Upper Paleolithic
Löwenmensch, a prehistoric ivory sculpture discovered in Hohlenstein-Stadel, c. 40,000–35,000 years old
PeriodStone Age
Dates50,000 to 12,000 BP
Preceded byMiddle Paleolithic
Followed byMesolithic
Expansion of early modern humans from Africa

The Upper Paleolithic (or Upper Palaeolithic) is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. Very broadly, it dates to between 50,000 and 12,000 years ago (the beginning of the Holocene), according to some theories coinciding with the appearance of behavioral modernity in early modern humans,[1] until the advent of the Neolithic Revolution and agriculture.

Anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. It has been argued by some that their ways of life changed relatively little from that of archaic humans of the Middle Paleolithic,[2] until about 50,000 years ago, when there was a marked increase in the diversity of artefacts found associated with modern human remains. This period coincides with the most common date assigned to expansion of modern humans from Africa throughout Asia and Eurasia, which contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals.

The Upper Paleolithic has the earliest known evidence of organized settlements, in the form of campsites, some with storage pits. Artistic work blossomed, with cave painting, petroglyphs, carvings and engravings on bone or ivory. The first evidence of human fishing is also found, from artefacts in places such as Blombos cave in South Africa. More complex social groupings emerged, supported by more varied and reliable food sources and specialized tool types. This probably contributed to increasing group identification or ethnicity.[3]

The peopling of Australia most likely took place before c. 60 ka. Europe was peopled after c. 45 ka. Anatomically modern humans are known to have expanded northward into Siberia as far as the 58th parallel by about 45 ka (Ust'-Ishim man). The Upper Paleolithic is divided by the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), from about 25 to 15 ka. The peopling of the Americas occurred during this time, with East and Central Asia populations reaching the Bering land bridge after about 35 ka, and expanding into the Americas by about 15 ka. In Western Eurasia, the Paleolithic eases into the so-called Epipaleolithic or Mesolithic from the end of the LGM, beginning 15 ka. The Holocene glacial retreat begins 11.7 ka (10th millennium BC), falling well into the Old World Epipaleolithic, and marking the beginning of the earliest forms of farming in the Fertile Crescent.

Lifestyle and technology

See also: Hunter-gatherer, Aurignacian, and Behavioral modernity

Both Homo erectus and Neanderthals used the same crude stone tools. Archaeologist Richard G. Klein, who has worked extensively on ancient stone tools, describes the stone tool kit of archaic hominids as impossible to categorize. He argues that almost everywhere, whether Asia, Africa or Europe, before 50,000 years ago all the stone tools are much alike and unsophisticated.

Flint Knives, Ahmarian Culture, Nahal Boqer, Israel, 47,000–40,000 BP. Israel Museum.

Firstly among the artefacts of Africa, archeologists found they could differentiate and classify those of less than 50,000 years into many different categories, such as projectile points, engraving tools, knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools. These new stone-tool types have been described as being distinctly differentiated from each other; each tool had a specific purpose. The early modern humans who expanded into Europe, commonly referred to as the Cro-Magnons, left many sophisticated stone tools, carved and engraved pieces on bone, ivory and antler, cave paintings and Venus figurines.[4][5][1]

The Neanderthals continued to use Mousterian stone tool technology and possibly Châtelperronian technology. These tools disappeared from the archeological record at around the same time the Neanderthals themselves disappeared from the fossil record, about 40,000 cal BP.[6]

Stone core for making fine blades, Boqer Tachtit, Negev, Israel, circa 40,000 BP

Settlements were often located in narrow valley bottoms, possibly associated with hunting of passing herds of animals. Some of them may have been occupied year round, though more commonly they appear to have been used seasonally; people moved between the sites to exploit different food sources at different times of the year. Hunting was important, and caribou/wild reindeer "may well be the species of single greatest importance in the entire anthropological literature on hunting".[7]

Technological advances included significant developments in flint tool manufacturing, with industries based on fine blades rather than simpler and shorter flakes. Burins and racloirs were used to work bone, antler and hides. Advanced darts and harpoons also appear in this period, along with the fish hook, the oil lamp, rope, and the eyed needle. Fishing of pelagic fish species and navigating the open ocean is evidenced by sites from Timor and Buka (Solomon Islands).[8]

The changes in human behavior have been attributed to changes in climate, encompassing a number of global temperature drops. These led to a worsening of the already bitter cold of the last glacial period (popularly but incorrectly called the last ice age). Such changes may have reduced the supply of usable timber and forced people to look at other materials. In addition, flint becomes brittle at low temperatures and may not have functioned as a tool.

Notational signs

Art of Lascaux, with painted animal, and four dots, a possible notation for Lunar months[9]

Some notational signs, used next to images of animals, may have appeared as early as the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe circa 35,000 BCE, and may be the earliest proto-writing: several symbols were used in combination as a way to convey seasonal behavioural information about hunted animals.[9] Lines (|) and dots (•) were apparently used interchangeably to denote lunar months, while the (Y) sign apparently signified "To give birth". These characters were seemingly combined to convey the breeding period of hunted animals.[9]

Changes in climate and geography

The Upper Paleolithic covered the second half of the Last glacial period from 50,000 to 10,000 before present, until the warming of the Holocene. Ice core data from Antarctica and Greenland.

The climate of the period in Europe saw dramatic changes, and included the Last Glacial Maximum, the coldest phase of the last glacial period, which lasted from about 26.5 to 19 kya, being coldest at the end, before relatively rapid warming (all dates vary somewhat for different areas, and in different studies). During the Maximum, most of Northern Europe was covered by an ice-sheet, forcing human populations into the areas known as Last Glacial Maximum refugia, including modern Italy and the Balkans, parts of the Iberian Peninsula and areas around the Black Sea.

This period saw cultures such as the Solutrean in France and Spain. Human life may have continued on top of the ice sheet, but we know next to nothing about it, and very little about the human life that preceded the European glaciers. In the early part of the period, up to about 30 kya, the Mousterian Pluvial made northern Africa, including the Sahara, well-watered and with lower temperatures than today; after the end of the Pluvial the Sahara became arid.

European Last Glacial Maximum refuges, 20,000 BP.
  Solutrean and Proto Solutrean Cultures
  Epigravettian Culture

The Last Glacial Maximum was followed by the Allerød oscillation, a warm and moist global interstadial that occurred around 13.5 to 13.8 kya. Then there was a very rapid onset, perhaps within as little as a decade, of the cold and dry Younger Dryas climate period, giving sub-arctic conditions to much of northern Europe. The Preboreal rise in temperatures also began sharply around 10.3 kya, and by its end around 9.0 kya had brought temperatures nearly to present day levels, although the climate was wetter.[citation needed] This period saw the Upper Paleolithic give way to the start of the following Mesolithic cultural period.

As the glaciers receded sea levels rose; the English Channel, Irish Sea and North Sea were land at this time, and the Black Sea a fresh-water lake. In particular the Atlantic coastline was initially far out to sea in modern terms in most areas, though the Mediterranean coastline has retreated far less, except in the north of the Adriatic and the Aegean. The rise in sea levels continued until at least 7.5 kya (5500 BC), so evidence of human activity along Europe's coasts in the Upper Paleolithic is mostly lost, though some traces have been recovered by fishing boats and marine archaeology, especially from Doggerland, the lost area beneath the North Sea.[citation needed]


See also: Prehistoric Europe § Upper Paleolithic

50,000–40,000 BP

Known archaeological remains in Europe and Africa of anatomically modern humans: directly dated, calibrated carbon dates as of 2013[10]
Layer sequence at Ksar Akil in the Levantine corridor, and discovery of two fossils of Homo sapiens, dated to 40,800 to 39,200 years BP for "Egbert",[11]and 42,400–41,700 BP for "Ethelruda"[11]

50,000 BP

48,000 BP

The first direct evidence for Neanderthals hunting cave lions. This is based on a cave lion skeleton found in Seigsdorf, Germany which has hunting lesions.[18]

45,000–43,000 BP

See also: Initial Upper Paleolithic

43,000–41,000 BP

40,000–30,000 BP

40,000–35,000 BP

Bone flute, Aurignacian, ~35,000 BC

35,000 BP

30,000 BP

The Venus of Brassempouy is preserved in the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris.
30,000-year-old cave lion and woolly rhinoceros painting found in the Chauvet Cave, France

30,000–20,000 BP

29,000–25,000 BP

24,000 BP

23,000 BP

22,000 BP

21,000 BP

20,000–10,000 BP

Main article: Epipaleolithic

18,000 BP

17,000 BP

Lascaux cave painting, 15,000 BC, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

15,000 BP

14,000 BP

Reindeer Age articles

12,000 BP

11,000 BP

10,000 BP


Statuette from a Venus figurines of Mal'ta, from the easternmost Upper Paleolithic culture, the Mal'ta–Buret' culture, Siberia

The Upper Paleolithic in the Franco-Cantabrian region:

See also


  1. ^ a b "'Modern' Behavior Began 40,000 Years Ago In Africa", Science Daily, July 1998
  2. ^ Rightmire, G. P. (2009). "Out of Africa: modern human origins special feature: middle and later Pleistocene hominids in Africa and Southwest Asia". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106 (38): 16046–16050. Bibcode:2009PNAS..10616046R. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903930106. PMC 2752549. PMID 19581595.
  3. ^ Gilman, Antonio. 1996. "Explaining the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution". pp. 220–239 (Chap. 8) in Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell
  4. ^ "Klein: Behavioral and Biological Origins of Modern Humans 3 of 3". Access Excellence.
  5. ^ "Klein: Behavioral and Biological Origins of Modern Humans 1 of 3". Access Excellence.
  6. ^ a b Higham, Tom; Douka, Katerina; Wood, Rachel; Ramsey, Christopher Bronk; Brock, Fiona; Basell, Laura; Camps, Marta; Arrizabalaga, Alvaro; Baena, Javier; Barroso-Ruíz, Cecillio; Bergman, Christopher; Boitard, Coralie; Boscato, Paolo; Caparrós, Miguel; Conard, Nicholas J.; Draily, Christelle; Froment, Alain; Galván, Bertila; Gambassini, Paolo; Garcia-Moreno, Alejandro; Grimaldi, Stefano; Haesaerts, Paul; Holt, Brigitte; Iriarte-Chiapusso, Maria-Jose; Jelinek, Arthur; Jordá Pardo, Jesús F.; Maíllo-Fernández, José-Manuel; Marom, Anat; Maroto, Julià; Menéndez, Mario; Metz, Laure; Morin, Eugène; Moroni, Adriana; Negrino, Fabio; Panagopoulou, Eleni; Peresani, Marco; Pirson, Stéphane; de la Rasilla, Marco; Riel-Salvatore, Julien; Ronchitelli, Annamaria; Santamaria, David; Semal, Patrick; Slimak, Ludovic; Soler, Joaquim; Soler, Narcís; Villaluenga, Aritza; Pinhasi, Ron; Jacobi, Roger (21 August 2014). "The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance". Nature. 512 (7514): 306–309. Bibcode:2014Natur.512..306H. doi:10.1038/nature13621. hdl:1885/75138. PMID 25143113. S2CID 205239973.
  7. ^ "In North America and Eurasia the species has long been an important resource—in many areas the most important resource—for peoples' inhabiting the northern boreal forest and tundra regions. Known human dependence on caribou/wild reindeer has a long history, beginning in the Middle Pleistocene (Banfield 1961:170; Kurtén 1968:170) and continuing to the present. ... The caribou/wild reindeer is thus an animal that has been a major resource for humans throughout a tremendous geographic area and across a time span of tens of thousands of years." Ernest S. Burch, Jr. "The Caribou/Wild Reindeer as a Human Resource", American Antiquity, Vol. 37, No. 3 (July 1972), pp. 339–368.
  8. ^ "The Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transition".
  9. ^ a b c d Bacon, Bennett; Khatiri, Azadeh; Palmer, James; Freeth, Tony; Pettitt, Paul; Kentridge, Robert (5 January 2023). "An Upper Palaeolithic Proto-writing System and Phenological Calendar". Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 33 (3): 1–19. doi:10.1017/S0959774322000415. S2CID 255723053.
  10. ^ Higham, Thomas F. G.; Wesselingh, Frank P.; Hedges, Robert E. M.; Bergman, Christopher A.; Douka, Katerina (2013-09-11). "Chronology of Ksar Akil (Lebanon) and Implications for the Colonization of Europe by Anatomically Modern Humans". PLOS ONE. 8 (9): e72931. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...872931D. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072931. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 3770606. PMID 24039825.
  11. ^ a b Higham, Thomas F. G.; Wesselingh, Frank P.; Hedges, Robert E. M.; Bergman, Christopher A.; Douka, Katerina (2013-09-11). "Chronology of Ksar Akil (Lebanon) and Implications for the Colonization of Europe by Anatomically Modern Humans". PLOS ONE. 8 (9): e72931. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...872931D. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072931. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 3770606. PMID 24039825.
  12. ^ Attenbrow, Val (2010). Sydney's Aboriginal Past: Investigating the Archaeological and Historical Records. Sydney: UNSW Press. pp. 152–153. ISBN 978-1-74223-116-7. Retrieved 11 Nov 2013.
  13. ^ Stockton, Eugene D.; Nanson, Gerald C. (April 2004). "Cranebrook Terrace Revisited". Archaeology in Oceania. 39 (1): 59–60. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4453.2004.tb00560.x. JSTOR 40387277.
  14. ^ Backwell, L; d'Errico, F; Wadley, L (2008). "Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa". Journal of Archaeological Science. 35 (6): 1566–1580. Bibcode:2008JArSc..35.1566B. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006.
  15. ^ Backwell, L; Bradfield, J; Carlson, KJ; Jashashvili, T; Wadley, L; d'Errico, F (2018). "The antiquity of bow-and-arrow technology: evidence from Middle Stone Age layers at Sibudu Cave". Journal of Archaeological Science. 92 (362): 289–303. doi:10.15184/aqy.2018.11.
  16. ^ Lombard M, Phillips L (2010). "Indications of bow and stone-tipped arrow use 64,000 years ago in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa". Antiquity. 84 (325): 635–648. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00100134. S2CID 162438490.
  17. ^ Lombard M (2011). "Quartz-tipped arrows older than 60 ka: further use-trace evidence from Sibudu, Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa". Journal of Archaeological Science. 38 (8): 1918–1930. Bibcode:2011JArSc..38.1918L. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2011.04.001.
  18. ^ Russo, Gabriele; Milks, Annemieke; Leder, Dirk; Koddenberg, Tim; Starkovich, Britt M.; Duval, M.; Zhao, J.-X.; Darga, Robert; Rosendahl, Wilfried; Terberger, Thomas (2023-10-12). "First direct evidence of lion hunting and the early use of a lion pelt by Neanderthals". Scientific Reports. 13 (1): 16405. Bibcode:2023NatSR..1316405R. doi:10.1038/s41598-023-42764-0. ISSN 2045-2322. PMC 10570355. PMID 37828055.
  19. ^ Wilford, John Noble (2 November 2011). "Fossil Teeth Put Humans in Europe Earlier Than Thought". The New York Times.
  20. ^ a b Higham, Thomas F. G.; Wesselingh, Frank P.; Hedges, Robert E. M.; Bergman, Christopher A.; Douka, Katerina (2013-09-11). "Chronology of Ksar Akil (Lebanon) and Implications for the Colonization of Europe by Anatomically Modern Humans". PLOS ONE. 8 (9): 6. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...872931D. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072931. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 3770606. PMID 24039825.
  21. ^ Francesco d’Errico et al. (2012) Early evidence of San material culture represented by organic artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(33): 13214-13219. It is called a notched bone, illustrated in Fig. 1, 12 d'Errico, F.; Backwell, L.; Villa, P.; Degano, I.; Lucejko, J. J.; Bamford, M. K.; Higham, T. F. G.; Colombini, M. P.; Beaumont, P. B. (2012). "Early evidence of San material culture represented by organic artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (33): 13214–13219. Bibcode:2012PNAS..10913214D. doi:10.1073/pnas.1204213109. PMC 3421171. PMID 22847420.
  22. ^ Swaziland Natural Trust Commission, "Cultural Resources – Malolotja Archaeology, Lion Cavern," Retrieved August 27, 2007, "Swaziland National Trust Commission – Cultural Resources – Malolotja Archaeology, Lion Cavern". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2016-02-05..
  23. ^ Peace Parks Foundation, "Major Features: Cultural Importance." Republic of South Africa: Author. Retrieved August 27, 2007, [1].
  24. ^ Brumm, Adam; Oktaviana, Adhi Agus; Burhan, Basran; Hakim, Budianto; Lebe, Rustan; Zhao, Jian-xin; Sulistyarto, Priyatno Hadi; Ririmasse, Marlon; Adhityatama, Shinatria; Sumantri, Iwan; Aubert, Maxime (2021-01-01). "Oldest cave art found in Sulawesi". Science Advances. 7 (3): eabd4648. Bibcode:2021SciA....7.4648B. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abd4648. ISSN 2375-2548. PMC 7806210. PMID 33523879.
  25. ^ Bowdler, Sandra. "Human settlement". In Denoon, D. (ed.). The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 41–50. Cited in Bowdler, Sandra. "The Pleistocene Pacific". University of Western Australia. Archived from the original on 16 February 2008. Retrieved 26 February 2008.
  26. ^ Isabel Ellender and Peter Christiansen, People of the Merri Merri. The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days, Merri Creek Management Committee, 2001 ISBN 0-9577728-0-7
  27. ^ Gary Presland, The First Residents of Melbourne's Western Region (revised edition), Harriland Press, 1997. ISBN 0-646-33150-7. Presland says on page 1: "There is some evidence to show that people were living in the Maribyrnong River valley, near present day Keilor, about 40,000 years ago."
  28. ^ "Mysterious marks on Ice Age cave art may have been ancient records". Science News. 27 January 2023. Archived from the original on 15 February 2023. Retrieved 15 February 2023.
  29. ^ "Red dot becomes 'oldest cave art'". BBC News. 15 June 2012. Retrieved 27 November 2022.
  30. ^ Pike, A. W. G.; Hoffmann, D. L.; García-Diez, M.; Pettitt, P. B.; Alcolea, J.; De Balbín, R.; et al. (2012). "U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain". Science. 336 (6087): 1409–1413. Bibcode:2012Sci...336.1409P. doi:10.1126/science.1219957. PMID 22700921. S2CID 7807664.
  31. ^ Zilhão, João; et al. (2017). "Precise dating of the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Murcia (Spain) supports late Neandertal persistence in Iberia". Heliyon. 3 (11): e00435. Bibcode:2017Heliy...300435Z. doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2017.e00435. PMC 5696381. PMID 29188235.
  32. ^ "The Trial Excavation at the Archaeological Site of Wong Tei Tung, Sham Chung, Hong Kong SAR". Hong Kong Archaeological Society. January 2006. Archived from the original on 3 March 2009. Retrieved 21 August 2010.
  33. ^ "Prehistoric Archaeological Periods in Japan". Charles T. Keally.
  34. ^ Keiji Imamura, Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1996 ISBN 0-8248-1853-9
  35. ^
  36. ^ Blainey, Geoffrey (2004). A Very Short History of the World. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-300559-9.
  37. ^ "Arrernte Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre Alice Springs". Archived from the original on 24 May 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  38. ^ "The Peking Man World Heritage Site at Zhoukoudian". 2014-11-14.
  39. ^ Flood, J. M.; David, B.; Magee, J.; English, B. (1987), "Birrigai: a Pleistocene site in the south eastern highlands", Archaeology in Oceania, 22: 9–22, doi:10.1002/j.1834-4453.1987.tb00159.x
  40. ^ Gillespie, Lyall (1984). Aborigines of the Canberra Region. Canberra: Wizard (Lyall Gillespie). pp. 1–25. ISBN 978-0-9590255-0-7.
  41. ^ Sea level data from main article: Cosquer cave
  42. ^ "Divers find traces of ancient Americans". NBC News. 9 September 2004.
  43. ^ M. Mirazón Lahr et al., "Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya", Nature 529, 394–398 (21 January 2016), doi:10.1038/nature16477. "Here we report on a case of inter-group violence towards a group of hunter-gatherers from Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana ... Ten of the twelve articulated skeletons found at Nataruk show evidence of having died violently at the edge of a lagoon, into which some of the bodies fell. The remains ... offer a rare glimpse into the life and death of past foraging people, and evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among prehistoric hunter-gatherers." "Evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare". University of Cambridge. 20 Jan 2016. Retrieved 20 Mar 2017.. For early depiction of interpersonal violence in rock art see: Taçon, Paul; Chippindale, Christopher (October 1994). "Australia's Ancient Warriors: Changing Depictions of Fighting in the Rock Art of Arnhem Land, N.T.". Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 4 (2): 211–48. doi:10.1017/S0959774300001086. S2CID 162983574..
  44. ^ Carpenter, Jennifer (20 June 2011). "Early human fossils unearthed in Ukraine". BBC. Retrieved 21 June 2011.
  45. ^ Mulvaney, D J and White, Peter, 1987, Australians to 1788, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, Sydney
  46. ^ Gary Presland, Aboriginal Melbourne: The Lost Land of the Kulin People, Harriland Press (1985), Second edition 1994, ISBN 0-9577004-2-3. This book describes in some detail the archaeological evidence regarding aboriginal life, culture, food gathering and land management, particularly the period from the flooding of Bass Strait and Port Phillip from about 7–10,000 years ago, up to the European colonisation in the nineteenth century.
  47. ^ Dousset, Laurent (2005). "Daruk". AusAnthrop Australian Aboriginal tribal database. Archived from the original on April 9, 2011. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
  48. ^ "Aboriginal people and place". Sydney Barani. 2013. Retrieved 5 July 2014.
  49. ^ Thorley, Peter (2004). "Rock-art and the archaeological record of Indigenous settlement in Central Australia". Australian Aboriginal Studies (1). Retrieved 18 June 2011.