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Describe the characteristics of the hunter-gatherer societies of the Paleolithic Age (their use of tools and fire, basic hunting weapons, beads and other jewelry)

Image to the right is a Location map of Homo Sapiens Aurignacian culture, of the Upper Paleolithic Age.

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Topics on the Page
Paleolithic Age
Cave Art and Cave Paintings
  • Lascaux Cave Paintings
  • Eating a Paleo Diet
Tools and Fire
Bead and Other Art
Women's Roles
  • Venus of Willendorf
Teaching Resources

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 2.30.48 PM.pngFor more see AP World History Key Concept 1.1

Focus Question: What were the characteristics of the hunter-gatherer societies of the Paleolithic Age?

Excavation of a Stone Age Cave, Island of Gotland, 1891
Excavation of a Stone Age Cave, Island of Gotland, 1891

Hunter-gatherer societies were marked by the use of tools and fire, basic hunting weapons, beads and other jewelry.
  • These societies also had a basic form of social organization, a concept that applies to all human societies throughout time.
  • Students can see how different groups organized themselves to sustain their lives economically, socially, politically, and philosophically.

Multimedia.pngInventing the Stone Age, an interactive timeline from John H. Lienhard at the University of Houston. Check out track seven: The Dolni Vestonice Venus

Paleolithic Age (Up to - 10,000 BCE)

For a modern day perspective, link to How Matera Went from Ancient Civilization to Slum to a Hidden Gem from Smithsonian Magazine (February 2014).

This age can be defined as beginning with the earliest human-like behaviors of raw stone tool manufacture and ending with the beginning of cultivation. The people of the Paleolithic Age, or the Old Stone Age, lived in hunter-gatherer communities. This meant that food was found on a day to day basis, as opposed to the modern day agricultural methods of food production and preservation.

timeline2_rus.svg.pngTimeline of Tool Makers through the Paleolithic Age (*Modern man’s scientific name is Homo sapien)
  • Homo habilis - 2.2 to 1.6 million years BCE
  • Homo erectus - 2 to 0.4 million years BCE
  • Homo sapiens - 400,000 to 200,000 years BCE
  • Homo sapiens neandertalensis - 200,000 to 30,000 years BCE
  • Homo sapiens sapiens - 130,000 years BCE to present

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multicultural.pngClick here to see the reconstruction of a 7,000 year old man.
    • Click here to watch facts about hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic Age.
    • Click here to watch video about the hunter-gatherers' tools. By WoodlandTV.
      • Click here to watch an online lesson on the Paleolithic Age and hunter-gatherers. Created by Layne Jacobsen.

Hall of Bulls, Lascaux Caves
Hall of Bulls, Lascaux Caves

Cave Art and Cave Paintings

Rotating_globe-small.gifAfrican Rock Artfrom the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngDiscovering Prehistoric Humans Through Pictures

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 11.48.22 AM.pngLink to AP Art History: Global Prehistory for more information and latest research

Multimedia.pngLascaux Cave Paintings--Virtual Tour

Click here to read about the mystery of undiscovered cave paintings in the Basque region of Spain.


Modern man’s earliest predecessors sought safety from the environment and predators in natural shelters such as caves and rock overhangs.
  • Eventually, early forms of men learned to better their caves with stone floors, walls at the entrances to block out competitors and invaders, and fire pits. Ultimately, they began fashioning entirely new habitats in areas that did not have naturally occurring shelter.
    • Usually, these crude buildings were made out of wood and stone and in the shape of tents.
      • The manufacture of such habitats may have been influenced by the cold weather of the ice ages which occurred during the Paleolithic age.

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The people of the Paleolithic Age were nomadic.
  • They would have traveled on foot, possibly over large tracts of land, to gather and hunt for food, migrating between different encampments at different times of the year. Fish and birds were the main source of food for these people.
    • However, they also hunted large game when it was available and safe to do so. These beasts would require social cooperation of multiple nomadic groups to take down and then share in the bounty.
    • Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they would eat the large parts such as the ribs first. When they were ready to leave, they would grab onto the feet of the animals and use them like handles to drag the smaller parts around for later consumption.
    • Bones from archaeological sites prove every part of the animal was used, as all parts were considered essential to the survival of the society. After the meat was cut from the bones, they were shattered in order to obtain sustenance from the marrow.
  • Eating fat is a great way of storing energy, and due to the cold climate, the parts of the animal that were high in fat would be most valued. Storing food would have also been essential to the community due to its inconsistent source. Meat could have been covered up and frozen, cut up into strips and dried in the wind, or smoked above a fire.

multicultural.png Modern hunter-gatherer societies

Eating a Paleo Diet

The Evolution of Diet, National Geographic

The possible effect of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle on our brains today.

Read about how the diet of hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic Age has begun to re-emerge as a fad in the last decade.

How to Really Eat Like a Hunter Gatherer, Scientific American (June 3, 2013)

Hunter-gatherers stocking a glyptodon. Heinrich Harder (1919)
Hunter-gatherers stocking a glyptodon. Heinrich Harder (1919)

Image by Rosemary Cottage Clinic Blog
Image by Rosemary Cottage Clinic Blog

Tools and Fire

Harpoons were constructed in order to hunt larger mammals, such as Wooly Mammoths. The blade would be made from sharpened, unpolished stone while the shaft would be made from wood.
  • Other technologies included the atlatl, a device used to launch spears faster and farther, which made killing large animals easier. Crude flutes have been found that are made from either mammoth tusk or animal bone.
  • Dishware would have been made from stone or wood as well.external image Acheulean_hand-axe_from_Egypt._Found_on_a_hill_top_plateau%2C_1400_feet_above_sea_level%2C_9_miles_NNW_of_the_city_of_Naqada%2C_Egypt._Paleolithic._The_Petrie_Museum_of_Egyptian_Archaeology%2C_London.jpg

People of the Old Stone Age would have needed fire for many things: cooking, defense, comfort, etc.
  • At this early stage of man’s history, embers were taken from a previously known source of fire (Volcanic rock, lightning) and then was carefully safeguarded, for it was not yet possible for humans to create fire.
  • The use of fire for cooking greatly magnified the diversity of food available to man, just as its heat in winter extended their habitat. Eventually, Stone Age peoples learned how to make fire from flint.

  • Footwear was created to withstand the cold temperatures of the Ice Age. Bast shoes were made out of birch bark or linden tree.

fire.jpg Fun website with cartoons on the discovery of fire.

game_icon.svg.pngMatch the Tools to their Uses

More info about what happened to man when he discovered fire.

Short video for kids on the Paleolithic Age.

Beads & Other Art
Hunters and gathers during the Paleolithic age took pride in their beads as they were displays of success in hunting.
This is an example of a burin.

  • Beads were often made of by-products from the hunt, largely bones, teeth, tusks and shells.
  • The beads of the Paleolithic Age was often fastened from the same materials in the making of their tools.The wearer of these beads felt they had some control over the animal spirit and by extension some control of the tumultuous and often dangerous environment they lived in.
  • These beads were crafted using a tool called a burin. The burin was unlike other tools of the Paleolithic Age because it was not used to cut meat or kill animals, but instead used to craft other tools and products like beads.

Beads made from shells

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, Paleolithic people could make this portable art that held symbolic meaning as well as potential spiritual implications. However, hunting and gathering didn't take much effort so the daily nomad had a lot of leisure time.
  • Since they were on the move constantly, these foragers couldn't make large sculptures or build beautiful monuments even if they had the technology. Instead they created other portable art in the form of figurines.

multicultural.pngClick here to see artifacts from the Paleolithic Age.
primary_sources.PNGClick here for a New York Times article on finding artwork in a cave.

womens history.jpgWomen's Roles

Click here for an article from the New York Times on women in the Paleolithic Age.

Click here for a National Geographic article about the emergence of woman labor roles in the upper Paleolithic Age.

Click here for a review which talks about labor roles in hunter-gatherer societies.

Click here for an article from the Guardian on gender equality in the Paleolithic Age, with link to original essay.

Female_Rose.pngVenus of Willendorf

The most famous early image of human is that of a woman, known as the Venus of Willendorf.
  • An unknown artist had the time to craft this object that held spiritual significance (it may have been a fertility talisman or the Mother Goddess) and could take it with them wherever they moved.
  • For background, see Venus of Wllendorf: Great Discoveries in Archaeology from Michigan State University
  • For images of the Venus of Willendorf and an in depth analysis of her creation, click here.

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a video on Venus of Willendorf produced by Khan Academy

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  • RationalSkepticism.org has a discussion of Diamond's article and a link to a Ted Talk about violence among hunter-gatherers.

book.pngBook Recommendations:
The Best Book of Early People by Margaret Hynes, Kingfisher Publications. 2003. ISBN: 0-7534-5577-3

Walking the Earth: The History of Human Migration by Tricia Andryszewski, Twenty-First Century Books. Minneapolis, MN. 2007.
ISNB: 0-7613-3458-0

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY. 2015. 978-0062316097.




[1] (1995). Hominid Species Timeline . Retrieved February 7, 2007, from Hominid Species Timeline Web site (link no longer functioning): http://www.wsu.edu:8001/vwsu/gened/learn-modules/top_longfor/timeline/timeline.html
[2] Kowalski, J (1998). Stone Age Habitats. Retrieved February 7, 2007, from Jan Kowalski's Home Page Web site (link no longer functioning): http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/w/x/wxk116/habitat/
[3] (2001). Stone Age People. Retrieved February 7, 2007, from Food and Hunting Web site (link no longer functioning): http://www.creswell-crags.org.uk/virtuallytheiceage/Stone%20Age%20People/Food.htm
[4] Hitchcock, D (2006). Don's Maps. Retrieved February 7, 2007, from Tools and decorative objects of the Stone Age Index Web site: http://donsmaps.com/indextools.html
[5]Museum of Modern and Ancient Art, "Treasures from the Ancient World." Last modified 2010. Accessed January 29, 2012. http://www.mama.org/exhibits/ancient/.
[6] Turizm.net, "Prehistoric Times." Accessed January 30, 2012. http://www.turizm.net/turkey/history/paleolithic.html
[7] archaeology.about.com, "Schlep Effect." Accessed January 30, 2016. http://archaeology.about.com/od/seterms/g/schlep_effect.htm
[8] PacificEcologist.org, "Hunter Gatherers: Insights From a Golden Affluent Age." Accessed January 30, 2016. http://pacificecologist.org/archive/18/pe18-hunter-gatherers.pdf