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The Paleolithic Age: Tools & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 Ancient History
  • 0:39 The Paleolithic Era
  • 1:32 Stone Tools Before Humans
  • 2:47 Humans & Stone Tools
  • 4:02 Human Culture in the…
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the history of the Paleolithic Era and discover how early humans lived and developed stone tools. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ancient History

Do you ever wonder why humans make so many things? Look around you - how much can you see that was not directly altered, shaped, or flat-out constructed by humans?

Humans evolved in a harsh world, full of glaciers and sabretooth tigers and things like that. The ability to think creatively was the key to survival. It wasn't our strength or speed; it was our brains that helped us survive. Humans made tools to help make life easier, and we have never stopped. This all began back in an era called the Paleolithic, when brainpower became the best tool evolution could design.

The Paleolithic Era

In the broadest terms, the Paleolithic is simply defined as the Stone Age. The Paleolithic era is defined by the appearance and development of the earliest cultures to use stone tools. The Stone Age as a larger category is divided into three eras: the Paleolithic, the oldest Stone Age; the Mesolithic, or middle Stone Age; and the Neolithic, or new Stone Age.

The Paleolithic corresponds to the time frame roughly known as the Ice Age, also called the Pleistocene by geologists. It lasted until 10,000 BC, when glaciers began melting and humans developed new stone tools. The official beginning of the Paleolithic, as recognized by archeologists, is roughly 2.6 million years ago. That's a long time ago, and yes, that is before humans. The very first stone tools were not created by humans, but by our ancestors, and the story of the Paleolithic begins with them.

Stone Tools Before Humans

The evidence of stone tools goes all the way back to 2.6 million years ago, when early members of the Homo genus, our evolutionary cousins, evolved big enough brains to take two rocks, hit them together and make a sharp edge. These tools tended to be rough, rudimentary, and somewhat crude. The process of making stone tools, called knapping, is intense. It could take hours, and with a single wrong move, the entire tool could shatter into a hundred pieces of worthless stone.

A later species, Homo erectus, had a slightly larger brain and developed more complex stone tools that could be used for a variety of daily chores. Homo erectus means upright man because they had a fully upright posture that was much less ape-like than its ancestors. They developed the Acheulean style of stone tools, which were small hand-axes that showed evidence of being crafted carefully and had sharp edges on both sides. The desired stone was hit with a harder rock, breaking off a large chunk that had sharp edges. Those edges were then chipped and refined into aconsistent ridge that was more efficient for cutting. They were the most advanced tools created by any species of Earth. Until, that is, the rise of Homo sapiens.

Humans and Stone Tools

With the evolution of Homo sapiens, stone tools drastically changed. Early humans, whose brains were just as large and creative as our own, created a wide range of tools made out of stone, wood, and antlers. Some tools were used to scrape animal skins so they could be made into clothes. Some tools were fishhooks, sewing needles, or carving tools to make beads. Some stone tools were used to make other stone tools. Some, called projectile points, were tied onto a spear or arrow and used for hunting or defense. The larger brains of the human species allowed for more creative and conceptual thinking, as well as increased problem solving. Paleolithic human communities developed dozens of new styles of stone tools, unique to the needs of that group.

Stone tools were important in hunter-gatherer societies. Obviously, they made life easier and helped them survive. Beyond that, however, stone tools had cultural value. Since it took a long time to make them, it is likely that a few members of the group spent all of their time knapping, making them the first specialized profession in history. This changes how a group thinks. Your hunters have to bring back more than what they can eat because they have to provide for the guys who make the stone tools, which the hunters need. Your group is working together, and developing their own roles in society.

Human Culture in the Paleolithic

Stone tools were only one part of life for humans in the Paleolithic. One of the other characteristics of this time period is a nomadic lifestyle, meaning that people had to consistently move to find food. We often call people who live like this hunter-gatherers. Humans did not live in small villages yet and did not build permanent structures. They followed food sources, keeping track of important cycles, such as the movement of herds or the harvest seasons for wild plants. Even people, who found suitable shelters like large caves, were considered nomadic because they did not produce their own food and completely relied on the natural availability of the resources. Since the Paleolithic roughly corresponds to the Ice Age, these people were hunting things, like mammoths, giant sloths, and the miniature ancestors of horses.

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