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Stone Age

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The Stone Age is a broad prehistoric time period during which humans widely used stone for toolmaking.

Stone tools were made from a variety of different kinds of stone. For example, flint and chert were shaped (or chipped) for use as cutting tools and weapons, while basalt and sandstone were used for ground stone tools, such as quern-stones. Wood, bone, shell, antler and other materials were widely used, too. During the most recent part of the period, sediments (like clay) were used to make pottery. A series of metal technology innovations characterize the later Chalcolithic (Copper Age), Bronze Age and Iron Age.

The period encompasses the first widespread use of technology in human evolution and the spread of humanity from the savannas of East Africa to the rest of the world. It ends with the development of agriculture, the domestication of certain animals and the smelting of copper ore to produce metal. It is termed prehistoric, since humanity had not yet started writing -- the traditional start of history (i.e., recorded history).

The term "Stone Age" was used by archaeologists to designate this vast pre-metallurgic period whose stone tools survived far more widely than tools made from other (softer) materials. It is the first age in the three-age system and was subdivided into the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, by John Lubbock in his now classic 1865 book Pre-historic Times. These three periods are further subdivided. In reality, the succession of phases differs enormously from one region (and culture) to another. Indeed, humanity continued to expand into new areas even during the metal ages so it is therefore better to speak of a Stone Age, instead of the Stone Age.


The Stone Age in archaeology

Stone Age fishing hook
Stone Age fishing hook

The date range of this period is ambiguous, disputed, and variable according to the region in question. While it is possible to speak of a general 'stone age' period for the whole of humanity, some groups never developed metal-smelting technology, so remained in a 'stone age' until they encountered technologically developed cultures. However, in general, it is believed that this period began somewhere around 3 million years ago, starting with the first hominid tool-making in Africa. Most australopithecines probably did not use stone tools (although they seem to be invented by Paranthropus robustus) but the study of their remains still falls within the remit of archaeologists studying the period.

Due to the prevalence of stone artifacts, which are frequently the only remains which still exist, lithic analysis is a major and specialized form of archaeological investigation for the period. This involves the measurement of the stone tools to determine their typology, function and the technology involved. This frequently involves an analysis of the lithic reduction of the raw materials, examining how the artifacts were actually made. This can also be examined through experimental archaeology, by attempting to create replica tools. This is done by flintknappers who reduce flintstone to a flint tool.

Modern use of the term

A variety of stone tools
A variety of stone tools

One problem with the term is that it implies that human advancement and time periods in prehistory are only measured by the type of tool material most widely used, rather than, for example, type of social organisation, food sources exploited, or adaption to harsh climates. This is a product of the level of knowledge of the distant past during the nineteenth century when the three age system was developed, a time when finds of artifacts were the main goal of an archaeological excavation. Modern archaeological techniques stress a wider collection of information that has expanded our knowledge of prehistory and rendered neat divisions such as the term 'Stone Age' increasingly obsolete. We now know that the changes in past societies over the millennia were complex and involved multiple factors such as the adoption of agriculture, settlement or religion and that tool use is just one unrepresentative indicator of a society's practices and beliefs.

Another problem connected with the term Stone Age is that it was created to describe the archaeological cultures of Europe, and that it is inconvenient to use it in relation to regions such as some parts of the Americas and Oceania, where farmers or hunter-gatherers used stone for tools until European colonisation began. Metal-working was a much less important part of people's lives there and it is more useful to use other terms when dividing prehistory in those areas. The same incongruence applies to the Iron Age worldwide, because in the Americas iron (but not copper, bronze, silver or gold) was unknown until 1492, in Oceania until the 17th century.

A Stone Age was usually followed by a Bronze Age, during which metalworking technology allowed bronze (copper and tin or other metals) tools to become more common. The transition out of the Stone Age occurred between 6000 BC and 2500 BC for much of humanity living in North Africa, Asia and Europe. In some regions, such as Subsaharan Africa, the Stone Age was followed directly by an Iron Age. It is generally believed that the Middle East and southeastern Asian regions progressed past Stone Age technology around 6000 BC. Europe and the rest of Asia became post-Stone Age societies by about 4000 BC. The proto-Inca cultures of South America continued at a Stone Age level until around 2000 BC, when gold, copper and silver made their entrance, the rest following later. Australia remained in the Stone Age until the 17th century.

We also now know that the transition from a Stone Age to a Bronze Age was not a neat switch but a long, gradual process involving the working of gold and copper at what are technically Neolithic sites. This "transition" period is known as the Copper age or Chalcolithic. It was a short and more a regional development, because alloying tin with copper began quite soon, except in regions lacking tin. Ötzi the Iceman for instance, a mummy from about 3300 BC carried with him a copper axe and a flint knife. Stone tool manufacture also continued long into the succeeding metal-using ages, possibly even until the Early Middle Ages. In Europe and North America, millstones were in use well into the 20th century, and still are in many parts of the world.

Human development during the Stone Age

The Stone Age covers an immense time span, and during this period major climatic and other changes occurred, which affected the evolution of humans. Humans themselves evolved into their current morphological form during the later period of the Stone Age.

See also: Human evolution


The Old Stone Age period runs from about 2 million years ago to the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago. For areas with an early neolithisation, the Palaeolithic includes the Epipalaeolithic, and ends around 8,000 years ago.

Lower Palaeolithic

Acheulean handaxes of the Lower Palaeolithic
Acheulean handaxes of the Lower Palaeolithic
Main article: Lower Palaeolithic

Near the end of the Pliocene epoch in Africa, an early ancestor of modern humans, called Homo habilis, developed the earliest known stone tools. These were relatively simple tools known as choppers. Homo habilis is presumed to have mastered the Oldowan era tool case which utilized stone flakes and cores. This industry of stone tools is named after the site of Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania. These humans likely subsisted on scavenged meat and wild plants, rather than hunted prey. Around 1.5 million years ago, a more evolved human species, Homo erectus, appeared. H. erectus learnt to control fire and created more complex chopper tools, as well as expanding out of Africa to reach Asia, as shown by sites such as Zhoukoudian in China. By 1 million years ago, the earliest evidence of humans in Europe is known, as well use of the more advanced handaxe tool.

Middle Palaeolithic

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man
Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man
Main article: Middle Palaeolithic

This period began about 200,000 years ago and is most well-known as being the era during which the Neanderthals lived (c. 120,000–35,000 years ago). The stone artefact technology of the Neanderthals is generally known as the Mousterian. The Neanderthals eventually disappeared from the archaeological record, replaced by modern humans who first appeared in southern Africa around 100,000 years ago. Although often identified in the public's mind as primitive, there is evidence that Neanderthals nursed their elderly and practised ritual burial indicating an organised society. The earliest evidence of settlement in Australia dates to around 40,000 years ago when modern humans likely crossed from Asia by hopping from island to island. Middle Palaeolithic peoples demonstrate the earliest evidence for art and other expressions of abstract thought such as ochre body decoration.

Upper Palaeolithic

The cave art of Lascaux is an example of Upper Palaeolithic culture
The cave art of Lascaux is an example of Upper Palaeolithic culture
Main article: Upper Palaeolithic

From 35,000 to 10,000 years ago (the end of the last ice age) modern humans spread out further across the Earth during the period known as the Upper Palaeolithic. After the arrival of the first modern humans (Cro-Magnons) in Europe a relatively rapid succession of often complex stone artefact technologies took place during this period, including the Châtelperronian, Aurignacian, Solutrean, Gravettian and Magdalenian.

The Americas were colonised via the Bering land bridge which was exposed during this period by lower sea levels. These people are called the Paleo Indians, and the earliest accepted dates are those of the Clovis culture sites, some 13,500 years ago. Globally, societies were hunter-gatherers but evidence of regional identities begins to appear in the wide variety of stone tool types being developed to suit different environments.


Main articles: Epipalaeolithic, Mesolithic

The period between the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago to around 6,000 years ago, is characterised by rising sea levels and a need to adapt to a changing environment and find new food sources. The development of microlith tools began in response to these changes. They were derived from the previous Palaeolithic tools, hence the term Epipalaeolithic. However, in Europe the term Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) is used, as the tools (and way of life) was imported from the Near East. There, microlith tools permitted more efficient hunting, while more complex settlements, such as Lepenski Vir developed based around fishing. Domestication of the dog as a hunting companion probably dates to this period.


Japanese Jomon pottery is the oldest in the world.
Japanese Jomon pottery is the oldest in the world.
Main article: Neolithic

The Neolithic (New Stone Age) is characterised by the adoption of agriculture (the so-called Neolithic Revolution), the development of pottery and more complex, larger settlements such as Çatal Hüyük and Jericho. The first Neolithic cultures started around 8000 BC in the fertile crescent. Agriculture and the culture it led to spread to the Mediterranean, the Indus valley, China, and Southeast Asia.

Due to the increased need to harvest and process plants, ground stone and polished stone artefacts became much more widespread, including tools for grinding, cutting, chopping and adzing. The first large-scale constructions were built, including settlement towers and walls (e.g., Jericho) and ceremonial sites (e.g., Stonehenge). These show that there was sufficient resources and co-operation to enable large groups to work on these projects. To what extent this was the development of elites and social hierarchies is a matter of on-going debate. The earliest evidence for established trade exists in the Neolithic with newly settled people importing exotic goods over distances of many hundreds of miles. Skara Brae located on Orkney island off Scotland is one of Europe's best examples of a neolithic village. The community contains stone beds, shelves, and even an indoor toilet linked to a stream.

Skara Brae, Scotland. Europe's most complete Neolithic village
Skara Brae, Scotland. Europe's most complete Neolithic village

Stone Age material culture

Food and drink

Food sources of the hunter-gatherer humans of the Stone Age included both animals and plants that were part of the natural environment in which these humans lived. These humans liked animal organ meats, including the liver, kidneys, and brains. They consumed little dairy food or carbohydrate-rich plant foods like legumes or cereal grains.

Current research indicates that two-thirds of the energy was derived from animal foods.[1] The fat content of the diet was believed to be similar to that of the present day, but the ratio of the types of fats consumed differed: the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio was about 3:1 compared to 12:1 of today.

Near the end of the last ice age, 15,000 to 9,000 years ago, a large scale extinction of large mammals (the mammalian megafauna) occurred in Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. This was the first Holocene extinction event. This event possibly forced modification in the dietary habits of the humans of that age and with the emergence of agricultural practices, plant-based foods also became a regular part of the diet.

A report in the National Geographic News indicated that "the first wine-tasting may have occurred when Neolithic humans slurped the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes from animal-skin pouches or crude wooden bowls."[2]

Shelters and habitats

Around 2 million years before present, Homo habilis is believed to have constructed first man-made structure in East Africa, consisting of simple arrangements of stones to hold branches of trees in position. A similar stone circular arrangement believed to be around 500,000 years old was discovered at Terra Amata, near Nice (France). Several human habitats dating back to the Stone Age have been discovered in different parts of the earth, including:

  • A tent-like structure inside a cave near the Grotte du Lazaret , Nice, France.
  • A structure with roof supported with timber, discovered in Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia, dates to around 23,000 BC. The walls were made of packed clay blocks and stones.
Poulnabrone dolmen in County Clare, Ireland
Poulnabrone dolmen in County Clare, Ireland
  • Many huts made of mammoth bones were found in Eastern Europe and Siberia. The people who made these huts were specialised mammoth hunters. Examples have been found along the Dniepr river valley of Ukraine, including near Chernihiv, in Moravia (in the Czech Republic) and in southern Poland.
  • An animal hide tent dated to around 15,000 to 10,000 BC (in the Magdalenian) was discovered at Plateau Parain, France.
  • Megalithic tombs, multi-chambered, and dolmens, single-chambered, were graves with a huge stone slab stacked over other similarly large stone slabs. They have been discovered all across Europe, and were built in the Neolithic. Several tombs with copper and bronze tools have also been discovered, illustrating the problems of attempting to define periods based on technology.


Pre-historic art can only be traced from surviving artefacts. Prehistoric music is inferred from found instruments, while parietal art can be found on rocks of any kind. The latter are petroglyphs and rock paintings. The art may or may not have had a religious function.


Main article: Petroglyph

Petroglyphs appeared in the New Stone Age, commonly known as Neolithic period. A Petroglyph is an abstract or symbolic image recorded on stone, usually by prehistoric peoples, by means of carving, pecking or otherwise incised on natural rock surfaces. They were a dominant form or pre-writing symbols used in communication. Petroglyphs have been discovered in different parts of the world, including Asia (Bhimbetka, India), North America (Death Valley National Park), South America (Cumbe Mayo, Peru), and Europe (Finnmark, Norway).

Rock paintings

A rock painting at Bhimbetka, India, a World heritage site
A rock painting at Bhimbetka, India, a World heritage site
Main article: Cave painting

Rock paintings were painted on rock and were more naturalistic depictions than petroglyphs. In paleolithic times, the representation of humans in cave paintings was rare. Mostly, animals were painted: not only animals that were used as food but also animals that represented strength like the rhinoceros or large cats (as in the Chauvet Cave). Signs like dots were sometimes drawn. Rare human representations include handprints and half-human/half-animal figures. The Cave of Chauvet in the Ardèche département, France, contains the most important preserved cave paintings of the paleolithic era, painted around 31,000 BC. The Altamira cave paintings in Spain were done 14,000 to 12,000 BC and show, among others, bisons. The hall of bulls in Lascaux, Dordogne, France, is one of the best known cave paintings from about 15,000 to 10,000 BC.

The meaning of the paintings remains unknown. The caves were not in an inhabited area, so they may have been used for seasonal rituals. The animals are accompanied by signs which suggest a possible magic use. Arrow-like symbols in Lascaux are sometimes interpreted as calendar or almanac use. But the evidence remains inconclusive.[3] The most important work of the Mesolithic era were the marching Warriors, a rock painting at Cingle de la Mola, Castellón in Spain dated to about 7,000–4,000 BC. The technique used was probably spitting or blowing the pigments onto the rock. The paintings are quite naturalistic, though stylized. The figures are not three-dimensional, even though they overlap.[4]

Stone Age rituals and beliefs

Modern studies and the in-depth analysis of finds dating from the Stone Age indicate certain rituals and beliefs of the people in those prehistoric times. It is now believed that activities of the Stone Age humans went beyond the immediate requirements of procuring food, body coverings, and shelters. Specific rites relating to death and burial were practiced, though certainly differing in style and execution between cultures. Several Stone Age-dated sites of the in different parts of the world indicate traces of dancing, dancing in files, and initiation rites.[5]

Remnants of Stone Age living in modern times

Anthropologists have used several tribes to study and interpret what life during the Stone Age might have been like. Such tribes can be found in Papua New Guinea, Andaman and Nicobar Islands (India), Africa and South America.

The Stone Age in popular culture

As a slang term, "Stone Age" can be used to describe a modern civilization or group of people that live in relatively primitive conditions, even though its use is often a misnomer. The phrase "bomb them back into the Stone Age" implies a fierce attack that utterly destroys its target's infrastructure, forcing its survivors to revert to primitive technology in order to survive.

The image of the caveman is commonly associated with the Stone Age. For example, the 2003 documentary series showing the evolution of humans through the Stone Age was called Walking with Cavemen, although only the last programme showed humans living in caves. While the idea that human beings and dinosaurs coexisted is sometimes portrayed in cartoons, films, and computer games, such as The Flintstones and One Million Years B.C., the notion of primates and dinosaurs co-existing is simply a conceit of fiction and only seriously held by Young Earth creationism.

Other depictions of the Stone Age include the best-selling Earth's Children series of books by Jean M. Auel, which are set in the Palaeolithic and are loosely based on archaeological and anthropological findings. The 1981 movie Quest for Fire by Jean-Jacques Annaud tells the story of a group of humans searching their lost fire.


  1. ^ "Diet and Eating Habits in the Stone-Age," (accessed June 11, 2005).
  2. ^ William Cocke, "First Wine? Archaeologist Traces Drink to Stone Age," National Geographic News, July 21, 2004 (accessed June 11, 2005).
  3. ^ M. Hoover, "Art of the Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras," from Art History Survey 1, San Antonio College (July 2001; accessed June 11, 2005).
  4. ^ "Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Art" (lecture 2, Rice University, Houston, TX, September 2, 1998; accessed June 11, 2005).
  5. ^ Burial and mysticism in prehistory (accessed June 11, 2005).

See also


  • Scarre, Christopher (ed.) (1988). Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology. London: Times Books. ISBN 0723003068.
  • Schick, Kathy D.; and Nicholas Toth (1993). Making Silent Stones Speak: Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0671693719.

External links

Three-age system: Stone Age | Bronze Age | Iron Age

List of archaeological periods

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