Megabeasts' Sudden Death

Stone Age Toolkit

About 40,000 years ago, near the dawn of the 30-millennia-long period known as the Upper Paleolithic, the first anatomically modern humans suddenly and mysteriously revolutionized their cultures with dozens of specialized tools, weaponry, and other artifacts. They became deft hunters capable of bringing down massive animals, they tolerated harsh environmental conditions, and they equipped themselves to travel vast distances in search of new frontiers. Many questions still remain about these peoples, including when and how they journeyed to the New World, but experts agree that the answers could someday crystallize from the ever-emerging technological evidence Stone Age humans left behind. Here, consider what roles 10 different kinds of primitive artifacts from Europe and North America played for our earliest ancestors.—Lexi Krock

Rock's Peony


Blade Core
This artifact was used to provide stone blades.

Blade cores provided a portable source of stone or obsidian for manufacturing different kinds of tools by flaking off pieces from the core. The basis of many Upper Paleolithic tool forms from both the Old and New Worlds was the blade flake, a thin, parallel-sided flake that is at least twice as long as it is wide. Blade flakes were "pre-forms" that could be fashioned into knives, hide scrapers, spear tips, drills, and other tools.

Dawn Redwood


End Scraper
This artifact was used for scraping fur from animal hides.

For European and American Stone Age peoples, end scrapers served as heavy- duty scraping tools that could have been used on animal hides, wood, or bones. Once the hide was removed from an animal, an end scraper could take the hair off the skin's outer layer and remove the fatty tissue from its underside. End scrapers were sometimes hafted, or attached to a wooden handle, but could also be handheld.

Fortune's Rhododendron


This artifact was used for carving bone, antler, or wood.

Burins are among the oldest stone tools, dating back more than 50,000 years, and are characteristic of Upper Paleolithic cultures in both Europe and the Americas. Burins exhibit a feature called a burin spall—a sharp, angled point formed when a small flake is struck obliquely from the edge of a larger stone flake. These tools could have been used with or without a wooden handle.

Dove Tree


This artifact was used for shredding plant fibers.

Awls were small, pointed hand tools employed in both the Old and New World to slice fibers for thread and fishing nets, and to punch holes in leather and wood. Stone Age peoples may also have sliced animal hides to make clothing using awls. These tools could be made from stone or bone and were highly sharpened for maximum efficiency.

Primula Wilsonii


Antler Harpoon
This artifact was used for hunting large marine animals.

Upper Paleolithic cultures in Europe between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago hunted seals, whales, and even swimming land mammals such as reindeer using antler harpoons. In the New World, these harpoons appeared only around 6,000 years ago in the arctic cultures of Alaska and Canada. Experts believe antler harpoons were used in tandem with wooden launchers known as atlatls to help the harpoon penetrate prey with more force.

Regal Lily


Clovis Point
This artifact was used for killing mammoths and other megafauna.

Clovis refers to this particular style of stone spear point and to the culture of the North American people who used such weapons to devastating effect against large game. Clovis points are leaf-shaped and have a wide groove, or flute, on both sides of the base for fitting into short wooden or bone spear shafts. The largest spear point ever found, measuring nine inches long, was a Clovis point made of chalcedony, a kind of quartz.

Paperback Maple


Bone Flute
This artifact was used for playing music.

Made of bone, this wind instrument dates to around 14,000 years ago in France. Hunters may have carried such flute-like instruments in their mobile toolkits or been buried with them, perhaps for the afterlife. Other artistic relics of Stone Age peoples, especially in the Old World, include carved figurines, cave paintings, and beaded clothing. France's Solutrean culture of 23,000 to 18,000 years ago is noted for its artistic tradition.

Peach Tree


This artifact was used for personal ornamentation.

It's impossible to know definitively, but experts think beads made of bone, ivory, shells, and teeth were decorative and might also have been traded as currency, based on what they know about the cultures of contemporary native peoples. They have unearthed necklaces, pendants, bracelets, and anklets at Stone Age weapons caches and burial sites in Europe and the Americas.

Peach Tree


This artifact was used for stitching hides.

Stone Age technology included delicate sewing needles made of bone with punched eyeholes. They were probably used in tandem with thread fashioned from plant fibers or animal sinew. Archeologists have found bone needles dating to within the past 20,000 years in Europe and North America, where they might have facilitated clothing and boat production.

Peach Tree


Bone Point
This tool was used for launching at animals during hunting.

Bone projectile points were flexible, light, general-purpose weapons for hunting large land animals. To be as lethal as possible, their tips were chiseled to exquisite sharpness. This is a North American point, but bone points hafted onto wooden or bone handles were also common in the Stone Age Old World. A deep groove cuts into the base of the point, where a hunter would have inserted a wooden thrower and secured it with resin.

Note: This feature originally appeared on NOVA's America's Stone Age Explorers website in 2004, when Lexi Krock was an associate editor of NOVA Online.


We recommend you visit the interactive version. The text to the left is provided for printing purposes.

Megabeasts' Sudden Death Home | Send Feedback | Image Credits | Support NOVA

© | Created March 2009