Chapter 3: Becoming Modern


Lascaux Cave” by Jack Versloot is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you have taken a biological anthropology class or perhaps seen a NOVA documentary, you know that there were species that looked like hearty modern humans from the neck down, but from the neck up, had a much smaller brain. Homo erectus lived around 2 million years ago and made and used stone tools, like the handaxe, which was a multi-purpose tool. Tools like the handaxe are examples of material culture and therefore fall under the umbrella of archaeology. An even earlier species called Homo habilis is also thought to have used somewhat less impressive stone tools dating to around 2.5 million years ago.  Thus, archaeology covers millions of years and overlaps with paleoanthropology, the study of fossil ancestors. There are even non-human artifacts because chimps and capuchin monkeys sometimes create broken rocks in the course of cracking nuts (Calloway 2016; Mercader et al. 2007).

In this course, we will concern ourselves mainly with fully modern humans or Homo sapiens. When archaeologists or biological anthropologists talk about modern humans, they are not referring to people with high-tech equipment living a fast-paced urban lifestyle, as the term is used in casual conversations. Rather, they are talking about an essentially modern mind. Though anatomically (physically) modern humans with human-like faces and domed skulls begin to appear in the fossil record around 200 to 300 thousand years ago (Hublin et al. 2017; Gibbons 2018), the hallmarks of the modern mind don’t appear with any consistency until around 40,000 years ago. By modern mind, I mean the human propensity for creativity, ritual, music, art, trade, and so forth. The reason for the lag between physical modernity and cognitive modernity is likely in part due to problems of preservation. Also, because populations were small groups of hunter-gatherers living off wild resources, innovations in technology and art disappeared more easily than they do now in our global economy and dense urban centers. We know, for instance, that hunter-gatherer bands in the recent past lost the knowledge of how to make fire, and it is apparent that skills like wood carving, sewing, cooking, or even language, can vanish after a few generations if not practiced and cultivated. One of the lessons of archaeology is just how swiftly and completely cultural traditions can change even in dense urban centers with high population densities. One only need look to tremendous centers like Teotihuacan in Mexico or Angkor Wat in Cambodia to see that this is true. In any event, people were doing very human things—art, ritual, music, trade — for at least 40,000 years and almost certainly for much longer than that.

The Upper Paleolithic

The very earliest indications of modern human behavior, or mind, emerged in Africa. Fittingly, one of the first examples of modern behavior is something of a crayon, made from a mineral pigment called red ocher. This decorated block dates to ca. 75,000 years ago and was discovered at Blombos Cave in South Africa. More recently, abalone shells filled with red ocher, crushed bone, and charcoal, perhaps representing an early artist’s palette, have been found at Blombos dating to ca. 100,000 years ago. While the full suite of modern behavior like music, art, sewn clothing, and ritual doesn’t appear until tens of thousands of years later, people were likely decorating objects and their bodies long before we find evidence for it in the archaeological record. When archaeologists find the oldest example of something, they assume the general tradition is much older.

While the earliest sparks of modern behavior have been discovered in Africa, some of the most spectacular preservation of early modern humans occurs during a period called the Upper Paleolithic (ca. 40 kya-12 kya), or Upper Old Stone Age, in Europe. Several innovations become apparent in the archaeological record that reflects modern cognition during the Upper Paleolithic. These include art, elaborate burial, sewn clothing, complex tool making, jewelry, and organized settlements. These features indicate that people living during this time were like us, not only in their physical appearance but intellectually and emotionally. Early people living in Europe were inhabiting the mouths of caves, which promoted the preservation of artifacts. Secondly, archaeology as a discipline began in Europe, and thus European prehistory has been intensively studied and we know more about it than other regions.

All people living before 12,000 years ago were hunter-gatherers, living off wild, non-domesticated foods. No one was farming during this time, as far as we know, perhaps because natural resources were plentiful. Some people still today make their living as hunter-gatherers, but this lifestyle is becoming increasingly rare. Today hunter-gathers or part-time hunter-gatherers live in places like Botswana, Amazonia, the Arctic, the Sentinelese islands, and Asia rainforests. 

People of the Upper Paleolithic of Europe were living near the tail end of the Pleistocene (ca. 2.7 mya–12 kya), the geological epoch marked by a series of ice ages and fluctuation in the Earth’s climate. The Pleistocene ice ages consisted of a series of glacial periods, periods of long-term reduction in the temperature of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental and polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers. During glacial periods, ocean levels were at one point 330 feet lower than present levels because so much water was locked up in ice. During the Pleistocene, Europe was inhabited by very large animals, or megafauna, including mammoths, wooly rhinos, giant cave bears, and bison, along with wild horses, caribou, cattle, and lions. Upper Paleolithic people were hunting these animals, though plants were likely also on the menu.

Glacials were interrupted periodically by warmer interglacials. This cold-warm pattern alternated on fairly regular cycles of around 100,000 years. The world’s configuration of continents was the same as today, but some landmasses were exposed during glacials because much of the world’s water was bound up in enormous ice sheets, more than 2 miles thick in places. In fact, the ice sheets were so thick and heavy that the Earth continues to rebound from its weight even today, called isostatic rebound. The effect is gradual but has had documented effects.  Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan, for instance, were once a single “really great lake,” but separated around 2,000 years ago due to isostatic rebound. In addition, over the last few hundred years, inlets have been cut off from the sea due to the land slowly rising. In Finland, the port town of Tornio had to be relocated several times because it was repeatedly cut off from the sea. In some cases, coastal archaeological sites are now inland sites. 

Technological Innovations

An innovation that became prevalent in the Upper Paleolithic was the atlatl or spear thrower. This weapon is essentially a stick that propels a long dart. This technology allowed humans to increase the speed of their throws as well as get some distance between their prey. The atlatls of the Upper Paleolithic were sometimes beautifully decorated with Pleistocene megafauna. The atlatl proved to be a useful weapon and its use lasted into the modern age. Spanish conquistadors, for example, encountered Aztecs equipped with obsidian-edged atlatl darts. Indeed, “atlatl” is a Nahuatl word, the language of the Aztecs. Today, you see the same principles used in hand-held dog ball launchers, for the most serious of ball fetchers.

“Cave people” are often depicted wearing crude animal skins and furs. However, bone and ivory needles found on Upper Paleolithic sites indicate that people wore tailored clothing. Having to live and survive in the colder temperatures of the Pleistocene, people were by necessity highly skilled at making clothing from animal skin. Some figurines that date to this time also suggest sewn clothing. A series of burials at Sunghir (ca. 24,000 B.P.) in Russia were covered in thousands of mammoth ivory beads. these beads were likely sewn onto garments that did not survive, suggesting a concern with aesthetics. As writer Judith Thurman (2015) puts it, “Fashion  predates the wheel.” Like people today, Upper Paleolithic people were concerned about their appearance, and perhaps used symbolic markings, body decoration, and clothing to differentiate between people of different groups, just as we do today.

Elaborate Burial

Another hallmark of the modern mind is elaborate burial. Before modern humans, there is little evidence of ritualized burial. Neanderthals some 60,000 years ago buried their dead at Shanidar Cave in Iraq, but there are no grave goods, red ocher, or other indications of ritual. Again, it may be that the record simply hasn’t preserved the material traces of grave goods and that it only becomes evident later as populations become larger and more stable.

Burial in the Upper Paleolithic becomes a far more elaborate affair. At Sunghir, burials include one adult male and two children, who are buried head-to-head. The site dates to ca. 24,000 years ago, and the three burials include more than ten thousand ivory beads, along with mammoth ivory bracelets, beaded caps, decorated belts, ivory pendants, an ivory lance made from a straightened wooly mammoth tusk, and an animal pedant among other grave goods. Each bead, based on experimental archaeology, is thought to have taken an hour to make. Of two children who were buried head to head, one appears to have had deformed limbs. There are cases of elaborate burials of people with skeletal pathologies, suggesting these weren’t typical Upper Paleolithic burials and may indicate special treatment or human sacrifice

Another set of burials at a site called Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, like Sunghir, indicates an interest in ritual and the afterlife. Three young people, two males and perhaps one female were buried together with careful positioning. The men on either side of the central figure both met violent deaths, with one having a wooden pole through his pelvis. His hands were placed on the central figure’s pelvis. The male on the right was lying on his stomach. The skeletons were covered in red ocher and fire lit atop the trio. As with the cave art and Venus figurines, several attempts have been made to interpret the meaning of this careful positioning—a birth gone wrong, human sacrifice for wrongdoing, and even evidence for homosexuality (known among some modern hunter-gatherers today). Though we cannot say specifically what the burial positioning represents, it suggests an interest in what happens after death and possibly a belief in the afterlife. This behavior shows that Upper Paleolithic people were like us cognitively (mentally) and emotionally, fully capable of pondering the mysteries of life and death and acting on those beliefs with symbolic gestures.

Music: The Oldies

Music is important to humans, and we often associate songs with memories and emotions and use music for motivation. One student explained that as a child when they woke up to music on Saturday, they knew it was time to clean the house. Einstein said “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” Philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer proposed that humans enjoy music because our brain anticipates a pattern of sound, and it receives a psychological payoff when we are correct and pleasantly surprised when we hear a note or beat that is unanticipated. The instinct to think and express oneself musically is very old. Early bone and ivory flutes have been found in European caves dating to 30,000 BP. Recently, a replica of one of these flutes was made, giving us a sense of what these instruments might have sounded like. Considering that these instruments were found in caves, the sound of the flutes would have been amplified by sound waves bouncing off the cave walls. Bullroarers have also been discovered in Upper Paleolithic contexts. These are instruments consisting of a thick piece of shaped wood attached to a cord. When swung in a circle, the bullroarer makes a bizarre low-pitched sound that can travel long distances. Historically bullroarers have been used around the world—in Australia, Ireland, North America, and elsewhere—for both ceremonies and entertainment. The Dine (Navajo), for instance, used a tsin ndi’ni’ or “groaning stick” to drive away evil.

Aurignacian flute made from an animal bone, Geissenklösterle (Swabia) by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Visual Art of the Upper Paleolithic

While the first indications of decorative art occur much earlier and there are even a few possible Neanderthal examples (Hoffmann et al. 2018), representational art becomes popular in the Upper Paleolithic and equivalent time periods in Asia. In contrast to purely decorative art, representational art resembles something in the physical world. Caves of southern France and northern Spain contain images of Pleistocene horses, ibex, mammoth, rhinos, lions, bears, and even a penguin-like bird called a great auk. The most famous of these caves is Lascaux (pronounced Las-CO, kind of like Costco) in southern France dating to around 17,000 years ago. Like so many archaeological sites, Lascaux was not found by archaeologists but by curious teenagers exploring the countryside with a keen eye. With 600 paintings and 1,500 engravings, Lascaux is the largest collection of ice-age art anywhere. For that reason, and for the delicacy and beauty of the images, it was placed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) list of World Heritage Sites. These are 759 cultural sites around the world that are considered to have universal value for humanity.

Another famous site, Altamira, in Spain, was discovered by a young girl named Maria de  Sautuola. Though Maria de Sautuola’s father argued that the paintings were very old, the site wasn’t accepted by the French establishment until French Upper Paleolithic cave art was discovered. Archaeology, as it turns out, is political. One of the panels at  Altamira is 45 feet in length. These panels were not one-time paintings, but “touched up” and added to overtime, creating overlapping images. This layering effect is called a palimpsest. The term palimpsest is often used to refer to a paper that has been reused, a common practice in Medieval times. Some kind of lighting was needed to access the completely dark caves. Lascaux alone contained 150 animal fat lamps that were used to light the interior. Control of fire had occurred long before, at least by 350,000 B.P. in Europe by Neanderthals and likely much earlier elsewhere. Some think that the layered images coupled with the flickering lights of the cave would have created the sensation of movement–like a prehistoric cinema, giving life and motion to these ancient creatures. 

Paintings are not just located on the walls of the caves, but also the ceilings. People would have had to build scaffolding, much like Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel, such that the viewers would have been surrounded by the images and immersed in a world of their own making. This would have been more like an IMAX Dome theater than watching a screen. These spaces were likely used to relate important stories that captured these early people’s beliefs, values, and worldviews. Like music and visual art, stories are quintessentially human and even today we are surrounded by stories on social media, film, books, and song lyrics. Upper Paleolithic artists used the contrast between dark and light pigments (charcoal, ocher, and hematite) to create a sense of three-dimensionality. This effect is called chiaroscuro. The paintings are so surprisingly sophisticated for their time that when the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso examined the paintings at Lascaux he remarked, “We have invented nothing.”

Both Lascaux and Altamira were opened to the public in the mid-1900s. Tourists, however, increased the temperature of the cave as their exhalations contained both water vapor and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide and water vapor are both greenhouse gases that trap heat and cause temperatures to rise. Trapped inside the cave, these gasses led to a kind of “caval warming,” initiating the growth of mold, algae, and bacteria. These growths damaged and threatened to damage the ancient paintings. Consequently, both caves were closed to large numbers of visitors and they have since stabilized. Replicas of parts of both caves called Lascaux II and Altamira II have been created to give tourists a sense of this prehistoric space.


Upper Paleolithic cave art sites continue to be discovered. Chauvet Cave in France revealed in 1994 was the subject of Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and may be the oldest example of an Upper Paleolithic cave dating to around 35,000 years. The subject matter of the cave is also unusual, depicting dangerous animals such as lions, bears, rhinos, and mammoths compared to the predominance of horses at Lascaux. Another cave called Cosquer has its entrance beneath the waters of the Mediterranean. As the ice sheets of the Pleistocene melted, ocean levels rose, submerging the once-dry entrance. In the cave’s submerged portion, only engravings remain because the paintings have been washed away. In the portion of the cave that is not submerged, there are paintings of horses, possible jellyfish, and a Great Auk, a species of penguin. Sadly, four divers died when they lost their way into the cave. It was this event that brought the cave to public attention.

Portable Art

In addition to cave art, portable art is abundant from the Upper Paleolithic. These qualify as artifacts, being transportable from place to place. Some atlatls, or spear throwers, were spectacularly decorated with mammoth, bison, and deer. Upper Paleolithic artists excelled at depicting animals in all their earthy glory. In one instance an herbivore (chamois) is either defecating or perhaps giving birth as a bird perches near its behind. Another very famous example of portable art is the lion-man/woman. The artifact combines both human elements (like bipedalism or walking on two legs) and lion elements. We will see that humans continue to associate themselves with dangerous feline creatures throughout history.

While portraits, or depictions of actual people, are uncommon, there are numerous “Venus figurines” or woman figures. Some of these are voluptuous female bodies made from clay, ivory, and soft stone. There is little attention paid to the face, head, and extremities. The interest is in the body—the breasts, buttocks, and belly. Several of these figurines appear to be pregnant with an everted navel. The earliest representational art in Europe is a Venus figurine from Hohle Fels in Germany dated to ca. 35–45 kya. There are also woman figures in cave art that use the natural topography of the cave to indicate the pregnant belly and vulva.  Other figures do not exaggerate the body and some depict males.

But what do these figures mean? Despite their name (they were originally called immodest Venus), there is no solid evidence to indicate they were goddesses. Some Venus figurines contain traces of red ocher, possibly suggesting a ritual rather than functional nature. Others have suggested that the figurines are an effort to cope with the dangers of childbirth or were a fertility fetish. Still, others suggest they depict an early European goddess. Venus figurines, however, span thousands of years and a huge geographic area from Western Europe to Siberia. Determining the meaning of something that spans that kind of time and space is challenging and falls within a more contextual approach, qualitatively using context to understand meaning. We know that symbols in our own culture can change in meaning over just a few generations, so imagine the possible varied meanings Venus figurines might have had over thousands of years. 

Meaning of Upper Paleolithic Art

Some types of questions in archaeology are truly difficult to answer even with an abundance of remains. The nature of Upper Paleolithic art is one of them. There are some reasonable ideas though. Many have noticed that the horses at Lascaux are large-bodied and pregnant looking, not unlike Venus figurines, suggesting a concern with fertility or an interest in the origins of life. Several cultures have ideas about humans emerging from caves to this world, and it is possible that Upper Paleolithic people viewed caves in a similar light.

In addition to depictions of robust animals, there are also very clear indications of atlatl darts flying towards animals. Some have argued that this represents hunting magic, in which symbolically killing the animals or imitating the kill helps in the actual hunt. Other images suggest a keen interest in seasonal changes in the animal world. One bison appears to be shedding his wool for the summer. Another image at Lascaux shows just the head of a caribou, which some have argued represents annual migrations of caribou as they cross rivers. We know from excavating open-air sites, sites not in cave or rock shelter contexts, that Upper Paleolithic people targeted and killed caribou at vulnerable points along rivers, indicating that they would have seen these crossings. In an example of portable art on a long bone, one side of the bone depicts mating European vipers, while the other face depicts salmon, both events that occur in the spring.

The refuse of everyday life does not occur in cave interiors, indicating that people did not live in cave interiors but rather at their openings. Some argue that the caves served as a kind of temple to induct members into the group through rites of passage. The images may have served as mnemonic devices for important stories which convey the values, identity, and ancestry of a culture.

Of course, some of the art might be “art for art’s sake.” If you have kids or nieces and nephews, you know that children love to paint and create for the sheer joy of creating and experimenting. Even chimpanzees have been known to paint in captivity. We know from measurements on finger traces on soft cave walls and footprints on ancient cave floors, that children were in the caves and also decorated the walls along with adults (Sharpe and Gelder 2015). Humans need to create, represent the world around them, and breathe meaning into objects as no other animal does. For thousands of years, we humans haven’t just lived in the world, we have created it.

Back to: Archaeology > Archaeology