By Taryn Bell, PhD University of York
People often think that early humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs, but this isn’t true. The last dinosaurs died out millions of years before humans lived!
The Palaeolithic is the first period in time that humans lived on earth. It’s called the Old Stone Age because humans made stone tools. The Palaeolithic is the earliest part of prehistory (the period before writing was invented). It lasted for millions of years and makes up over 99% of all the time that humans have been alive.
Today, we (or to use our scientific name, Homo sapiens) are the only human species on earth. However, other types of humans lived at this time as well. The most famous of these were the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). They lived in Europe and for a few thousand years, Homo sapiensand Neanderthals lived in Europe at the same time.
Early humans first came to Britain around 800,000 years ago. At that time when Britain was not an island. During the Palaeolithic, there were big changes in the climate. Britain was sometimes impossible to live in, because it was covered in ice, was too cold or was too difficult to reach.
People in the Palaeolithic lived different lives to ours today. People were ‘hunter-gatherers’, hunting and gathering food like meat, plants, nuts and berries. They made stone tools to hunt and prepare food. People were also ‘nomadic’. This meant that they moved from place to place, rather than staying in one place all the time.
Above: Palaeolithic hand axes (sources: Muséum de Toulouse)
The Lion-Man Figurine
Like today, people in the Palaeolithic were very creative.
One famous example is the Lion-Man figurine. This was found in Stadel Cave in Germany. It was made between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. The Lion Man is 31 centimetres tall and was carved from mammoth ivory. The Lion-Man is the oldest example of an animal-shaped sculpture. It looks like the body of a human, with a lion’s neck and head.
Imagine trying to make this figurine yourself! It would have taken over 400 hours to make. That’s the same as you spending all of your time at school working on it for 4 months! To spend so much time making this figurine suggests that it was important in some way.
Left: The Lion-Man Figurine (Source: Dagmar Hollmann)
Boxgrove is an important Palaeolithic site.
Here, archaeologists found the oldest human remains in Britain. They date from 500,000 years ago. All that survived of the humans there is a tibia (shin bone) and two teeth. This proves that early humans were living in Britain half a million years ago. The species (type) of humans at Boxgrove were called Homo heidelbergensis.
When Homo heidelbergensiswas in Britain, Boxgrove was on the coast. The site seems to have been used a lot. Over 300 flint handaxes were found there, as well as animal bones with cut and scrape marks on them.
Boxgrove was home to lots of different animals. People must have worked together to hunt and butcher them.
Above: The tibia (shin bone) found at Boxgrove (Source: Ethan Doyle White).
Above: A handaxe found at Boxgrove (Source: Midnightblueowl).
Above: The location of Boxgrove.
Left: The right arm bone of the Old Man of Shanidar, compared to a normal one (on the right) (Source: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution).
Right: A reconstruction of the head of a Neanderthal (Source: Tim Evanson).
The Old Man of Shanidar
As the Palaeolithic was so long ago, human remains are quite rare. However, archaeologists have found remains of different species all over the world.
One example is the ‘Old Man of Shanidar’. He was found in a cave in a place called Shanidar in Iraq. He was a male Neanderthal aged between 40 and 50 years old, which was very old for a Neanderthal. He lived about 40,000 years ago. Archaeologists looked at his skeleton and found a number of injuries to his face and body. He had lost half of his right arm, and the rest of the arm was withered. He may have been blind in one eye, and also had hearing loss. He would probably have walked with a limp.
This man would have struggled to walk, hear and see, which would have made life more difficult. However, the fact that he survived suggests that people were good at caring for one another and that they accepted people with different abilities and needs.
The Old Man of Shanidar may have found it more difficult to hunt. However, what other kinds of tasks might he have been able to carry out?
Taryn Bell is a PhD student at the University of York, UK. Her research focuses on emotional attachments to objects, and she is interested in the evolution of human emotion and the Palaeolithic more generally.
Hidden Depths- a pilot website recently developed by researchers at the University of York, focusing on life in the Palaeolithic and how this might help young people consider their emotional wellbeing.
Ipswich Museum website- if you search ‘Palaeolithic’, there are some very interesting resources on this website.
The Natural History Museum’s Human Evolution webpages- the Natural History Museum carries out state-of-the-art research into human evolution, and their website has some great explainer pages and resources.
Useful Links and Resources
Places to go...
It may also be worth asking your local museum if they have any Palaeolithic collections!
British Museum- the British Museum has a good collection of British and European prehistory, and you can also search their collections online.
Creswell Crags- a world-famous British archaeological site, with limestone caves containing prehistoric art.
Kent’s Cavern- another famous British archaeological site, consisting of a prehistoric cave system.
National Museum of Scotland- an amazing museum with loads to see and do!
Wookey Hole Caves- yet another cave site! The Wookey Hole Caves were used by humans for thousands of years.
The Yorkshire Museum- a museum exploring the history and prehistory of Yorkshire.