The Upper Paleolithic World

Introduction

After about 40,000 years ago, we see many significant changes in the archaeological record, reflecting important changes in cultural and social life. We see art, many new inventions, and considerable increases in the population. This period of cultural history in Europe, the Near East, and Asia is known as the Upper Paleolithic and dates from about 40,000 years ago to the period known as the Neolithic (beginning about 10,000 years ago, depending on the area). In Africa, the cultural period comparable to the Upper Paleolithic is known as the Later Stone Age and many have begun much earlier.

In many respects, lifestyles during the Upper Paleolithic were similar to lifestyles before. People were still mainly hunters, gatherers, and fishers who probably lived in small mobile bands. They made their camps out in the open in skin-covered huts and in caves and rock shelters. And they continued to produce smaller and smaller stone tools.

But the Upper Paleolithic is also characterized by a variety of new developments. One of the most striking developments is the emergence of art – painting on cave walls and stone slabs, and carving tools, decorative objects, and personal ornaments out of bone, antler, shell and stone. (Perhaps for this, as well as other purposes, people began to obtain materials from distant sources.) Because more archaeological sites date from the Upper Paleolithic than from any previous period and some Upper Paleolithic sites seem larger than any before, many archaeologists think that the human population increased considerably during the Upper Paleolithic. And the new inventions, such as the bow and arrow, the spear thrower, and tiny replaceable blades that could be fitted into handles, appear for the first time.

The Last Ice Age

The Upper Paleolithic world had an environment very different from today’s. The earth was gripped by the last ice age, with glaciers covering Europe as far south as Berlin and Warsaw, and North America as far south as Chicago. To the south of these glacial fronts was a tundra zone extending in Europe to the Alps and in North America to the Ozarks, Appalachians, and well out onto the Great Plains. Environmentally, both Europe and North America probably resembled contemporary Siberia and northern Canada. Elsewhere in the world conditions were not as extreme but were still different from conditions today.

For one thing, the climate was different. Annual temperatures were as much as 50 °F below today’s, and changes in ocean currents would have made temperature contrasts (i.e., the differences between summer and winter months) more extreme. The changing ocean currents also changed weather patterns, and Europe experienced heavy annual snowfall. Not all the world was cold, however; still, the presence of huge ice sheets in the north changed the climate throughout the world. North Africa, for example, appears to have been much wetter than today, and South Asia was apparently drier. And everywhere the climate seems to have been highly variable.

Upper Paleolithic Europe

With the vast supplies of meat available from megafauna, it is not surprising that many Upper Paleolithic cultures relied on hunting, and this was particularly true of the Upper Paleolithic people of Europe, on whom we focus here. Their way of life represents a small pattern throughout the Old World. But as people began to use more diverse resources in their environments, the use of local resources allowed Upper Paleolithic groups in much of the Old World to become more sedentary than their predecessors. They also began to trade with neighbouring groups to obtain resources not available in their local territories.

Reference : Anthropology by Ember and Ember

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