Girish Mahajan

Upper Paleolithic

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Upper Paleolithic

The Upper Paleolithic (or Upper Palaeolithic, Late Stone Age) is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. 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. Although these humans were modern in anatomy, their lifestyle changed very little from their contemporaries, such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals.

About 50,000 years ago, there was a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts. In Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archeological record. 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 contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals.

The Upper Paleolithic has the earliest known evidence of organized settlements, in the form of campsites, some with storage pits. Artistic work blossomed, with cave painting, petroglyphs, carvings and engravings on bone or ivory. The first evidence of human fishing is also noted, from artifacts in places such as Blombos cave in South Africa. 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.

By 50,000–40,000 BP, the first humans set foot in Australia. By 45,000 BP, humans lived at 61° north latitude in Europe. By 30,000 BP, Japan was reached, and by 27,000 BP humans were present in Siberia above the Arctic Circle. At the end of the Upper Paleolithic, a group of humans crossed the Bering land bridge and quickly expanded throughout North and South America.

Lifestyle and technology

Both Homo erectus and Neanderthals 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.

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; each tool had a specific purpose. 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.

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. Settlements were often located in narrow valley bottoms, possibly associated with hunting of passing herds of animals. Some of them may have been occupied year round, though more commonly they appear to have been used seasonally; people 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.

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.

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 BC 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, although 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 5500 BC, so evidence of human activity along Europe's coasts in the Upper Paleolithic is mostly lost, though some traces have been recovered by fishing boats and marine archaeology, especially from Doggerland, the lost area beneath the North Sea.

50,000 BC

50,000 BC

  • Numerous Aboriginal stone tools were found in gravel sediments in Castlereagh, Sydney, Australia. 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.
  • 45,000—43,000 BC

  • Earliest evidence of modern humans found in Europe, in Southern Italy.
  • 43,000—41,000 BC

  • Ornaments and skeletal remains of modern humans, at Ksar Akil in Lebanon,.
  • Denisova hominins live in the Altai Mountains (Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan).
  • 40,000 BC

    40,000—35,000 BC

  • First human inhabitants in Perth, Australia, as evidenced by archaeological findings on the Upper Swan River.
  • During this time period, Melbourne, Australia was occupied by hunter-gatherers.
  • Early cultural centre 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.
  • 39,000 BC

  • Most of the giant vertebrates and megafauna in Australia became extinct, around the time of the arrival of humans
  • 38,000 BC

  • 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 theorise 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 is made at Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardéche gorge, France. Discovered in December 1994.
  • 35,000 BC

  • 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.
  • 32,000 BC

  • Human populations around Europe learn how to harden clay figures by firing them in an oven at high temperatures.
  • 30,000 BC

  • 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.
  • 30,000 BC

    29,000—25,000 BC

  • Last eruption of the Ciomadul volcano in Romania.
  • Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech Republic). 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.
  • 24,000 BC

  • Start of the second Mousterian Pluvial in North Africa.
  • 23,000 BC

  • Venus of Petřkovice is created at Petřkovice in Ostrava, Czech Republic. It is now in Archeological Institute, Brno.
  • 22,000 BC

  • Last Glacial Maximum: Venus of Brassempouy, Grotte du Pape, Brassempouy, Landes, France, created. It is now at Musée des Antiquités Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
  • Venus of Willendorf, Austria, created. It is now at the Natural History Museum, Vienna.
  • 21,000 BC

  • Artifacts suggests early human activity occurred at some point in Canberra, Australia. Archaeological evidence of settlement in the region includes inhabited rock shelters, rock art, burial places, camps and quarry sites, and stone tools and arrangements.
  • 20,000 BC

  • End of the second Mousterian Pluvial in North Africa.
  • 20,000 BC

  • Last Glacial Maximum. Mean sea levels are believed to be 110 to 120 metres (360 to 390 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

  • Spotted Horses, Pech Merle cave, Dordogne, France are painted. Discovered in December, 1994.
  • 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

  • Mammoth-bone village in Mezhyrich, Ukraine is inhabited.
  • 17,000 BC

  • Spotted human hands are painted at Pech Merle cave, Dordogne, France. Discovered in December 1994.
  • 17,000 BC—15,000 BC

  • Hall of Bulls at Lascaux in France is painted. Discovered in 1940. Closed to the public in 1963.
  • Bird-Headed man with bison and Rhinoceros, Lascaux, is painted.
  • Lamp with ibex design, from La Mouthe cave, Dordogne, France, is made. It is now at Musée des Antiquités Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
  • 16,500 BC

  • Paintings in Cosquer Cave are made, where the cave mouth is now under water at Cap Margiou, France.
  • 15,000 BC

    15,000 BC

  • 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.
  • 14,000 BC

  • 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.
  • 13,000 BC

  • Beginning of the Holocene extinction.
  • Earliest evidence of warfare (found in the Americas)
  • 12,000 BC

    11,500 BC—10,000 BC

  • Wooden buildings in South America (Chile).
  • First pottery vessels (Japan).
  • 11,000 BC

  • First evidence of human settlement in Argentina.
  • The Arlington Springs Man dies on the island of Santa Rosa, off the coast of California, United States.
  • Human remains deposited in caves which are now located off the coast of Yucatán, Mexico.
  • 10,500 BC

  • Creswellian culture settlement on Hengistbury Head, England, dates from around this year.
  • 9,000 BC

  • Evidence of a massacre indicates upper paleolithic warfare
  • Cultures

    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 19,000 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:
  • 32,000 BC, Gravettian culture in southern Ukraine.
  • 30,000 BC, Szeletian culture
  • 20,000 BC, Pavlovian, Aurignacian cultures
  • 11,000 BC, Ahrensburg culture (Western Germany, Netherlands, England)
  • 10,000 BC, Epigravettian culture
  • North and west Africa, and Sahara:
  • 30,000 BC, Aterian culture (Algeria, Libya)
  • 10,000 BC, Ibero-Maurusian (a.k.a. Oranian, Ouchtatian), and Sebilian cultures
  • 8000 BC, Capsian culture (Tunisia, Algeria)
  • Central, south, and east Africa:
  • 50,000 BC, Fauresmithian culture
  • 30,000 BC, Stillbayan culture
  • 10,000 BC, Lupembian culture
  • 9000 BC, Magosian culture (Zambia, Tanzania)
  • 7000 BC, Wiltonian culture
  • 3000 BC, beginning of hunter-gatherer art in southern Africa
  • West Asia (including Middle East):
  • 50,000 BC, Jabroudian culture (Levant)
  • 40,000 BC, Amoudian culture
  • 30,000 BC, Emireh culture
  • 20,000 BC, Aurignacian culture
  • 10,000 BC, Kebarian, Athlitian cultures
  • South, central and northern Asia:
  • 30,000 BC, Angara culture
  • 9000 BC, Khandivili culture
  • East and southeast Asia:
  • 80,000 BC, Ordosian culture (Inner Mongolia, China)
  • 50,000 BC, Ngandong culture
  • 30,000 BC, Sen-Doki culture
  • c. 14,000 BC, Jōmon period starts in Ancient Japan
  • 10,000 BC, pre-Jōmon ceramic culture (Japan)
  • 8000 BC, Hoabinhian culture (Northern Vietnam)
  • 7000 BC, Jōmon culture (Japan)
  • Oceania
  • 40,000 BC, Whadjuk and Noongar culture (Perth, Australia)
  • 35,000 BC, Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Wathaurong culture (Melbourne, Australia)
  • 30,000 BC, Eora and Darug culture (Sydney, Australia)
  • 30,000 BC, Arrernte culture (Alice Springs, Central Australia)
  • References

    Upper Paleolithic Wikipedia

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