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The Middle and Lower Palaeolithic

The Middle and Lower Palaeolithic are eras characterized by long-lasting cultures created by several different types of people (Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalis and modern Homo sapiens).

 

 

 

The Middle Palaeolithic 220,000 – 45,000 years ago od 220 tisíc do 40 tisíc let

The era of ancient hunters and gatherers (the era of modern people, Neanderthals and Homo erectus)

 

Pigments in the dwelling on the Písečný Hill by Bečov in Bohemia

Archaeological research carried out by Jan Fridrich showed that there were hearths and remarkable lumps of burnt porcellanite under the overhang of rock in the Písečný Hill locality. Porcellanite was burnt with the purpose of gaining various shades of colours. The lumps were then ground down to the pigment on stone plates. The depicted people are ancestors of the Neanderthals, about 150,000 years before present. The reconstructional imitation shows the production and possible usage of the pigments. The dwelling of the hunter-gatherers was partly incorporated in the rock. It is interesting that outcrops of a white pigment were present not far from the settlement as well.

 

The dwelling in Lazaret, France

There is a cave called Lazaret in southern France. It was found that along one of its walls there was a shelter constructed by the Neanderthals 200,000 years ago. Archaeologists found there an apparent division of space, there were hearths and also places full of remains of molluscs living in plants, which are used to making mattresses even these days. There were also a lot of small bones from paws, remains from the past furs. These furs served as beddings. All these findings tell us something about the Neanderthal’s behaviour and about their clothing outside the cave. By the way, caves were not in fact suitable for permanent habitation. The draught there is generally poor and smoke accumulates rapidly in the caves. Caves were utilized only by some cultures and only rarely for human habitation. Moreover, there were not enough caves to accommodate all the ancient people, and actually most caves do not bear any signs of a settlement.

 

Sewing

In the Middle and Lower Palaeolithic stone tools for manufacturing bones were either nonexistent or very rare. Wood was processed instead, and that is why there are no bone awls, which are typical of the Upper Palaeolithic. Nevertheless, it was possible to sew using wooden awls made of dry yew and common sinew, which reminds of a surgical thread. Another possibility was to cut narrow stripes and to make small holes in those parts of leather one wanted to join using a minor flake. The holes were cleaned using a sharp piece of wood. The stripes were then pushed through the holes and parts of leather were sewn together in this way.

 

Northern cultures and processing of bones

Sewing was important above all for the northern Neanderthals, e.g. the Neanderthals from the Kůlna Cave of Moravia and Lebenstedt of northern Germany. A lot of reindeer bones were found on both sites. In Lebenstedt where there was a lack of other suitable material, the bones were processed into sharp points.

 

The Moravian cultures of the Middle Palaeolithic

The archaeologists distinguish three major Neanderthal cultures in Moravia, which differ on their stone tool traditions. The Mousterian was the oldest (220,000 – 90,000 years old). In the Middle East, the Mousterian culture was shared with the first modern people. The next culture was the Taubachian (130,000 – 80,000 years ago), connected with mineral springs. The third culture was the Micoquian, which existed till the times of transitional cultures (40,000 years ago).

 

Heat processing of materials

The German site Königsaue (58,000 years old) located on a plain by a river yielded several surprising discoveries. Two of the unearthed objects were made of some kind of plastics, produced by heating of birch juice. One of the artefacts served for connecting a handle with a stone tool, and the second looked like a handle of a microlithic tool.

 

The construction of weapons – the projectile points for spears

We could see that the Neanderthals used quite complicated technologies.

Some projectile points could be used for spears hurled by a thrower based on the principle of leverage. Several replicas of the points have been made for Antropark (the width of the shaft is given by the height of the stone point).

 

The construction of weapons – projectile points for arrows

One of the stone artefacts from Königsaue (below right) is so small that it could be an arrow shot by a bow. If a missile is too light, it must have much higher velocity than it is possible to reach using a thrower. The abilities of the Neanderthals become more transparent at the end of the Middle Palaeolithic, in the era of transient cultures (45,000 – 41,000 years ago, 40,000 – 35,000 RCYBP). In these times the cultures of the Neanderthals were probably similar to the cultures of the then modern people. The Szeletian (which also appeared in Moravia), characterized by precise geometric points (below left), was probably one of the Neanderthal cultures.

A replica of one of the Szeletian points. It is so small that it had hardly any other purpose than to be a point of an arrow (above left). Most archaeologists assume the bearers of the culture were the Neanderthals because the culture bears many characteristic features of the previous Neanderthal cultures.

 

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The Lower Palaeolithic   1,400,000 – 220,000 years before present

The era of the first hunters and gatherers (various forms of Homo erectus)

 

Bilzingsleben - Central Germany, 350,000 years ago

In 1970s, a well-known archaeologist Dietrich Mania researched the German archaeological locality Bilzingsleben in Thuringia. There was unearthed a 350,000 year-old settlement which yielded bones of both people (Homo erectus) and animals, many artefacts and three round ground plans of dwellings with hearths by their entrances. The animal bones belonged to small, medium sized and large animals (elephants, rhinoceroses, horses and buffaloes). The weapons for hunting such large animals were found in another German place, by Shöningen (as well as in England and Spain). The wooden, very heavy spears were thrown at the animals directly or possibly using a leather strap as a thrower. The spear had a sharp point and the weapon was thus very efficient, which minimized a possibility of an injury of the hunter by the animal. Besides large weapons, the people of those times also made tiny tools - microliths, which were as thin as a nail. The reconstructional imitation of the campsite showing beside other things equipment for kindling a fire can inform us of the psychical abilities characteristic of the ethnic group. These people were hunter-gatherers and belonged to the Homo erectus species. In Central Europe, their settlements were unearthed in Hungary, Bohemia and Moravia. The most important Moravian sites are Stránská skála, Růženin dvůr and Červený kopec in Brno.

The culture is called Acheulian. It originated in Africa some 1,400,000 years ago. The people of the Acheulian tradition, who left Africa and colonized Eurasia, spread their culture across the two continents. In Europe the Acheulean culture started 650,000 years ago and disappeared some 100,000 years ago. On some sites (including Bilzingsleben) minor tools, which do not fit the Acheulian tradition have also been found. The culture producing such industry is parallel with the Acheulean and is called the Clactonian.

  

A hunter from Shöningen

Besides large spears for hunting large animals the then people used special, small, two-pointed throwing rods to hunt waterbirds and small animals. Such a rod was finely balanced, so that it rotated around its centre of gravity similarly to a boomerang.

Visages of the Homo erectus people differed considerably, even within one community, as findings from the Spanish site Atapuerca suggest. Some of them resembled more the ancient Homo erectus people, some looked more like later Neanderthals and some had some features of modern people. Homo erectus had thick brow ridges, a big flat nose and massive jaws. The brain was quite large, it grew steadily during the evolution and the late Homo erectus people had brains almost of the same size as contemporary people. Also mouths of the people looked very modern. The depicted man – a proud animal hunter and stone tools maker has a plait. His appearance was very important for him, (as for the other mammals) and he devoted at least one hour a day to his looks. The universal overcoat he wore protected him against the wind and cold. There are practically no remains of any ethnographic material from these times, because probably almost everything was made of light perishable substances.

 

In fact, it is very difficult to create real reconstructions of the people of the Middle and Lower Palaeolithic, because we often carry a burden of once accepted ideas. Details often tell us more about the ancient people than hastily made expensive movies or dioramas.

Working with a microlith

Incredibly small microlithic tools, thin as a nail, with retouches on the edges, which were unearthed in Bilzingsleben. tell us a lot about real abilities and motor activity of the people of those times. We even do not know now what these tiny tools served for.

 

Back to Moravia

This is some 650,000 year-old bone found in a settlement of ancient people in Stránská skála, Brno, Moravia. 7 radial notches (7 lines in the lower part of the bone on the top of the picture) drew attention of specialists because they resemble other notches from the Bilzingsleben site. The medium part of the picture shows that the notches could be a visual association with the natural structure of the cross-section of the bone. Here we could see a geometrized work made by a European Homo erectus, which apparently differs from chaotic work of the great apes. Nevertheless, it must be noted that natural origin of the notches also remains a possibility.

 

The geometrized parallel notches in bones from the Lower Palaeolithic site Bilzingsleben.

 

 We could see the abilities of the Homo erectus people to design weapons - spears, spear-throwers and arrows. We could see their long-term patience, good abilities to estimate time and properties of objects, which could be documented by the hearths. We could also see their fine motor activity and geometrized work. I hope it will help us to overcome the hundreds of thousands of years and tan encounter with them will become an experience of something distant and close to us at the same time.

 

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Illustrations © Libor Balák

© Antropark 2005