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Paleolithic societies

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.
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 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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user MR. Amazing
    So what is the difference between Homo sapiens and Hominidae?
    (30 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user David Beckwitt
    "For example, some archaeological evidence suggests that Middle Paleolithic cultures in Eurasia split work fairly equally between men and women."

    The literature read that this knowledge was gathered by, "...extrapolating from the experiences of modern hunter-gatherer communities, such as the Khoisan of the African Kalahari Desert." If the modern hunter-gatherer communities have a clear division of work between genders, how do we know that cultures in Eurasia during the Middle Paleolithic cultures split work fairly? No evidence was supplied to back this statement but I would be happy to see some.
    (16 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Holly Carlson
      I think, David, that you've interpreted the sentence to be about 'fairness', but that's not what the paragraph is actually about.

      "Fairly equally between men and women" does not imply a subjective value of 'fairness.' ALL the work of survival was needed ALL the time, 24/7/365, as we say today. One might consider that heavy work that men can do because of their greater muscle mass might be considered to be of equal value to the woman's biological capacity to gestate an infant and then nurse/breastfeed infants for which men are not suited at all. Both jobs have to be done for the community to survive. I doubt if we today can know whether or not two men lifting logs or rocks worked equally hard, or whether or not two women thrashing grain worked equally hard. But, it is not hard to imagine the people being annoyed if someone were not pulling their weight in contributing to the survival of the group.
      (12 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Joel Zook
    Homo sapiens developed language about 50,000 years ago, but has been anatomically similar over the last 120,000 years. Why the need for all that brain power without the ability of language?
    (9 votes)
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    • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Joe Williams
      We don't actually know when language first originated. "Around 50,000 years ago" is a popular theory because around that time innovations show up in the archaeological record (such as artwork, graves, fishing, and musical instruments, and migration across and beyond Africa) which suggest that human behavior rather quickly became as sophisticated as it is today.

      Another theory, not quite as popular but still held by some researchers, suggests that the appearance of art and musical instruments suggests population growth. The more people, the more archaeological remains, and it's possible that even older art exists that hasn't been discovered. Population growth would have also put pressure on local food resources, and forced humans to migrate--eventually leading to our ancestors spreading beyond Africa.

      Intelligence can help in far more ways than just communicating. It can help in hunting prey, for instance, which is why many predators are fairly intelligent. It can help to find creative solutions to problems.

      In the case of humans, intelligence allowed us to make weapons, and thus become extremely dangerous predators despite being rather slow, having very weak jaws to bite, and no sharp claws.
      (26 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Cameron Pollock
    Why might covering a corpse with flowers indicate a belief "in something beyond death and a deep sense of spirituality"? I would argue many secular people today leave flowers upon gravestones perhaps because flowers are beautiful to many. I would like to know of any other signs of religious beliefs at burial sites other than flowers.
    (7 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user bashmaiga
      You do realise that some of the things we do today even unconsciously are things that have been carried along from the past even though we've lost sense of the reasons we do them. Should you ask secular societies as to why they do that, you most probably won't get reasonable answers. The most probable answer you could get is 'We don't know but this is what we do'.
      (19 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user DG
    Why do the san tribes still act like hunter-gatherers or prehistoric people today?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user mr06447
    How did early humans take control of there enviroment
    (7 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Martin, Rose
    why did the paleolithics not split up labor between girls and boys?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby blue style avatar for user Shark-Lady
    I find it funny how all of this is based off of theories, but scientists always state it as fact.
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Rachel
    I think that the culture of the Paleolithic people resemble modern human cultures in many ways. For example, we are very tied to our traditions, religions, and family history. Like the Paleolithic people, we too distribute the familial duties throughout the family and since the times have changed and since women were able to vote the shift in duties have also changed. I think that it useful to observe current hunter and gatherers because they are the only civilizations that can give us a more accurate account of how it was 25,000 years ago.
    (5 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lauren Swalec
    I have a question about units. In the paragraph right above "Division of labor", it is stated that each community would need "seventy miles" of unproductive land or "seven miles" of fertile land.

    'Mile' is a linear unit. It measures distance, not area. I am thinking that this paragraph is supposed to say 'square miles.' But a square mile is something very different from a mile.

    Unless they are talking about a linear unit, for example miles of riverbank or miles of coastline ... though I don't see how either could be considered unproductive!
    (6 votes)
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