The Pleistocene period, or Ice Age, in which Palaeolithic culture developed and flourished, was marked, at least in the Alpine regions, by four major glacial advances (Gunz, Mindel, Riss, and Wurm), separated by three warmer inter-glacial periods. The last glaciation had two maxima (Warm I and II), during which much of northern Europe was covered by a sheet of ice, but between them was a comparatively warm period, the Laufen oscillation.
Assigned to this period, at the end of the Pliocene and early part of the Pleistocene, are certain occasional finds of crude, shapeless stones, called eoliths, which are supposed by some archaeologists to show traces of Man’s first attempts at chipping, but this is still a matter of dispute. Here also come three so called industries of Reid Moir: the Iceian industry, characterized by rostrocarinate tools; the Darmsclenian, a pebble industry; and the Harrisonian, an industry of so called utilized flakes.
This period covers the greater part of the Pleistocene. almost our only information about the peoples and movements of this time consists of what may be inferred from the stone implements, which show, according to Breuil, the contemporary but more or less independent development and mutual interinfluence in western Europe of four separate techniques of manufacture (industries): (1) Hand-axe industry (French biface), developing through Pre-Chellean (Abbevillian) to Acheulean types; (2) Clactonian industry, characterized by rough flakes with an unfaceted striking-platform inclined at a high angle to the main flake surface; (3) Levalloisean industry, characterized by large flakes struck from a previously prepared core (tortoise core) and retaining a faceted striking-platform; and (4) Mousterian industry, consisting of smaller flakes of various forms, usually exhibiting a characteristic technique of retouching the edges (stepped retouch). These industries are found both separate and mixed, and there are additional intermediate forms. Chronologically they have been grouped into four periods: (r) Pre-Chellean (Abbevillian) period, characterized by extremely crude hand-axes; (2) Chellean period (now usually included with Acheulean), having hand-axes somewhat less crude than the Abbevillian, as well as some Clactonian tools; (3) Acheulean period, marked by more highly evolved hand-axes and, particularly in its later stages, by Levallois flakes; and (4) Mousterian period (sometimes designated as Middle Palaeolithic), with typical flake tools (points and scrapers) and a continuation in some places of Levallois flakes. The Mousterian industry proper (which has Pre-Mousterian or ProtoMousterian forerunners in northern and eastern Europe) is found particularly in the caves of central France, associated with bones of mammoth and reindeer and of Neanderthal Man.
This is a relatively short period, coinciding with the last part of the Ice Age and marked by the appearance of new flint industries and men of modern type (Homo sapiens). Three principal cultures are noted: (r) Aurignacian culture. This was the earliest. Evidence shows that the climate was comparatively warm. The people were nomadic hunters, living in open camps and caves. The stone industry was marked by great use of the blade and included a variety of characteristic scrapers, gravers, points (Chatelperron, Gravette, Font Robert types), and beginning of very small tools (microliths); also bone implements and ornaments of shell and bone. Aurignacian remains are found widely through central and western Europe and the Mediterranean region. (2) Solutrean culture. This is distributed from eastern and central Europe as far as France, intruding on the Aurignacian. The climate was cold. The Solutreans lived in open camps and rock shelters, were great hunters of horses, and introduced the technique of pressure flaking (willow-leaf and laurel-leaf points). (3) Magdalenian culture, the latest to develop, flourished in northern and central Europe and southern France. The climate was somewhat colder and the Magdalenians lived frequently in caves, where they made remarkable rock carvings and paintings, representing animals and men. Besides stone tools there was a high development of bone carving (spearheads, harpoons, batons de commande, and representations of animals).
The Palaeolithic period in Europe ended with the great changes in climate, fauna, and flora that marked the termination of the Pleistocene or Ice Age.