Upper Paleolithic (40–10 ka)
↓ Stone Age
The Upper Paleolithic (or Upper Palaeolithic, Late Stone Age) is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. Very broadly, it dates to between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, roughly coinciding with the appearance of behavioral modernity and before the advent of agriculture.
Modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged about 195,000 years ago in Africa. 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.
About 50,000 years ago, there was a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts. For the first time in Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archeological record. The first evidence of human fishing is also noted, from artifacts in places such as Blombos cave in South Africa. Firstly among the artifacts of Africa, archeologists found they could differentiate and classify those of less than 50,000 years into many different categories, such as projectile points, engraving tools, knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools. These new stone-tool types have been described as being distinctly differentiated from each other, as if each tool had a specific purpose. Between 45,000 and 43,000 years ago, this new tool technology spread with human migration to Europe. The new technology generated a population explosion of modern humans which is believed to have led to the extinction of the Neanderthals. The invaders, commonly referred to as the Cro-Magnons, left many sophisticated stone tools, carved and engraved pieces on bone, ivory and antler, cave paintings and Venus figurines.
This shift from the Middle to Upper Paleolithic is called the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. The Neanderthals continued to use Mousterian stone tool technology and possibly Chatelperronian technology. These tools disappeared from the archeological record at around the same time the Neanderthals themselves disappeared from the fossil record, about 40,000 years ago. The Upper Paleolithic has the earliest known evidence of organized settlements, in the form of campsites, some with storage pits. These were often located in narrow valley bottoms, possibly associated with hunting of passing herds of animals. Some sites may have been occupied year round, though more commonly they appear to have been used seasonally; peoples moved between the sites to exploit different food sources at different times of the year. Hunting was important, and caribou/wild reindeer "may well be the species of single greatest importance in the entire anthropological literature on hunting."
Technological advances included significant developments in flint tool manufacturing, with industries based on fine blades rather than simpler and shorter flakes. Burins and racloirs were used to work bone, antler and hides. Advanced darts and harpoons also appear in this period, along with the fish hook, the oil lamp, rope, and the eyed needle.
Artistic work blossomed, with Venus figurines, cave painting, carvings and engravings on bone or ivory (such as the Swimming Reindeer), petroglyphs, and exotic raw materials found far from their sources, suggesting emerging trading links. More complex social groupings emerged, supported by more varied and reliable food sources and specialized tool types. This probably contributed to increasing group identification or ethnicity. These group identities produced distinctive symbols and rituals which are an important part of modern human behavior.
The changes in human behavior have been attributed to the changes in climate during the period, which encompasses a number of global temperature drops. This meant a worsening of the already bitter climate of what is popularly (but incorrectly) called the last ice age. Such changes may have reduced the supply of usable timber and forced people to look at other materials. In addition, flint becomes brittle at low temperatures and may not have functioned as a tool.
Some scholars have argued that the appearance of complex or abstract language made these behavior changes possible. The complexity of the new human capabilities hints that humans were less capable of planning or foresight before 40,000 years, while the emergence of cooperative and coherent communication marked a new era of cultural development. This theory is not widely accepted, since human phylogenetic separation dates to the Middle Palaeolithic (see Pre-language). While the latter view is better supported by phylogenetic inference, the material "evidence" is ambiguous.
Changes in climate and geography
The climate of the period in Europe saw dramatic changes, and included the Last Glacial Maximum, the coldest phase of the last glacial period, which lasted from about 24,500 to 18,000–17,000 BC, being coldest at the end, before a relatively rapid warming (all dates vary somewhat for different areas, and in different studies). During the Maximum, most of Northern Europe was covered by an ice-sheet, forcing human populations into the areas known as Last Glacial Maximum refugia, including modern Italy and the Balkans, parts of the Iberian Peninsula and areas around the Black Sea. This period saw cultures such as the Solutrean in France and Spain. Human life may have continued on top of the ice sheet, but we know next to nothing about it, and very little about the human life that preceded the European glaciers. In the early part of the period, up to about 30,000 BC, the Mousterian Pluvial made northern Africa, including the Sahara, well-watered and with lower temperatures than today; after the end of the Pluvial the Sahara became arid.
The Last Glacial Maximum was followed by the Allerød oscillation, a warm and moist global interstadial that occurred around 11,500 to 10,800 BC. Then there was a very rapid onset, perhaps within as little as a decade, of the cold and dry Younger Dryas climate period, giving sub-arctic conditions to much of northern Europe. The Pre-Boreal rise in temperatures also began sharply around 9600 BC, and by its end around 8501 BC had brought temperatures nearly to present day levels, though the climate was wetter. This period saw the Upper Paleolithic give way to the start of the following Mesolithic cultural period.
As the glaciers receded sea levels rose; the English Channel, Irish Sea and North Sea were land at this time, and the Black Sea a fresh-water lake. In particular the Atlantic coastline was initially far out to sea in modern terms in most areas, though the Mediterranean coastline has retreated far less, except in the north of the Adriatic and the Aegean. The rise in sea levels continued until at least 5,500 BC, so evidence of human activity along Europe's coasts in the Upper Paleolithic is mostly lost, though some traces are recovered by fishing boats and marine archaeology, especially from Doggerland, the lost area beneath the North Sea.
- In Sydney's far western suburb of Castlereagh, numerous Aboriginal stone tools were found in gravel sediments which dated from 45,000 to 50,000 years BP. At first when these results were new they were controversial, more recently dating of the same strata has revised and corroborated these dates.
- Start of the Mousterian Pluvial in North Africa
- Earliest evidence of modern humans found in Europe, in Southern Italy.
- At Ksar Akil in Lebanon, ornaments and skeletal remains of modern humans are dated to this period
- Denisova hominins live in the Altai Mountains
- First human inhabitants in Perth, Australia, as evidenced by archaeological findings on the Upper Swan River.
- In this time period, Melbourne, Australia was occupied by hunter-gatherers.
- Early cultural center in the Swabian Alps, earliest figurative art (Venus of Schelklingen), beginning of the Aurignacian
- The first flutes appear in Germany
- Lion-Human created from Hohlenstein-Stadel. It is now in Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany.
- Most of the giant vertebrates and megafauna in Australia became extinct, around the time of the arrival of humans
- Examples of cave art in Spain are dated to around 38,000 BC, making them the oldest examples of art yet discovered in Europe. Scientists theorize that the paintings may have been made by Neanderthals, rather than by homo sapiens. (BBC) (Science)
38,000 BC—29,000 BC
- Wall painting with horses, rhinoceroses and aurochs, Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardéche gorge, France, is made. Discovered in December 1994.
- Archaeological studies support human presence in the Chek Lap Kok area (now Hong Kong International Airport) from 35,000 to 39,000 years ago.
- Zar, Yataghyeri, Damjili and Taghlar caves in Azerbaijan
- First evidence of people inhabiting Japan
- Human populations around Europe figure out how to harden clay figures by firing them in an oven at high temperatures
- First ground stone tools appear in Japan
- Invention of the bow and arrow
- End of the Mousterian Pluvial in North Africa
- Sydney was occupied by Aboriginal Australians during this time period, as evidenced by radiocarbon dating. In an archaeological dig in Parramatta, Western Sydney, it was found that the Aboriginals used charcoal, stone tools and possible ancient campfires.
- First human settlement in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia.
- Venus of Dolní Věstonice. It is the oldest known ceramic in the world.
- The Red Lady of Paviland lived around 29,000–26,000 years ago. Recent evidence has come to light that he was a tribal chief.
- Human settlement in Beijing, China dates from about 27,000 to 10,000 years ago.
- Start of the second Mousterian Pluvial in North Africa.
- Venus of Petřkovice (Petřkovická venuše in Czech) from Petřkovice in Ostrava, Czech Republic, was made. It is now in Archeological Institute, Brno.
- Last Glacial Maximum: Venus of Brassempouy, Grotte du Pape, Brassempouy, Landes, France, was made. It is now at Musée des Antiquités Nationales, St.-Germain-en-Laye.
- Venus of Willendorf, Austria, was made. It is now at Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.
- Artefacts suggests early human activity occurred at some point in Canberra, Australia. Archaeological evidence of settlement in the region includes inhabited rock shelters, rock paintings and engravings, burial places, camps and quarry sites, and stone tools and arrangements.
- End of the second Mousterian Pluvial in North Africa.
- Last Glacial Maximum. Mean Sea Levels are believed to be 110 to 120 meters (361 to 394 ft) lower than present, with the direct implication that many coastal and lower riverine valley archaeological sites of interest are today under water.
18,000 BC—11,000 BC
- Ibex-headed spear thrower, from Le Mas d'Azil, Ariège, France, is made. It is now at Musée de la Préhistoire, Le Mas d'Azil.
18,000 BC—12,000 BC
17,000 BC—15,000 BC
- Hall of Bulls, Lascaux caves, is painted. Discovered in 1940. Closed to the public in 1963.
- Bird-Headed man with bison and Rhinoceros, Lascaux caves, is painted.
- Lamp with ibex design, from La Mouthe cave, Dordogne, France, is made. It is now at Musée des Antiquités Nationales, St.-Germain-en-Laye.
- Paintings in Cosquer cave, where the cave mouth is now under water at Cap Margiou, France were made.
- Bison, Le Tuc d'Audoubert, Ariège, France.
15,000 BC–12,000 BC
- Paleo-Indians move across North America, then southward through Central America.
- Pregnant woman and deer (?), from Laugerie-Basse, France was made. It is now at Musée des Antiquités Nationales, St.-Germain-en-Laye.
- Paleo-Indians searched for big game near what is now the Hovenweep National Monument.
- Bison, on the ceiling of a cave at Altamira, Spain, is painted. Discovered in 1879. Accepted as authentic in 1902.
- Domestication of Reindeer.
11,500 BC—10,000 BC
- First evidence of human settlement in Argentina.
- The Arlington Springs Man dies on the island of Santa Rosa, off the coast of California.
- Human remains deposited in caves which are now located off the coast of Yucatán.
The Upper Paleolithic in the Franco-Cantabrian region:
- The Châtelperronian culture was located around central and south western France, and northern Spain. It appears to be derived from the Mousterian culture, and represents the period of overlap between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. This culture lasted from approximately 45,000 BP to 40,000 BP.
- The Aurignacian culture was located in Europe and south west Asia, and flourished between 32,000 BC and 21,000 BC. It may have been contemporary with the Périgordian (a contested grouping of the earlier Châtelperronian and later Gravettian cultures).
- The Gravettian culture was located across Europe. Gravettian sites generally date between 26,000 BC to 20,000 BC.
- The Solutrean culture was located in eastern France, Spain, and England. Solutrean artifacts have been dated to around 19000 BC before mysteriously disappearing around 15,000 BC.
- The Magdalenian culture left evidence from Portugal to Poland during the period from 16,000 BC to 8000 BC.
From the Synoptic table of the principal old world prehistoric cultures:
- Central and east Europe:
- North and west Africa, and Sahara:
- Central, south, and east Africa:
- 50,000 BC, culture
- 30,000 BC, culture
- 10,000 BC, culture
- 9000 BC, Magosian culture
- 7000 BC, culture
- 3000 BC, beginning of hunter-gatherer art in southern Africa
- West Asia (including Middle East):
- South, central and northern Asia:
- 30,000 BC, Angara culture
- 9000 BC, culture
- East and southeast Asia:
- Late Glacial Maximum
- Neolithic Europe
- Behavioral modernity
- Cro-Magnon 1
- Cultural universal
- Gilman, Antonio (1996). "Explaining the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution". Pp. 220–239 (Chap. 8) in Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
- The Upper Paleolithic Revolution
- Picture Gallery of the Paleolithic (reconstructional palaeoethnology), Libor Balák at the Czech Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Archaeology in Brno, The Center for Paleolithic and Paleoethnological Research