Episode 7: Inventing the Upper Palaeolithic

Last week we looked at the process of transition from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Upper Palaeolithic. This week we are starting to look at what life was like in the now human-only world of the Near East in the Upper Palaeolithic proper.

We know from last week that the move into the Upper Palaeolithic can be seen through changes to the way that we made stone tools, moving from making flakes and turning these flakes into tools to moving from making blades and making these blades into tools. Part of this change in the way that we made stone tools involved not only a change in the technology of tool manufacture, with the far greater use of soft-hammer (hammers made of bone or deer antler) percussion rather than just hard-hammer (hammerstone hammers) percussion, which allowed us to make more detailed, tiny modifications to our stone tools.

Some of these modifications seem to have been related to changes in the technology of hunting weapons which were developed in the Upper Palaeolithic. One of these which we are pretty certain of as an Upper Palaeolithic invention is the spear-thrower, or atlatl. An atlatl is not necessarily a flashy tool development to look at – as it can be something as basic as a slightly-modified forked stick. However, in terms of its impact the atlatl was a big deal for Upper Palaeolithic hunting. This invention created a synthetic extension of the human arm, meaning that it allowed a spear to be thrown twice as far and with twice as much force, without us humans having to become any stronger to achieve this.

Other modifications, such as the use of microlithics (tiny stone tools), suggest that an invention which we had previously thought came about just after the Upper Palaeolithic might have actually been invented here in the Upper Palaeolithic – the bow and arrow. This would not only have meant that the Upper Palaeolithic was a time when two new hunting weapons were invented, but it also would have meant not only a complete revolution in the way that we thought about weapons technology, but also the ability to carry a lot more weapons (many arrows as opposed to one spear) when we went out hunting.

One of the microlithis found at Ohalo II, showing the preserved adhesive (white patches) on one site. Image adapted from Yaroshevich et al 2013.
Examples of Upper Palaeolithic style microliths from the Levant and how these might have been used to make arrows with composite points. Image adapted from Yaroshevich et al. 2010.

Upper Palaeolithic inventiveness was not restricted just to stone tools, though. We also saw a big improvement in the way that we made bone tools, and in the number of bone tools that we find on sites. A lot of of these are different types of bone points, which would have had a variety of different uses. Two of these types of bone points are particularly interesting, as they suggest another invention of the Upper Palaeolithic.

From the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic we find bone awls. An awl is a long and thin bone point, with a thicker part at the end to act as a handle. These are used to poke holes, such as to poke a hole through a piece of leather and then to push a length of leather strip, animal sinew or plant-fibre string through the hole to sew two pieces of leather together. Slightly later than the awl we find another bone tool which further improved our sewing capacity – bone sewing needles. These are closer in size to a large darning needle than a modern metal sewing needle, but they have the same shape and the same little eye drilled out of the base to hold and carry thread. These awls and needles would have allowed us humans not only to wear clothing, but to make a range of tailored clothing. So in the Upper Palaeolithic we can thing of us humans as not only inventing sewing tools, but as also inventing fashion and power-dressing.

Bone needle (a) and bone awls (b and c) found at Aghitu-3 Cave in the Caucasus mountains of Armenia. Image adapted from Kandel et al 2017.
Another example of an Upper Palaeolithic bone sewing needle.

The Upper Palaeolithic of the Near East was not a single identical thing across all of the Near East. We see a lot of little differences in tools and the way that they were made between regions, and even some pretty major differences in the same region – such as in the Levant when we have the early Ahmarian replaced in some areas by the incoming Levantine Aurignacian. These inventions,though, and the major changes that they indicate in how we lived, how we hunted and what we wore, were common across all of these parts of the Near East. Some of these inventions – such as tailored clothing – would even have helped us to be able to live in a wider range of areas of the Near East, especially in the mountains and other colder areas.

Ghār-e Boof cave in Iran. Currently the oldest known Upper Palaeolithic site in the Zagros mountains (from about 42,000 years ago). Image adapted from Ghasidian 2019.

Episode Bibliography

Belfer-Cohen, A. and Goring-Morris, N. 2008. Why microliths? Microlithization in the Levant. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 12(1): 57-68.

Bergman, C.A. 2003. Twisted debitage and the Levantine Aurignacian problem. In A.N. Goring-Morris and A. Belfer-Cohen (eds.), More than Meets the Eye: Studies on Upper Palaeolithic Diversity in the Near East. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 185-195.

Gasparyan, B. and Arimura, M. 2014. Stone Age of Armenia: A Guide-Book to the Stone Age Archaeology in the Republic of Armenia. Kanazawa: Center for Cultural Resource Studies, Kanazawa University.

Ghasidian, E. 2013. The Early Upper Paleolithic Occupation at Ghār-e Boof Cave. A Reconstruction of the Cultural Tradition in the Southern Zagros Mountains of Iran. Tübingen: Kerns Verlag.

Ghasidian, E. 2019. Rethinking the Upper Paleolithic of the Zagros Mountains. PaleoAnthropology 2019: 240-310.

Ghasidian, E., Heydari-Guran, S. and Lahr, M.M. 2019. Upper Paleolithic cultural diversity in the Iranian Zagros mountains and the expansion of modern humans into Eurasia. Journal of Human Evolution 132: 101-118.

Golovanova, L.V. and Doronichev, V.B. 2012. The Early Upper Paleolithic of the Caucasus in the west Eurasian context. In M. Otte, S. Shidrang and D. Flas (eds.), L’Aurignacian de la grotte Yafteh et son context (fouilles 2005-2008). Liège: ERAUL: 137-160.

Goring-Morris, N. and Belfer-Cohen, A. 2006. A hard look at the “Levantin Aurignacian”: how real is the taxon? Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian

Goring-Morris, N. and Belfer-Cohen, A. 2018. The Ahmarian in the context of the Earlier Upper Palaeolithic in the Near East. In Y. Nishiaki and T. Azakawa (eds.), The Middle and Upper Paleolithic Archaeology of the Levant and Beyond. London: Springer: 87-104.

Kadowaki, S. 2018. Ahmarian or Levantine Aurignacian? Wadi Kharar 16R and new insights into the Upper Palaeolithic lithic technology in the northeastern Levant. In Y. Nishiaki and T. Azakawa (eds.), The Middle and Upper Paleolithic Archaeology of the Levant and Beyond. London: Springer:105-116.

Kandel, A.W., Gasparyan, B., Allue, E., Bigga, G., Bruch, A.A., Cullen, V.L., Frahm, E., Ghukasyan, R., Gruwier, B., Jabour, F., Miller, C.E., Taller, A., Vardazaryan, V., Vasilyan, D. and Weissbrod, L. 2017. The earliest evidence for Upper Paleolithic occupation in the Armenian highlands at Aghitu-3 Cave. Journal of Human Evolution 110: 37-68.

Kuhn, S.L. 2004. From Initial Upper Palaeolithic to Ahmarian at Üçağizli Cave, Turkey. L’Anthropologie 42(3): 249-262.

Monigal, K. 2003. Technology, economy and mobility at the beginning of the Levantine Upper Palaeolithic. In A.N. Goring-Morris and A. Belfer-Cohen (eds.), More than Meets the Eye: Studies on Upper Palaeolithic Diversity in the Near East. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 118-133.

Phillips, J.L. and Saca, I.N. 2003. Variability and change in the Early Upper Palaeolithic of the Levant. In A.N. Goring-Morris and A. Belfer-Cohen (eds.), More than Meets the Eye: Studies on Upper Palaeolithic Diversity in the Near East. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 95-105.

Reynolds, T., Farr, L., Hill, E., Hunt, C., Jones, S., Gratuze, B., Nymark, A., Abdulmutalb, D., and Barker, G. 2018. Shanidar Cave and the Bardostian, a Zagros Aurignacian industry. L’Anthropologie 122: 737-748.

Shidrang, S. 2018. The Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in the Zagros: the appearance and evolution of the Bardostian. In Y. Nishiaki and T. Azakawa (eds.), The Middle and Upper Paleolithic Archaeology of the Levant and Beyond. London: Springer: 133-156.

Taller, A., Gasparyan, B. and Kandel, A.W. 2018. Living on the edge: the earliest modern human settlement of the Armenian highlands in Aghitu-3 cave. In Y. Nishiaki and T. Azakawa (eds.), The Middle and Upper Paleolithic Archaeology of the Levant and Beyond. London: Springer: 119-131.

Tejero, J.-M., Yeshurun, R., Barsilai, O., Goder-Goldberger, M., Hershkovitz, I., Lavi, R., Schneller-Pels, N. and Marder, O. 2016. The osseous industry from Manot Cave (Western Galilee, Israel): technical and conceptual behaviours of bone and antler exploitation in the Levantine Aurignacian. Quaternary International 403: 90-106.

Williams, J.K. 2003. An examination of the Upper Palaeolithic flake technologies in the marginal zone of the Levant. In A.N. Goring-Morris and A. Belfer-Cohen (eds.), More than Meets the Eye: Studies on Upper Palaeolithic Diversity in the Near East. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 196-208.

Yaroshevich, A. Kaufman, D., Nuzhnyy, D., Bar-Yosef, O. and Weinstein-Evron, M. 2010. Design and performance of microlith implemented projectiles during the Middle and Late Epipalaeolithic of the Levant: experimental and archaeological evidence. Journal of Archaeological Science 37: 368-388.

Yaroshevich, A., Nadel, D. and Tsatskin, A. 2013. Composite projectiles and halfting technologies at Ohalo II (23ka, Israel): analysis of impact fractures, morphometric characteristics and adhesive remains on microlithic tools. Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 4009-4023.

Yesherun, R., Schneller-Pels, N., Barzilai, O. and Marder, O. 2019. Early Upper Palaeolithic subsistence in the Levant: Zooarchaeology of the Ahmarian-Aurignacian sequence at Manot Cave, Israel. Journal of Human Evolution doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.05.007

Yeshurun, R., Tejero, J.-M., Barzilai, O., Hershkovitz, I. and Marder, O. 2019. Upper Palaeolithic bone retouchers from Manot Cave (Israel): a preliminary analysis of an (as yet) rare phenomenon in the Levant. In J.M. Hudson, A. Garcia-Moreno, E.S. Noack, E. Turner, A. Villaluenga and S. Gaudzinski-Windheuser (eds.), The Origins of Bone Tool Technologies. Mainz: Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseums: 287-296.

2 thoughts on “Episode 7: Inventing the Upper Palaeolithic

  1. I’m surprised that hares were not hunted more. If your a good pitcher you can kill a rabbit with a plain old rock. It just seems like they would be easy picking.


    1. They probably were, and we get hare remains preserved on sites, but they are not as common. Hares are small and solitary while gazelle would be travelling in herds – making them easier to spot with each gazelle having enough food to feed everyone in the group. Hares would probably have been more of an opportunistic kill rather than what you set out to look for when going hunting.


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