The word Palaeolithic is used to describe a stage of human culture, the earliest of which we have sure evidence. Although this culture persisted longer in some parts of the world than in others, we can use the term with reasonable accuracy to characterize a period of time. ‘This period includes probably 99 per cent of Man’s life on earth (at least since he became a tool-using animal), all the other periods down to the present covering the remaining 1 per cent.
Our knowledge of Palaeolithic culture is based principally on implements and animal and human bones found in the gravels of old river terraces, in open camp sites, and in caves. Disregarding the variations of time and place, one may say in general that Palaeolithic men knew the use of fire and lived by hunting and collecting vegetable foods, as the Australian natives and the Bushmen of South Africa do today. They had no agriculture and no domestic animals, excepting possibly the dog. For shelter they probably made wind-breaks and crude huts of branches, occasionally occupying caves. Their clothing was undoubtedly of skins (no textiles). Their tools and utensils were of stone, borie, and undoubtedly also of wood and basketry (no metal and no pottery). We know almost nothing of their social organization, religion, and intellectual life, except that late cave paintings and burials indicate belief in magic (in connection with hunting) and in some kind of existence of the individual after death. It is fairly safe to assume, however, that a large part of the fundamental institutions and beliefs of modern primitive peoples and of our own early historical ancestors had their origin and first development in this period.
The stone tools, which are such important criteria for this period, were usually made of flint or other hard rock by a process of chipping. They are classified as core tools, when the basis of the implement was a piece of rock, improved by chipping, or flake tools, when one of the flakes knocked off from a core (which is then termed a nucleus) was used as the basis for the implement. Sometimes the core was made ready for flaking by first creating a flat surface or striking-platform. Chips were removed by striking with another stone (hammer stone) or by pressure (pressure flaking). Sometimes the edges of a flake were improved by secondary chipping or flaking (retouching). The principal types of implements were hand-axes or coups de going (large pear-shaped or almond-shaped cores, chipped on both sides); scrapers of various shapes; points; awls (borers); and, in late times, long blades with roughly parallel edges, and gravers (small tools of many shapes improved for use as chisels or gouges by striking a special blow near the point).