The Stone Age: the Palaeolithic Period

Stone is the earliest example of prehistoric human culture that mankind has identified with some certainty. The period described as the Stone Age has been calculated as beginning about 2,000,000 BCE. During the Stone Age human society experienced the most fundamental changes, the most important of which was the massive yet lengthy transition from cave and rural dwelling and later to the more organised communities in towns and cities.

Along the way mankind evolved and in so doing gradually created and improved numerous technological developments. Whether we can refer to early creations such as spears as technological is debatable but they were certainly clever inventions for the time. However, whether clever or merely necessity, it was inevitable that society and technology did eventually evolve alongside each other.

The Stone Age was later perceived as being enormously long, and so was further sub-divided into three periods:

1. Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age                     (2,000,000 – 10,000 BCE)
2. Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age                (10,000 – 5,500 BCE)
3. Neolithic or New Stone Age                       (5,500 – 2,500 BCE)


In geological terms, there are two epochs: The Pliocene and the Pleistocene.

Pliocene fossilThe Pliocene geological epoch was prone to shifting continents. North and South America for example became linked through the Isthmus of Panama. This new formation created a mammoth global temperature change because the warmer currents of the aquatic ocean were effectively cut-off. (Pictured, a Pliocene fossil).

Thus, the temperature of the isolated Atlantic Ocean was made cooler by the cold Arctic and Antarctic. Consequently, the linkage of the north and south drastically altered the natural fauna of both; some fauna merged or were colonised into different areas.

Likewise, the collision of Africa and Asia brought about the existence of the Mediterranean Sea.

The North Sea rose substantially as the great sheets of ice melted and released their captive waters. In western Britain, a large chunk of land drifted away from the mainland and became what would be Ireland. From around 8,200 to 6,000 BCE the dry land-bridge joining Holland, East Anglia and Lincolnshire became salt marshes; which were gradually drowned by the sea, thus creating a separate Holland and England. Great Britain remained a part of Europe but as a separate, independent landmass.

The climate continued to fluctuate, especially in the Pleistocene geological epoch; and towards the end of the great ice age much of North America and Northern Europe, including Britain, remained covered by glaciers.

Since the ground was permanently frozen, vegetation was extremely scarce and Britain was effectively a wasteland.

Throughout the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age the ice gradually receded, but not completely, and there were occasional interglacial periods. During those warmer spells humans were tempted to venture back into Britain in search of food (mainly game). It is thought that Neanderthals settled in Britain in the late Palaeolithic period, roughly about 40,000 years ago and became extinct by 30,000 years ago and were replaced by the modern man.

Interestingly, a flint axe was found in what is thought to be one of the earliest English settlements; Happisburgh in Norfolk. The name of the settlement is derived from ‘Haep’s Burgh’, pronounced locally as ‘Hayeburrer’ or ‘Hayebruh’. The village now sits between Walcott and Sea Palling on the north east coast of Norfolk, almost half way between Cromer and Great Yarmouth. The axe is a spear-shaped hand axe which suggests that it belonged to the Acheulian culture of Northern France, although the oval design was used in tool making for over a million years.

Palaeolithic Period

The word Palaeolithic derives from the Greek – palaios (old) and lithikos (is relating to or composed of stone), which means ‘old age of the stone’ or ‘Old Stone Age’.

The Palaeolithic period is by far the longest era and was in essence the age of the human evolution. The Lower or oldest period was vastly longer than the Middle and Upper or Newest periods. The lower was also inhabited by early humans, whereas the Middle and Upper humans were classed as the modern mankind. Yet, when calculating the development of those humans, the Lower and Middle were slow to develop and the Upper was fast, which is a natural progression; mankind gradually learned more and developed more and therefore created more.

During the period as a whole the general diet was extremely limited; people hunted and gathered during the fluctuating climate of glacial cold and interglacial warmer periods. Thus, the temperature played a major role in how well they lived, or not. In the old period the people were cave dwellers who lived in small societies. They gradually developed in the middle and upper periods by creating a crude type of constructed shelters. They also fashioned simple stone tools, hence the name of Stone Age.

Tools and weapons of the Palaeolithic periodIn the latter Palaeolithic periods they also made tools with wood, bone, leather and even vegetable fibre, but very few of those artefacts (Paleoliths) survived. The Palaeolithic period is distinguishable because of their use of knapped tools. Knapped means to chip or break up stone, flint and obsidian with sharp blows to shape them into tools. (Pictured, tools and weapons of the Palaeolithic period).

Obsidian arrowheadObsidian is a fascinating glass-like substance which is classed as a mineraloid; a substance resembling a mineral but not exhibiting the transparency of clear glass. Indeed, it is a volcanic silica glass formed when volcano lava runs into water. As the water cools the larva rapidly produces a texture which forms translucent, shapeless igneous rocks which are often mistaken for quartz, but is softer than quartz. (pictured, an Obsidian arrowhead).

In the 1960s, excavations in Turkey unearthed Palaeolithic settlements when the Turkish government began to build dams, such as the Keban; indeed, they found a richness of Palaeolithic artifacts too.

Without written or artistic evidence, archaeology has been the principle source for information on the Stone Age, especially from the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic periods. Art and artefacts have also been found elsewhere; such as jewellery and rock arts at Stonehenge, and cave paintings in France. During the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic eras religious and spiritual artworks began to emerge, thought mainly to have used in burials.

Stella Milner

See also Stella’s articles on the Mesolithic Period and the Neolithic Period.

Learn more about the prehistoric ages in Stella’s book, The Prehistoric Ages from the ‘Small but Interesting History Books’ series.

2 thoughts on “The Stone Age: the Palaeolithic Period

  1. though earlier examples of artistic expression such as the Venus of Tan-Tan and the patterns found on elephant bones from Bilzingsleben in Thuringia may have been produced by Acheulean tool users such as Homo erectus prior to the start of the Middle Paleolithic period.

  2. Though these humans were modern in anatomy, their lifestyle changed very little from their contemporaries, such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals . They used the same crude stone tools. Archaeologist Richard G. Klein , who has worked extensively on ancient stone tools, describes the stone tool kit of archaic hominids as impossible to categorize. It was as if the Neanderthals made stone tools, and were not much concerned about their final forms. He argues that almost everywhere, whether Asia , Africa or Europe , before 50,000 years ago all the stone tools are much alike and unsophisticated.

Comments are closed.