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Lecture: Paleolithic and Neolithic Technology

Early humans gathered together for protection against the elements and efficiency of food collection. Early technologies would have included the control of fire, shelter building, and ways of gathering food and saving water, but some of the most interesting are those that created art.

From Paleolithic to agricultural?

The Paleolithic (paleo=old, lith=stone) age indeed featured stone tools of all sorts, and we assume that early humans perfected designs of arrowheads, scrapers, baskets and containers, and other implements to increase the efficiency of hunting animals for food. Animals provided not only protein, but also skins (which could be used for clothing and as wraps for carrying things), bone (useful for small tools and ornamentation) and organs (for medical remedies). 

I once attended a lecture in an anthropology class here at MiraCosta, given by a Dr. Ford. As a historian, I had heard about hunting and gathering, but I didn't know until I sat in on his class about scavenging. Apparently hunting, being very hard work, doesn't bring in much meat, or at least not on a predictable schedule. Gathering (of plants and berries) doesn't supplement the diet but is rather its foundation. I learned that scavenging dead animals who had been killed by other animals was a major source of food. I had never thought of humans as scavengers, but it made perfect sense. It did make me wonder, though, whether cooking had been used not only to make meat more tender, but to burn off the toothmarks of other animals. 

Back when I went to college, I was taught that agriculture was a natural progression from hunting and gathering. Different groups of humans took this leap at different times, likely discovering that planting seeds could be more efficient than gathering. Saving the seeds from the biggest, strongest plants also makes logical sense. But I was taught that it was agriculture that caused humans to settle down, to slow down their nomadic lifestyle of following animals, in order to farm. The first major communities, then, built up around these farming settlements.

goddess statue

Statue of goddess or queen
from Göbekli Tepe

That theory is being questioned now, partly because of new dating methods at very old sites such as Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük. Both communities had many buildings, permanent structures, and for a long time it's been assumed that they must have grown their food just outside of town. But further excavations and carbon dating methods have discovered no evidence of agriculture at all. The assumption may well have been wrong. If so, it means that large ceremonial centers may have been build for spiritual reasons rather than physical protection and a center of farming production.

This sort of shift in thinking is one of the reasons why History is not a "dead" subject. Many people believe that history is simply a set of facts from the past, that we know what happened. So, for example, a history book written in 1855 about ancient Greece must have all the same information as a book written today. But of course, that isn't so. History is not a collection of facts, but rather of interpretations based on those facts we have. Sometimes new facts are discovered (or a lack of facts as noted at Göbekli Tepe and Çatal Höyük). This changes the interpretation. In this case, we may have to consider whether spiritual needs might have been, in some places and in some ways, as important as protection, food, and other basic needs.

The role of shamans

Certainly the shamans and other spiritual leaders were the first to be fed by the community. When people come together to hunt, gather, scavenge, and farm, almost all of them are working on survival for themselves and the group. There is little spare time - all energy is used for subsistence activities. As the community expands, if it does well, there may be some surplus food. This means that not everyone is required to engage directly in food production. The group can afford to "pay" a member to do something else by feeding him or her. The "first job" was almost always that of the shaman

The shamans were paid to intercede with supernatural forces on behalf of the community. What did this have to do with technology? The shamans' responsibility to provide spiritual guidance for the community was in many ways dependent on his or her ability to interpret the natural environment. Weather was a particular issue, since drought or flooding could kill crops and make animal movements shift, threatening the lifeblood of the group. Shamans became very good at astronomical and climate observations, determining and recording patterns in order to make predictions and keep the community prepared. They were, in fact, the first scientists, basing their recommendations on direct observation of the natural world.

Art as technology

It is easy to see how the construction of buildings at places like Çatal Höyük would be technology, but a great deal of time and effort was also spent on items we would consider art. In many places in Europe, particularly in the caves of France, it is possible to view cave paintings of extraordinary craftsmanship. There are handprints on walls, and detailed paintings of animals. Some of the most intricate have been only recently discovered, within the last hundred years or so. 

For a long time, scholars simply admired the work. But recently some have begun seeing it in a new way, noting particular patterns in the paintings. Take a look at our secondary source reading for this week (below), which suggests that artists may have been trying to convey motion, as in a comic.

Here's an animation:

What we have here is evidence of what I think is a necessary part of society: narrative. Narrative, or story-telling, implies a self-consciousness in a culture, a desire to record the present in a way that will be useful to the future. Telling stories is part of every society we know of on the planet. Narrative defines who we are, whether it is the story of a hunt on a cave wall, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, or stories of heroes and saints. Shamans told stories to explain the natural world. And narrative can be a powerful force: we criticize national leaders who "rewrite history" to gloss over their country's bad behaviors and teach future generations a more generous view of their people. We can trace the history of narratives from cave paintings and stories, to oral traditions passed down through memorization, to the development of writing, to printing, to the internet.

Effects of agriculture

Once agriculture began (the Neolithic Age), which it did in fits and starts, life did change. From foraging to deliberately planting seeds, from returning to last year's seed plot to deciding to stay, is the presumed pattern. We know that when people start planting, their diet shifts. Less scavenged and hunted meat is consumed, and more vegetable matter is eaten. Grains become central to the diet, as they evolved from grasses and contained concentrated carbohydrates. Sometimes the dietary shift could be deadly, as in the case of the Cahokia civilization in the Americas. They became so dependent on corn (maize) that they developed malnutrition and disease.

But for most the settling down provided opportunity. Planted crops could be improved by selecting out the largest or best-tasting fruits and grains to save seeds. Plants could be hybridized by hand, cross-pollinating to create new, stronger forms. Settlement appears to have led to the division of labor, with child-care being tied to an interruptible activity (farming) rather than one that could not be interrupted (hunting). Some historians believe that this sexual division of labor, where women tended continually while men went off to work occasionally, began here, with the Neolithic Revolution.

Technology as art

arrowheadspotAs one would expect, the technologies used served the purpose of ensuring survival and subsistence. Hunting with spears or bows and arrows requires arrowheads, which are still found today by archaeologists. Grain and other foods could be dried and saved, necessitating containers such as baskets or pots.

Late in the Neolithic era, monumental stone "henges" were a feature in some areas of Europe. Evidence of the oldest henge was found in 2002 near Goseck, Germany. The Goseck henge is estimated to be 7000 years old, and its southern gates line up with the summer and winter solstice. Like other henges (Stonehenge being most famous) the astronomical alignment of many henges has led archaeologists to believe they served as observatories. Certainly the need for shamans to observe nature closely would support this idea.

From what we know of more basic cultures that exist today, and from our own histories of legends and tales, we assume that Paleolithic and Neolithic people told stories. The cave paintings may have represented not only the animation in their daily lives, but specific tales of hunts and observing animal life. Container designs and even weapons may have been decorated to tell stories. Because we have nothing that is considered "writing" from this era, we call it "pre-historic" - before history. In the next unit we move on to evidence that goes beyond archaeology into an exploration of the tools used for civilization.


While it's easy to see prehistoric technologies only in terms of arrowheads, hunting, and connections with the supernatural for the purposes of survival, we are discovering more connections all the time. The goods carried by Ötzi, a prehistoric man discovered in Alpine ice in 1991, included tools and remedies. Analysis of the body has indicated the use of acupuncture or something similar, in a pattern. He carried small bundles of fungus that were likely used as medicine. The shoes were made with bearskin soles and were waterproof. He carried a copper axe and arrows, and several plants designed to start fires under different conditions. Just this one discovery gives us an idea of the possible complexity we're missing about this era.


All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.