The Stone Age marks a period of prehistory in which humans used primitive stone tools. Lasting roughly 2.5 million years, the Stone Age ended around 5,000 years ago when humans in the Near East began working with metal and making tools and weapons from bronze.
During the Stone Age, humans shared the planet with a number of now-extinct hominin relatives, including Neanderthals and Denisovans.
When Was the Stone Age?
The Stone Age began about 2.6 million years ago, when researchers found the earliest evidence of humans using stone tools, and lasted until about 3,300 B.C. when the Bronze Age began. It is typically broken into three distinct periods: the Paleolithic Period, Mesolithic Period and Neolithic Period.
Some experts believe the use of stone tools may have developed even earlier in our primate ancestors, since some modern apes, including bonobos, can also use stone tools to get food.
Stone artifacts tell anthropologists a lot about early humans, including how they made things, how they lived and how human behavior evolved over time.
Stone Age Facts
Early in the Stone Age, humans lived in small, nomadic groups. During much of this period, the Earth was in an Ice Age—a period of colder global temperatures and glacial expansion.
Mastodons, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths and other megafauna roamed. Stone Age humans hunted large mammals, including wooly mammoths, giant bison and deer. They used stone tools to cut, pound, and crush—making them better at extracting meat and other nutrients from animals and plants than their earlier ancestors.
About 14,000 years ago, Earth entered a warming period. Many of the large Ice Age animals went extinct. In the Fertile Crescent, a boomerang-shaped region bounded on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the east by the Persian Gulf, wild wheat and barley became plentiful as it got warmer.
Some humans started to build permanent houses in the region. They gave up the nomadic lifestyle of their Ice Age ancestors to begin farming.
Human artifacts in the Americas begin showing up from around this time, too. Experts aren’t exactly sure who these first Americans were or where they came from, though there’s some evidence these Stone Age people may have followed a footbridge between Asia and North America, which became submerged as glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age.
Stone Age Tools
Much of what we know about life in the Stone Age and Stone Age people comes from the tools they left behind.
Hammerstones are some of the earliest and simplest stone tools. Prehistoric humans used hammerstones to chip other stones into sharp-edged flakes. They also used hammerstones to break apart nuts, seeds and bones and to grind clay into pigment.
Archaeologists refer to these earliest stone tools as the Oldowan toolkit. Oldowan stone tools dating back nearly 2.6 million years were first discovered in Tanzania in the 1930s by archaeologist Louis Leakey.
Most of the makers of Oldowan tools were right-handed, leading experts to believe that handedness evolved very early in human history.
As technology progressed, humans created increasingly more sophisticated stone tools. These included hand axes, spear points for hunting large game, scrapers which could be used to prepare animal hides and awls for shredding plant fibers and making clothing.
Not all Stone Age tools were made of stone. Groups of humans experimented with other raw materials including bone, ivory and antler, especially later on in the Stone Age.
Later Stone Age tools are more diverse. These diverse “toolkits” suggest a faster pace of innovation—and the emergence of distinct cultural identities. Different groups sought different ways of making tools.
Some examples of late Stone Age tools include harpoon points, bone and ivory needles, bone flutes for playing music and chisel-like stone flakes used for carving wood, antler or bone.
Stone Age Food
People during the Stone Age first started using clay pots to cook food and store things.
The oldest pottery known was found at an archaeological site in Japan. Fragments of clay containers used in food preparation at the site may be up to 16,500 years old.
Stone Age food varied over time and from region to region, but included the foods typical of hunter gatherers: meats, fish, eggs, grasses, tubers, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
Stone Age Wars
While humans had the technology to create spears and other tools to use as weapons, there’s little evidence for Stone Age wars.
Most researchers think the population density in most areas was low enough to avoid violent conflict between groups. Stone Age wars may have started later when humans began settling and established economic currency in the form of agricultural goods.
Stone Age Art
The oldest known Stone Age art dates back to a later Stone Age period known as the Upper Paleolithic, about 40,000 years ago. Art began to appear around this time in parts of Europe, the Near East, Asia and Africa.
The earliest known depiction of a human in Stone Age art is a small ivory sculpture of a female figure with exaggerated breasts and genitalia. The figurine is named the Venus of Hohle Fels, after the cave in Germany in which it was discovered. It’s about 40,000 years old.
Humans started carving symbols and signs onto the walls of caves during the Stone Age using hammerstones and stone chisels.
These early murals, called petroglyphs, depict scenes of animals. Some may have been used as early maps, showing trails, rivers, landmarks, astronomical markers and symbols communicating time and distance traveled.
Shamans, too, may have created cave art while under the influence of natural hallucinogens.
The earliest petroglyphs were created around 40,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered petroglyphs on every continent besides Antarctica.
Stone tools; Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The cave art debate; Smithsonian Magazine.
Stone Age; Ancient History Encyclopedia.