Hunting and Gathering

Palaeolithic Savagery

Dictionary and Thesaurus and the HyperHistory Timeline


At the end of this lesson, you should have learned to following:

  • The meaning and important of the terms Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolitic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and the characteristics of each period; savagery and barbarism in their old technical sense; extended family, clan, and hunting band <
  • You should understand the factors that limit our knowledge of the was of life of human beings during the Palaeolithic period, and why scholars rely so much upon analogies with some modern peoples to develop their ideas.
  • You should be able to critique the basic division of labor that scholars believe existed among the palaeolithic hunters and gatherers.
  • You should know under what conditions palaeolithic groups could develop complex cultures.
  • You should be familiar with the cave-paintings of Lascaux as at least one example of the sophistication of palaeolithic art.
  • You might even have begun to think about some problems.
    • what can we learn about prehistoric peoples from archaeology and what can it not help us to know?
    • If the immigrants to North America came to the continent in about 20,000 BC with the same organization and equipment as those who remained in the Old World, why were so many of the New World inhabitants barely entering the Neolithic Age when the Europeans arrived?
    • What seemed to limit the development of the palaeolithic peoples?
    • What can we learn about a people from the art they produced>

Palaeolithic Savagery is a somewhat old-fashioned term, but you will encounter it from time to time.

As an aside, I might note that many people today regard the use of terms such as "savagery" and "barbarism" to be inappropriate even if they once had precise technical meanings that were not intended to reflect either well or badly on the peoples to whom they were applied. You might ask why you are expected to learn old-fashioned terms that most modern scholars now avoid using. The answer is quite simply that we often find ourselves reading books written before modern fashions had developed and it is important that we be able to understand what the author meant when he used terms that have a quite different meaning today. I once had a student ask me why her book said that people in Biblical times "broadcast" when planting their crops. She pointed out, and rightly so, that people didn't have radio back in Biblical times and so it was impossible for them to "broadcast." She didn't know that the modern term "broadcast" came from a way of planting by hand in which the sower would throw his seed in front of him with a broad sweep of his arm. That's a rather obvious example of the sort of thing I mean, but I'm sure that you get the idea. And now back to the subject at hand.

Palaeolithic means "Old Stone," and refers generally to the period of human history during which tools were made out of stone. Actually, the people at the time made their tools out of many different substances, such as wood, antler, bone, and the like, but stone has survived to the present day, and early scientists used the objects they found to describe the entire period. Savagery is the name that was given to that stage of human development in which people depended exclusively upon hunting animals and gathering wild plants for their food and, when used in this sense, the word savage simply means someone who does not practice agriculture.

It might be well at this point to go over these traditional eras in order so that you will be able to put what you will be learning into a general structure.


Characterized by chipped or flaked stone implements. Most North American Indian arrow-heads would fall into this category, although anyone who has collected arrow heads or looked at them in a museum no doubt is aware that such tools exhibit a wide range of craftmanship, from cracked stone crudely fashioned to the fine flint delicately flaked. The period began perhaps as early as 200,000 BC or as late as 100,000 BC and lasted until 30,000 or 40,000 BC, depending on the place. Generalaly speaking, though, it overlaps the last millennia of the Palaeololithic era.

Time for another aside. Many people today shun the use of the abbreviation A.D. - standing for Anno Domini - or "in the Year of our Lord" - and B.C. - standing for "Before Christ" on the principle that theuse of such religious terminology might be offensive to non-Christians. The terms C.E. for "Common Era" and B.C.E. for "before the common era" are now widely used. One, when I was at an academic conference, I remarked that I found the religious nature of C.E. and A.C.E. - standing, as I said, for "Christian Era" and "Before the Christian Era" as they did - to be personally offensive. I was suddenly deluged with angry people trying to correct me. Some people can't take a joke. Archaeologists and prehistorians usually use BP, as in 100,000 BP - meaning Before the Present. That's all right, I suppose, but what happens in another hundred thousand years when we have to change all of those dates? But back to the matter at hand.

A transitional period distinguished by the still greater skill shown in the tool-making proces. One might also note there is a greater variety variety and complexity of the tools surviving from the period.
The stone implements of this period were often ground and polished. It was during this period also that agriculture and animal husbandry was first developed, probably about 10,000 B.C., although there is still some argument about that.
Although stone tools continued to be used, the use of metal in the form of copper tools first occurred during this period. The Aztecs of Mexico were at this stage of development. It was during this period in what is modern Iraq that writing first appeared, and history in its technical sense of the study of the people of the past through their writings may be said to have begun.
Bronze Age
During this period, tools appeared made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Bronze is harder than copper, but bronze and tin are difficult to secure and require a great deal of fuel to combine them into an alloy, so bronze was expensive. This period seems to have begun about 2200 B.C.
Iron Age
Beginning in about 1200 B.C., tools made of iron begin to appear. Iron is harder than bronze, is much more plentiful, and is relatively easy to work, so it was quite inexpensive.

Now let's return to our consideration of the Old Stone age. We should begin by saying that we know very little about how Palaeolithic people organized their lives. What we have tended to do is to work by analogy with groups using similar tools who survived into historic times. When we note wide-spead similarities among historic groups who depended on stone tools to pursue a hunting and gathering economy, we assume that the men and women of the Palaeolithic era, who used stone tools and depended on a hunting and gathering economy, probably displayed similar characteristics. This is more or less a way of saying that we are guessing, but we are guessing on the basis of the best information availabel to us.

If these guesses are more or less correct, the humans of the Palaeolithic period organized themselves into groups, often, or, indeed, usually, composed entirely of blood relatives. We call such kinship groups extended families, or, if they are somewhat larger, clans. A clan is not a big group, some fifty or sixty people at most. If you will remember that Noah, in the Bible, lived with his wife, his three sons and their wives, and their children. That was an extended family. If Noah's grandsons, together with their wives and children, had come to live with him, they would have comprised a clan. Of course Noah and his people practiced agriculture, so they were not palaeolithic, but the organization is the same. The difference between palaeolithic and early neolithic groups was not so much in their grouping as in their activities and how they managed those activities.

On the basis of comparison with modern groups of people pursuing the traditional occupations of hunting and gathering, there may have been a rough division of labor among palaeolithic groups. In this traditional definition of roles, the men hunted game and made houses and tools, while the women gathered plants, cooked and made wearing apparel. Unless conditions were particularly favorable, the men of extended families hunted only small game since there were not enough of them to kill some of the larger animals of the time. All other things being equal, smaller animals repreduce more rapidly than larger ones, so an extended family was probably able to occupy the same hunting grounds over a considerable length of time. It was always possible, of course, for another and larger band to try to take over the an extended family's territory, In this case, the extended family was either driven away, killed off, or combined with another group to fight off the interlopers.

This brings up another consideration that, although we have little evidence that it existed among the extended families of palaeolithic times, would be a basic factor in human society for thousands of years. The ability of a group to kill game, gather food plants, and protect its territory depended in large measure on its numbers. The more people a group had, the better able it was to survive, so maintaining its population was a very important consideration for such groups. But maintaining its numbers was not an easy matter. Accidents, fires, disease, and fighting could reduce a group's population quickly and significantly, and only the birth of children could help restore it. The birth of children depended upon how many women capable of child-bearing belonged to the group. In the so-called "Venus figurines" we can see some indication of how greatly female fertility was respected and, from the dawn of recorded history, we note that groups would attack each other in the hope of stealing away their women and so be able to increase their own numbers and, hence, their power. There was safety in numbers and so we should expect that the general tendency was for successful extended families to grow in size or to combine with other groups to form clans.

Although living in clans had many advantages, it also had its liabilities. The clan was composed of enough men to form a hunting party that could bring down large animals, but its population was so great that kills of large animals were needed to provide the necessary quantity of food for the group. Since the larger animals reproduced relatively slowly, a clan could quickly exhaust the supply of game in its hunting grounds. At the same time, the women had to travel longer distances to gather plant food and soon used up the supply within a reasonable distance of the clan's home. This meant that the clans had to wander across wide expanses to find the food supplies they needed. It is almost axiomatic that nomadic groups, being limited to what they can carry with them, are not able to develop a material culture - tools, utensils, clothing and the like - equal in richness to those of more sedentary groups. Although there is little physical evidence to support such an idea, we are left with the possibility that human "progress" in the palaeolithic era - the movement from extended families to clans - may have involved the loss of the comfort and equality that a plentiful supply of tools made possible.

On the other hand, however, it is not at all rare to find technological improvements springing from scarcity. If you have only one stone axe, it is likely that you will take greater pains to make it the best axe possible than if you had five of them to use. This may be the reason that the stone implements of the Palaeolithic people improved in workmanship and design over time. Then, too, the need of the palaeolithic clans to widely for food doubtless played a role in hastening the population of the globe. By about 20,000 BC, Palaeolithic hunters had spread throughout the Earth, although the total human population of the world was probably no more than five or six million people.

Some palaeolithic clans were fortunate enough to occupy hunting grounds that provided a large and inexhaustible supply of food, such as the North American Plains Indians enjoyed with the vast herds of buffalo that they hunted. Others lived along the sea coast and were able to support relatively large populations from oyster and clam beds. Many of the highways and roads of Louisiana, for instance, are not built upon gravel, which is relatively scarce in the state, but upon crushed clam shells, taken from vast piles of shells that were built up over the centuries by the hunters and gatherers that inhabited the area.

Even though the number of humans was small, there was a level of trade and commerce that might appear surprising to many. Such things as salt, flint, obsidian, feathers, furs, and beads were exchanged across considerable distances.

When hunters and gatherers had an unfailing source of food available and were able to trade for "luxuries," they could develop complex and sophisticated cultures. Using the example of the North American Indian peoples, much of the art of the hunters and gatherers consisted of basketry; leather-work; feather, bone, and quill work; as well as sand painting and other products of which we know but which have not survived. From the European Palaeolithic period, most such objects have disappeared and we are left with the sometimes magnificent paintings on the walls of caves such as Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France to judge how rich a culture the people of the Palaeolithic era were able to produce.



Most books about the Palaeolithic period talk only about stone tools, caves, and bones. Flints and Stones attempts to provide some idea of what life in the period may have been like. Prehistoric Art of The Pyrenees gives you a nice tour of some of the powerful paintings of which people of the time were capable.


If you're interested in the history of art, it would be worth you while to visit the Cave of Lascaux, since the prehistoric paintings in the caves of Lascaux are among the finest ever discovered and are not accessible by the casual visitor to their physical location. If you're interested in still more, one of the central locations for prehistoric art on the web is Rock Art Links. If you've ever wanted to make your own prehistoric tools, you may be interested in visiting the primitive technology page. If you're ever dropped into the jungle with no equipment other than an electric can-opener, you might be very glad that you took the time to visit this page.

This text was produced and installed by
Lynn H. Nelson,
Department of History,
University of Kansas.
12 January 1998
Lawrence KS