The Lower Paleolithic (or Lower Palaeolithic) is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It spans the time from around 3.3 million years ago when the first evidence for stone tool production and use by hominins appears in the current archaeological record, until around 300,000 years ago, spanning the Oldowan ("mode 1") and Acheulean ("mode 2") lithics industries.
In African archaeology, the time period roughly corresponds to the Early Stone Age, the earliest finds dating back to 3.3 million years ago, with Lomekwian stone tool technology, spanning Mode 1 stone tool technology, which begins roughly 2.6 million years ago and ends between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago, with Mode 2 technology.
The Middle Paleolithic followed the Lower Paleolithic and recorded the appearance of the more advanced prepared-core tool-making technologies such as the Mousterian. Whether the earliest control of fire by hominins dates to the Lower or to the Middle Paleolithic remains an open question.
The Lower Paleolithic began with the appearance of the oldest stone tools in the world, roughly 3.3 million ago in eastern Africa, which were produced by an as-yet undetermined hominin. The Gelasian (Lower Pleistocene), some 2.5 million years ago, saw the appearance of the Homo genus (Homo habilis), possibly developing from australopithecine forebears (such as Australopithecus garhi). These early members of the Homo genus produced primitive tools, summarized under the Oldowan or Mode 1 horizon, which remained dominant for nearly a million years, from about 2.5 to 1.7 million years ago. Homo habilis is assumed to have lived primarily on scavenging, using tools to cleave meat off carrion or to break bones to extract the marrow.
The move from the mostly frugivorous or omnivorous diet of hominin Australopithecus to the carnivorous scavenging lifestyle of early Homo has been explained by the climate changes in East Africa associated with the Quaternary glaciation. Decreasing oceanic evaporation produced a drier climate and the expansion of the savannah at the expense of forests. Reduced availability of fruits stimulated some proto-australopithecines to search out new food sources found in the drier savannah ecology. Derek Bickerton (2009) has designated to this period the move from simple animal communication systems found in all great apes to the earliest form of symbolic communication systems capable of displacement (referring to items not currently within sensory perception) and motivated by the need to "recruit" group members for scavenging large carcasses.
Homo erectus appeared by about 1.8 million years ago, via the transitional variety Homo ergaster.
Homo erectus moved from scavenging to hunting, developing the hunting-gathering lifestyle that would remain dominant throughout the Paleolithic into the Mesolithic. The unlocking of the new niche of hunting-gathering subsistence drove a number of further behavioral and physiological changes leading to the appearance of Homo heidelbergensis by some 600,000 years ago.
Homo erectus migrated out of Africa and dispersed throughout Eurasia. Stone tools in Malaysia have been dated to be 1.83 million years old. The Peking Man fossil, discovered in 1929, is roughly 700,000 years old.
In Europe, the Olduwan tradition (known in Europe as Abbevillian) split into two parallel traditions, the Clactonian, a flake tradition, and the Acheulean, a hand-axe tradition. The Levallois technique for knapping flint developed during this time.
The carrier species from Africa to Europe was undoubtedly Homo erectus. This type of human is more clearly linked to the flake tradition, which spread across southern Europe through the Balkans to appear relatively densely in southeast Asia. Many Mousterian finds in the Middle Paleolithic have been knapped using a Levallois technique, suggesting that Neanderthals evolved from Homo erectus (or, perhaps, Homo heidelbergensis; see below).
Monte Poggiolo, near Forlì, Italy, is the location of an Acheulian littoral handaxe industry dating from 1.8 to 1.1 million years ago.
The appearance of Homo heidelbergensis about 600,000 years ago heralds a number of other new varieties, such as Homo rhodesiensis and Homo cepranensis about 400,000 years ago. Homo heidelbergensis is a candidate for first developing an early form of symbolic language. Whether control of fire and earliest burials date to this period or only appear during the Middle Paleolithic is an open question.
Also, in Europe, a type of human appeared that was intermediate between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens , sometimes summarized under archaic Homo sapiens, typified by such fossils as those found at Swanscombe, Steinheim, Tautavel, and Vertesszollos (Homo palaeohungaricus). The hand-axe tradition originates in the same period. The intermediate may have been Homo heidelbergensis, held responsible for the manufacture of improved Mode 2 Acheulean tool types, in Africa, after 600,000 years ago. Flakes and axes coexisted in Europe, sometimes at the same site. The axe tradition, however, spread to a different range in the east. It appears in Arabia and India, but more importantly, it does not appear in southeast Asia.
Transition to the Middle Paleolithic
From about 300,000 years ago, technology, social structures and behaviour appear to grow more complex, with prepared-core technique lithics, earliest instances of burial and hunting-gathering subsistence. Homo sapiens first appear about 200,000 years ago.