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Life in the Upper Paleolithic


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


I stare out the mouth of the cave, wondering if my ancestors saw the same sights as I do now. It is between 40,000 and 8,500 years before your time, in an age to be called the Upper Paleolithic. I am somewhere within that time, though you may never pinpoint exactly when I lived. You may not even find my bones once I am cast into the ground like my fathers before me.

Around 40,000 years ago, a revolution occurred that changed humanity forever. As the Neanderthals began to die out, humans and their brainpower expanded exponentially, creating the beginnings of a worldwide civilization. There is no pinpoint as to exactly why this occurred, but theories suggest many things. Competition for resources between bands of people drove the creation of weapons beyond their hunting uses: weapons for battle and control. Creative genius appeared, perhaps as a result of selective breeding in prior generations as women chose the men who would adorn them with the best of life: fine shell beads, carved statuettes, and furs. But perhaps it was merely time for the culmination and outpouring of our cultural knowledge.

Whatever occurred and why, it changed the course of history and would result in a lifestyle more familiar to modern humans than those who came before the Upper Paleolithic. They were fundamentally like us - foraging for food, building homes, and spending leisure time in the pursuit of beauty and a communion with the heavens.


Yet this cultural revolution would not have occurred without a drastic change in climate. Upper Paleolithic peoples lived in the throes of the last Ice Age, a time when glaciers covered land as far south as modern-day Berlin and Chicago. Beneath these massive ice giants are the plains of the tundra, with temperatures as much as ten degrees Celsius below modern ones. The land is drastically different - wetter in North Africa and drier in South Asia, with extremes abundant everywhere.

Giant animals still roamed the land. Mammoth, mastodon, giant sloths, wooly rhinoceros, and giant deer prove fierce contenders in the hunt, but provide large sources of meat for groups to use for food and in making their shelters and tools. They also forage the grasses and plants for food when the herds prove trickier than anticipated.

As the Ice Age ends, around 12,000 years ago, the glaciers recede. Some of the northern herds will follow the glaciers, and some people will follow those herds. It is these migrations that will lead to colonizations across the globe.


Compared to the Middle Paleolithic, human lifestyle has changed drastically. Home sites are larger, indicating growing populations. With more people comes the beginnings of specialization and dedicated leisure time -- the start of artisans as a profession. Humans break off into groups for activities - some hunt, others gather, and still others stay behind to watch the young children, repair homes and tools, and seek out the assistance of spirits. Each band shows signs of differing from the others: no region is alike in its way of life. They are developing "culture", though they will leave no written record to inform us of the details of daily life.

Humans still wander from place to place, following the herds and seasons. However, they tend to stay put for longer at various sites. They meet with other bands and collaborate to share news of herds and weather patterns. These longer-lasting settlements are near water and the herds, ever watchful for the beginnings of migrations.

News travels slowly, passed from band to band as they cross paths. But these paths span the globe. It is believed that trade networks might have existed. This is evidenced by shell necklaces, found in settlements and graves far from the shores of the sea.

In South Asia, there are some people who camp even longer than most: people who settle near the sea, moving only periodically, living off the beasts and fish of the shores. They build their houses in pits, with hearths for warmth and baking. There are also bands that have made it to a vast land, rich in resources and devoid of humans. Many are never heard from again, but some might have come back to tell of what they found and spur others to follow herds through an icy glacial passage into this new world.



A major part of the revolution was the change in tool-making. Humans now use bone and antler to supplement stone tools, which prove far better in the hunting and gathering of food. There is also new tools, such as the atl-atl (a spear-thrower) and sewing needles. Using sewing, humans makes sacks which enable them to carry more weight and goods. In the sea settlements, others use bone and antler to make harpoons and tools which catch fish far better than hands.

They also make tools by combining materials now, rather than having the tool made solely of stone or antler. This enables humans to tailor our clothing, hunt and fish more effectively, and even create art.

There are two main tool-making methods. The first is called indirect percussion, where they shape the core of the tool (i.e., the base - such as a bone or stone) into a pyramidal or cylindrical shape, then strike the core through a piece of antler or woods. They can then strike off consistently shaped blades that are two times as long as they are wide. Whereas ancestors using the Mousterian technique were only able to yield 2 yards of working edge from a lump of flint, humans can yield 25 yards of working edge from the same lump through indirect percussion. Such tools are classified as three types of blades:

  • the Sandia point, a triangular-shaped blade with a convexly curved base and a flat sliver at the base's bottom;
  • the Clovis point, a fluted rock that is bifacial and fluted on both sides, allowing it to be mounted on a spear; and
  • the Folsom point, a smaller version of the Clovis point.


Art and Religion

While Lower and Middle Paleolithic peoples may have used art and religion, the evidence left by Upper Paleolithic people will be greater in abundance and more widely recognized. They were adept at many arts: sculpting, beading, carving, painting, and body decoration.

Jewelry and tattoos are common. Jewelry includes strings of seashells, ivory rings, and pendants of bone shaped like animals or carved with intricate patterns. They also use ochre and other paints from plants to decorate and tattoo skin, possibly as charms for protection and luck.

One significant product of will be what was later named the Venuses. These small statutes depict human females without faces, their hair braided into coils and their hips, breasts, and abdomens exaggerated. Though we are not clear as to what these statues represent, early interpretations claimed they were fertility goddess statues. Due to their exaggerated features, it does not appear to be the representation of real women when viewed from the front. Yet, when viewed from the top of the head, some have speculated that these statues were made by women looking down at their own bodies, exaggerating their own curves because of how they saw their bodies. Remember, mirrors will not be made for thousands of years in the future.

The Venuses are part of a tradition of portable sculptures. Humans began creating these about 18,000 years ago and continued to create them for nearly 7,000 years. They are generally carved from ivory and soapstone, and the sculptures range from the size of a postage stamp to the size of a human palm. They are found from the coastlines of modern-day France, to the Russian plains along the Don River, and westward still to the Bering Strait. Nearly all of these sculptures are female, like the Venuses, but of varying types. Egyptian types are elongated and slender, while the Negroid types are what you call Venuses (grossly obese with very evident genitals).

Yet there are other types of sculpture, particularly by about 13,000 years ago. One example of this is the Swimming Reindeer.

It is made of mammoth tusk, and was found in a rock shelter in modern-day France. It is slim and slightly curved, about 8 inches long. It depicts two reindeer swimming: one female and a larger male, both done in a stunningly realistic and highly detailed manner. Whoever made this was very familiar with the reindeer, having watched them throughout the year. Both the deer possess antlers, which suggests that the Swimming Reindeer was carved in the autumn (the only season that both males and females have antlers). Reindeer were likely a major part of life, providing the materials for food, clothing, and shelter.

In the same cave where the reindeer were found, archaeologists also found a mammoth carved from reindeer antlers. This one is different: it is simplified, almost abstract. It demonstrates that by 13,000 years ago, humans have developed a variety of artistic styles.

Another significant product is cave paintings. In modern-day southern France and Spain, the bands reside in caves and produce elaborate paintings using their fingers. They paint great portraits of the mammoth and horse, using reds and blacks. Some have even developed methods of brushing the paint on with animal hair or blowing through tubes to create stencils.

These paintings are created between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago, and over 200 of them have been found by archaeologists so far. They were first discovered in the Medieval period and recorded in various texts. In 1575, Francois de Belle-Forest writes about the "Grotte le Rouffinac," thinking it to be a Celtic relic rather than a prehistoric cave painting. Nearly three hundred years later, in 1895, LaMoutte is proclaimed the first discovery of Paleolithic cave painting. But the joke is on them, as only a short while before - in 1878 - Count Don Marcelino Sanz de Santuola and his twelve-year-old daughter, Marie, discovered the cave paintings in Altamira, Spain. These paintings include prancing animals that emphasize movement.

The reasons for cave painting are still debated by archaeologists. Some may be made purely for decoration: "art for art's sake." Others may be examples of totemism or sympathetic magic. This is a highly believed theory, as nearly 10 percent of cave paintings depict animals being hunted or killed. Such paintings may also be part of the beginning of language: a universal means of communicating to groups passing through these territories. And yet still, these paintings may also be a part of religion: shamanistic in nature and used to search for connections with the spirit world or to pray for a successful hunt.

Upper Paleolithic peoples also believe in life after death and in a force greater than ourselves. They pray and hope, communing with spirits in the pursuit of dreams. Some of bury the dead with various goods - perforated sea shells, mammoth ivory, and flowers. They leave few traces of their acts behind, however.

The End of the Ice Age

It is now 8,500 years before you. Again, at this next turn, something amazing is going to happen. But it is unlike all the turns you have seen before.

You have seen us evolve from apes into modern humans. You have watched us descend from trees, scavenge, learn to hunt, make tools, learn to use fire, and develop art, religion, and a nomadic lifestyle with clothes, shelters, and foods recognizable to you and your kin.

Yet something even more amazing is waiting for us: the domestication of plants and animals.


James Kenny from Birmingham, England on March 04, 2012:

I loved the way you presented the Cro-Magnons in first person. A very creative method. Voted up.

Mike and Dorothy McKenney from United States on June 24, 2011:

Very, very interesting way to present the period. Loved it! Voted you up and will be following you for more interesting hubs.

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