The Palaeolithic Age, also known as the ‘Old Stone Age, refers to the period from the first known use of stone tools by hominins to the end of the last Ice Age. This period stretches from around 3.3 million years ago to 11,650 years ago. Early humans, i.e., hominins, were hard at work creating many things during this period.
Palaeolithic Age Inventions
In today’s age of smartphones, self-driving cars, and space travel, the Palaeolithic Age inventions can seem a bit basic. However, their creations are impressive, considering how long ago they were around. What’s more, the amazing inventions and innovations we enjoy today would not have been possible without the simpler inventions that came before. For instance, the people in the Palaeolithic Age were the first to invent stone tools. It was these tools that set humans apart from other animals on earth. Let’s take a look at some of the most fascinating and important Palaeolithic Age inventions:
- Stone Tools (c. 2,600,000 B.C.E)
As mentioned in the introduction, the invention of Stone Tools is one of the most important Palaeolithic Age inventions. It is also widely regarded as the first-ever human invention. Stone tools consisted of sharp flints, which were sourced and used naturally. Some of these stone tools were found in Kenya in 1969, with experts estimating that they are around 2.6 million years old. Therefore, these ancient tools would have been present in the Lower Palaeolithic era.
People in the Palaeolithic era would have used stone tools for many things, including hacking, pounding, and cutting during hunting. After some time, stone tools were developed, and thinner, sharper tools were made, which proved much better at cutting up prey. These intelligent tools could also be used to make clothing from animal hides and as spearheads for hunting.
- Controlled Fire (c. 1,420,000 B.C.E)
The controlled fire was also one of the most important Palaeolithic Age inventions as, without it, humans would have struggled to stay warm or cook food. Of course, fire existed before the Palaeolithic Age, but the ability to harness and control it made it a useful tool for human beings.
During the Palaeolithic era, a fire was constantly lit, as it was very difficult to reignite them. To light a fire, Flintstones would have been hit against pyrites, or other friction methods would have been used. Another reason that controlled fire was such an important invention was that it enabled humans to live in places that had previously been too cold to survive. The ability to control fire also opened up possibilities for further innovation, like smelting metals, enabling humans to progress further in the future.
- Built Shelter (c. 4,000,000 B.C.E.)
Humans have not always known how to build their shelters, so they used to use the natural environment. Covers in the natural environment would include things like trees, offering minimal protection from harsh weather conditions, but were excellent at hiding from animals. Natural shelters would also have included caves, which, on the flip side, offered great protection from harsh weather but left humans open to attacks from wild animals.
The earliest evidence of a shelter built by humans can be traced back to the Palaeolithic Age. However, it is a subject that is often contested by archaeologists, as some argue that the shelter could have come around through natural processes. Regardless of when the first shelter was built, the ability to do so enabled humans to set up dwellings closer to necessary resources. Humans could finally live close to food and water while still being protected from the natural world.
- Raft (c. 840,000 — c. 800,000 B.C.E)
In the Lower Palaeolithic era, it is believed that human beings invented a very early form of a raft. They used these rafts to travel across large bodies of water, allowing them to reach other previously unavailable lands. This is a highly contested theory, however, amongst anthropologists. Despite its controversy, evidence from sites around the Mediterranean Sea suggests that humans in both the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic periods used rafts. It is thought that they used these rafts to travel to other lands and colonize them.
- Sewing (c. 25,000 B.C.E)
The earliest form of sewing tools can be traced back to southwest France and near Moscow in Russia. These sewing tools were made of ivory or bone, with a small eyelet carved out.
Sewing is one of the most important Palaeolithic Age inventions, as it enabled humans to craft clothing that fitted their bodies. This clothing looked better and was much more effective at providing insulation and comfort than the previous clothing. Before the invention of sewing, humans would have worn a dress made of animal hides, fur, and leaves.
Interestingly, it has been found that needles weren’t only used to sew clothing. It is believed that needles were also used to sew textiles, which were used for display and decorative purposes.
- Bow And Arrow (c. 20,000 B.C.E)
Cave paintings found in Western Europe and North Africa show evidence of the use of bows and arrows, dating back to the Palaeolithic Age. However, the oldest evidence of arrows comes from Sibudu Cave in South Africa. This dates way back to long before the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic era.
The bow and arrow was an extremely important invention for many reasons. First, it improved accuracy and efficiency in hunting, as humans could kill outside their throwing range. Early bows were made from a thin, flexible piece of wood, and the arrowheads were made from flints or other stones.
- Braided rope (c. 17,000 B.C.E)
This invention can be traced back to 17,000 BCE. The braided rope is a helpful invention that is still used in our day-to-day lives. The earliest evidence of synthetic rope was found in various caves in Lascaux in southwest France.
Humans made these braided ropes by combining fibers or strands to make a stronger structure. It is thought that the Ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to create tools to aid in the production of rope. They then used these ropes to move massive stones needed to build the colossal Egyptian structures and monuments they were famous for.
- Lunar Calendar (c. 15,000 B.C.E)
Seventh on the list of Palaeolithic Age inventions is the Lunar Calendar. Nowadays, we keep track of our time using the Gregorian calendar, based on the earth’s rotation around the sun. However, back in the Palaeolithic era, they tracked time using the moon’s cycles. The Lunar Calendar is based on the processes of the Moon’s phases, which happen monthly. The Gregorian calendar would not have been a possible creation without the invention of the Lunar Calendar.
Much like the braided rope, the earliest evidence of a Lunar Calendar was found in the caves in Lascaux, southwest France.
- Alcoholic Drinks (c. 10,000 B.C.E)
This invention came about by accident. Early humans accidentally created a fermented mixture of water and fruit in sunlight, which is believed to have led to the discovery of the first alcoholic drink. From this point, we can see evidence of the intentional creation of alcoholic beverages in the form of Stone Age beer jugs. For this reason, beer is believed to have been the first alcoholic drink.
- Oil Lamp (c. 10,000 B.C.E)
The oil lamp was a super important invention, allowing humans to take the light with them as they traveled. In addition, this portable lighting was used to aid visibility and for decorative purposes.
Early lamps were made from stone or seashell crucibles filled with animal fat. The wick of the lights was made from a piece of vegetation. The first identifiable oil lamp was found in a place with settled agriculture, tracing back to the Upper Palaeolithic period. The reason behind the correlation between lamps and farming is that planting the first crops allowed plant oils to be used in the early oil lamps.
- Sling (c. 10,000 B.C.E)
It is important to note that the sling invented in the Palaeolithic era is used in battle, not to support wounded limbs. This sling is an ancient weapon, the oldest evidence found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. There is also plenty of evidence of the sling in the Bible, most famously in the battle between David and Goliath.
The sling was a weapon used to propel blunt objects, like stones, or lead at opponents across a battlefield. It was an extremely successful weapon at the time because it was cheap, easy to make, extremely portable, and required easy-to-find ammunition.
Life in the Palaeolithic Age
We learn about life in the Palaeolithic Age through different archaeological and ethnographic (the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences) discoveries. Based on the evidence we found, we know that, in the Palaeolithic Age, society was based around a hunter-gatherer economy, meaning that these were the two main roles people held. The hunters in society would have hunted wild animals, such as deer, hares, rhinos, and mammoths. But on the other hand, the gatherers in the community would have gathered other food, firewood, and materials for tools, clothes, and shelter.
The population density in the Palaeolithic Age was incredibly low, especially compared to modern populations. On average, there were only around 0.4 inhabitants per square kilometer. The reason for this low population density was likely due to several different factors, including:
- People generally had lower body fat.
- Infanticide was widely practiced. This is the killing of a newborn baby, which was often used as a primitive method of birth control, amongst other reasons.
- People took part in regular, intense endurance exercises, which took a toll on their bodies.
- People followed a nomadic lifestyle, meaning they moved around all the time.
Something that isn’t frequently discussed regarding Palaeolithic people is their free time. Much like we do today, Palaeolithic people had a ton of free time to do things they enjoyed outside their roles as hunter-gatherers. Interestingly, Palaeolithic people would have had much more free time than Neolithic farming societies and modern industrial societies.
Distribution of Humans in the Palaeolithic Age
At the beginning of the Palaeolithic Age, early humans were located primarily in Africa, just east of the Great Rift Valley. We know this because the majority of the human fossils that we have found that date back to more than one million years ago are found in this area of Africa, particularly in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
By around 2,000,000 – 1,500,000 B.P. (Before the Present), certain groups of humans, hominins at the time, started to leave Africa and settle in Southern Europe and Asia instead. Southern Caucasus, a geographical region on the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, was occupied by humans by the year 1,700,000 B.P. Similarly, Northern China was occupied by around 1,660,000 B.P.
By the end of the Lower Palaeolithic era, many humans lived in modern-day China and Western Indonesia. They were also settling in Europe, around the Mediterranean, and had even moved as far north as England, France, Southern Germany, and Bulgaria. This northern movement of early humans is believed to have been limited by their lack of control over fire, which they would have needed in those colder climates. (See the previous section on controlled fire for more information on this subject) Cave settlements in Europe have been studied in-depth, and the findings indicate that there was no regular use of fire before the years 400,000 – c. 300,000 B.P.
There is no evidence of early humans in America, Australia, or Oceania during this period.
Homo erectus and Neanderthals, both of which were different forms of early humans, became completely extinct by the end of the Palaeolithic Age. Homo sapiens, descended from Homo sapiens, began to appear in Eastern Africa around 200,000 B.P. They then left Africa many years later, around 50,000 B.P., and, from that point, began to spread all over the planet. Numerous different groups of early humans existed in the world at the same time. For instance, around 30,000 B.P., while Homo sapiens traveled the globe, Neanderthals still lived in certain areas of Eurasia.
For the entire Palaeolithic Age, the population density remained super low, particularly outside the equatorial region (regions located around the equator). For instance, the population of Europe between the years 16,000 and 11,000 B.P. is believed to have been around 30,000 people. This small number seems big compared to the population in previous years, between 40,000 and 16,000 B.P., which sat around 4,000–6,000 people.
Fun Fact: In the Altai Mountains and Indonesia, hominin fossils have been found that don’t belong to either Neanderthals or Homo sapiens.