Old Stone Age

Posted on December 20, 2009


In the 1820s a Danish archeologist named Christian Jürgensen Thomsen divided prehistory into three ages.  He did this to help him classify artifacts for the Danish Royal Commission for the Preservation and Collection of Antiquities.  He picked out a trait easy to discern: What are the artifacts made of?  That’s how we ended up with the oft-heard terms “stone age”, “bronze age”, and “iron age”.  In terms of technological progression, this makes a good deal of sense.  The abilities to use bronze and then iron in toolmaking were both dramatic changes that would drastically alter the affected cultures.

As archeology progressed, the exact meanings of these terms mutated and the stone age was divided into three eras of its own: the old stone age (“paleolithic”), the middle stone age (“mesolithic”), and the late stone age (“neolithic”).  The paleolithic era was in turn divided into the lower, middle, and upper paleolithic eras.  As archeologists have uncovered more of the past, the overlapping boundaries have been moved around and blurred.  As we gain more knowledge of how human cultures developed differently in different regions, the same system of time periods can not be applied everywhere.  The system I just described remains in use for Africa and Europe (with some differences in the ways it is applied), but not in the Americas.  In some regions, the system is modified to include a “copper age”.

I spent a while discussing that particular issue with Gwen Kelly, an archeologist and an old friend from Buck’s Rock.  At the moment she’s in India working at an archeological dig site, but she took the time to have a long phone conversation with me and help me get a handle on the paleolithic era.  I asked her a question which had been bothering me: Is the paleolithic era defined as an absolute time period, or is it more of an adjective describing a type of culture?  The answer was “both”.  Because the terms were invented so long ago, and so much has been discovered since then, they are used differently in different contexts and differently by different archeologists.

For the Grok Project, I’m concerned mainly with paleolithic technology.  That means humans using plants, animal parts, and rocks to make tools, but no metallurgy.  Cultures fitting that description can be found all over the globe at various times throughout history.  As a general rule cultures using metallurgy are preceded by cultures that do not, in a given region, and fewer and fewer pre-metallurgy cultures can be found as time progresses.

Since I’m concentrating on technology, I should probably take a moment to define it.  What is technology?  Dictionaries don’t agree on this one.  Some of them refer to science as the basis for technology.  I reject those definitions.  Science has led to many technologies, but technology definitely predates science.  Many of them link technology with specialized fields.  The one that made the most sense to me was offered on the website of the National Academy of Engineering: “Technology is the process by which humans modify nature to meet their needs and wants.”

By 10,000 BCE, anatomically modern humans were living all over the world (except for polar regions and some islands) – according to the Atlas of Past Times, by John Haywood.  That’s the specific time period I’m trying to focus on.  If necessity is the mother of invention, then the best place to start an examination of early technology is basic needs.  What did people need?  Food.  Water.  Shelter.  Protection from predators.

Obviously, the predecessors of tool-making humans had ways to meet their basic needs without technology.  Presumably, the development of technology took hold because it was more effective than some of the old methods and / or the old methods stopped working for one reason or another.  Of course, needs met better by those primordial tactics than by any yet-invented technology would likely be left as is.  If the nearby stream still delivered clean water then even very inventive humans would still go and sip the old fashioned way.

The things that early modern humans used technology for seem to be food, shelter / clothing, and security.  For food, they invented new weapons for hunting: stone knives, spears (including throwing spears), atlatls (a tool to help throw spears more effectively), and possibly animal traps.  Containers such as woven baskets could also be used to carry gathered foods such as nuts, berries, and other fruits.  And, of course, fire could be used to cook the food, making it safer to eat.

For shelter, humans could, of course, just find natural rock shelters.  But they could also build fires to keep them warm there.  And they could build huts out of tied sticks and animal skins to keep out wind and rain, and to keep in warmth.  Outside of the shelter, animal skins or woven cloth can still help to keep people warm in the form of clothing.

And for security, the weapons come back into play.  In modern times, the use of weapons has transformed humans from prey into predator for all manner of beast that could easily make a meal of us, if we had only our bodies with which to fight or flee.  That transformation begins here in the paleolithic era.

But humans have to worry about attacks from more than just hungry animals.  When the resources that humans need to survive become scarce, competition for them becomes fierce.  Hoarding, stealing, and killing are almost always “on the table”.  Although the scale has varied, violence between humans seems to be as old as humanity itself.

I’m going to take an extra paragraph on the that: violence between humans.  But what about, more specifically, violence between groups of humans?  What about war?  Gwen got excited when I asked about that, because it turns out that her father, a cultural anthropologist, has done research on that very topic.  So I had to check the paper out: “The Evolution of Lethal Intergroup Violence” by Raymond C. Kelly.  The paper argues that for a very long time, the circumstances of human existence created evolutionary selection pressures that favor “coalitionary killing of neighbors”, but that approximately one million years ago technological developments altered those selection pressures to favor conflict avoidance and cooperative behaviors between groups of humans.  It is both ironic and beautiful that the advent of more effective weapons may have been the genesis of peace valued among humans.  If you’re interested in the details, check out the article: http://www.pnas.org/content/102/43/15294.full.

It looks as though, just as with humans today, there were many aspects of paleolithic culture which were not directly determined by basic needs.  There is evidence of art and ritual.  But this post is long enough, so I will save that for another day.

Thank you to Gwen Kelly for her help!  Take a look at her blog: The Avocado Advocate.  Also, she’s recently founded a new organization: International Association for Women Archaeologists Working in South Asia.  They could use some donations to help get things rolling.

I may not be able to post next Sunday, because I will be visiting family.  Thank you for reading, and happy holidays!









“Atlas of Past Times” by John Haywood

Kelly, R. C. (2005) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 102 , 15294–15298.

Interview with Gwendolyn Kelly