Early Modern Human Culture

Early modern Homo sapiens in Africa and Southwest Asia 100,000 years ago made tools that were similar to those of the Neandertals and other late archaic Homo sapiensThese were mostly simple Mousterian-like Levallois flake and core tools.  However, by 90,000-75,000 years ago some modern humans began producing new kinds of artifacts that were revolutionary enough to warrant their being placed into a different Paleolithic stage--the Upper Paleolithic.  This was the height of technical sophistication during the Old Stone Age.  These innovative developments are most well known from European sites, but similar advances were occurring elsewhere in the Old World and later in the New World as well.  Foreshadowing these new technologies were harpoon-like bone projectile points in use by at least 75,000 years ago in Central Africa.  Ultimately, there were a number of different regional Upper Paleolithic tool traditions.  The most sophisticated may have been the Magdalenian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tradition of Western Europe.  It began about 17,000 years ago and lasted until the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago.

Paleolithic Tool Traditions In Europe

 Paleolithic Stage 
of Development
(years ago)
Cultural Tradition
Upper Paleolithic  17,000  Magdalenian
21,000 Solutrean
27,000 Gravettian
33,000   Aurignacian/Chatelperronian  
Middle Paleolithic     75,000+ ? Mousterian
Lower Paleolithic      700,000+ ?       Acheulian  
Note: the Acheulian Tradition began by at least 1.5 million years ago in
Africa.  It did not reach Europe until much later when the first humans
arrived.  The Mousterian Tradition very likely began in Africa around
150,000-100,000 years ago.  The first upper paleolithic tool traditions
probably evolved in Africa as well.

The various Upper Paleolithic tool traditions were successful cultural adaptations to diverse environments around the world.  In temperate and subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere, specialized big game hunting was the most common subsistence strategy.  However, even among the societies that focused their hunting efforts on reindeer, horses, and other large mammals, there was exploitation of vegetable foods, fish, and other small animals.  Upper Paleolithic peoples, such as the Cro-Magnon of Europe, became progressively more efficient at acquiring food.  Small game and plant food exploitation became increasingly important to them after 15,000 years ago.  This was a necessity because their populations apparently were growing rapidly and the climate was changing as the ice began to melt near the end of the last ice age.  This climate related change in subsistence pattern began even earlier in the Southwest Asia and other relatively warm and dry regions.

The Cro-Magnon people increased their food supply by developing coordinated group hunting techniques for the killing of large herd animals, especially in the river valleys of Western Europe and the plains of Central and Eastern Europe.  They also developed new specialized hunting weapons.  The art of spear hunting was revolutionized by the invention of the spear thrower (or atlatl click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced) about 17,000-15,000 years ago.  This was a wood or bone rod with a hook on one end that fit into a socket at the base of a spear.  This device was used to push off spears.  It increased the range and force of impact of projectiles by essentially increasing the length of the spear thrower's arm.  The net effect was that hunters did not have to get as close to prey before throwing their spears.  Toggle-head harpoons click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced were invented about this time as well.  The bow and arrow were invented by 12,000 years ago or a bit earlier.  This further increased the range of projectiles.  The fact that these weapon systems were developed toward the end of the last ice age is probably not a coincidence.

drawing of an atlatl being used to throw a spear

Spear thrower

Note:  Spear throwers may have been made as early as 25,000 years ago in North Africa.  Whether the European Cro-Magnon people independently invented this technology later or acquired it from North Africa is not known.

During the roughly 5,000 years of final glacial melt, large game animals became progressively scarce in the northern hemisphere.  As a result, human hunting success would have been rarer.  The combined effect of rapidly changing climates and increased hunting by humans heavily contributed to the extinction of at least 50 genera of large animals (mostly mammals) at that time.  It also was in this late period after 15,000 years ago that fishing spears, hooks, and nets became increasingly more common.  In Europe, the main focus of fishing appears to have been salmon going up streams to spawn and seals that were pursuing them.

The basis of many Upper Paleolithic stone tool forms was the blade flake click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  This is a thin, roughly parallel-sided flake that is at least twice as long as it is wide.  The cross-section is usually either triangular or trapezoidal.  They were made out of brittle-breaking rock materials such as flint click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, chert click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and obsidian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Blade flakes were preforms for the manufacture of many different kinds of tools, such as knives, hide scrapers, spear tips, drills, awls, burins, etc.

Photos of 2 tools made from blade flakes

European Upper Paleolithic tools made from blade flakes

  drawing of a prepared blade core being struck with an antler punch and an antler hammer
  Punch flaking

Blade flakes were nearly standardized shapes that were struck off assembly line fashion from a prepared core usually by punch flaking click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  This method uses indirect percussion to better control the direction and force of the shock wave entering a core.  This facilitated the repeated production of long, delicate flakes.  Blades were struck off around a prepared core like the careful unwinding and sectioning of a roll of paper.  It is possible to knock off blade flakes with direct percussion using a hammerstone rather than a punch, but it is more difficult.

Tools made from blade flakes were far more efficient than core and flake tools made by earlier peoples when compared in terms of maximizing the use of precious brittle-flaking rock materials.  This increased efficiency can be measured roughly in terms of the amount of cutting edge that can be produced from the same amount of stone.

Tool Tradition and
  Length of Cutting Edge  
Per Pound of Stone

Increase in Efficiency
  Over Previous Technology
  Oldowan choppers
  (Homo habilis)
2 inches
(5 cm.)
  Acheulian hand axes
  (Homo erectus)  
8 inches
(20 cm.)
  Mousterian flake tools
2 1/3 feet
(100 cm.)
  Upper Paleolithic blade flake tools  
  (modern humans)
10-39 feet
(300-1200 cm.)
Sources: Watson, W. (1968) Flint Implements: An Account of Stone Age Techniques and Cultures;
Hester, J. and J. Grady (1982) Introduction to Archaeology.

Upper Paleolithic tool makers also invented a further refinement in working with stone.  After preliminary shaping by percussion flaking, they often finished a tool with pressure flaking click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  They literally pushed off the edge flakes with the tip of a deer antler in the final shaping and thinning process.  This resulted in small, regular flake scars and much greater control in determining the shape of the final product.  Pressure flaking was also used to retouch, or sharpen, thin edges of spear tips and knives.

photo of a long stone knife blade with small, uniform, parallel flake scars

          drawing of a stone burin with its gouging chisel end highlighted
Burin made from
a blade flake

During the Upper Paleolithic, we see the first abundant evidence of tools for making other tools.  Such things as narrow gouging chisels, known as burins click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, were used to make and shape a host of other implements out of bone, antler, and ivory.  Additional tools created for the purpose of working on other implements such as pressure flakers, punches, and spear shaft straighteners.  The Upper Paleolithic also saw a heavy dependence on compound tools, such as intentionally detachable harpoon points and interchangeable spear foreshafts of hard wood attached to spears.  Compound tools have the advantage that they can be repaired.  When one part breaks, it can be replaced rather than replacing the entire tool.

Compound tools and tools designed to work on other implements are not just new kinds of tools but rather new kinds of tool-using principles.  This was a giant intellectual leap forward.  It also extended the range of raw materials that could be used for tool making.  Bone and antler especially came into more common use.  They had been used occasionally in the earlier Mousterian tool tradition, but were only modified clumsily by hammering, scraping, and burning.  Among the Cro-Magnon people, bone and antler progressively replaced wood and stone for many functions.  Bone and antler are more durable than wood and more flexible than stone so they do not break as easily and yet can be used to make relatively sharp cutting edges and penetrating projectile points.  The amount of time that they are still usable can be extended by resharpening when they become dull.  These materials were now being employed to make long thin knives, awls, sewing needles, clothing fasteners, harpoons with barbs, and many other useful implements.  One result was that tailored clothing and tents were easier to make.  The first known sewing needle came from southwestern France and dates to about 25,000 years ago.  Residues of animal skin pants, shirts, and shoes have been found in a 22,000 year old Cro-Magnon grave near Moscow in Russia.

drawing of a bone sewing needle drawing of a bone harpoon point
Bone sewing needle  Bone harpoon point with barbs  

Upper Paleolithic "Art"

The Cro-Magnon people of Europe regularly decorated their tools and sculpted small pieces of stone, bone, antler, and ivory.  Necklaces, bracelets, and decorative pendants were made of bones, teeth, and shells.  Cave walls were often painted with naturalistic scenes of animals.  Clay was also modeled occasionally.  From our culture's perspective, these symbolic and naturalistic representations would be referred to as art.  However, that is an ethnocentric projection.  For the Cro-Magnon who made this art, it was very likely thought of as being something different, or at least much more, than we think of as art.  For instance, it may have had magical and/or religious functions.

Upper Paleolithic European representational art began by at least 32,000 years ago and became intense 15,000-10,000 years ago.  Perhaps, the most prominent portable art was in the form that has become known as Venus figurines click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  These are sculptures of women.  They are not portraits but rather faceless idealized representations of well fed, healthy, usually pregnant nude women with exceptionally large buttocks and breasts.  Because of these exaggerated sexual characteristics, they are thought by most paleoanthropologists to be ritual objects symbolizing female fertility.  Many of these stylized carvings are reminiscent of modern abstract art.  Venus figurines were made from 27,000 years ago down to the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.  They have been found from Western Europe all of the way to Siberia.  Most were small enough in size to be easily hand held.  The Venus of Laussel shown below on the right is a rare exception. 

Photo of the Venus of Willendorf     photo of the Venus of Laussel
Venus of Willendorf
4 3/8 inches (11.1 cm.) tall
  Venus of Lespugue
5 3/4 inches (14.6 cm.) tall
  Venus of Laussel
17 inches (43.2 cm.) tall

Not all of the portable art was in the form of Venus figurines.  Many small carvings have been found that depict animals and people, including men.

2 drawings incised bear teeth--one has the image of a fish carved into its surface and the other has a seal (both have single holes drilled through them to allow these ornaments to be suspended with string)

Carved bear teeth (from Duruthy Cave, France)

The Cro-Magnon people are, perhaps, most well known for their paintings on the walls of caves.  Although, this cave art is most abundant in southwest France and northern Spain, it was made elsewhere by other early modern humans as well.  With cave art, we see the first large scale, concrete symbols of human thoughts, feelings, and perhaps even beliefs about the supernatural.  Over 150 Western European caves have been found with these ice age paintings on their walls. 

3 photos of cave art--1st is a horse painting from Lascaux, 2nd is a bison from Altamira, and 3rd are deer from Lascaux
Cave art from Lascaux, France (left and right) and Altamira, Spain (center)

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