Stages & Definitions of the Stone Age: Early, Middle & Late

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.

The Stone Age spans a huge period of human history, so scholars split this time period up into smaller parts to classify and study it as a whole. Learn more about these stages and their characteristics in the lesson.

What Is the Stone Age?

Have you ever wondered what life was like when the earliest humans lived? This time period is what scholars call the Stone Age, a period characterized by the use of primarily stone tools and weapons. Like most time periods, the Stone Age has different beginnings and end dates depending on where you were on the globe, but the period can generally be dated from about 30,000 BCE (though some scholars claim as early as two and a half million years ago) to 3,000 BCE. This period is usually broken up into three different stages, so let's look at each of those in turn.

Artistic representation of the Stone Age
Artistic representation of the Stone Age

The Paleolithic Age: The Early Stage

The earliest period of the Stone Age and human history as a whole is the Paleolithic Age, which literally means ''old stone'' age. This period is usually dated from around 30,000 BCE to the end of the Ice Age, around 10,000 BCE, which makes it the longest of the periods.

As you might expect of the earliest humans, the tools and weapons were generally more rudimentary than later periods. However, they were not as simple as just the clubs you might see in depictions of the Stone Age. Paleolithic humans used a process called flaking to chip away at a stone, bone, or antler with another stone to make sharp edges. These were also used as part of a spear for hunting.

Since the paleolithic humans were nomadic, meaning they traveled from place to place, living in non-permanent structures, they depended on hunting and gathering for their food, to create shelters, often living in caves. In fact, the caves show that these earliest humans engaged in art. They painted on cave walls, in addition to creating ornaments for wearing.

Drawing of a stone tool made using flaking: notice the chiseled look
Drawing of a stone tool made using flaking

The Mesolithic Age: The Middle Stage

The Mesolithic Age is the ''middle stone'' age and acts as a middle period. While there was some development and change during this period, it was not drastic and acted more as a bridge between the Paleolithic Age, and the later Neolithic Age. In fact, not all civilizations had a Mesolithic Age, as they sometimes jumped straight from the simplistic and nomadic lifestyle of the Paleolithic Age, into the more settled and developed Neolithic Age.

For the places that did have a Mesolithic Age, it was characterized primarily by the beginnings of settlement. From about 10,000 to 8,000 BCE, there was a major change in climate, moving from the Ice Age into a warmer period. Because of this, some humans stopped relying just on hunting and gathering; this is the beginning of agriculture when people started planting, and harvesting crops.

The Neolithic Age: The Late Stage

If the Paleolithic Age saw the beginnings of humanity, the Neolithic Age saw the beginnings of human civilization. The Neolithic Age, literally the ''new stone'' age, is often called the Late Stone Age. This period is generally dated from 8,000 to 3,000 BCE. When you study ancient civilizations in history books, they usually begin in this period, since the Neolithic Age saw the beginnings of settled human society. Social and political organizations, like nations and governments, began during this time, so the Neolithic Age was vastly important for the future of humanity.

Imagine going camping and having to survive on just whatever food and water you found. Now imagine living that way forever with no end in sight. As you might guess, the innovations of the Neolithic Age would have been a welcome change, as humans no longer relied exclusively on hunting and gathering. Instead, they began cultivating crops, farming, and domesticating animals. Since people were now growing grains on their own farms, they also started making bread, which became an important staple during this and subsequent periods.

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