Paleolithic Period History: Upper, Middle & Lower

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Just like the Paleolithic Age is a division of the Stone Age, the Paleolithic Age itself has three divisions. Learn more about the characteristics and timeline of these sub-periods in this lesson.

The Division of History

History is divided into so many different time periods that it is difficult to keep up with them all. What distinguishes one period from the next, when there are many similarities and no definite change from one year to the next? For ancient history, tools and weapons are usually what scholars use to distinguish one period from the next. For example, the Bronze Age is named so because of the use of bronze for making tools and weapons while the Iron Age is named for the use of iron. The Stone Age and, in particular, the Paleolithic Age might not have these easily identifiable names, but the periods are separated based on tool production as well.

The Paleolithic Age

The Paleolithic Age itself is the first period of human history, lasting from the beginnings of humanity through the Ice Age sometime around 10,000 BCE. The Paleolithic Age is the beginning of a larger period called the Stone Age, which, as you might guess, is named for the use of stone as the main material for tools - though other basic materials like wood, bone, and antler were also used. The Paleolithic Age is divided into three different sub-periods, which together span a period of up to 3 million years, though many scholars disagree on the dating.

The Lower Paleolithic Period

So if stone was used as the main material in all of these periods, what distinguishes the three sub-periods of the Paleolithic Age? The distinguishing factor is not the material, in this case, by the style and advancement of the technology. If you were to classify the last century as the ''Television Age,'' you could still divide it into sub-periods by types of televisions, like the tube television to the flat screen television to the smart television. The Lower Paleolithic Period is the earliest of these periods and is identified by the first usage of stone tools.

These tools are mostly rudimentary and are part of a group called the Oldowan Tradition, named for the place they were discovered in Africa. There are only two major types of stone tools in this period: choppers and scrapers. Later in this period, humans probably used hand axes for killing animals, meaning they had not advanced to hunting and gathering. The Lower Paleolithic Period was probably the time when humans first discovered and used fire, an important find for all of humanity.

Illustration of a paleolithic hand axe and how it was used
Illustration of a paleolithic hand axe and how it was used

The Middle Paleolithic Period

Like the Mesolithic Age in the Stone Age, the existence of a Middle Paleolithic Period is debated because it is more of a transition period than a separate period in itself. For those who argue for the existence of this period, they point to the production of new types of tools: Mousterian industry. These tools were no longer just simple, but were composite tools that combined multiple elements, like adding a stone head to a wood stick.

The Middle Paleolithic Period marked a transition from the scavenging times of the prior period to the introduction of hunting and gathering for food. The beginnings of hunting tie in directly with the use of more advanced and sharper tools, since they would be necessary for killing and skinning the animals. The Middle Paleolithic Period also seems to have been a time of religious ritual for humans - perhaps the first rituals - as there is evidence of human burials and even cannibalism!

Depiction of paleolithic hunters
Depiction of paleolithic hunters

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