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Stone Age

Tools, dates, periods, hominins
Chronology of Paleolithic art

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Member of the San people in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa
All Stone Age art, without exception, was created by hunter-gatherers, whose lifestyle followed a similar pattern to that of many San people in the Kalahari Desert, today. Image by SAT. (CC BY 2.0)

What is the Stone Age?

The Stone Age is the name given to the period of time when early humans made stone tools - a major step-up from tools made from sticks or animal bones.

However, the history of stone tools - and thus the Stone Age - is constantly changing, as evidence of earlier tool-making continues to emerge.

Lomekwi 3: First Stone Tools

At present, archaeologists believe that the first stone tools were made at a site called Lomekwi 3, on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

A collection of several hundred tools, including sharp flakes of stone used for cutting, as well as hammers and anvils, were discovered here in 2011, dating to about 3.3 million years ago (mya).

The previous year, animal bones bearing cut marks - dating to 3.3 mya - had been found not far away at Dikika in Ethiopia, suggesting that Pliocene hominins were using stone tools to process mammal carcasses. However, no actual stone tools were recovered from the site.

Until these discoveries, the oldest lithic artifacts were thought to be Oldowan-style tools discovered at Bokol Dora 1 in the paleoanthropological area of LediGeraru in Ethiopia, dating to about 2.61 mya.

The Oldowan tool culture was first identified by Louis Leakey at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, and is associated with Homo habilis, the first species of the genus Homo.

However, H. habilis did not appear until about 2.8 mya, and so could not have made the earlier tools found at Lake Turkana in Kenya.

So who did made the Lomekwi 3 artifacts? It was probably one of the Australopithecines, like Australopithecus afarensis (lived 3.9–2.9 mya), Kenyanthropus platyops, or perhaps Australopithecus africanus (lived 3.3-2.1 mya).

These are the only pre-Homo species associated with Lake Turkana at the time.

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Importance of Tools in Prehistory

Humans have relied heavily upon technology for their survival and growth as a species, and the interaction between technological and biological adaptations have played a key role in the evolution of our lineage.

As a result, Stone Age culture is largely defined by tool types.

The term 'Stone Age' was invented in the late 19th century by the Danish antiquarian Christian J. Thomsen (1788-1865) who devised the 'Three Age System' - a technological framework featuring three successive periods - Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age - based on the tool technology in use.

Dates and Chronology

What are the dates of the Stone Age? At present, prehistorians believe it began about 3.3 mya and ended between 4,000 BC and 2,000 BC, with the arrival of metalworking. It consists of three periods: one very long, and two very small:

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Paleolithic

This period is sub-divided into three eras.

Lower Paleolithic
3.3 mya-300,000 BC

This long period saw the gradual development of the human species, as evidenced by its migrations out of Africa and the evolution of its cultural and cognitive toolkit.

Art was limited to cupules and some primitive abstract markings, such as the Trinil engravings and the Bilzingsleben engravings, although applied-art - in the form of stone tools - was everywhere.

See also: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Tool Cultures

Middle Palelithic
300,000-40,000 BC

This period saw more advances in tool technology. It also witnessed some of the oldest art in Africa, including shell jewellery at Bizmoune Cave, and abstract engravings at Pinnacle Point, Blombos Cave and Diepkloof.

In Europe it saw the the Krapina eagle jewellery in Croatia, the Bruniquel Cave Constructions in France, as well as the pictographs in the caves of Maltravieso and La Pasiega in Spain - all created by Neanderthals.

Tool Cultures

Upper Paleolithic
40,000-10,000 BC

Tools and Art

Toolmaking during the Upper Paleolithic focused on the production of specialist tools, more of which were made out of bone, antler and ivory.

Microliths (small stone tools) became more popular. Good examples are microblades - small sharp tools used as projectile points or knives.

Hunting tools were another specialty. Tool-makers introduced the spear-thrower (atlatl), as well as bow and arrow technology.

Another huge achievement was the drawing and carving of figurative images of animals, as well as thousands of abstract signs, which have yet to be decoded.

Indeed, the reputation of Stone Age cave painting and rock engraving rests entirely on the quality of Upper Paleolithic art, created exclusively by modern humans.

It all began in the limestone caves of Indonesia, with the stunning Sulawesi Cave paintings, whose significance is matched only by the art at Chauvet and Lascaux.

Throughout the Upper Paleolithic, one of the most productive areas was the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, located in southwestern France and northern Spain. See, in particular, the Vézère Valley Caves.

The period is divided into four main toolmaking and artistic cultures.

  1. Aurignacian culture
    40,000-30,000 BC
    Named after Aurignac Cave, it gave birth to the awesome cave art at Chauvet. Also saw the first figurative prehistoric sculpture, from the Swabian Jura in Germany.

  2. Gravettian culture
    30,000-20,000 BC
    Named after La Gravette, it is strongly associated with venus figurines, a popular form of mobililary art, as temperatures plummeted.

  3. Solutrean culture
    20,000-15,000 BC
    Named after the hunting station of Rock of Solutré, the culture is associated with high quality rock art at Roc de Sers and Fourneau-du-Diable, and the dramatic parietal art at Lascaux.

  4. Magdalenian culture
    15,000-10,000 BC
    Named after La Madeleine rock shelter, it witnessed the full flowering of paleolithic art in the caves at Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume, Gabillou, Altamira, Ekain, Les Trois Frères, Niaux, Tuc D'Audoubert, Les Combarelles, and Cap Blanc.

For more about the colours used in Upper Paleolithic cave art, see: Stone Age Colour Palette: Paint Pigments Used in Caves.

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Mesolithic

The Mesolithic era - a period invented by Irish archaeologist Hodder Westropp (1820–85) in 1872 - was the final stage of hunter-gatherer culture before the Neolithic revolution.

Outside Europe, the period is usually called the Epipaleolithic.

In general, mesolithic populations continued to use Magdalenian tools such as axes, end scrapers, burins, knives, projectile points and microliths, but with a strong emphasis on easily portable tools.

In addition, stone tools were replaced more often by lighter implements made from bone and antler.

These changes occurred because a warmer climate caused European tundra and grasslands to shrink, creating in their place a more wooded environment devoid of megafauna, which made hunting a lengthier and more time consuming process.

Mesolithic Art

With a warmer climate, people lose their connection with caves, and European cave art disappears altogether.

In Africa and India, painting continues at Wonderwerk Cave, and in the rock shelters at Bhimbetka and in the Pachmarhi Hills.

Art also takes to the open air at various sites as illustrated by the petroglyphs on the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau in Algeria.

Neolithic

The Neolithic era starts anywhere between 9,500 and 4,500 BC and lasts until the Bronze Age around 3,000-2,000 BC. The term was also coined by Lubbock.

The period began when humans swapped their hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a life of farming and animal husbandry.

This new lifestyle required new types of stone tools (adzes, axes, chisels, gouges, hoes) to clear the land, which were produced not by knapping and flaking, but by grinding and polishing.

Wood now became an indispensable material for tool-making and home-building, and required its own specialized woodworking tools.

In southeast Turkey, the stone sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe (c.9,000 BC) - described by its first excavator Klaus Schmidt as the 'world's first temple' - contains the world's oldest megalithic architecture, as well as megalithic art in the form of anthropomorphic and animal carvings.

Incredibly, the skills shown by the builders of Göbekli Tepe, in handling massive megaliths, predated the more famous site of Stonehenge by an incredible seven thousand years.

See also the nearby inundated temple site of Nevalı Çori (9,200-7,500 BC) and Çatalhöyük (7,100 BC), the world's first proto-city.

Neolithic Art

Artwise, the needs of the Neolithic had a strong materialist and domestic focus.

Ancient pottery and terracotta sculpture flourished (being aided by the invention of new ovens), as did a variety of statuettes and personal adornments. See: Ancient Pottery Timeline.

Megalthic architecture and decoration also flourished due to the building of religious temples, tombs and shrines, such as Newgrange Passage Tomb in Ireland, and Stonehenge in southern England.

Towards the end of the Neolithic era, copper smelting appeared - marking a transition to the Bronze Age - sometimes referred to as the Chalcolithic or (in Central Asia and the Caucasus) as the Eneolithic era.

With the advent of Bronze metalworking, most stone technology became obsolete, and the Stone Age came to an end, although stone masonry became a highly sought after profession, as demand for stone buildings soared.

See also: Iron Age Art in Europe.

Digging Up the Past

For a short guide to the theory and practice of archaeological digs, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Stone Age Hominins

Which species of humans lived during the Stone Age? When and where did they live?

As we have seen, the first stone tools were fashioned about 3.3 mya by pre-Homo hominins - the favourite candidates being Kenyanthropus platyops or Australopithecus africanus.

More than half a million years passed before the first human species - Homo habilis (aka Australopithecus habilis) appeared and introduced Oldowan culture. Homo habilis lived between 2.8 mya and 1.6 mya and is believed to have migrated out of Africa as far as Georgia in the Caucasus.

Overlapping with H. habilis, is Homo erectus, who appeared around 2 mya and did not become officially extinct until after 200,000 BC.

It co-existed in East Africa with several other early humans including H. rudolfensis, and Paranthropus boisei, before it migrated out of Africa and dispersed throughout the whole of Asia, from China to Oceania. Scientists do not know if it reached Europe.

H. erectus is associated with Early Acheulean tool culture.

The shorter-lived Homo ergaster - currently viewed as the African branch of Homo erectus - lived in Africa between 1.9 and 1.4 mya, although experts have detected physiological continuity in fossils until as late as 600,000 BC. Like H. erectus, it is linked to the Acheulean tool industry.

Overlapping with H. ergaster in Africa, Homo heidelbergensis originated in Africa perhaps as early as 900,000 years ago.

According to the latest DNA evidence, the species left Africa about 600,000 years ago and then split into two groups.

One group proceeded northwards into Europe and West Asia, and eventually became Neanderthals.

Another group continued northeast into Siberia and East Asia, and became Denisovans.

Those who remained in Africa eventually evolved into archaic Homo sapiens.

Neanderthals settled across the northern hemisphere, eventually reaching China.

The species lived between about 400,000 and 37,000 BC, and is associated with Levallois-Mousterian culture.

In the Middle East, Neanderthals may have rubbed shoulders with modern Homo sapiens for as long as 50,000 years, and we know they co-existed with modern humans in Europe for at least 17,000 years, from at least 54,000 BC until their extinction in 37,000 BC.

The mysterious Denisovans, the only human species to be identified by its DNA rather than fossilized bones, is believed to have lived from 500,000 to about 30,000 BC.

It is named after the Denisova Cave in Russia where the first fossils (teeth) were found.

Denisovans spread across East Asia (reaching Tam Ngu Hao 2 Cave in Laos and Baishiya Karst Cave in Tibet), before turning south to SE Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Archaeogenetics evidence from Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia, shows that modern humans dispersing across SE Asia, interbred with indigenous Denisovans around 44,000 BC.

The last species of humans is Homo sapiens, the only species to escape extinction, at least so far.

There are two variants of H. sapiens: an archaic variant which appeared around 300,000 BC, and a modern variant which emerged around 160,000 BC.

The modern variant - also known as Cro-Magnons or modern humans - began to leave Africa in waves, from about 100,000 BC. They reached China by 80,000 BC, Australia by 65,000 BC and Europe (see Mandrin Cave) no later than 54,000 BC.

Although all early humans played an important part in the evolution of Stone Age culture, it was modern H. sapiens who revolutionized tool-making, hunting and domestic life, introduced Shamanism, and turned paleolithic caves into showcases of beautiful prehistoric art.

References

(1) D. R. Braun et al., Earliest known Oldowan artifacts at 2.58 Mya from Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia, highlight early technological diversity. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 116, 11712–11717 (2019). (2) S. Harmand et al., 3.3-Million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 521, 310–315 (2015). Ko, Kwang Hyun (2016). "Origins of human intelligence: The chain of tool-making and brain evolution" (PDF). Anthropological Notebooks. 22 (1): 5–22. (3) Barham, Lawrence; Mitchell, Peter (2008). The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers. Cambridge World Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (4) Bahn, P. Dictionary of Archaeology. Penguin Books, 2014. Cunliffe, B. The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe. Oxford University Press, 2014. (5) Darvill, T. Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. Oxford University Press, 2010. (6) Bahn, P. Journey through the Ice Age. University of California Press. 1997.

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