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middle palaeolithic

Middle Paleolithic

The Middle Paleolithic (or Middle Palaeolithic) is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. The term Middle Stone Age is used as an equivalent or a synonym for the Middle Paleolithic in African archeology. The Middle Paleolithic and the Middle Stone Age broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. There are considerable dating differences between regions. The Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age was succeeded by the Upper Paleolithic subdivision which first began around 50,000, 45,000 or 40,000 years ago.

During this time period Homo neanderthalensis thrived in Europe between 300,000 and 30,000 years ago, and the earliest anatomically modern humans appeared around 195,000 years ago. Phylogenetic separation of modern humans dates to this period, mitochondrial Eve to roughly 150,000 years ago, Y-chromosomal Adam to roughly 90,000 years ago; see single-origin hypothesis. Additionally, according to the Out of Africa Hypothesis, modern humans began migrating out of Africa during the Middle Stone Age/Middle Paleolithic around 100,000 or 70,000 years ago and began to replace earlier preexistent Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

The earliest evidence of behavioral modernity first appears during the Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age; undisputed evidence of behavioral modernity, however, only becomes common during the following Upper Paleolithic period. Middle Paleolithic burials at sites such as Krapina, Croatia (c. 130,000 BP) and Qafzeh, Palestine (c. 100,000 BP) have led some anthropologists and archeologists, such as Philip Lieberman, to believe that Middle Paleolithic cultures may have possessed a developing religious ideology which included belief in concepts such as an afterlife; other scholars suggest the bodies were buried for secular reasons. According to recent archeological findings from H. heidelbergensis sites in Atapuerca the practice of intentional burial may have begun much earlier during the late Lower Paleolithic but this theory is widely questioned in the scientific community. Cut marks on Neanderthal bones from various sites such as Combe-Grenal and Abri Moula in France may imply that the Neanderthals like some contemporary human cultures may have practiced ritual defleshing for (presumably) religious reasons. Also the earliest undisputed evidence of artistic expression during the Paleolithic period comes from Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age sites such as Blombos Cave in the form of bracelets, beads, rock art, ochre used as body paint and perhaps in ritual, though earlier examples of artistic expression such as the Venus of Tan-Tan and the patterns found on elephant bones from Bilzingsleben in Thuringia may have been produced by Acheulean tool users such as Homo erectus prior to the start of the Middle Paleolithic period. Activities such as catching large fish and hunting large game animals with specialized tools connote increased group wide cooperation and more elaborate social organization. In addition to developing other advanced cultural traits such as religion and art humans also first began to take part in long distance trade between groups for rare commodities (such as ochre, which was often used for religious purposes such as ritual) and raw materials during the Middle Paleolithic as early as 120,000 years ago. Inter group trade may have appeared during the Middle Paleolithic because trade between bands would have helped ensure their survival by allowing them to exchange recourses and commodities such as raw materials during times of relative scarcity (i.e. famine, drought).

Evidence from archeology and comparative ethnography indicates that Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age people lived in small egalitarian band societies similar to those of Upper Paleolithic societies and (some) existent Hunter gatherers such as the !Kung san and the Mbuti. Both Neanderthal and modern human societies took care of the elderly members of their societies during the Middle Paleolithic. Christopher Boehm (1999) has hypothesized that egalitarianism may have arisen in Middle Paleolithic societies because of a need to distribute resources such as food and meat equally to avoid famine and ensure a stable food supply. Typically it has been assumed that women gathered plants and firewood and men hunted and scavenged dead animals through the Paleolithic, however recent archaeological research done by the anthropologist and archaeologist Steven Kuhn from the university of Arizona reveals that this sexual division of labor (presumably) did not exist prior to the Upper Paleolithic in Middle Paleolithic societies (Modern humans before 40,000 or 50,000 BCE and Neanderthals) and was invented relatively recently in human prehistory. The sexual division of labor may have been invented to allow humans to acquire food and other resources more efficiently and thus may have allowed Upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens to out compete the Neanderthals in Europe.

Although gathering and hunting comprised most of the food supply during the Middle Paleolithic people began to supplement their diet with seafood and began smoking and drying meat to preserve and store it. For instance the Middle Stone Age denizens of the region now occupied by the Democratic Republic of the Congo hunted large long catfish with specialized barbed fishing points as early as 90,000 years ago, and Neanderthals and Middle Paleolithic Homo sapiens in Africa began to catch shellfish for food as revealed by shellfish cooking in Neanderthal sites in Italy about 110,000 years ago and Middle Paleolithic Homo sapiens sites at Pinnacle Point, in Africa. Anthropologists such as Tim White suggest that cannibalism was common in human societies prior to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic during the Middle Paleolithic, based on the large amount of “butchered human" bones found in Neanderthal and other Middle Paleolithic sites. Cannibalism in the Middle Paleolithic may have occurred because of food shortages. However it is also possible that Middle Paleolithic cannabalism occurred for religious reasons which would coincide with the development of religious practices thought to have occurred during the Upper Paleolithic. Nonetheless it remains possible that Middle Paleolithic societies never practiced cannibalism and that the damage to recovered human bones was either the result of ritual post-mortem bone cleaning or predation by carnivores such as Saber tooth cats, Lions and Hyenas.

Around 200,000 BP Middle Paleolithic Stone tool manufacturing spawned a tool making technique known as the prepared-core technique, that was more elaborate than previous Acheulean techniques. This method increased efficiency by permitting the creation of more controlled and consistent flakes. This method allowed Middle Paleolithic humans to correspondingly create stone tipped spears which were the earliest composite tools by hafting sharp, pointy stone flakes onto wooden shafts. Paleolithic groups such as the Neanderthals who possessed a Middle Paleolithic level of technology appear to have hunted large game just as well as Upper Paleolithic modern humans and the Neanderthals in particular may have likewise hunted with projectile weapons. Nonetheless Neanderthal usage of projectile weapons in hunting occurred very rarely (or perhaps never) and the Neanderthals hunted large game animals mostly by ambushing them and attacking them with mêlée weapons such as thrusting spears rather than attacking them from a distance with projectile weapons. Christopher Boehm (1999) has hypothesized that egalitarianism may have arisen in Middle Paleolithic societies because of a need to distribute recourses such as food and meat equally to avoid famine and ensure a stable food supply. Also the use of fire became widespread for the first time in human prehistory during the Middle Paleolithic and humans began to cook their food during the early Middle Paleolithic (c.250,000 years ago). Some scientists have hypothesized that Hominids began cooking food to defrost frozen meat which would help ensure their survival in cold regions.Robert k. Wayne a molecular biologist at the Ucla Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has controversially claimed based on a comparison of canine dna that dogs may have been first domesticated during the Middle Paleolithic around or even before 100,000 BCE.

Middle Paleolithic cave sites

Middle Paleolithic open-air sites

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