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Paleolithic technology, culture, and art

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).start superscript, 1, end superscript
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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user Varun sajith kumar
    What is the difference between Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens sapiens? Do Homo sapiens sapiens exist?
    (14 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Aldo Cruz
    First paragraph under " Language, Culture and Art"- why do scientists believe that trading, the creation of tools, establishment of settlements and so forth would be nearly impossible without the use of language? how did they come to this conclusion?
    (15 votes)
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    • scuttlebug green style avatar for user Uma
      Think about it. Can you imagine any kind of trade happening without language? Any trust? How could you live with someone you didn't trust?
      Apart from that, almost all the animals of the world have a language. It needn't be verbal. Bees communicate through dance, ants through chemicals in their antenna. Dogs have social structures that are sort of similar to humans. They must have some system of communication.
      But their language can't grow and evolve, and they can't talk about things that don't exist. Humans created sagas that held their beliefs, what they thought was good and what was taboo. They told each other stories about deities that blessed them. These stories formed the basis for trust. If they trusted someone, they would be more willing to trade. If they trusted someone with their life, they would probably live together and protect each other from predators.
      (9 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user mwr0824
    Arguably, the most famous, and possibly the best inventor and whatever, of all time would be Leonardo Da Vinci, in my eyes anyways. So, if Da Vinci was alive say 25,000 years ago, and didn't die for a very long time... and he still had all his intelligence of course, how far would we be technology wise now?
    (6 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Dan Vedda
      While that would be an entertaining speculation, it's much like asking the question, "What would have happened if Leif Erikson's American expedition had thrived and was a major sea power by the time the English settled Jamestown" Fun to speculate--but it wouldn't add to our knowledge of what really happened over time. And if I just gave anyone an idea for a book, please mention me in the Foreward. ;-)
      (17 votes)
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user heather reser
    how come their language hasn't been passed down into todays society? if it has been passed, then how come people don't use/speak it around the communities? Otherwise, did we forget the old foreign language or did we chose not to speak it anymore? Were we forced to stop speaking the language? Did we decided/forced/forgot/still use the foreign language? Did we decide or were we forced to change the foreign language that we used to speak?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user cole cole
    I always wondered why early sapiens would just draw on their homes the details of their daily life. what was the importance of drawing the animals you hunted?
    (3 votes)
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  • hopper cool style avatar for user RobloxianIzzy {Currently online}
    Is the last statue even real?
    (2 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user Lawrence Holmes
    What could be responsible for the 20,000 year gap between the crafting of simple tools, and those which are more complex(example here was the needle).
    Are we to assume that there was enough biological evolution in this time to allow more fine motor functions, or is it simply the development of culture?
    Does this mean that if a lower-paleolithic man was handed a tool from the neolithic age he would be able to replicate it?
    (6 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user magda.prochniak
      We observe the unprecedented cultural and techonological evolution now, which is devised on purpose. In the prehistoric societies it was probably rather an accident that a new thing was created and had been taking other decades or centuries to widespread it. The question should be: why did it happen at all!
      (3 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user DG
    Why was Otzi called "Otzi the Iceman"?
    (5 votes)
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    • mr pants purple style avatar for user Abhishta M
      Otzi was called as the iceman because he was found frozen in otzal alps and it was claimed that he was free of diseases but later discovered that he was arrow shot in his shoulder and had bled to death as the body was frozen the ice melted after 5,300 years but carbon dated to 3,300 BCE
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Abdul Mohamin
    Has ever one cave painting been found to be at another cave, Exactly painted, suggesting that same people or group of people migrated from one place to another.
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user EmmettW
    What did they use for color when making paintings on the cave walls?
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers sapling style avatar for user valeria.v.velcheva
      I once wrote a paper for a science fair about pigments so I'm directly quoting what I've written after extensive reading:

      "In the outset, people have painted with blood, animals’ excrements or have merely tried to carve simple images in rocks. Then they tried to taint the stones with pigment. Later, when they found out that they can use clay for utensils, they started carving pictures in the still-wet clay and after that painting them, via pigment mixed with a vehicle (binder). The craftsmen painted them using tempera. The oldest found oil paintings date from 650 AD, found in 2008 in caves in Afghanistan."
      (3 votes)