Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Paleolithic Era

Few subjects are more controversial than the origins of the human species. During the long series of ice ages, the fringes of the European ice pack were inhabited by a race of tool-making bipeds known conventionally as Neanderthals.
Heavier, stronger, and hairier than mod­ern Homo sapiens, they hunted the great herding animals of the day: mammoth, bison, wooly rhinoceros, and reindeer. They lived in caves, knew how to make flint tools and weapons, and buried their dead in ways that suggest some form of religious belief. About thirty thousand years ago the Neanderthals were abruptly superseded by people who were physi­cally identical to modern men and women. Where they came from or whether they somehow evolved within a few generations from a basically Neanderthal stock is unclear, but within a short time the Neanderthals were no more. This development remains a mystery because the first true humans did not have a more advanced cul­ture or technology than their more established neigh­bors and were by comparison weak and puny. Some have suggested that the Neanderthals fell victim to an epidemic disease or that they could not adapt to warmer weather after the retreat of the glaciers. They may also have found hunting the faster, more solitary animals of modern times difficult after the extinction of their traditional prey, but no one knows.

The new people, like their predecessors, were hunter-gatherers who lived in caves and buried their dead. They, too, used stone tools and weapons that be­came steadily more sophisticated over time, which is why the period up to about 9000 B.C. is known as the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. Paleolithic people lived on a healthy diet of game and fish supplemented by fruit, berries, nuts, and wild plants, but little is known about their social structure. If the hunter-gatherer soci­eties of modern times are an indication, they probably lived in extended families that, if they survived and prospered, eventually became tribes. Extended families may contain older surviving relatives—siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins—as opposed to nuclear families of only parents and children. Tribes are composed of several nuclear or extended families that claim common descent. The division of responsibilities probably was straightforward. Men hunted and perhaps made tools; women cared for the children, preserved the fire, and did most of the gathering.

Paleolithic Cave Paintings of Bison, at Altamira, Spain. The cave paintings at Altamira in Spain and at Lascaux in France were evidently produced by the same Paleolithic culture and date from c. 15,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C. The purpose of the paintings is unclear, but the technical skill of the artists was anything but primitive.
Among the most extraordinary achievements of these paleographic cultures was their art. Caves from Spain to southern Russia are decorated with magnifi­cent wall paintings, usually of animals. Many groups also produced small clay figurines with exaggerated fe­male features. This suggests the widespread worship of a fertility goddess, but Paleolithic religious beliefs re­main unclear. Were the cave paintings a form of magic designed to bring game animals under the hunter’s power, or were they art for art’s sake? The question may sound silly, but articles of personal adornment in caves and grave sites indicate, as do the paintings themselves, that these people had a well-developed sense of aesthetics.

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