Middle Paleolithic

The Paleolithic

Pliocene (before Homo)

Lower Paleolithic
(c. 3.3 Ma – 300 ka)

Middle Paleolithic
(300–45 ka)

Upper Paleolithic
(50–10 ka)

Stone Age

The Middle Paleolithic (or Middle Palaeolithic) is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. The term Middle Stone Age is used as an equivalent or a synonym for the Middle Paleolithic in African archeology.[1] The Middle Paleolithic and the Middle Stone Age broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. There are considerable dating differences between regions. The Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age was succeeded by the Upper Paleolithic subdivision which first began between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago.[1]

According to the theory of the recent African origin of modern humans, anatomically modern humans began migrating out of Africa during the Middle Stone Age/Middle Paleolithic around 100,000 or 70,000 years ago and began to replace earlier pre-existent Homo species such as the Neandertals and Homo erectus.[2]

Origin of behavioral modernity

The earliest evidence of behavioral modernity first appears during the Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age; undisputed evidence of behavioral modernity, however, only becomes common during the following Upper Paleolithic period.[1]

Middle Paleolithic burials at sites such as Krapina, Croatia (c. 130,000 BP) and the Skhul and Qafzeh hominids (c. 100,000 BP) have led some anthropologists and archeologists such as Philip Lieberman, to believe that Middle Paleolithic cultures may have possessed a developing religious ideology which included belief in concepts such as an afterlife; other scholars suggest the bodies were buried for secular reasons.[3][4]

According to recent archeological findings from Homo heidelbergensis sites in the Atapuerca Mountains, the practice of intentional burial may have begun much earlier during the late Lower Paleolithic, but this theory is widely questioned in the scientific community. Cut marks on Neandertal bones from various sites such as Combe Grenal and the Moula rock shelter in France may imply that the Neanderthals, like some contemporary human cultures, may have practiced excarnation for presumably religious reasons (see Neanderthal behavior § Cannibalism or ritual defleshing?).

Also the earliest undisputed evidence of artistic expression during the Paleolithic period comes from Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age sites such as Blombos Cave in the form of bracelets,[5] beads,[6] art rock,[7] ochre used as body paint and perhaps in ritual,[1][7] though earlier examples of artistic expression such as the Venus of Tan-Tan and the patterns found on elephant bones from Bilzingsleben in Thuringia may have been produced by Acheulean tool users such as Homo erectus prior to the start of the Middle Paleolithic period.[8] Activities such as catching large fish and hunting large game animals with specialized tools connote increased group-wide cooperation and more elaborate social organization.[1]

In addition to developing other advanced cultural traits such as religion and art, humans also first began to take part in long distance trade between groups for rare commodities (such as ochre, which was often used for religious purposes such as ritual[7][9]) and raw materials during the Middle Paleolithic as early as 120,000 years ago.[1][10] Inter-group trade may have appeared during the Middle Paleolithic because trade between bands would have helped ensure their survival by allowing them to exchange resources and commodities such as raw materials during times of relative scarcity (i.e., famine or drought).[10]

Social stratification

A model of a Neandertal male by modern scientists at the Zagros Paleolithic Museum

Evidence from archeology and comparative ethnography indicates that Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age people lived in small, egalitarian band societies similar to those of Upper Paleolithic societies and some modern hunter-gatherers such as the ǃKung and Mbuti peoples.[1][11] Both Neandertal and modern human societies took care of the elderly members of their societies during the Middle Paleolithic.[10] Christopher Boehm (1999) has hypothesized that egalitarianism may have arisen in Middle Paleolithic societies because of a need to distribute resources such as food and meat equally to avoid famine and ensure a stable food supply.[12]

Typically, it has been assumed that women gathered plants and firewood and men hunted and scavenged dead animals through the Paleolithic.[13] However, recent archaeological research done by the anthropologist and archaeologist Steven Kuhn from the University of Arizona suggests that this gender-based division of labor (presumably) did not exist prior to the Upper Paleolithic in Middle Paleolithic societies (modern humans before 40,000 or 50,000 BCE and Neandertals) and evolved relatively recently in human prehistory. The gender-based division of labor may have evolved to allow humans to acquire food and other resources more efficiently and thus may have allowed Upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens to out-compete the Neandertals in Europe.[13]


Although gathering and hunting comprised most of the food supply during the Middle Paleolithic, people began to supplement their diet with seafood and began smoking and drying meat to preserve and store it. For instance the Middle Stone Age inhabitants of the region now occupied by the Democratic Republic of the Congo hunted large 6-foot (1.8 m) long catfish with specialized barbed fishing points as early as 90,000 years ago,[1][14] and Neandertals and Middle Paleolithic Homo sapiens in Africa began to catch shellfish for food as revealed by shellfish cooking in Neandertal sites in Italy about 110,000 years ago and Middle Paleolithic Homo sapiens sites at Pinnacle Point, in Africa.[1][15]

Anthropologists such as Tim D. White suggest that cannibalism was common in human societies prior to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, based on the large amount of “butchered human" bones found in Neandertal and other Middle Paleolithic sites.[16] Cannibalism in the Middle Paleolithic may have occurred because of food shortages.[17]

However it is also possible that Middle Paleolithic cannibalism occurred for religious reasons which would coincide with the development of religious practices thought to have occurred during the Upper Paleolithic.[18][19] Nonetheless it remains possible that Middle Paleolithic societies never practiced cannibalism and that the damage to recovered human bones was either the result of excarnation or predation by carnivores such as saber-toothed cats, lions and hyenas.[19]


This is a drawing of a replica of an Acheulean hand-axe found during the Lower Paleolithic period. The raw material this tool is made of in this drawing is black Obsidian and is even worked on both sides.

Around 200,000 BP Middle Paleolithic Stone tool manufacturing spawned a tool-making technique known as the prepared-core technique, that was more elaborate than previous Acheulean techniques.[20] Wallace and Shea split the core artifacts into two different types: formal cores and expedient cores. Formal cores are designed to extract the maximum amount from the raw material while expedient cores are more based on function need.[21] This method increased efficiency by permitting the creation of more controlled and consistent flakes.[20] This method allowed Middle Paleolithic humans correspondingly to create stone-tipped spears, which were the earliest composite tools, by hafting sharp, pointy stone flakes onto wooden shafts. Paleolithic groups such as the Neandertals who possessed a Middle Paleolithic level of technology appear to have hunted large game just as well as Upper Paleolithic modern humans[22] and the Neandertals in particular may have likewise hunted with projectile weapons.[23]

Nonetheless Neandertal usage of projectile weapons in hunting occurred very rarely (or perhaps never) and the Neandertals hunted large game animals mostly by ambushing them and attacking them with mêlée weapons such as thrusting spears rather than attacking them from a distance with projectile weapons.[10][24] An ongoing controversy about the nature of Middle Paleolithic tools is whether there were a series of functionally specific and preconceived tool forms or whether there was a simple continuum of tool morphology that reflect the extent of edge maintenance, as Harold L. Dibble has suggested.[25]

The use of fire became widespread for the first time in human prehistory during the Middle Paleolithic and humans began to cook their food c. 250,000 years ago.[26][27] Some scientists have hypothesized that hominids began cooking food to defrost frozen meat which would help ensure their survival in cold regions.[27] Robert K. Wayne, a molecular biologist, has controversially claimed, based on a comparison of canine DNA, that dogs may have been first domesticated during the Middle Paleolithic around or even before 100,000 BCE.[28] Christopher Boehm (1999) has hypothesized that egalitarianism may have arisen in Middle Paleolithic societies because of a need to distribute resources such as food and meat equally to avoid famine and ensure a stable food supply.[12]


Cave sites

Open-air sites

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Miller, Barbra; Bernard Wood; Andrew Balansky; Julio Mercader; Melissa Panger (2006). Anthropology (PDF). Boston Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon. p. 768. ISBN 0-205-32024-4.
  2. Origins of Modern Humans: Multiregional or Out of Africa? By Donald Johanson
  3. Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins - research of burial rituals of Neandertals
  4. Lieberman, Philip (1991). Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-92183-2.
  5. Jonathan Amos (2004-04-15). "Cave yields 'earliest jewellery'". BBC News. Retrieved 2008-03-12.
  6. Hillary Mayell. "Oldest Jewelry? "Beads" Discovered in African Cave". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2008-03-03.
  7. 1 2 3 Sean Henahan. "Blombos Cave art". Science news. Retrieved 2008-03-12.
  8. "Human Evolution," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997–2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Contributed by Richard B. Potts, B.A., Ph.D. Archived 2009-11-01.
  9. Felipe Fernandez Armesto (2003). Ideas that changed the world. Newyork: Dorling Kindersley limited. p. 400. ISBN 978-0-7566-3298-4.;
  10. 1 2 3 4 Hillary Mayell. "When Did "Modern" Behavior Emerge in Humans?". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2008-02-05.
  11. Boehm, Christopher (2009). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02844-9., p. 198
  12. 1 2 Boehm, Christopher (2009). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02844-9., p. 192
  13. 1 2 Stefan Lovgren. "Sex-Based Roles Gave Modern Humans an Edge, Study Says". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2008-02-03.
  14. "Human Evolution," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997–2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Contributed by Richard B. Potts, B.A., Ph.D. Archived 2009-11-01.
  15. John Noble Wilford (2007-10-18). "Key Human Traits Tied to Shellfish Remains". New York times. Retrieved 2008-03-11.
  16. Tim D. White (2006-09-15). Once were Cannibals. Evolution: A Scientific American Reader. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-74269-4. Retrieved 2008-02-14.
  17. James Owen. "Neandertals Turned to Cannibalism, Bone Cave Suggests". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2008-02-03.
  18. Pathou-Mathis M (2000). "Neandertal subsistence behaviours in Europe". International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 10 (5): 379–395. doi:10.1002/1099-1212(200009/10)10:5<379::AID-OA558>3.0.CO;2-4.
  19. 1 2 Karl J. Narr. "Prehistoric religion". Britannica online encyclopedia 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-28.
  20. 1 2 "Human Evolution," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997–2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Contributed by Richard B. Potts, B.A., Ph.D. Archived 2009-11-01.
  21. Wallace, Ian; Shea, John (2006). "Mobility patterns and core technologies in the Middle Paleolithic of the Levant". Journal of Archaeological Science. 33: 1293–1309. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2006.01.005.
  22. Ann Parson. "Neandertals Hunted as Well as Humans, Study Says". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2008-02-01.
  23. Boëda, E.; Geneste, J.M.; Griggo, C.; Mercier, N.; Muhesen, S.; Reyss, J.L.; Taha, A.; Valladas, H. (1999). "A Levallois point embedded in the vertebra of a wild ass (Equus africanus): Hafting, projectiles and Mousterian hunting". Antiquity. 73: 394–402.
  24. Cameron Balbirnie (2005-02-10). "The icy truth behind Neandertals". BBC News. Retrieved 2008-04-01.
  25. Dibble, H.L. 1995. Middle paleolithic scraper reduction: Background, clarification, and review of the evidence to date. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 2:299-368
  26. Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick (2007). Handbook of Paleoanthropology. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. p. 1963. ISBN 978-3-540-32474-4.
  27. 1 2 Wrangham, Richard; Conklin-Brittain, NancyLou (September 2003). "'Cooking as a biological trait'" (PDF). Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A. 136 (1): 35–46. doi:10.1016/S1095-6433(03)00020-5. PMID 14527628. Archived from the original (pdf) on 19 May 2005. Retrieved 5 June 2014.
  28. Christine mellot. "stalking the ancient dog" (PDF). Science news. Retrieved 3-1-08. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)

External links

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