Early Modern Human Culture

Early modern Homo sapiens in Africa and Southwest Asia 100,000 years ago made tools that were similar to those of the Neandertals and other late archaic humansThese were mostly simple Mousterian-like Levallois flake and core tools.  However, by 90,000-75,000 years ago some modern humans began producing new kinds of artifacts that were revolutionary enough to warrant their being placed into a different Paleolithic stage--the Upper Paleolithic.  This was the height of technical sophistication during the Old Stone Age.  These innovative developments are most well known from European sites, but similar advances were occurring elsewhere in the Old World and later in the New World as well.  Foreshadowing these new technologies were harpoon-like bone projectile points in use by at least 75,000 years ago in  West Central Africa.  By 70,000 years ago in South Africa, stone was being prepared for flaking by heat-treating.  This made it easier to flake and shape into finer cutting and puncturing tools.  These innovations apparently were unknown to Neandertals and other archaic human populations.  

Ultimately, there were a number of different regional Upper Paleolithic tool traditions around the world.  The most sophisticated may have been the Magdalenian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Tradition of Western Europe.  It began about 17,000 years ago and lasted until the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago.

Paleolithic Tool Traditions

 Paleolithic Stage 
of Development
(years ago)
Tool Tradition
Upper Paleolithic
(in Europe)
 17,000  Magdalenian
21,000 Solutrean
27,000 Gravettian
33,000+   Aurignacian/Chatelperronian  
Middle Paleolithic
(in Europe)
    75,000+   Mousterian
Lower Paleolithic
(in Africa)
1,500,000     Acheulian  
2,500,000 Oldowan
  Note: the Acheulian Tradition began
by at least 1.5 million years ago in
Africa.  I
t did not reach Europe until
much later when the first humans
arrived.  The Mousterian Tradition is
most well known from post-75,000
year old sites in Europe, but it very
likely began in Africa around
150,000-100,000 years ago.  The
first Upper Paleolithic tool traditions
probably evolved in Africa by 90,000
years ago.

The various Upper Paleolithic tool traditions were successful cultural adaptations to diverse environments around the world.  In temperate and subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere, specialized big game hunting was the most common subsistence strategy.  However, even among the societies that focused their hunting efforts on reindeer, horses, and other large mammals, there was exploitation of vegetable foods, fish, and other small animals.

Small game and plant food exploitation became increasingly important to the Cro-Magnon and most other people in the northern hemisphere after 15,000 years ago.  This was a necessity because most of their populations were growing and the climate was changing as the ice began to melt near the end of the last ice age.  During the roughly 5,000 years of final glacial melt, large game animals became progressively scarce in the northern hemisphere.  As a result, human hunting success would have been rarer.  The combined effect of rapidly changing climates and increased hunting by humans with more effective weapons heavily contributed to the extinction of at least 50 genera of large animals (mostly mammals) at that time.  It also was in this late period after 15,000 years ago that fishing spears, hooks, and nets became increasingly more common.  In Europe, the main focus of fishing appears to have been salmon going up streams to spawn and seals that were pursuing them.  These climate related changes in subsistence pattern began even earlier in Southwest Asia and other relatively warm and dry regions.

  drawing of an atlatl being used to throw a spear

Spear thrower

The Cro-Magnon people increased their food supply by developing coordinated group hunting techniques for the killing of large herd animals, especially in the river valleys of Western Europe and the plains of Central and Eastern Europe.  They also developed new specialized hunting weapons.  The art of spear hunting was revolutionized by the invention of the spear thrower (or atlatl click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced) about 17,000-15,000 years ago.  This was a wood or bone rod with a hook on one end that fit into a socket at the base of a spear.  This device was used as an aid in throwing spears.  It increased the range and force of impact of projectiles by essentially increasing the length of the spear thrower's arm.  The net effect was that hunters did not need to get as close to prey before throwing their spears.  Toggle-head harpoons click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced were invented about this time as well.  The bow and arrow were invented by 12,000 years ago or a bit earlier.  This further increased the range of projectiles.  The fact that these weapon systems were developed toward the end of the last ice age is probably not a coincidence.  They were technological solutions for the growing difficulty of acquiring meat.

click this icon to hear the following audio interview  Armed And Deadly: Shoulder, Weapons Key To Hunt--audio recording of an NPR interview with
s David Green, Susan Larson, and John Shea concerning the relationship between
       the peculiar human shoulder joint and the evolution of effective projectile weapons. 
This link takes
       you to an external website.  To return here, you must click the "back" button on your browser
       program.                                        (length = 5mins, 56 secs)


Note:  Spear throwers may have been made as early as 25,000 years ago in North Africa.  Whether the European Cro-Magnon people independently invented this technology later or acquired it from North Africa is not known.

Upper Paleolithic Stone Tool Making Technology

The basis of many Upper Paleolithic stone tool forms was the blade flake click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  This is a thin, roughly parallel-sided flake that is at least twice as long as it is wide.  The cross-section is usually either triangular or trapezoidal.  They were made out of brittle-breaking rock materials such as flint click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, chert click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and obsidian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Blade flakes were preforms for the manufacture of many different kinds of tools, such as knives, hide scrapers, spear tips, drills, awls, burins, etc.

European Upper Paleolithic
tools made from blade flakes

Photos of 2 tools made from blade flakes


Blade flakes were nearly standardized shapes that were struck off assembly line fashion from a prepared core usually by punch flaking click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  This method uses indirect percussion to better control the direction and force of the shock wave entering a core.  This facilitated the repeated production of long, delicate flakes.  Blades were struck off around a prepared core like the careful unwinding and sectioning of a roll of paper.  It is possible to knock off blade flakes with direct percussion using a hammerstone rather than a punch, but it is more difficult.

Punch flaking
technique used
to make blade
  drawing of a prepared blade core being struck with an antler punch and an antler hammer  

  Blade flakes and
"spent" core
from which they

Tools made from blade flakes were far more efficient than core and flake tools made by earlier peoples when compared in terms of maximizing the use of precious brittle-flaking rock materials.  This increased efficiency can be measured roughly in terms of the amount of cutting edge that can be produced from the same amount of stone.

Tool Tradition and
  Length of Cutting Edge  
Per Pound of Stone

Increase in Efficiency
  Over Previous Technology
  Oldowan choppers -- Lower Paleolithic
  (Homo habilis)
2 inches
(5 cm.)
  Acheulian hand axes -- Lower Paleolithic  
  (Homo erectus) 
8 inches
(20 cm.)
  Mousterian flake tools -- Middle Paleolithic  
2 1/3 feet
(100 cm.)
  Blade flake tools -- Upper Paleolithic  
  (modern humans)
10-39 feet
(300-1200 cm.)
Sources: Watson, W. (1968) Flint Implements: An Account of Stone Age Techniques and Cultures; and
Hester, J. and J. Grady (1982) Introduction to Archaeology.

It is now known that knowledge of how to make blade flakes preceded the Upper Paleolithic tool traditions.  However, it was not until the late ice age cultures of the Cro-Magnon people and some of their contemporaries outside of Europe that long, thin, delicate blade flakes were commonly produced and used.

Upper Paleolithic tool makers also frequently employed a further refinement in working with stone.  After preliminary shaping by percussion flaking, they often finished a tool with pressure flaking click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  They literally pushed off the edge flakes with the tip of a deer antler in the final shaping and thinning process.  This resulted in small, regular flake scars and much greater control in determining the shape of the final product.  Pressure flaking was also used to retouch, or sharpen, thin edges of spear tips and knives.  Pressure flaking apparently was first used during the Middle Paleolithic in Africa around 75,000 years ago.

  photo of a long stone knife blade with small, uniform, parallel flake scars
Pressure flaking technique    

During the Upper Paleolithic, we see the first abundant evidence of tools for making other tools.  Such things as narrow gouging chisels, known as burins click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, were used to make and shape a host of other implements out of bone, antler, and ivory.  Additional tools were created for the purpose of working on other implements such as pressure flakers, punches, and spear shaft straighteners.  The Upper Paleolithic also saw a heavy dependence on compound tools, such as intentionally detachable harpoon points and interchangeable spear foreshafts of hard wood attached to spears.  Compound tools have the advantage that they can be repaired.  When one part breaks, it can be replaced rather than replacing the entire tool.

Burin made
from a blade

  drawing of a stone burin with its gouging chisel end highlighted    

Ornamentally carved
spear shaft straightener
made of bone
La Madeleine Rock
Shelter, France

(late Magdalenian Tool
Tradition--12,500 b.p.)

Compound tools and tools designed to work on other implements are not just new kinds of tools but rather new kinds of tool-using principles.  This was a giant intellectual leap forward.  It also extended the range of raw materials that could be used for tool making.  Bone and antler especially came into more common use.  They had been used occasionally in the earlier Mousterian tool tradition, but were only modified clumsily by hammering, scraping, and burning.  Among the Cro-Magnon people, bone and antler progressively replaced wood and stone for many functions.  Dense bone and antler are more durable than wood and more flexible than stone so they do not break as easily and yet can be used to make relatively sharp cutting edges and penetrating projectile points.  The amount of time that they are still usable can be extended by resharpening by abrading with rock when they become dull.  These materials were now being employed to make long thin knives, awls, sewing needles, clothing fasteners, harpoons with barbs, and many other useful implements.  One result was that tailored clothing and tents were easier to make.  The first known sewing needle came from southwestern France and dates to about 25,000 years ago.  Residues of animal skin pants, shirts, and shoes have been found in a 22,000 year old Cro-Magnon grave near Moscow in Russia.  Wild flax fibers from 34,000 year old thread or twine have been found at a cave site in the Republic of Georgia.  Some of these fibers appear to have been dyed black, gray, turquoise, and/or pink.  The fibers were twisted, suggesting that they had been used to make thread, string, or rope.  Thread could have been used to sew leather pieces together.  Thicker twine or rope could have been used to tie things together and make carrying easier.

Magdalenian bone sewing needles
from Gourdan Cave, France 
Magdalenian bone harpoon points with barbs
(their broken tips are on the right)  

European Upper Paleolithic Art

The Cro-Magnon people of Europe regularly decorated their tools and sculpted small pieces of stone, bone, antler, and ivory.  Necklaces, bracelets, and decorative pendants were made of bones, teeth, and shells.  Cave walls were often painted with naturalistic scenes of animals.  Clay was also modeled occasionally.  From our culture's perspective, these symbolic and naturalistic representations would be referred to as art.  However, that is an ethnocentric projection.  For the Cro-Magnon who made this art, it was very likely thought of as being something different, or at least much more, than we think of as art or ornamentation.  For instance, it may have had magical and/or religious functions.

Upper Paleolithic European representational art began by 40,000 years ago and became intense 15,000-10,000 years ago.  Perhaps, the most prominent portable art was in the form that has become known as Venus figurines click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  These are sculptures of women.  They are not portraits but rather faceless idealized representations of well fed, healthy, usually pregnant nude women with exceptionally large buttocks and breasts.  Because of these exaggerated sexual characteristics, they are thought by most paleoanthropologists to be ritual objects symbolizing female fertility.  Many of these stylized carvings are reminiscent of modern abstract art.  Venus figurines were made from around 35,000 years ago down to the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.  They have been found from Western Europe all of the way to Siberia.  Most were small enough in size to be easily hand held.  The Venus of Laussel shown below on the right is a rare exception. 

Photo of the Venus of Willendorf     photo of the Venus of Laussel
Venus of Willendorf
(4 3/8 inches [11.1 cm.] tall)
  Venus of Lespugue
(5 3/4 inches [14.6 cm.] tall)
  Venus of Laussel
(17 inches [43.2 cm.] tall)

photo of an ivory hybrid carving of a man's body with a lion's head


Lion-man hybrid from 
Hohle Fels, Germany
(11.7 inches [29.6 cm.] tall)

Not all of the portable art was in the form of Venus figurines.  Many small carvings have been found that depict animals and people, including men.  There are carvings of human penises as well.

Carved bone
(late Magdalenian
Tool Tradition)

Carved bear teeth
from Duruthy Cave,


2 drawings incised bear teeth--one has the image of a fish carved into its surface and the other has a seal (both have single holes drilled through them to allow these ornaments to be suspended with string)

The Cro-Magnon people are, perhaps, most well known for their paintings on the walls of caves.  Although, this cave art is most abundant in Southwest France and Northern Spain, it was made elsewhere by other early modern humans as well.  With cave art, we see the first large scale, concrete symbols of human thoughts, feelings, and perhaps even beliefs about the supernatural.  Over 150 Western European caves have been found with these ice age paintings on their walls. 

3 photos of cave art--1st is a horse painting from Lascaux, 2nd is a bison from Altamira, and 3rd are deer from Lascaux
Cave art from Lascaux, France (left and right) and Altamira, Spain (center)

Most of this cave art was made deep inside caves, in hard to get to dark areas.  It is assumed that because of the locations, these areas were very likely sacred or special in some sense and that the art was inspired by concerns with the supernatural.  The majority of the figures are realistic looking herd animals, many of which are shown either wounded or pregnant.  A number of paleoanthropologists have suggested that the artists were most likely performing sympathetic (or imitative) hunting and fertility magic.  This would have been particularly important when this art was at its peak in sophistication (15,000-10,000 years ago) because at that time the last ice age was winding down and the herds of game animals were dying out or moving away to the north.  Some of the animals depicted in the caves were predators, such as cave bears and lions, rather than prey.  Drawing and painting them may have been a way of obtaining protection from these dangerous creatures or even a way of taking on their ferociousness and skill to increase human hunting success.  Because of the subjects being depicted, it has been suggested that this cave art was the focus of men and, subsequently, was produced by male artists.  In contrast, the Venus figurines suggest predominantly female interests.  However, because we know so little about the living cultures of the Cro-Magnon people, we must always be careful in interpreting their art.  We may not be grasping the intended function and meaning.

Human representations are rare among European cave paintings.  Those that do exist usually are simple stick figures of men hunting.  They often are shown with erect penises (as shown in the photo below).  There are also several depictions of bearded adult male heads.  One is life size.  The largest is 6 1/2 feet (2 m.) tall with a cap.  There have also been found geometric patterns in some of the caves that have been interpreted as female genitalia.

Painted human stick figure
in Lascaux Cave, France

  photo of a Lascaux cave painting of a wounded bison and a gored man on the ground in front of it  

Note the spear through
the bison and its intestines
hanging out.  Two spear
throwers are also shown
next to the recumbent man
who presumably has been
gored and is dead, despite
his erect penis.

Some of the European cave art seems to have been associated with ceremonies.  These ceremonies may have been accompanied by music.  The areas of the caves in which paintings were made and used often have good acoustical qualities.  Drumsticks, flutes, and bull-roarers were found near the paintings in Lascaux click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Cave.  The art very likely reflects the Cro-Magnon world view.  Some researchers have suggested that they were, in part, depicting their spirit world.  The fact that footprints of both adults and children have been found in some of the caves near the paintings has also suggested that the art was connected with male initiation ceremonies for boys becoming men.

  Bone flute (Upper Paleolithic)
eissenklösterle Cave, Germany)
photo of a wood bull-roarer with the loop of string for swinging in a circular motion  
click this icon to hear a 2 minute recording of a pair of siamangs vocalizing together Sound of a bull-roarer
      recording by Dennis O'Neil
length = 38 secs.)
Bull-roarer replica
14 inches (35.6 cm.) long

Some cave walls and bone artifacts have sequences of incised lines and short marks or ticks that do not appear to be representational art.  Some of these incisions strike one as being strictly utilitarian tallies.  However, their actual purpose is unknown.  Such marks have been found on bone artifacts made by late Neandertals, but they did not become common until the Cro-Magnon people developed their Upper Paleolithic tool traditions.  A few Cro-Magnon bone artifacts dating to as early as 25,000 years ago have what appear to be carefully incised lineal sequences of circular to crescent-shaped ticks.  Alexander Marshack believes that at least one of these bones (shown below) was made to be used as a lunar calendar of sorts.

Antler bone plaque
incised with possible
lunar calendar from
Southwest France

  photo of an incised antler bone with a circular line of carved pits highlighted

 4¼ inches (10.8 cm.) long


If calendars were being made, it implies that some people were recognizing the cyclical nature of the seasons.  To people dependent on seasonally available foods and migrating herds, a calendar would have allowed more accurate predictions that would make the food quest more efficient.  Also of great value to Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers would have been maps.  The earliest possible map was scratched into a 16,000 year old bone found at Mezhirich in Ukraine.  It evidently shows the countryside around a Cro-Magnon settlement.

The Cro-Magnon art changed through time.  In the period 40,000-25,000 years ago, bone flutes, carved figurines, and personal decorative ornaments such as bracelets and pendants began to appear.  Until recently, it was thought that the oldest rock art was charcoal drawings of bison and rhinoceroses dating to 31,000 ± 1,300 years ago in the French cave of Grotte Chauvet click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Recent dating of red human hand paintings in the northern Spanish cave of El Castillo indicate that they were made at least 40,800 years ago.

The second period of Cro-Magnon art was 25,000-18,000 years ago.  Cave art apparently became relatively common in Southern France and Northern Spain at that time; however, it mostly consisted of rough animal outlines, abstract forms, and genitals.  This was a very cold phase of the last ice age.  The Cro-Magnon people probably created these paintings while wintering over in the caves.

In the period 18,000-15,000 years ago, more elaborate animal depictions were being painted.  Shading was now used to indicate muscles and hair.  In addition, animals were depicted moving.

The greatest period of European cave art was 15,000-11,000 years ago.  This phase coincided with the final melt phase of the last ice age and the height of the Magdalenian Tool Tradition.  Large sanctuaries were created which had realistically colored bison, horses, deer, cattle, and other large animals.  The cave art at this time was likely the product of a burst of ceremonial activities.  Many tools were carved decoratively in that terminal period as well.  Likewise, personal decoration made of bone, teeth, and shell was very common.  This was the period of the most elaborate Venus figurines.  The tradition of making these stylized female representations lasted for about 25,000 years.  As such, it represents a remarkably persistent belief system.  The duration is even more remarkable when considering that Islam has existed for only about 1,400 years, Christianity for 2,000 years, and Judaism (in its current form) for less than 2,500 years.

It is important to remember that Europe was not the only part of the world in which early modern humans produced art.  The earliest known possible art object was found in South Africa.  It is a 77,000 year old nodule of hematite that has engraved geometrical designs.  Depictions of animals were being painted in southern African rock shelters possibly as early as 28,000 years ago and beads made from ostrich shells were being made there by 38,000 years ago.  Cave and rock shelter paintings also have considerable antiquity in Siberia and Australia.  However, Upper Paleolithic art was especially abundant in Western Europe and is most well known from there.

Upper Paleolithic Social Changes

The extraordinary advancements in Upper Paleolithic technology and art did not take place in a vacuum.  They developed during a time of remarkable social changes.  Those changes created the necessary environment for the cultural innovations to occur.  The ultimate driving force was probably a combination of population growth, larger communities, more efficient subsistence patterns, and increased life spans.  From the time of the earliest humans 2.5 million years ago until around 50-40,000 years ago, the global human population experienced only very modest growth.  People evidently lived in small hunting, gathering, and scavenging bands that rarely exceeded a few dozen individuals.  Life expectancy was typically 30 years or less, often much less.  Recent analysis by Rachel Caspari and Sang-Hee Lee of human teeth from Upper Paleolithic sites has shown that beginning around 30,000 years ago there was a sharp rise in the number of people who were over 30 years old.  They were living significantly longer on average.  Caspari and Lee calculated that there probably was a 4-fold increase in the number of grandparents, since generational times were likely to have been around 15 years.  In most societies of the past, grandparents performed the valuable function of taking care of and educating grandchildren, thereby allowing their own adult children to become more involved in food acquisition and other activities.  This could have been one of the major contributors to the creative explosion of culture in Upper Paleolithic societies.  Childrearing grandparents perform the critical job of passing on their society's skills and cumulative knowledge to the young.  This was most likely the case in Upper Paleolithic societies as well.  Another consequence of increased longevity is that women have more reproductive years.  As a result, an increase in family size and the growth of populations is almost inevitable.  Caspari and Lee suggest that the rapid cultural evolution, evidenced by new technology and art during the Upper Paleolithic, largely was a consequence of these demographic transformations.  Likewise, the Upper Paleolithic cultural developments no doubt contributed to increased longevity in turn, which fueled the population explosion.


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