimated that there were around ten million humans in the whole world at that time. There is evidence of limited trade, with finds of exotic materials in some settlements, far from their origins. However, most people lived isolated existences, rarely if ever meeting anyone outside of their own group or tribe. These groups were certainly larger and more settled than those of earlier epochs. The earliest remains of built settlements, from around 10,000 years ago, suggest that these groups might have included between 400 and 600 people. The social organization of these groups can only be guessed at.

Content Source:

A Short History of the World , Alex Woolf, Metro Books, New York, 2008
The Princeton Review: Cracking the AP World History Exam, 2006-2007
Edition, Random House, New York, 2007.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Hurdman, MacDonald, Steele,
Tames, Armadillo Books, Pennsylvania, 2011.
Glacier Personal Images: Robert L. Martinez,
World History: A Connection to Today, Prentice Hall, 2003.



About historymartinez

Social Studies Department Chair, Room A305 Tutoring Mondays @ 4:15 pm & Wednesdays @ 8:00 a.m.
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