The Paleolithic or Palaeolithic or Palæolithic (/ˌpl-, ˌpæliˈlɪθɪk/), also called the Old Stone Age (from Greek palaios - old, lithos - stone), is a period in prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers c. 99% of the period of human technological prehistory.[1] It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins c. 3.3 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene c. 11,650 cal BP.[2]

Hunting a glyptodon. Glyptodons were hunted to extinction within two millennia after humans' arrival in South America.
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain

The Paleolithic Age in Europe preceded the Mesolithic Age, although the date of the transition varies geographically by several thousand years. During the Paleolithic Age, hominins grouped together in small societies such as bands and subsisted by gathering plants, fishing, and hunting or scavenging wild animals.[3] The Paleolithic Age is characterized by the use of knapped stone tools, although at the time humans also used wood and bone tools. Other organic commodities were adapted for use as tools, including leather and vegetable fibers; however, due to rapid decomposition, these have not survived to any great degree.

About 50,000 years ago a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts occurred. In Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archaeological record. The first evidence of human fishing is also noted, from artifacts in places such as Blombos cave in South Africa. Archaeologists classify artifacts of the last 50,000 years into many different categories, such as projectile points, engraving tools, knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools.

Humankind gradually evolved from early members of the genus Homo—such as Homo habilis, who used simple stone tools—into anatomically modern humans as well as behaviourally modern humans by the Upper Paleolithic.[4] During the end of the Paleolithic Age, specifically the Middle or Upper Paleolithic Age, humans began to produce the earliest works of art and to engage in religious or spiritual behavior such as burial and ritual.[5][page needed][6][need quotation to verify] Conditions during the Paleolithic Age went through a set of glacial and interglacial periods in which the climate periodically fluctuated between warm and cool temperatures. Archaeological and genetic data suggest that the source populations of Paleolithic humans survived in sparsely-wooded areas and dispersed through areas of high primary productivity while avoiding dense forest-cover.[7]

By c.50,000 – c.40,000 BP, the first humans set foot in Australia. By c.45,000 BP, humans lived at 61°N latitude in Europe.[8] By c.30,000 BP, Japan was reached, and by c.27,000 BP humans were present in Siberia, above the Arctic Circle.[8] At the end of the Upper Paleolithic Age a group of humans crossed Beringia and quickly expanded throughout the Americas.[9]