Life in the Stone Age: the Upper Paleolithic
The Stone Age is a period that modern people frequently mythologize, and in polarized ways.
On the one hand, the Stone Age is characterized as a time of hardship, when early humans struggled to survive in a hostile environment.
Conversely, some modern people view the Stone Age as a time when our species lived closest to its evolutionary roots. This belief contributes to fads like paleo diets; and, in a more positive sense, to the desire to better understand the lives of our ancestors.
Since the vast majority of human life has been spent in the Stone Age, researching this time period could indeed provide valuable clues as to how to live healthier, happier lives.
The rest of this article, then, will explore what science has to say about a crucial portion of the Stone Age: the Upper Paleolithic. Examining this change-filled era demonstrates the importance of social networks to the survival of our species.
What was the “Stone Age?”
The term “Stone Age” refers to the period during which stone was humanity’s primary tool-making material. It covers an immense time span: from the earliest known stone artifacts, almost 3 million years ago, to the start of the Bronze Age in approximately 3,000 BCE.
However, the Stone Age that many people think of – when Homo sapiens primarily existed as hunter-gatherers – corresponds to the Paleolithic period.
Archaeologists separate the Paleolithic into three sections:
- The Lower Paleolithic: 2.7 million – 200,000 years ago
- The Middle Paleolithic: 200,000 – 45,000 years ago
- The Upper Paleolithic: 45,000 – 10,000 years ago*
Of the above sections, the Upper Paleolithic is perhaps the most intriguing for exploring the question of how our ancestors lived during the Stone Age. This is because it’s when our specific subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens, left Africa en masse and colonized Eurasia and the Americas.
This makes the Upper Paleolithic a period of immense change that shaped the world we live in.
Upper Paleolithic Climate
Earth’s climate shifted several times during the Upper Paleolithic.
Major disruptions, such as super-volcanic eruptions, provided additional challenges for Upper Paleolithic humans.
However, archaeologists have found evidence that attests to our species’ resilience.
For instance, Drs. Julien Riel-Salvatore and Fabio Negrino studied a cave in Liguria – a region of northwest Italy – that contained many artifacts from the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods.
Based on the remains of stone tools, they determined that the Proto-Aurignacian industry (in archaeology, an “industry” describes a specific class of technologies, which may be shared by one or several cultures) survived the Phlegraean Fields/Campi Flegrei super-eruption that occurred about 40,000 years ago – and the cold period that followed it – by at least 5,000 years.
Furthermore, the Proto-Aurignacian peoples survived these catastrophes without having to make drastic changes to their technologies. One way they did this was through extensive social networks.
Stone Age Networks
Upper Paleolithic peoples didn’t live in vacuums. Rather, they had rich social lives, in which they interacted with members of their own bands and beyond.
Evidence for this comes from multiple sources, including a study conducted by Dr. Martin Sikora and his coauthors. They examined the genomes of multiple Upper Paleolithic humans buried near each other in Sunghir, Russia, to determine how closely related they were.
Surprisingly, Sikora and his colleagues found that the Sunghir individuals were no more closely related to one another than members of modern hunter-gatherer bands – with little evidence of inbreeding.
This suggests that even during the Upper Paleolithic, people in what is now western Russia enjoyed wide social networks. They were highly mobile – much like modern hunter-gatherers – and regularly met and reproduced with unrelated partners.
More evidence for rich social networks comes from the explosion of art and other forms of expression during the Upper Paleolithic.
Most of us have heard of the famous cave paintings in France and elsewhere, but the Upper Paleolithic also saw the creation of body ornaments, carved spear-throwers, Venus figurines, clay sculptures, and more.
One function of modern art is to display one’s identities. Therefore, as Drs. Mary Stiner and Steven Kuhn write, the proliferation of artworks during the Upper Paleolithic might testify to a greater need to differentiate oneself from other groups – which would only be the case if our Upper Paleolithic ancestors were regularly interacting with members of wide social networks.
Importantly, these social networks may have given Homo sapiens sapiens a critical survival advantage over other hominids, and contributed to the population growth that apparently occurred during the Upper Paleolithic.
Research suggests that human populations increased during the Upper Paleolithic.
Drs. Mary Stiner and Steven Kuhn, for instance, studied dietary trends in the Mediterranean Basin: a key area for the development of modern societies. They found evidence for the overhunting of large-bodied game species, which led to greater emphasis on small animals like hares and partridges.
Small, fast animals such as hares and partridges require considerable effort to catch for little reward, which means our ancestors likely only targeted them because they had to.
Fortunately, their task was made easier by the creation of specialized tools that would’ve made hunting more efficient. As hunting technologies improved, Upper Paleolithic humans would’ve had more time and people available for other tasks, such as foraging and craftwork.
Better hunting technologies, more exploitation of plant-based foods, and expanding social networks might’ve led to even greater population growth. Over time, these factors may have helped usher in the Neolithic period – when our ancestors began to settle down and develop agriculture – which in turn set the stage for the modern era.
Conclusion: What was Stone Age Life all About?
The Stone Age, and especially the Upper Paleolithic, was a time of change. The climate oscillated, Homo sapiens sapiens colonized most of the world, populations grew, and social networks expanded.
So, what would it have been like to live during the Upper Paleolithic?
You would’ve had fewer conveniences like electricity, you would’ve had to use your body a great deal, and you wouldn’t have had the benefits of modern healthcare. As such, life for many of us would’ve been physically harder during the Upper Paleolithic.
Despite this, one element of your life would’ve been the same: you would’ve been a member of a rich social network, which would’ve included close friends, relatives, and members of broader societies.
Hence, if there’s a central lesson we can learn from the Stone Age, it’s that being human is about being connected. Our species has always survived by working together, and by developing ties to people near and far.
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*Every source seems to suggest different time ranges for the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic periods. The dates presented in this article are thus approximations that strive to combine information from multiple sources.
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Wikipedia. (25 September, 2020). Upper Paleolithic.