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Life in the Middle Paleolithic


I hold a Masters in Public History and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

The band awakens shortly after dawn, as the light crosses the savanna to pierce through the tents. In my tent, mother awakens and begins the fire, bringing out dried plants, nuts, and seeds to cook for breakfast. There are no grains yet, no Bisquick or instant oatmeal. We crush what we have found into pastes, baking it into flatbread-like discs for our meal. My older sister brings in water from the river nearby, having slipped through reeds to not disturb any animals which may be lingering near the water.

After we eat, the women gather to mend their gourds and skins used for collecting wild plants. They chatter about things which will still be talked of thousands of years from now: joking about a husband's or child's quirks, sharing tips, and planning which direction to head in to find our next meal. Meanwhile, the men prepare for the hunt: sharpening spear points and stone tools, gathering new shafts, and discussing the movements of herds nearby.

Mother picks my satchel up, carrying me with her into the grasslands in search of food. My sister follows us, learning the plant types to gather and those to avoid. I watch as my father sets out with the other men, for the adventure I will one day partake in. In a few days' time, we may set off again - packing our belongings and tents to follow other herds or head to our other campgrounds. For now, though, there is only my mother and I, wandering into the savanna's heat, unaware whether we will come back with food or even alive.

Skull found in Shanidar Cave

Skull found in Shanidar Cave

It is between 300,000 and 40,000 years ago. In the heart of the savanna, a small band of hunter-gatherers walk though the hot sands, determined to reach the swimming hole they know will provide abundant food for the next few weeks. Meanwhile, in the cold tundra of what will become Moldova, Russia, a family patches the holes in their house of mammoth bones and skin to prevent the bitter wind from entering their beds at night. Further south, a band of Neanderthals gathers in a cave to perform a long-forgotten ritual around the fire in a cave.

It is the Middle Paleolithic, a time left mostly to imagination. Survival depended solely on adaptation to the environment, as bands of hunter-gatherers moved across the plains of Africa and the bitter wind-whipped shores of Europe. Not much is known beyond the few sites we have found, and most of these were likely left by the Neanderthals (known as Homo neanderthalensis) rather than our ancestors, Homo sapiens. Thus, speculation on Middle Paleolithic life assumes, for now, that the two species lived in similar manners.

How Homo sapien is Different

By about 200,000 years ago, Homo hiedelbergensis evolved into two distinct species: Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapien. Fossil evidence currently suggests that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis appeared around 200,000 years ago. This may change, as all history does, with future discoveries. We initially evolved in Ethiopia and South Africa, spreading to Western Europe by about 35,000 years ago. Due to the extensive information about Neanderthals, please visit my Hub dedicated specifically to them.

Physically, H. sapien has a higher, more bulging forehead, a distinct chin, and a smaller face and jaw than our ancestors. Our bones are also thinner and lighter. We have a cranial capacity that averages 1300 cc. It was this drastic increase in cranial capacity that caused evolution to reorganize our skulls into thin-walled, high vaulted skulls with flat and near vertical foreheads; this was much different from the small brain cases and protruding faces of our ape ancestors.

Notable fossils of early H. sapiens include Skhul V from Mount Carmel, Israel. Skhul V has brow ridges and an occipital bun like our earlier ancestors, suggesting that he is one of the first to evolve from H. heidelbergensis. Another is Cro-Magnon I, a middle-aged man from France whose skull has been fully preserved through time.

Emory Univ: The Minds of Stone Age Toolmakers

Food and Tools

After the hunting is done, the men return with meat to butcher and share amongst us. It has been a lucky hunt, perhaps thanks to our prayers last night. The gazelle will provide food for the village, both fresh off the spit tonight and turned into jerk for the journey ahead. We also eat a variety of other game, depending on where we live: reindeer, bison, oxen, horses, mammoths, deer, bear, wolves, foxes, fish, and shellfish.

As the women roast the meat, the men gather around the fire to mend their tools in the evening light. I am sitting with my father now, as he believes I can understand what the men say even though I cannot speak beyond gurgled words yet.

My father picks up a rock (known as a "core") and uses another, harder rock to strike off flakes. At first, the flakes are large and he shows great care in which flakes he strikes off. Afterwards, the rough outline of a point is seen, and he begins to knock off a series of flakes to make the point sharper. As he works, the rock turns into a spear point. He will repeat this process, later known as the "prepared core method", to create other tools as well: knives, burins (chisel-like tools), and scrapers. From this method, my descendants will characterize three tool complexes: the Mousterian, the Tayacian, and the Levalloisian.

The Mousterian complex is found at other sites, primarily those of the Neanderthals. They will make tools that are generally smaller in size, and often retouch or alter the flakes of their tools. These tools will form scrapers for animal hides as well as heart or triangular-shaped hand axes. One day, a Neanderthal child will be buried with some of his first tools at Teshik-Tash, and his bones will survive to tell the tale.

The Tayacian complex is more common in what are termed primitive bands. These people can only make a few types of tools. The flaking is irregular, and the method often yields very plain-looking tools. These people move more frequently than others, so they may not have had as much time to spend on tools.

My father makes tools from the Levalloisian complex. He said his family, who traveled from the northern deserts (in what will one day be called Israel) passed the technique to him. First, he takes a cobblestone (the core) and trims it into a rough shape with another stone. He then trims the upper surface of the core to produce a ridge along the length of the core. Next, he removes what is called a platform preparation flake from one end of the core to produce an even, flat striking platform on the core. Then, he strikes the core at the prepared flake, and the tool is created. He may refine it slightly, sharpening an edge or deciding to make it smaller. His style works best for the hunting of deer and gazelle.

Later in time, about 90,000 years ago, humans also began to make specialized fishing tools. By that time, they are using fire regularly to cook food. They also develop smaller, more complex, and refined tools such as harpoons, bows and arrows, spear throwers, and sewing needles.

Dordogne, France, cave painting o a half-human, half-animal being.

Dordogne, France, cave painting o a half-human, half-animal being.

Art and Religion

One day, you may call me primitive. You may say I knew nothing of beauty, but I do. You cannot see the proof you desperately seek, but inside we are the same. We see beauty, we create beauty. We believe in life beyond death and in a force stronger than man.

Human tools and belongings are generally not decorated during the Middle Paleolithic. This is likely because they didn't have much time, as they focused on finding shelter and food while avoiding the ever-present threat of death. Yet they did have leisure time, as evidenced by carved wood and bone pieces that we believe we used in games or worn as charms. They also inhabit caves, using ochre paints to place handprints and draw figures of animals on the walls. These early artists also carved shapes into the rock, perhaps for religious ceremonies.

Evidence of early human belongings is contained in several burials from the period. At Le Moustier, in France, a 16-year-old boy was buried with fashioned stone axes. At La Ferrassie, five adults and two children were buried together in a plot, probably intentionally. And at Drachenloch, in the modern Swiss Alps, a stone-lined pit with stacked skulls of seven cave bears is found in association with a human camp. Why they left the cave bear skulls is still a mystery, but some speculate that they were worshipping the bears.

The Hobbit: Homo floresiensis

Skeleton of a hobbit!

Skeleton of a hobbit!

This is not all the mystery of my era, however. Around 95,000 years before you, a true mystery blossoms: the evolution of Homo floriensis. You call his species "hobbits." They are found only on the island of Flores, in modern-day Indonesia, but are a distinct species of human. How they arrive on Flores is a mystery, as the nearest island is 6 miles across a treacherous sea. Yet, between 95,000 and 17,000 years before you, they flourish.

Physically, homo floresiensis is small: only 3 feet tall, weighing 66 pounds. Their cranial capacity is only 380 cc - very small for their time - but their brain cases are the structure of Homo erectus. This suggests that, despite their small size, they are probably quite smart. They also have large teeth, shrugged-forward shoulders, no chins, receding foreheads, and large feet. These characteristics suggest that they are possibly caused by dwarfism, which is supported by evidence that shows isolated species -- adapting to an environment with few predators -- tend to become smaller over time. Additionally, the island of Flores has dwarves of other species, such as the Stegodon (a small elephant hunted by the hobbits).

The hobbits also make stone tools, but another mystery arises: some of these tools far predate the hobbits. Such tools date to 800,000 years ago and are similar to Lower Paleolithic and the Oldowan tool styles.

For more information on the hobbits, please visit the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins website.

Further Reading

The Future of Us

Yet, your journey is not finished. You are now 40,000 years in the past, at the end of my time. It is my descendants who will greet you at our next stop in time: the Upper Paleolithic. It is here that you will see familiar scenes and hear familiar names. It is now, at this next turn, that you will see our skills develop further and faster than ever before. For as we continue our journey, we - the human species - will continue to amaze you.

Next: The Upper Paleolithic


JT Walters from Florida on June 24, 2011:

Art and tools in The Paleolithic Area.

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