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World History Volume 1, to 1500

2.2 People in the Paleolithic Age

World History Volume 1, to 15002.2 People in the Paleolithic Age

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how the environment shaped the way people lived in the Paleolithic Age
  • Describe the day-to-day life of people in the Paleolithic Age
  • Discuss Paleolithic Age peoples and their likely attitudes toward the environment, gender, religion, and social hierarchy

Living in an age when global temperatures are gradually rising, we are well equipped to recognize the impact of climate on daily life. For much of their existence, however, Earth’s early peoples lived in an ice age, when temperatures were colder and ice covered areas that are now forested or farmed. Hostile climates tend to create a scarcity of key resources and require that people spend more time securing those necessities. Early humans thus relied on one another and their communities for basic survival, forming small tight-knit groups that migrated to ensure their access to edible plants, water, and game. In regions where food was more secure, such as in lush environments with ample water supply, settlements were more permanent and people had more time for artistic and social endeavors.

But survival was generally difficult and cooperation vital. This is one reason egalitarianism was common among prehistoric hunter-gatherers, as it still is among the few remaining groups that pursue this survival strategy today. However, men and women in early human groups often had different responsibilities. For example, women tended to gather while men hunted. Across the planet, groups relied heavily on existing resources harvested from their natural surroundings, and any change or challenge could spell disaster. Yet people proved to be resilient and innovative.

Ice, Ice, and More Ice

Scientists who study the changes that have occurred on Earth over billions of years have identified at least five significant periods of cooling on the planet. These are often called ice ages, and each has included multiple glaciation periods during which glaciers grew on the land.

A few factors can trigger an ice age, but generally such climate changes occur when insufficient sunlight is able to reach the planet’s surface. Then temperatures drop in northern latitudes, resulting in the accumulation of ice. As the glacial ice sheets grow and spread across the land, water is pulled from the oceans, causing sea levels to decline. Even areas closer to the equator, where ice is unlikely to develop, can experience dramatic climate change during these cooling periods. Otherwise-tropical areas can experience drying, causing rivers to disappear, lakes to turn into swamps, jungles into savannahs, and grasslands into deserts. These changes have a huge effect on plants and animals, leading to evolutionary adaptations in some and extinction in others. These are all natural processes, and each recorded ice age in our planet’s history has eventually come to an end when more sunlight reaches the Earth and causes the temperature to rise and ice to melt.

The most recent glaciation period began a little over 100,000 years ago and reached its peak about eighteen thousand years ago (Figure 2.14). The ice age of which this glaciation period was a part ended approximately twelve thousand years ago. At peak glaciation, ice sheets sometimes two miles thick covered the land around the North Pole and extended outward over much of present-day Russia, Scandinavia, the British Isles, Greenland, Canada, and the northern reaches of the United States.

A map is shown viewing the North Pole from above. Asia is shown on the left, the North Pole in the middle, and North America is on the left. Most of Asia is highlighted yellow as well as the southern portion of North America and half of Alaska. Areas that are highlighted light blue are: small portions throughout Asia as well as most of the northern portion of Asia, Greenland, and most of northern North America. Areas that are highlighted blue indicating “Summer Sea Ice” are: the North Pole and the waters between Alaska and Russia as well as the waters surrounding Greenland and by the northeastern portion of the U.S. Areas highlighted dark blue for “Winter Sea Ice” are the waters from the west coast of the U.S. to the east coast of Asia as well as the waters from the northeastern coast of the U.S. to the northern areas of Europe. “Gobi” is labeled toward the bottom of Asia and “Himalaya” is labeled in eastern Asia. “Alps” are labeled in Europe, “Ural” is labeled in northern Asia, and the “Rocky Mountains” are labeled in the western U.S.
Figure 2.14 The Most Recent Glaciation Period. During the most recent glaciation period, eighteen thousand to one million years ago, ice sheets covered large portions of the northern hemisphere, and Earth’s sea levels were far lower than they are today. (credit: modification of work “Northern Hemisphere glaciation during the last ice ages” by “Hannes Grobe/AWI”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5)

The consequences of these climatic transformations for modern humans have been huge. It is probably not a coincidence that at approximately the same time Earth entered its last glaciation period, humans began their global expansion. Climate changes in Africa were likely a decisive factor in encouraging and enabling them to move into other parts of the world. Low sea levels allowed modern humans to expand into maritime Southeast Asia and Japan and reach Australia. And not long after Earth reached peak glaciation, the first human migrants entered North America from Siberia, by way of a strip of land exposed by low sea levels.

Modern humans who moved into colder conditions had to adjust to their harsh environments. For example, they created new forms of clothing, unnecessary in warmer climates but vital now, by removing the hides from hunted animals with various types of rock tools and scraping them clean. The earliest clothing must have been simple and likely functioned as blankets draped over the body to keep warm. However, by around thirty thousand years ago, modern humans had developed the earliest known sewing needles, making them of bone, wood, and ivory. Like their modern counterparts, these needles had sharp points at one end and a hole in the other. With thread made from animal remains or wild flax, humans could now piece together bits of soft animal hide from foxes, rabbits, and deer to produce far more sophisticated and tight-fitting clothing.

The five-thousand-year-old remains of a man discovered in the alpine region between Austria and Italy in 1991 and dubbed Ötzi provide us with some indication of the type of clothing that could be created (Figure 2.15). Ötzi was dressed in a heavy coat made of goat and sheep hides stitched together. He also wore tight-fitting leggings of similar materials, a bearskin cap with a chin strap, and shoes constructed from woven grass, tree fibers, and deer hide. This type of clothing was far more functional than earlier designs and would have allowed populations to survive in frigid areas.

A picture is shown of a circular portion of straw inserted into a beige leather round opening that looks like a shoe. Running from around the straw through holes in the leather is a rope. Rope is also shown laying across the leather portion and secured in the straw section. Under both the straw and the leather, is a piece of leather sewn with brown string. The object is laying on a shiny wood table with brown walls in the background.
Figure 2.15 An Ancient Shoe. This reproduction of one of Ötzi’s shoes shows how deerskin and bearskin lined with bark and twine were fashioned to protect his feet in the cold climate in which he lived thousands of years ago. (credit: modification of work “Ötzi shoe (replica), bearskin with deerskin upper, internal cage of twined linden bark, padded grass insulation - Bata Shoe Museum” by “Daderot”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

The warming of Earth and retreat of the glaciers that began around seventeen thousand years ago submerged continental shelves around the world and created new lakes and rivers. These changes in turn created opportunities for exploiting fresh- and saltwater marine life in the new waterways and the warmer shallow waters along the coasts. Many human groups were now exposed to a greater variety of animals that they could use to supplement their diets. As other animals like reindeer adapted to life in cold environments and moved north, the human populations that hunted them moved north as well. The higher water levels also helped to isolate some groups, however. Those that had migrated into maritime Southeast Asia and Australia found themselves more secluded on islands in the south Pacific. Those that had crossed into the Americas from Asia were cut off from populations in the eastern hemisphere as sea waters rose in the Bering Strait. The civilizations they created in North and South America remained largely separated from the rest of the world until the fifteenth century CE.

Life in the Paleolithic Age

Until as recently as twelve thousand years ago, human populations around the world remained very small and relied on subsistence hunting and gathering for survival. A typical group of early humans could be as small as fifteen people and perhaps as large as only forty (Figure 2.16). These groups were further subdivided into family units. Their small size should not be surprising, since they had only the naturally occurring resources around them to depend upon. But it also contributed to the development of close relationships between members of the group, an advantage in a world where cooperation could mean the difference between life and death. Groups much larger than forty or so would have struggled to live on the scarce resources of an area and found cooperation difficult to achieve. Any groups that became too large would by necessity have split up and found other areas and other resources.

A drawing is shown of three people on a flat area of a hill. They all have dark skin and are naked except for small loincloths. The one on the left is sitting with his back showing, white feathers on his head and his bow and arrow on the ground to his left. A black dog-like animal sits in front of him. The other two men are standing, both with tall headdresses of thin slats with their bows and arrows on their backs. In the bottom left of the drawing, an adult in a brown cloak stands holding a small child while a naked child holds on to their leg. Two more people wearing cloaks are seen in front of them and other minute people are in the far distance. In the right of the picture six people are shown standing and sitting in front of rounded huts on a raised area. Smoke is shown rising up. The landscape is hilly with pale green, brown, and gray colors.
Figure 2.16 Early Hunter-Gatherers. This 1804 sketch of a hunter-gatherer people known as the San was made by Samuel Daniell of England, during his appointment as artist for a British expedition traveling throughout southern Africa. For hunter-gatherers such as the San and our early ancestors, living in small groups of no more than about forty was necessary to survive, given scarce resources. (credit: “Bushmen Hottentots armed for an expedition” by Samuel Daniell in African Scenery and Animals/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Diets for humans in this period consisted of nuts, fruits, berries, wild grains and honey, fish, birds, shellfish, insects, and other animals. What people ate depended heavily on the environments in which they lived. Those in lush, warm environments had access to a variety of edible plants and animals. In more frigid and icier environments, they depended more on animals and fish. Fishing strategies likely included the use of spears but also nets and even hooks made of bone. Land animals eaten for food were either scavenged from remains left behind by other predators or hunted by humans themselves. Most hunting likely focused on smaller animals.

But large-game hunts did occur. Archaeological remains and cave paintings indicate that humans hunted deer, horses, gazelle, bison, and even very large animals like woolly mammoths. We know from archaeological work done in the Americas that as early as twelve thousand years ago, modern humans occasionally drove bison herds over cliffs to their deaths in order to process their meat and hides. Similar methods were likely used in other places to hunt various species of herding animals around this time or even earlier. Hunting woolly mammoths tens of thousands of years ago would have required a lot of group cooperation and the use of sophisticated tools like spears. It would also have been very dangerous, and scholars debate how common it really was. But killing a mammoth would have been highly desirable; a typical animal weighed around six tons, and harvesting it would provide a good supply of meat, hide, and bone for a small group.

For shelter, early humans commonly used both built structures and naturally occurring refuges like caves. Archaeologists around the world have unearthed evidence suggesting that some populations occupied a single cave for tens of thousands of years. The Panga ya Saidi cave in Kenya, for example, may have been home to humans for as long as seventy-eight thousand years. When caves weren’t available or when populations needed to be more mobile, humans designed their own shelters using wood, bone, animal skins, and other items gathered from the surrounding area. Evidence of shelters constructed of mammoth bones and covered with animal hides has been uncovered in several locations in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic. These encampments may have been used as long as twenty-five thousand years ago.

There are strong indications that modern humans living even tens of thousands of years ago had developed some form of spirituality, perhaps even a kind of religion. As they are today, spirituality and belief in the supernatural were a way of making sense of the world. Natural occurrences like sunsets, earthquakes, comets, lighting, volcanoes, and many events for which we have ready scientific answers may have held supernatural significance for our Paleolithic ancestors. If modern practices are any guide, Paleolithic humans likely had religious traditions similar to animism—the idea that a degree of spirituality exists not only in people but also in plants, inanimate objects, and even natural phenomena like fires. The detailed cave paintings of bison, deer, and other animals left behind by these distant ancestors may be some of the few surviving traces of their ideas about the supernatural. It is even possible they recognized some members as religious figures. Such shaman men and women would have provided some connection between this world and another less understood world beyond.

We do know that modern humans and even Neanderthals buried their dead, and they frequently placed common household items in the grave when they did. A few rare burial sites found in eastern and southern Europe and dating back thirty thousand years were particularly ornate. Some included ivory spears and discs, along with bodies carefully covered in red ochre and beads made of both mammoth ivory and fox teeth. But most burials discovered so far were fairly simple. While it’s tempting to draw conclusions about a belief in the afterlife from such finds, it’s impossible to know for sure what significance these burials had for the people who performed them.

By studying archaeology and observing modern hunter-gatherers, many have concluded that ancient hunter-gatherer societies were very egalitarian. The small size of the groups, the lack of wealth, and the nomadic lifestyle were likely the reasons. But it is difficult to know exactly how egalitarian early human societies were. There was clearly some degree of differentiation within them. Just like today, within even a small group there would have been varying degrees of physical ability, intelligence, charisma, and other traits. Group members would surely have recognized these differences and used them to their advantage.

Older interpretations of social organization suggested that men did most of the hunting while women did the cooking or stayed home to nurse children. More recently, some have suggested that Paleolithic men and women both made a number of contributions to society. Meat, likely hunted mostly by men, would have been highly prized, but plants and other foods gathered mostly by women may have contributed as many if not more valued calories to the group. It is also likely that if men were away hunting, then by necessity women would have taken care of everything else. This meant protecting homes from attack, repairing shelters, and making tools.

Diverse Paleolithic Peoples

Our window into Paleolithic life is small and opaque. Scholars have thus had to rely mostly on observing hunter-gatherer societies that exist today and extrapolating from their experiences. Relatively few such populations still survive, and they are found in only a few places around the world where producing food simply isn’t practicable or desirable. These include the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, the forests of equatorial Africa, the far Arctic, Tanzania, parts of western Australia, and a few other places.

The San people of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa have often been studied (Figure 2.17). They live today in parts of Botswana, Namibia, and Angola, and those who still practice a traditional lifestyle do so in groups of up to sixty people that include members of several related families. The San survive by foraging on wild vegetables, nuts, fruit, and insects. They also rely on hunting wild game like antelope with throwing sticks, spears, and small bows that shoot poison-dipped arrows. Their groups are largely leaderless, though in certain instances respected hunters or older men might wield some authority.

A picture of shown of seven people in a dried out, brown field with white bushes and brown trees in the distance. All of the people are dark skinned with short, black hair and brown cloths or furs around their waists. They wear a variety of brown or colorfully patterned tops and all but one wear a blue, black, and white striped headband on their head. The man on the left stands with one hand on his head and the other holding a walking stick. A small boy stands next to him, wearing a white collar, obscured by a woman in front of him holding an object in both her hands. Another person stands next to her looking at the object. One person sits on the ground in front, while two squat to the right, all looking at the ground.
Figure 2.17 The San People of Africa. Some of the San people who live in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa still follow a hunter-gatherer lifestyle today, living in relatively small and generally egalitarian family groups. (credit: “Tribu d’indigènes” by “hbieser”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Despite this egalitarianism, the San do maintain some important divisions of labor based on sex. For example, men are expected to create fires for cooking and warmth, which they do by rubbing sticks together to create heat and adding a bit of dry grass so that it ignites. Men are also the primary hunters for the group, though women sometimes participate. Women’s responsibilities include gathering, as well as building traditional shelters from tree branches covered in long grass. These shelters are light and can be built quickly to allow the group to move regularly when necessary. Water is a constant concern in the very arid Kalahari environment, and the San can live on relatively little of it. They collect it from certain plants and special watering holes, frequently using hollowed-out ostrich eggs to collect and store it for later use.

In the Arctic region of northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, where conditions are very different from those in the Kalahari, the Inuit people practice a form of hunter-gatherer lifestyle suitable to that environment. Like other hunter-gatherer groups, they live in relatively small bands made of multiple families and are generally much more egalitarian than settled societies that depend on agriculture. There are few plants to gather but an abundance of birds and animals to hunt and fish, including caribou, walrus, bowhead whale, seal, polar bear, muskox, and fox. In addition to providing meat and fuel, these animals have hides the Inuit use to make ocean-going vessels and thick clothing to protect them from the harsh cold (Figure 2.18). The plants that can be gathered in some warmer regions include grasses, roots, and seaweed.

A black and white picture shows three people on a dark background. The woman on the left has small, thin eyes, high cheekbones, and is smiling showing her teeth. The man on the right has almond shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and is shown grinning. The child between them has dark, almond shaped eyes. All three wear thick, furry coats with fur all around the hoods.
Figure 2.18 The Inuit People of Alaska. Making carefully constructed fur clothing allows modern Inuit people to survive the cold conditions of their environment. This photograph of an Inuit family was made in 1929 and has been digitally restored. (credit: “Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929” by Edward S. Curtis in The North American Indian/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As is common among hunter-gatherer groups, men tend to do the hunting and fishing while women care for the children, maintain the home, and process the food that is hunted or gathered. The relatively limited supply of plants in relation to animals has exerted a strong influence on Inuit society. Since by far the largest part of the diet is produced by hunting and fishing, the emphasis on these male-dominated activities is strong. Hunting and fishing are also very dangerous occupations in which death and serious injury are common. The result is that women have traditionally outnumbered men in Inuit bands. In the past this ratio has led to higher rates of polygamy and even infanticide. The accumulation of numerous wives by some men has also sparked jealousy and violent rivalries among kin.

Both the San and the Inuit have had considerable exposure to the settled agricultural societies around them, and modern technology has influenced the way they live. For example, the Inuit today often use firearms to hunt in ways they could not have done several centuries ago. But one hunter-gatherer society that has still had only limited exposure to agricultural societies is the Awá people of the Brazilian rainforest. The known behaviors of the Awá thus provide scholars a picture of hunter-gatherer societies that may be closer to that of our distant ancestors.

Unlike the San and the Inuit, who live in environments where many resources are scarce, the Awá inhabit a very plentiful and lush environment. There are relatively few of them, only about three hundred and fifty, and their semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle is not a vestige of ancient practices. Rather, it is believed that as recently as the nineteenth century CE they abandoned previously settled communities and moved deep into the Amazon River basin to live as they currently do. Despite their relatively late adoption of this lifestyle, the Awá display many of the societal characteristics common among other hunter-gatherer groups. They are highly egalitarian. They own relatively few material objects. They live in small groups of up to thirty. And they survive by hunting animals and gathering edible plants from the surrounding environment. A traditional and highly valued gathered plant is the fruit of the babassu palm. In addition to relying on this oily and protein-rich fruit, Awá groups also survive on the abundant fish in the wet rainforest and hunt numerous other animals using bows and arrows.

The different environments in which the world’s remaining hunter-gatherers live have inspired very different understandings of the supernatural. The Inuit have a rich mythology that includes stories of fantastic hunts and incredible creatures that inhabit the world. The northern lights, a natural celestial display common in very high latitudes, is seen as a feature of the supernatural that can be both comforting and terrifying.

Many San religious beliefs revolve around a sometimes helpful and sometimes foolish being called Kaggen. Kaggen can take the form of numerous animals, including certain insects. The San also practice numerous types of rituals for important life events, such as a young boy’s first kill and marriage. They recognize certain members of their group as shamans with a special connection to the supernatural world.

The Awá perform unique religious ceremonies during special times, such as evenings with a full moon. They also practice rituals that take them to a spirit world where they can request special intervention on Earth.

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