6. The Upper Paleolithic

The Upper Paleolithic is marked by numerous achievements that began about 50,000 years ago, ending with the last Stone Age hurrah with the Mesolithic. Our species had been around for about 150,000 years by then. We looked a bit different in the early years but left a tremendous legacy of artifacts and cultures. The marked increase of the diversity of artifacts and the technological advancement generated a population explosion of sorts while Neanderthal continued to primarily use his Mousterian tools and faded into history. I am going to explore each of these areas beginning with appearance and origin.

Homo sapiens, sometimes referred to as archaic humans, emerged in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago during the Middle Paleolithic and eventually evolved into the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, us. The oldest remains include Omo at 195,000 years old, Idaltu at 160,000 and Skhul at 90,000. Idaltu is a candidate as our direct ancestor but some believe Omo is a better one. All show a mix of archaic and modern anatomical features. Archaic humans were more robust than we are today likely because of their demanding lifestyles. But they were far more technologically advanced from all of our ancestors from the very beginning of their history. Archaic humans still sported a prominent brow, an undefined chin, and a somewhat sloped forehead. The vertical forehead we have today allows for even bigger brains and far more communicative facial expressions. Some believe the anatomical changes took place before we advanced to modern behavior about 100,000 years ago. It should be noted that our light skin probably didn’t make an appearance until about 6000 years ago. And as I have mentioned before it is known that we and our relatives bred with numerous other hominid species: Neanderthal and Denisova.

There remains considerable debate with regard to what is called The Great Leap Forward that took place 50,000 years ago marking the advance to the Upper Paleolithic. Some believe the achievements took place gradually over our 200,000 year history, and possibly simultaneously in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Much of the debate surrounds numerous other finds older than those mentioned above that show both artistic and technological artifacts of equal significance at 250,000 years. Those that hold to The Great Leap Forward insist that widespread exchange of information that was taking place accounted for such a “Great Leap”, which sadly coincides with Neanderthal extinction. Climate change required exploring new materials including substitutes for flint simply because flint becomes brittle in the cold. Changes and advancements are linked to complex and abstract language needed to create plans and exchange of ideas, and further the development of complex group cooperation for the achievements. Although this remains debated such complexity of social organization certainly had to help.

No matter how it pans out Homo sapiens sapiens and their archaic kin came up with fabulously familiar concepts. We had perfected complex language, long distance exchange of commodities and ideas, were abstract thinkers capable of complex symbolic thought, and symbolism in cultural creativity. Our complex social grouping, widely diverse food, and complexly intricate and varied tools spelled enormous security. There is ample evidence that shows group identification with distinct symbolism and ritual.

We had a spiritual bent in our nature illustrated in outstanding art rendered with pigments, figurative art, and burials with grave goods. Our world was dazzling with magnificent cave paintings, petroglyphs, carvings, and engraving on bone and ivory.  We left countless thousands of Venus figures, as well as flutes, beads, and ceramics. Our species created jewelry, jokes, music, and mythology.

Hunting and gathering included a vast array of fish and food from both fresh water and salt. We cooked and seasoned our food, and created extraordinarily fine tools made from stone, wood, antler, and bone that included bows, arrows, atlatls, harpoons, darts, fish hooks, oil lamps, and needles with eyes. Humans had finally achieved semi-permanent settlements, seasonal campsites, and food storage. It is known that we had established networks of trade and barter simply because sites include all kinds of materials that originated hundreds of miles away. Some believe we achieved all of these things before our exodus from Africa. But no matter what, we were here to stay spreading throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia before reaching into Australia and finally the Americas.

The Last Glacial Maximum took place 24,500 to 17,000 BCE during which most of Europe was covered with ice sheets. It was followed by rapid warming referred to as the Allerod Oscillation and marked by the Younger Dryas where only Northern Europe remained subarctic. Finally temperatures stabilized to what they are today with the Pre-Boreal Temperature rise in 9600 BCE and 8500 BCE. The increase in warmer and stable temperatures opened the way for the Mesolithic era. Before the glaciers melted and filled up the English Channel, Irish Sea, and North Sea all of those locations were dry land. The coasts were hundreds of miles farther out to sea than is true today. Areas such as Doggerland, lost beneath the North Sea, and many other similar sites, now underwater, are of enormous archaeological significance today.

Abri de Cro-Magnon or simply Cro-Magnon, as a term, is a general classification for the oldest modern humans in Europe dated at about 43,000 years, but not definitively. Once considered a distinct species it is now believed that Cro-Magnon is simply a modern human who boasted a bigger brain.  Today there are newer classification names such as European Early Modern Humans (EEMH). What can I say? Science has its own issues with obsession and compulsion when it comes to names and classifications. Just know that the old familiar Cro-Magnon is the same man in a different suit: EEMH. The Basque people may be descendants of the original Cro-Magnon and an early sister group diverged to become Asian Mongols about 50,000 years ago.

Cro-Magnon is credited for those finely worked tools of flint, bone, and antler as well as a real science to hafting and securing points to shafts with resins prepared in staggeringly complex ways. He is famous for his cave paintings, Venus figurines, and ornaments rendered from bone and shell. Although his javelins and atlatls made him a more successful big game hunter than Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon was not the carnivore that Neanderthal was forced to be due to the extraordinary cold in which he lived. Cro-Magnon built his home out of mammoth bones, rocks, clay, branches, and animal skins. He is known to have spun, dyed, and knotted yarn, had woven and sewn clothing, perfected the processing of beautiful hides, mastered woven baskets, and used manganese and iron oxide for paint. Cro-Magnon created the very first calendar 15,000 years ago. It was a lunar calendar. Early modern humans and Neanderthal lived together for at least 10,000 years and at some sites the evidence suggests 50,000 or 60,000 years. There is evidence of cultural exchange as well.

I should explain in general terms what an atlatl is. Atlatls are hand held devices in which long, thin, flexible shafts like large arrows or thin spears are first inserted. The shafts are 4 to 9 feet long and 3/8” to 5/5” in diameter. The hand held device flings the shaft much farther than it can be flung without it. A stone weight strapped to the center is believed to launch the dart with more accuracy and stability as well as reduce the sound that the tool makes when it is moving through the air. Such noise would scare off the prey in pursuit. Some believe the stone was carried as a spindle and weight to produce fibers collected in the field for fletching and hafting. Many atlatls are decorated which suggests the involvement of spirit and blessings for a good hunt. It is device that required skill rather than strength, allowing women and children to participate in the activity. The oldest atlatl at 21,000 years old was found in France. The oldest shaft found, at 17,500 years old, is Solutrean.

We have already looked at the marvelous accomplishments of early modern humans. But it should be mentioned that far from idyllic, their lives were a physical challenge fraught with infection and traumatic injury.  That said countless individuals survived which can only mean that they received community support and care through their recovery.

The flint industries and the cultures associated with them exploded on to the European scene. Although not much is known yet of the Baradostian of 36,000 years BCE, much more is known about others such as the Chatelperronian that evolved out of the Mousterian 35,000 years ago. They had extraordinary skill with lithic reduction, also called stone knapping. Many of the Chatelperronian stone tools actually had teeth. They developed flint knives with single cutting edges and had numerous style tools rendered from ivory.  Their precision instruments were made from either large flakes or blocks with direct percussion strikes with soft hammer stones for accuracy. Some have speculated that the industry was one developed by Neanderthal human hybrids, a shared technological advancement.

The Gravettian culture was prevalent before the last glacial epoch and was succeeded by the Aurignacian.  They hunted big game such as bison, horse, reindeer, and mammoths, and used nets to capture small game. The Gravettian created small points with blunt, straight backs that required a degree of careful re-striking. They left us hundreds and hundreds of Venus figurines.

The Aurignacian of 45,000 to 35,000 years ago are credited with creating the Venus of Hohle Fels about 35,000 years ago.  The same craftsmen produced pendants, bracelets, ivory beads, animal engravings, and some of the earliest cave paintings depicting extinct animals and the first anthropomorphized images and carvings.  The artifact believed to be a flute was made by the Aurignacian. They are probably the first modern humans to make an appearance in Europe. Their tools were worked not only in stone but bone and ivory as well. Blades were particularly fine struck from a prepared core rather than a large flake. The Aurignacian also made batons.

One of the most fascinating groups of people was the Solutrean. They are the ones about which it is speculated that might have made the journey to the east coast of North America. The theory puts forth the possibility that the Solutrean crossed the ice age Atlantic. That doesn’t make them necessarily a seafaring people as much a maritime one with enormous knowledge of coastal resources and the needed tools for such an environment. Boating along the ice is safer and easier than open seas sailing. The ice creates something of a land bridge where people could get off the water whenever needed for rest and safety from severe weather. The edge of the ice sheet spanning the Atlantic was familiar territory for them and would have provided vast marine resources with which the Solutrean were well versed. The Inuit people living today exhibited a near identical way of life and demonstrate an example of the real possibility. They cultivate the knowledge that shows that along the ice can be found fresh water, food, fuel and shelter.  That makes the Solutrean Theory extremely enticing. The Solutrean lived in the area of France and Spain about 26,000 to 17,000 years ago. They created extraordinary tools that include needles, fish hooks, and bows and arrows. But greater scrutiny must be given to their exquisite stone tools, finely worked, and not previously seen. Their bifacial points were made with lithic reduction percussion and pressure flaking rather than the more crude knapping. They used antler, hardwood batons, and soft stone hammers that allowed delicate work on light projectiles, as well as elaborately barbed and tanged points, large thin spear heads, scrapers edged on the end rather than the side, flint knives, saws, and long spear points with tang and shoulder on one side. Many of these wonderful creations were also made from bone and antler. What makes this so extraordinary is the fact that Solutrean tools are virtually identical to the Clovis tools found in North America, suggesting that the Solutrean contributed to the stone industry of Clovis. That is one of the most exciting possibilities of my lifetime. Genetics has provided a piece of the puzzle as well with the discovery of the Haplo X gene found in 7% of Native Europeans and 3% of Native Americans, with a staggering 25% found in some of the Algonquian tribes of northeast America. Of course, like everything in science, the debate rages on, and like most scientific studies is unlikely to ever be resolved.

The Magdalenian culture of Western Europe can be found 17,000 to 11,000 years ago. They too were incredible people creating stunning carvings of horses, and aurochs. They hunted large mammals, especially reindeer, and lived in teepee like tent structures. It is thought that they maintained seasonal, semi-permanent camps. Sites have been found that appear to be places where many bands got together on occasion for any number of purposes such as exchanging information, celebrating hunts and harvests, marriages, rituals, things like that.  The Magdalenian created exceptional microliths, beautifully complex barbed tools, batons, engraved projectile points, and harpoons, worked from bone, ivory, and antler. They rendered exquisite figurines, adornments of shell, teeth and fossils, and exceptional cave paintings.

Creswell Crags is a fabulous site in England that provides layers of intermittent habitation from 43,000 to 11,000 years ago. Of the many wondrous things found there one of the things noticed is that there was a great deal of open air activity in the area.  An assortment of tools was made with a soft hammer stone or an antler hammer, including trapezoidal backed blades called Cheddar Points. Artifacts include Baltic amber, shells from the North Sea, mammoth ivory, items rendered from animal teeth and bones, as well as harpoons, awls, beads, needles, and beveled ivory rods.  Obviously, the Creswellian people were mobile and set out on expeditions to acquire special materials with which to work their magic. The flint found at the site came from a hundred miles away. Further examination suggested that the flint nodules were probably reduced in size when they were found in order to minimize the weight for the long trek home.

The Hamburg Culture lived 13,500 to 11,000 years ago during the late Upper Paleolithic. They were the reindeer hunters of northwest Europe. The Hamburg sites found put them close to where the ice caps would have been at the time. They produced shouldered and tanged points, some out of horn, and zinken tools which are like chisels. The Hamburg people also lived in teepee like structures. Numerous stone circles have been found that are thought to be stones that held the teepee covering secure.

The Swiderian Culture of Poland and Middle Eastern Europe followed the retreating tundra north about 9500 BC. If true this places them near the end of the Upper Paleolithic Era or even in the early Mesolithic. They produced bifacially shaped tang and retouched arrowhead points using pressure techniques.

Ahrensburg Culture can be found during the 11th to 10th millennium BCE in north central Europe. They were a nomadic, late Upper Paleolithic/early Mesolithic people that lived during the Younger Dryas at a time when the tundra was composed of arctic bushy white birch and rowan. The Ahrensburg were also reindeer hunters and left us with the earliest definitive bows and arrows. This was the time when the late Upper Paleolithic era was disintegrating and opening the way for the Mesolithic. Megafauna’ extinction led to the exploration of new forms of subsistence including maritime exploration, more foraging, increased and intergroup contact. This culture left behind backed point lithics, large and small tanged points, and lovely animal sculptures carved from amber. One site named Stellmore appears to be a seasonal October settlement for hunting reindeer. Teepees and bows and arrows have been discovered there. The site provides evidence of settlement continuity, shades of things to come.

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