The Palaeolithic

Palaeolithic means “Old Stone Age” and it is a time period that started around 3.3 million years ago, when humans made the first tools out of stone. It lasted until about roughly 10,000 BCE, which corresponds with the end of the last ice age. Want to know the difference between BC and BCE and what all the terms for time mean, then check out our blog LOST IN TIME? 

The oldest stone tools were found in Kenya, in Africa (Find out more here). Can you imagine, the Palaeolithic lasted 900,000 years and is the longest period in human history!

Who lived during those times?

At the time, different species of humans cohabitated: the oldest human fossils found in Britain belonged to Homo Heidelbergensis and they were discovered in Boxgrove, in the south of England. They were dated to around 500,000 years ago! Remains of Homo Neanderthelensis were also identified in Wales (dated to 225,000 years ago). Neanderthals died out around 40,000 to 30,000 years ago: it is difficult to know why exactly they became extinct, but their disappearance was most likely due to a combination of factors such as disease, climate change and stress caused by the spread of modern humans. They did however co-habit with modern humans for several thousand years before they became extinct. Because it happened so long ago, we are not sure how they interacted and what their relationship would have been (want to know more about Neanderthals? Check this out

You can see some great Neanderthal reconstructions if you visit the Natural History Museum in London (photo credit: Allan Henderson)

In 2013, footprints were discovered at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast. These footprints may belong to the species Homo antecessor; and they could date back to 900,000 years ago! Homo Sapiens (modern human) first appeared in England around 40,000 years ago.

Did you know?

During that time, Great Britain and continental Europe were connected by an area of land that is now beneath the North Sea. This area, called Doggerland, allowed people to travel easily and it is even possible that people lived there. It was flooded around 8000 years ago when the sea level rose.

How did they live?

People at that time were hunter-gatherers and had a nomadic lifestyle: they fed themselves by foraging (collecting edible plants, nuts and berries), hunting wild animals and fishing. They moved around the land, depending on the seasons and on the movements of animal herds.

It is the time when people started to come together and live in communities. They stayed in campsites and built huts and tents from the materials they could gather- wood, branches but also mammoth bones! They would then cover these with animal hides to keep the rain and wind away.

And guess what? People in the Palaeolithic would have suffered from the same modern diseases we do such as diabetes and heart conditions. Although they did not live as long as we do now, they had a varied diet and had access to a wide range of wild foods. That also means they weren’t as affected by famine as later farming communities that relied heavily on small crops.

Did you know?

In those days, women were also hunters and tool makers! Although for decades people believed only men did the hunting, several female skeletons have been discovered to prove the contrary. Their bones showed they used their muscles to run and hunt, and some of them were even buried with weapons and tools (read more about it here).

What is so special about the Palaeolithic?

Not only did people start making tools, they also started making art. It shows these people were extremely clever and had a knowledge of the world we can only try to understand! Find out more, read WHY LEARN ABOUT THE PALAEOLITHIC?

Cave art has been found all over the world- Africa, Middle East, India, China, Siberia, Australia and the Americas. The art discovered in the rock shelters of southwestern France and northern Spain has been the most studied.

Bison – Altamira Cave, Sandtander, Spain (c. 12,000 BCE)

Stone tools survive well in the archaeological record, but many other materials were used by our distant ancestors: wood, leather, and even vegetal fibres! They would have used bone as well, which can also decompose quite rapidly. Keep in mind that we only see a very small range of what was available to them as very little has survived so many years buried in soil!


Still curious and want to learn more about the Palaeolithic?

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