10 Questions – The Stone Age

05/05/202011:2207/05/2020 12:20Leave a Comment

An introduction to the Stone Age in 10 questions. Watch or read this quick guide below.

Hello, this is Joe from The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and for any of you who might be home schooling at the moment, or home learning, or just might be a little bit curious, here are 10 questions, answered, about the Stone Age.

What was the Stone Age?

The Stone Age is the period of time in human history when humans, and our ancestors, couldn’t make metal. So they made lots of their tools from, you guessed it, stone.

How long did the Stone Age last?

So the Stone Age goes from the very very earliest stone tools ever found right the way through to when people started to use metal. So this most of human history, and it happens at different times in different places. In Britain, the earliest stone tools we’ve ever found date to about 900,000 years ago, and they were found in Norfolk. And the Stone Age ends, around about 4,500 years ago, when the Bronze Age began.

What are the three periods of the Stone Age?

So the Stone Age is divided into three periods, and each of these can seem to have quite complicated sounding names. But if we think about what the words mean they’re actually a bit a more easy to remember and understand. So all of these words end with the term ‘lithic’ which is Greek for stone.

And the first period is the Palaeolithic, and ‘palaeo’ means old, that’s why you get people like ‘palaeontologists’ who study very very old things. So the Palaeolithic literally means the ‘Old Stone Age’ – the first part of the Stone Age.

After that you get the Mesolithic, and ‘Meso’ simply means ‘middle’, so the ‘Middle Stone Age’.

And finally you have the Neolithic, and ‘Neo’ means new, so the ‘New Stone Age’, the last little bit of the Stone Age.

Why is it called the Stone Age?

The period is called the Stone Age because most of the evidence we find is in the form of stone tools. However, we have to remember that that’s only because stone tools survive the best in the ground so archaeologists are more likely to find them. People would have also been making tools from bone, antler, animal furs and skins, wood, and other natural resources. But of course, a lot of these other materials don’t survive as well in the ground, particularly when we’re talking about periods of time spanning thousands, if not tens and hundreds of thousands of years.

When was Stoke-on-Trent in the Stone Age?

Like many cities the landscape in Stoke-on-Trent has been heavily disturbed and built on. So apart from some chance finds, we don’t have a lot of evidence directly inside the city to tell us a lot about what was happening here during the Stone Age.

However, we can look at what’s been found at other places in the country, and nearby to Stoke-on-Trent, to get a good idea about, erm, who was here and when.

So some of the earliest local finds are hand axes which have been found elsewhere in Staffordshire and also some of the neighbouring counties like Derbyshire. And these hand axes can date to up to 250-300,000 years ago. So we know at some point there may have been human ancestors wandering the ancient landscape where Stoke-on-Trent now is.

However, this occupation wasn’t continuous. Ice ages would have pushed our human ancestors out at various points, and it’s only from around 12,000 years ago that we would have seen continuous populations of humans living in this area. And we know they were here because we have caves in places like the Staffordshire Moorlands and the Peak District nearby, where we’ve found their flint tools and evidence of them hunting animals like reindeer.

What were early humans like?

So our species, Homo sapiens, is quite new on the block, and there have been many, many ancient species of humans who have lived in different parts of the world in different times, including Britain.

And in fact, during the Palaeolithic, remember that’s the ‘Old Stone Age’, during the Palaeolithic, it would have been these ancient human ancestors, for the most part, who were making their home here in Britain. However, the earliest evidence for modern humans is about 40,000 years ago, and that was found down in the south of England, and it’s likely that these very, very early modern humans in Britain weren’t here for very long, or for long periods of time, because the cold weather and the ice age would have made a lot of Britain fairly uninhabitable.

However, from around 12,000 years ago the climate started to warm up and people began to repopulate and live in Britain, erm, continuously.

How did they get their good and what did they eat?

For most of the Stone Age, people were hunting and gathering, so they were living in small groups and working together to hunt animals, perhaps scavenge some meat as well, and also to gather natural resources like fruits, vegetables, roots, herbs etc. from the natural environment around them.

Some of the animals they were hunting may sound quite exotic to us now. Things like wild horses, bison, mammoth, erm, there have been rhinoceros in Britain at various points in time as well. So some quite, some of these animals of course would have been quite dangerous to hunt as well – you’d have to work together very closely and carefully to hunt a mammoth.

However, at the very, very end of the Stone Age, around 6,000 years ago, there was a big change. So people stopped being hunter-gatherers and they started to farm, and they were growing crops like wheat and barley and they started to keep domesticated animals like cattle, sheep and pigs, and creatures like that, which was a huge change in lifestyle.

What was life like during the Stone Age?

Again, it really depends what part of the Stone Age you were in. In the Palaeolithic, the Old Stone Age, people were living and hunting in groups and in contrsct to the end of Stone Age people were starting to build houses, stay in one place for longer,  and erm like I said before, farming, growing crops and tending animals.

What came after the Stone Age?

The Stone Age is followed by the Bronze Age. People began to make some of their tools from metal – bronze, rather than stone. And then they also worked other metals too like gold, we have some Bronze Age gold objects in our collections as well.

However, people didn’t just stop making stone tools overnight and it took a long time for metal tools to completely take over the tool sets of our ancestors. So, things like arrowheads, er, scrapers, continued to be made from flint for quite a long time.

What’s your favourite Stone Age item?

Some of my favourite objects are Neolithic polished axes – they seem to be quite special objects that people took great care of and also traded them all the way around the country and in Europe, and the axes are often found hundreds of miles away from the sources of stone that were used to create them. Now as well as being valued and special they were probably also used to cut down trees, as you do with an axe, and they can get through a small to medium tree in about 30-40 minutes.

And these aren’t hand axes, these aren’t like those ancient Palaeolithic tools you may have heard about, these would have been set into a wooden handle and wielded much like an axe today.

If you’re studying the Stone Age at home I hope that’s been a useful introduced. I’ve been quite general about lots of dates and terms. There’s so much more to discover about the Stone Age. If you have any extra questions you can pop them in the comments below, or get in touch with the museum through email or social media and I’d be delighted to answer your questions.

Written by admin - Modified by Joe Perry (Curator, Local History)

7 thoughts on “10 Questions – The Stone Age”

  1. Joseph says:

    Was religion been practiced during the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ages. If not during which age did religion start to be practiced.

    1. Joe Perry (Curator, Local History) says:

      Hi Joseph,

      It is almost certain that people in the stone age had some sort of religious beliefs but as there is no written evidence it is incredibly hard to say exactly what they would believed. Clues such as the way the dead were treated, and the emergence of monuments, suggest an interest what happened to someone after they died, and an attempt to understand our greater place in the world.

  2. Joseph says:

    Was religion been practiced during the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ages. If not during which age did religion started to be practiced.

  3. StarEtoile says:

    Hello Joe,
    Thank you for writing this insightful and impactful piece. Do you have a theory about how life on earth all began, and about how people were surviving before the Stone Age and the Ice Age?

    1. Glenn Roadley (Curator, Natural Sciences) says:

      The fossil record stretches back about 3.5 billion years (starting about 1 billion years after our solar system formed), so life on Earth is at least as old as that. It is thought that the building blocks of life first formed around deep-sea hydrothermal vents, as organic molecules (complex chemicals based on carbon) formed in a manner which allowed them to self-replicate. But there’s still much debate around how this might have happened – the BBC has a thorough piece on the history of the subject: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20161026-the-secret-of-how-life-on-earth-began

      When compared to the 3.5 billion years of life’s history, the Stone Age is just a tiny 3.5 million year slice, ending just a few thousand years ago (yesterday in geological terms!). But it’s still long enough to encompass all of human history. Our genus, Homo, diverged from another genus, Australopithecus, in the early Stone Age 2-3 million years ago. Australopithecus first appeared long before the Stone Age, about 4 million years ago in Africa. They might have lived similar lives to the modern great apes (excluding humans), eating mostly fruit and vegetables. They were erect and bipedal, likely spending most of their time both on the ground and in trees. The Smithsonian has an overview of what we know about Australopithecus: https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/australopithecus-afarensis

  4. I have found some cool items on my kayak adventures in rivers

    Maybe you know something about these objects

    I thought one was a spear as it has a spiral shape and one a utensil as small hands

  5. Kleinman says:

    Writing this kind of insightful stuff and letting it understand via questions/answers is really a great idea as we understand anything easily with the help of Q/A. Keep it up!

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