The Middle Palaeolithic and Lower Palaeolithic

Antropark was created as part of the website of the Academy of Sciences in Brno in 2005.

Translated and modified by Vít Lang after discussions with the author,

second translator Tereza Štréglová.

© Update Antropark 2013, Author and Illustrations © Libor Balák

Contact - Libor Balák:

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The  Lower  and  Middle  Palaeolithic

The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic are eras characterized by long-lasting cultures created by several different types of people (Homo erectus, Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and modern Homo sapiens).


The map represents shifting of the glacial and interglacial periods on the Earth. In the warmer periods, the continents were approximately of the same shape as today.



The Lower Palaeolithic   1,000,000–300,000 years before present


The era of the first hunters and gatherers (various forms of Homo erectus)



The Archaic humans from the period of 1 000 000 BP


We are going to visit the very first people in Africa now; as an illustration, you can see an image of an old ungulate, a relative of today´s giraffe.


The typical human behaviour can be derived from the morphology of the bones and confirmed by archaeological findings of the fireplaces. The fireplaces testify about the mental skills of its users – about creativity, patience. As we go further into the past, the archaeological evidences are vanishing. Creating of the image reconstructions of the possible images of the life of so old human populations is extremely difficult. In the first place, the methodics must be created; such images are so far the question of the future. 


An older image represents the life of a group of gatherers on the 700 000 years old locality of Stránská skála near Brno, Moravia. The hunted animal is a saber-toothed cat Homotherium moravicum. Today, it is known that this culture was more adapted to a colder climate.



Bilzingsleben - Central Germany, 350,000 years ago

In 1970s, a well-known archaeologist Dietrich Mania researched the German archaeological locality Bilzingsleben in Thuringia. There was unearthed a 350,000 year-old settlement which yielded bones of both people (Homo erectus) and animals, many artefacts and three round ground plans of dwellings with hearths by their entrances. The animal bones belonged to small, medium sized and large animals (elephants, rhinoceroses, horses and buffaloes). The weapons for hunting such large animals were found in another German place, by Shöningen (as well as in England and Spain). The wooden, very heavy spears were thrown at the animals directly or possibly using a leather strap as a thrower. The spear had a sharp point and the weapon was thus very efficient, which minimized a possibility of an injury of the hunter by the animal. Besides large weapons, the people of those times also made tiny tools - microliths, which were as thin as a nail. The reconstructional imitation of the campsite showing beside other things equipment for kindling a fire can inform us of the psychical abilities characteristic of the ethnic group. These people were hunter-gatherers and belonged to the Homo erectus species. In Central Europe, their settlements were unearthed in Hungary, Bohemia and Moravia. The most important Moravian sites are Stránská skála, Růženin dvůr and Červený kopec in Brno.

The culture is called Acheulian. It originated in Africa some 1,500,000 years ago. The people of the Acheulian tradition, who left Africa and colonized Eurasia, spread their culture across the two continents. In Europe the Acheulean culture started 700,000500,000 years ago and disappeared some 100,000 years ago. On some sites (including Bilzingsleben) minor tools, which do not fit the Acheulian tradition have also been found. The culture producing such industry is parallel with the Acheulean and is called the Clactonian.


The second image reconstruction of the Bilzingsleben campsite was conceived as an ideal image reconstruction idea of campsite. In the background on the other side of the river we can see a Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclosis), a close relative of today´s African Elephant. These people also hunted big or fast animals such as horses, bisons, rhinoceros, but also elephants. The bones of these large animals were found at the campsite. The dwellings are made of drying wood, which was then in the countryside easily accessible and further gradually used for heating. These dwellings are situated near the water in the groups of three, as analyzed by the archaeologic Dietrich Mania.  According to the found tanned bone pieces, the fireplaces were situated in the entrance area, which was also useful against mosquitos. In this area, the fireplace could be moved according to the needs imide or outsider, where it served for preparing food such as smoking or other activities.

Therefore, a construction is added here – a scaffold for smoked meat, similar to those of indians in North and South America. In this case, it is a part of the dwelling.


In the foreground there is a large heap of drying wood for the fireplace, like by the walls of the dwelling.  The campsite has a summer character, the winter equipment has to be stored inside of the dwellings. The subsequent modeling of this situation showed that sitecamps of this type could be built only in windy places, in areas rich in wood. However, on a site so closely tied to the water with stinging insects, the construction will be covered with more convenient roofing. The large branches would hardly form completely enclosed construction.  


Such suitable material for dwelling isolation near the water  is reed, which also grows in the water and it is easily accesible as needed. Reed is light, can be stacked to form a waterproof roof and has excellent isolating qualities. The inflow to the lake forms small, travertine formations. Again, it is an image of a summer settlement.


The hunters are resting in the camp of "Elephant hunters“ in Bilzingsleben

In fact, another version of the third reconstruction, which returns to the location and the placement of the fireplace. It is an older image which shows that the reconstruction of this ethnic group must deal with the persons, vessels and objects for transporting the stock and the children, food storage solutions, storage of the equipment, traces of the processing of the collected raw material, studios (workshops) for manufacturing objects. Also, the ambiguity must be visual clarified, to avoid unnecessary sense of simplicity (primitivism) from the summer character of the campsite or, on the contrary, that the view on the winter equipment and winter functioning of the settlement was not too technical and difficult to understand for the audience today. Therefore, it will be necessary to develop an entirely new specific visual presentation file with more sophisticated arrangement of mutually supporting information reconstruction.



The „Elephant hunters“ themselves were of a higher body size, their faces were very diverse and highly individual, from Homo sapient (modern features), to Neanderthalis, to some features of Homo erectus. These people used red pigments, made microlitic nail-sized tools for fine technical tasks, the parallel scratches found show a sense for a regular rhythm. The anatomy of the hand enabled normal production of common human culture, the anatomy of the body was also comparable with that of today´s man. The difference was only in certain details, such as wider fingers ends or smaller capacity of the skull, which was on the lower limit of today´s man.  It is therefore possible that these people grew up slightly earlier than later types of people with larger brain and therefore the proportion of the behaviour learned in the childhood was smaller (less mems were passed). A new arised low-memetics society passed from generation to generation less data. That means, that individuals had more opportunities to apply more of own invention during the life and it´s possible, that each generation was significantly different. Since memetics is a new science and there are no types people to compare, the exploring and modeling of behavior of this populations is in it´s timid beginnings. 


A hunter from Shöningen

Besides large spears for hunting large animals the then people used special, small, two-pointed throwing rods to hunt waterbirds and small animals. Such a rod was finely balanced, so that it rotated around its centre of gravity similarly to a boomerang.

Visages of the Homo erectus people differed considerably, even within one community, as findings from the Spanish site Atapuerca suggest. Some of them resembled more the ancient Homo erectus people, some looked more like later Neanderthals and some had some features of modern people. Homo erectus had thick brow ridges, a big flat nose and massive jaws. The brain was quite large, it grew steadily during the evolution and the late Homo erectus people had brains almost of the same size as contemporary people. Also mouths of the people looked very modern. The depicted man – a proud animal hunter and stone tools maker has a plait. His appearance was very important for him, (as for the other mammals) and he devoted at least one hour a day to his looks. The universal overcoat he wore protected him against the wind and cold. There are practically no remains of any ethnographic material from these times, because probably almost everything was made of light perishable substances.

In fact, it is very difficult to create real reconstructions of the people of the Middle and Lower Palaeolithic, because we often carry a burden of once accepted ideas. Details often tell us more about the ancient people than hastily made expensive movies or dioramas.


Working with a microlith

Incredibly small microlithic tools, thin as a nail, with retouches on the edges, which were unearthed in Bilzingsleben. tell us a lot about real abilities and motor activity of the people of those times. We even do not know now what these tiny tools served for.


Homo Heidelbergensis and the climatic conditions


These old and considering the time courageous image reconstruction ideas of the Bilzingsleben people are really close to the former reality. The recent revision of the paleolithic climate changed radically our ideas of it; the idea of a trouble-free summer camp with a whole year friendly climate vanished. On the contrary, the managing of the fire, importance of dwellings and excellent skills of making the cloths offer a new view on these old cultures.




The geometrized parallel notches in bones from the Lower Palaeolithic site Bilzingsleben


We could see the abilities of the Homo erectus people to design weapons - spears, spear-throwers and arrows. We could see their long-term patience, good abilities to estimate time and properties of objects, which could be documented by the hearths. We could also see their fine motor activity and geometrized work. I hope it will help us to overcome the hundreds of thousands of years and tan encounter with them will become an experience of something distant and close to us at the same time.


The Middle Palaeolithic    300,000 – 40,000 years ago


The era of ancient hunters and gatherers (the era of modern people, Neanderthals and Homo erectus)





Pigments in the dwelling on the Písečný Hill by Bečov in Bohemia

During the archaeological research of the area, which was lead by Jan Fridrich, were found places where the prehistoric people fabricated Porcellanite. Different coloured pieces of Porcellanite were manually triturated into a coloured powder on a stone tablet. The depicted people are ancestors of the Neanderthals, about 150,000 years before present. The reconstructional imitation shows the production and possible usage of the pigments. The dwelling of the hunter-gatherers was partly incorporated in the rock. It is interesting that outcrops of a white pigment were present not far from the settlement as well.


The dwelling in Lazaret, France

There is a cave called Lazaret in southern France. It was found that along one of its walls there was a shelter constructed by the Neanderthals 150,000 years ago. Archaeologists found there an apparent division of space, there were hearths and also places full of remains of molluscs living in plants, which are used to making mattresses even these days. There were also a lot of small bones from paws, remains from the past furs. These furs served as beddings. All these findings tell us something about the Neanderthal’s behaviour and about their clothing outside the cave. By the way, caves were not in fact suitable for permanent habitation. The draught there is generally poor and smoke accumulates rapidly in the caves. Caves were utilized only by some cultures and only rarely for human habitation. Moreover, there were not enough caves to accommodate all the ancient people, and actually most caves do not bear any signs of a settlement.



In the Middle and Lower Palaeolithic stone tools for manufacturing bones were either nonexistent or very rare. Wood was processed instead, and that is why there are no bone awls, which are typical of the Upper Palaeolithic. Nevertheless, it was possible to sew using wooden awls made of dry yew and common sinew, which reminds of a surgical thread. Another possibility was to cut narrow stripes and to make small holes in those parts of leather one wanted to join using a minor flake. The holes were cleaned using a sharp piece of wood. The stripes were then pushed through the holes and parts of leather were sewn together in this way.


Northern cultures and processing of bones

Sewing was important above all for the northern Neanderthals, e.g. the Neanderthals from the Kůlna Cave of Moravia and Lebenstedt of northern Germany. A lot of reindeer bones were found on both sites. In Lebenstedt where there was a lack of other suitable material, the bones were processed into sharp points.


The Moravian cultures of the Middle Palaeolithic

The archaeologists distinguish three major Neanderthal cultures in Moravia, which differ on their stone tool traditions. The Mousterian was the oldest (220,000 – 90,000 years old). In the Middle East, the Mousterian culture was shared with the first modern people. The next culture was the Taubachian (130,000 – 80,000 years ago), connected with mineral springs. The third culture was the Micoquian, which existed till the times of transitional cultures (40,000 years ago).


Culture with the leaf-shaped spear heads (Blattspitzen - Culture)   60,000-40,000 years

Territory of today's Germany (Bavaria, North Rhine - Westphalia, Thuringia)

Heat processing of materials

The German site Königsaue (58,000 years old) located on a plain by a river yielded several surprising discoveries. Two of the unearthed objects were made of some kind of plastics, produced by heating of birch juice. One of the artefacts served for connecting a handle with a stone tool, and the second looked like a handle of a microlithic tool.


A construction of a bone

Several objects made of bones were found in the open terrain in the area of Lebenstedt, Germany. This ivory weapon pike is about 50 000 years old. This ethnic group of Neanderthals were similar to the Neanderthals group living in the Kůlna cave and was specialized on hunting reindeers. 



The leaf-shaped spear heads from Germany

The heads of the cave Mauern (Weinberg) are from the side view thin and nothing constrains the projectile from penetrating the tissue. The heads were split off from the front. This is the definition for the artefacts, which could have at the times in which they were made served as a real weapon heads. The size of the shaft is usually equal to the size of the head in its thickest point. This should have reduced the resistance of the tissue.  Different shapes of the heads have different characteristics – they penetrated the tissue and the gravity was also affecting the movement of the shaft and the head in the wound. While running, the stricken animal caused itself even more pain because of the jabbed head of the spear.


The head of the spear were often of an shape of the laurel leaf. The quality and design of the head indicates a high craftsmanship of its authors. The sharp stone edges of the head worked in the wound of the target like a knife. The flat shape of the head helped the spear to be stabilized during the movement and increase the chance to get through the ribs of the hunted animal. These spears were no doubt very effective weapons with a good construction.  The weight and the construction of the weapons imply that its owners used to hunt alone and choose a concrete animal. The finding of artefact in the Königsaue shows the usage of the mastic to fix the head to the shaft.


An image reconstruction of a leave-shaped projectile points of the Königsaue locality.


While creating an image of a Neanderthal man and his constructive, technical and aesthetic abilities, we have to consider several facts: they worked with pigments, fixed different materials together with mastic and were very skilled in constructing weapons. 


Visage of the Neanderthal man


The anatomic portraits of the Neanderthal man were for decades right – but the important thing is the whole image of a Neanderthal. Anyway, even this idea of a portrait was primarily cultural very poor. The cultural pressure is so hard, that it enables an objective handling of the subject. Therefore, for example, the authors added braid as a hairstyle. Clothing had to be the important part of the image – according to the recent findings, it was colder than it was thought in the past.


Different types of clothing in the Middle Paleolithic



At the latest in the era of the Middle Paleolithic anatomically modern man appears

(between 80,000-120,000 years by archeology, between 150,000-350,000 years by genetics) 

A Modern human – Homo sapiens is known from several skeletal discoveries as early as the period of arround 100,000 years on the African continent. The variation scale of types and shapes of skulls was very wide. In a few rare cases, material evedence of aesthetical sense has been preserved. On the plait of the man portrayed in the picture is a leather bow decorated with a red rhomb pattern known from a bone plate from the South African site Blombos cave. The red color is added as a parallel from the European aesthetical antipole, when the Neanderthals and their ancestors in substantialy older locations produced and used pigments. In the picture there are archeologicaly preserved drilled slug shells from another South African site Klasis River Mouth, used as hair and neck decorations. Both sites date back approximately 70,000 years. Almost identically drilled slug shells were found in Morocco at the Grotte des Pigeons site, dating back approximately 70, 000 years. These aesthetic objects clearly show that the art did not emerge as late as at  the very end of the history of man in the so called Upper Paleolithic Revolution (38,000 years ago); the reason is more likely to be the very character of the soil. At the end of the Paleolithic Period, in the northern conditions, the sedimentary layers were suitable for preserving bone artefacts, whereas in the previous periods settlement coincided with warmer climate fluctuation, which gave rise to humous types of soil which did not make preserving bone artifacts possible.

Approximately 70,000 years ago, the Modern man setttles Asia and about 60,000 years ago he gets on the boats over the sea to Australia. He gets close to Europe approximately 50,000 years ago.

From Africa, the Modern man does not get to the close regions of Europe straightforward, he doesn´t even use technology (boats) during the settlement as he did with the settlement of Australia. On the contrary, the southern part of Spain which would have been easily accessible with this technology and only a few kilometers distant from Africa became the last place settled by modern humans, moreover via the whole continent. The original population of Neanderthals stays in southern Spain longest from all of Europe.

The Modern man did not excel in technology compared to the Neanderthals in this case. This is not very surprising, as for some time, both Neanderthals and the Modern man shared the same technologies and shapes of tools in the  Near East. The spread of the Modern man was most probably caused by some natural cause. The settlement of the African coast of Gibraltar was also problematic because of the inhospitable landscape, and the absence of findings indicates that much of this area was for a long time separate. The Modern man apparently settled only the niches abandoned by indigenous people, such as after extreme climatic fluctuations (in which the Neanderthals withdrew to the refuges), after waves of epidemics or while reducing of initial population during large and sudden changes of ecology (such as after the eruption of Toby in Asia). Or, a generally valid evolutionary or ecological rule established itself – for example that the population from the more productive (warmer) areas of the planet eventually outweighs the populations from the less productive (colder) areas simply because of its greater abundance, like in the case of further south situated Africa against northerly Europe and Asia. 


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Next period



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Contact - Libor Balák:

© Update Antropark 2013, Author and Illustrations © Libor Balák