Paleolithic period (pā´lēəlĬth´Ĭk, –lēō–, păl´–) or Old Stone Age, the earliest period of human development and the longest phase of mankind's history. It is approximately coextensive with the Pleistocene geologic epoch, beginning about 2 million years ago and ending in various places between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, when it was succeeded by the Mesolithic period. By far the most outstanding feature of the Paleolithic period was the evolution of the human species from an apelike creature, or near human, to true Homo sapiens (see human evolution). This development was exceedingly slow and continued through the three successive divisions of the period, the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic. The most abundant remains of Paleolithic cultures are a variety of stone tools whose distinct characteristics provide the basis for a system of classification containing several toolmaking traditions or industries.
The Lower Paleolithic Period
The oldest recognizable tools made by members of the family of man are simple stone choppers, such as those discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. These tools may have been made over 1 million years ago by Australopithecus, ancestor of modern humans. Fractured stones called eoliths have been considered the earliest tools, but it is impossible to distinguish man-made from naturally produced modifications in such stones. Lower Paleolithic stone industries of the early species of humans called Homo erectus include the Choukoutienian of China and the Clactonian, Chellean-Abbevillian, Acheulian and Levalloisian represented at various sites in Europe, Africa, and Asia, from 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. Stone tools of this period are of the core type, made by chipping the stone to form a cutting edge, or of the flake type, fashioned from fragments struck off a stone. Hand axes were the typical tool of these early hunters and food-gatherers.
The Middle Paleolithic Period
The Middle Paleolithic period includes the Mousterian culture, often associated with Neanderthal man, an early form of humans, living between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. Neanderthal remains are often found in caves with evidence of the use of fire. Neanderthals were hunters of prehistoric mammals, and their cultural remains, though unearthed chiefly in Europe, have been found also in N Africa, Palestine, and Siberia. Stone tools of this period are of the flake tradition, and bone implements, such as needles, indicate that crudely sewn furs and skins were used as body coverings. Since the dead were painted before burial, a kind of primitive religion may have been practiced.
The Upper Paleolithic Period
In the Upper Paleolithic period Neanderthal man disappears and is replaced by a variety of Homo sapiens such as Cro-Magnon man and Grimaldi man. This, the flowering of the Paleolithic period, saw an astonishing number of human cultures, such as the Aurignacian, Gravettian, Perigordian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian, rise and develop in the Old World. The beginnings of communal hunting and extensive fishing are found here, as is the first conclusive evidence of belief systems centering on magic and the supernatural. Pit houses, the first man-made shelters, were built, sewn clothing was worn, and sculpture and painting originated. Tools were of great variety, including flint and obsidian blades and projectile points. It is probable that the people of the Aurignacian culture migrated to Europe after developing their distinctive culture elsewhere, perhaps in Asia. Their stone tools are finely worked, and they made a typical figure eight–shaped blade. They also used bone, horn, and ivory and made necklaces and other personal ornaments. They carved the so-called Venus figures, ritual statuettes of bone, and made outline drawings on cave walls.
The hunters of the Solutrean phase of the Upper Paleolithic entered Europe from the east and ousted many of their Aurignacian predecessors. The Solutrean wrought extremely fine spearheads, shaped like a laurel leaf. The wild horse was their chief quarry. The Solutrean as well as remnants of the Aurignacian were replaced by the Magdalenian, the final, and perhaps most impressive, phase of the Paleolithic period. Here artifacts reflect a society made up of communities of fishermen and reindeer hunters. Surviving Magdalenian tools, which range from tiny microliths to implements of great length and fineness, indicate an advanced technique. Weapons were highly refined and varied, the atlatl first came into use, and along the southern edge of the ice sheet boats and harpoons were developed. However, the crowning achievement of the Magdalenian was its cave paintings, the culmination of Paleolithic art.
See L. S. B. Leakey, Adam's Ancestors (4th ed. 1960); M. C. Burkitt, The Old Stone Age (4th ed. 1963); K. P. Oakley, Man the Tool-Maker (5th ed. 1963); F. Bordes, The Old Stone Age (tr. 1968).