3. The Paleolithic Era

After more than 85 million years of evolution, we, or something more like us, has finally arrived. But we are far from done.  The Paleolithic era began about 2.6 to 2.4 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago, followed by the brief apex of the Mesolithic. It is divided into three sub eras: Lower Paleolithic, Middle Paleolithic, and Upper Paleolithic. Each division is further divided by the distinct advances in tool making but no actual boundaries exist. We must always think ‘transition’.  During the Paleolithic eras small bands subsisted on gathered plants and hunting or scavenging wild animals. Commodities included leather and vegetal fibers.

Our Paleolithic ancestors were truly tenacious and managed to survive two geological epochs: the Pliocene and the Pleistocene. The Pliocene saw the beginning of continental drift and the isolation of continents and oceans. The world became cooler, drier, and seasonal. Polar ice caps and ice sheets formed moving glaciation to the mid-latitudes. Global cooling led to the disappearance of vast tracks of forest and the spread of savannah and grasslands. When the Pleistocene began continents were about at their present location. Repeated glacial cycles accelerated with four major events and many minor ones. Glaciers tied up huge volumes of water to make ice sheets, dropping sea level 100m or more all over the planet. During interglacials, when the ice sheets melted, coastlines were inundated with water. The effect of glaciation during both epochs was global. The stabilized climate warmth at the end of the Pleistocene era may have caused the extinction of the mega fauna such as mammoths. With their declining population there was likely increased hunting in areas previously inaccessible to humans. The last mammoth survivors were found in the Arctic Islands of Saint Paul (3700BCE) and Wrangel (1700BCE).

Paleolithic people, with two notable expansions, left Africa 1.5 and 2 million years ago, and spread to southern Europe and Asia. Until the control of fire was accomplished about 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, the expansion north remained limited. Five hundred thousand years ago Homo heidelbergensis came to Europe and evolved into Neanderthal. Homo erectus and Neanderthal became extinct toward the end of the Paleolithic era and were replaced by Homo sapiens who emerged in Africa about 200,000 years ago and left for Eurasia about 50,000 years ago. For a while multiple species co-existed and likely interbred.

During the Paleolithic era a recognizable human way of life was well on its way with a well-developed hunter gatherer economy. We now see a vast array of tools, clothes, shelters, and an assortment of materials like firewood drawn from the local environment. The population was exceedingly low, estimated at one person per square mile. Such a low population has been attributed to a number of things including low body fat, infanticide, late weaning of surviving offspring, women regularly involved with intense endurance exercise, and nomadic life styles in general. Between 40,000 and 16,000 years ago the population of Europe probably stood at only 4000 to 6000 individuals. And between 16,000 and 11,000 years ago the average European population was probably no more than 30,000 all told. But all of the evidence collected suggests that our Paleolithic ancestors enjoyed an abundance of leisure time, lost and never achieved again since the advent of the Neolithic era. Paleolithic people had the time and therefore the inspiration to express themselves with breathtaking art, cave painting, jewelry, and spiritual behavior such as burials and rituals. Technological advances in the Mid and Upper Paleolithic allowed humans to move into inaccessible areas reaching the 61degree north latitude in Europe about 45,000 years ago, Japan 30,000 years ago, and Siberia and the Arctic about 27,000 years ago.

Due to the scarcity of other compelling evidence it became apparent that the best way to understand Paleolithic people was though the technological advances they developed, namely tools. The oldest tool industry, the Olduwan, probably began with Homo habilis about 2.6 million years ago.  He managed to created choppers, burins, and awls. The Olduwan industry was completely replaced by the Acheulean 250,000 years later, probably invented by Homo ergaster 1.8 to 1.65 million years ago. The Acheulean vanished about 100,000 years later and was replaced by industries such as the Mousterian and the Aterian.

Lower Paleolithic technology included hand axes for cutting and chopping, skinning, and butchering. Tools with flaked cores have been found as well as digging implements. No evidence of hafts has been found suggesting that the tools were thrown. Even though there was likely the invention of wooden spears by then absolutely nothing indicates that stone was bound to spear. It is believed that traps had been invented too, and the remote possibility of ritual.

Fire showed up in the Lower Paleolithic as well but chances are it was exploited capture of natural fire. Homo habilis seems to have accomplished that 1.5 million years ago. It appears as though Homo erectus and Homo ergaster had fire well in hand 300,000 years later but there is some speculation that limited use of fire might have been utilized by even Australopithecus and Paranthropus. The advent of cooking food has a wide girth some believing it took place as long as 1.9 million years ago or only 250,000 years ago. Cooking food frees up greater nutritional values and certainly fire makes it possible to push north into colder climates. Homo erectus has been credited with inventing the first rafts 800,000 to 840,000 years ago.  Sea worthy rafts showed up sometime later making it possible to sail over large bodies of water. Homo erectus is believed to have spoken the earliest form of modern language.

The Middle Paleolithic brought enormous advancements in tool making with a prepared core technique. There came increased efficiency with more controlled and consistent flakes. Hafting to wooden spears becomes commonplace. The vast new variety of tools meant greater security of food as well as a far more diverse diet. Neanderthal was eating fish 110,000 years ago and Homo sapiens while still Africa harvested fish and shellfish 164,000 years ago. Harpoons and similar devices appeared about 90,000 years ago introducing a wider array seafood to the diet. Small tools and points (Microliths) were invented about 65,000 to 70,000 years ago and became the essential step to inventing the bows, arrows, and spear throwers of the Upper Paleolithic. Middle Paleolithic people hunted large game animals. But is the case with Neanderthal, he never used projectile weapons like arrows or spear throwers. He attacked in close range with spears and other weapons.

Nets, bows and arrows, and spear throwers made their appearance in the Upper Paleolithic. So did the first calendar; it was a lunar one. It is evident that Upper Paleolithic people had a clear understanding of the migration cycles of game, but some studies suggest Neanderthal also timed his hunts to these same cycles long before the Upper Paleolithic. The debate concerning the domestication of dogs continues. Some put it as early as 100,000 years ago while others believe the date is far more recent at 30,000 to 15,000 years ago.

Homo habilis and Homo erectus of the early Lower Paleolithic are believed to have had a far more complex social structure than chimpanzees. Homo erectus and Homo ergaster might well have had the first central campsites and home bases with similar hunting and foraging strategies to contemporary hunter gatherers as early as 1.7 million years ago. However, the earliest solid evidence of home bases with hearths and shelters is about 500,000 years ago. It is held that as genus Homo progressed through the Lower Paleolithic he slowly abandoned the social hierarchies perfected by chimpanzees and replaced them with increasingly egalitarian groups. Nomadic bands of 20 to 100 individuals are made up of several families. Sometimes bands join together to form macrobands in the interest of acquiring mates, having ritual celebrations, to share resources, and to exploit the abundance in a particular area. For 120,000 years Paleolithic bands traded rare commodities such as the ochre valued for ritual and other raw materials. They also helped to insure each other’s survival during difficult times. It is likely that individuals were probably subordinate to the band as a whole to insure community survival just as hunter gatherer people still do. It is apparent that both humans and Neanderthals took care of their elderly and infirm in both the Middle and Upper Paleolithic eras. Paleolithic people were fundamentally egalitarian with no evidence of organized warfare. Nothing in what is known suggests there was any formal leadership but rather a reliance on communal consensus decision making rather than chiefs or monarchs. There existed no formal division in labor and chances are all members were skilled at all essential tasks. The Upper Paleolithic was probably the most gender equal time in history.  The status of women declined exponentially in the Neolithic era. Paleolithic and Mesolithic people were likely to be matrilineal and ambilineal. Patrilineal descent patterns began in the Neolithic era.

Art seems to be a wonderfully human thing possibly as early as 850,000 years ago. Acheulean artifacts have been found that retained evidence of having been painted with ochre. But certainly the Upper Paleolithic enjoyed an extraordinary Renaissance with its Venus figurines, animal carvings, rock paints both figurative (animals and humans) and non-figurative (shapes and symbols). There have been discovered fabulous galleries in caves and out of the way places that depict hunted animals and animals being hunted. There are paintings of animals that were not hunted for food, and paintings of figures that are half animal half human suggesting serious and sophisticated ritual. Flute like bone pipes have been found in Upper Paleolithic sites and drums have been found in graves.

Neanderthal definitely had his totems and burials too. He and others left dazzling evidence of a bear cult as old as 70,000 years. Upper Paleolithic animal worship was intrinsically intertwined with hunting rites and rituals. It is highly likely ancestor cults existed in the Upper Paleolithic as well as specialized and secret societies that safeguarded knowledge by securing it in separate clans and cults. Each would have had its own cycle of rituals that secured all aspects of survival.

With regard to food please know that the ratio of meat to plant in the Paleolithic diet is absolutely unknown and dependent on a whole host of circumstances. Food is determined entirely by the climate and the availability in an ecosystem. Cold climates require the dense calories of meat; coasts provide more fish than meat. Varying portions of leafy vegetables, fruit, tubers, nuts, insects, meat, fish, and shellfish are not only unknown but entirely contingent on the environment in which one finds himself and the effect of climate on that environment. There was however far less famine and malnutrition in the Paleolithic era than there was in the Neolithic agricultural era, due primarily to a wider variety of food. Smaller numbers of crops amplify starvation. Paleolithic people were far less affected by disease because of the high quality of lean meat, plants diversity, and intense physical activity. We were processing grains as far back as 23,000 years (I believe much, much longer), but seeds, beans, and grain were not eaten often or in large quantities. Other widely consumed commodities included organ meats, fermented wine, and likely hallucinogenic plants as well.

Shelters and structures are challenging to pinpoint even though it is no stretch to believe they came about early. Homo habilis left us a trace of a shelter made of stones and branches.  Remnants of a small circular stone structure were dated to 380,000 years. Archeologists found the remains of a tent like structure made with hide 10 to 15,000 years old, and one with a roof supported by timber complete with clay blocks and stones dated to 23,000 BCE. Huts were also made from mammoth and mastodon bones.

For millions of years until about 10,000 years ago (more recently in many regions) we had a wonderful diet of widely diverse plants and animals and yet we worked far fewer hours. We ate extremely well, had time for art, music, family, community, and ritual. We shared resources while having few possessions and made absolutely certain that neighbors were cared for and never hungry or in need. And yet, today, we call those ancestors of ours primitive savages. I don’t think so. Our species is devolving now, and headed for extinction unless it remembers the old wisdom amassed and cultivated for 85 million years.




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