The Upper Paleolithic or Palaeolithic is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. Very broadly it dates to between 40,000 and 8,500 years ago.
Modern humans left Africa during this period and the disparate groups of homo sapiens sapiens began to produce regionally distinctive cultures. The earliest remains of organised settlements in the form of campsites, some with storage pits, are encountered in the archaeological record. These were often located in narrow valley bottoms, possibly in order to make hunting passing herds of animals easier. Some sites may have been occupied year round though more generally they seem to have been used seasonally with peoples moving between them to exploit different food sources at different times of the year
The reasons for these changes in human behaviour have been attributed to the changes in climate during the period which encompasses a number of global temperature drops. These may have reduced the supply of usable timber and forced people to look at other materials whilst flint becomes brittle at low temperatures and may not have functioned as a tool
Artistic work also blossomed with Venus figurines and exotic raw materials found far from their sources suggest emergent trading links. More complex social groupings emerged, supported by more varied and reliable food sources and specialised tool types. This probably contributed to increasing group identification or ethnicity. These group identities produced distinctive symbols and rituals which are an important part of modern human behaviour.
The stone tools of the UpperPalaeolithic comprise a wide variety of often very specialized forms (awls, burins, end-scrapers, etc), mostly made from blades and bladelets (long, flat, narrow flakes with parallel sides that were accurately struck from a core with a hammer and a punch, rather than directly with a hammer).
In the Lower Palaeolithic, simple windbreaks or crude huts (as in the sand dunes at Terra Amata in Nice, southern France) were erected, but by the UpperPalaeolithic there is evidence for light tents, and—in central and eastern Europe—for sophisticated huts made of hundreds of mammoth bones.
It is in the UpperPalaeolithic that burial becomes more elaborate (the world's oldest known cremation, at Lake Mungo, Australia, dates back to 26,000 years ago), with red ochre, grave goods, and in some cases hundreds of beads which were probably attached to clothing, as well as other forms of ornamentation, and tools.
Four Ice Ages have been recognised, the last occurring during the UpperPalaeolithic period, so that three occurred during the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods and were separated by periods of warmer conditions known as interglacials.
Increasingly, the Late UpperPalaeolithic period is being being seen as a continuum with the succeeding Mesolithic period and the time of the greatest glaciation as a dividing line between archaeological periods.
The Late UpperPalaeolithic period is now sometimes being referred to as the Epi-Palaeolithic (the 'Epi' meaning 'in addition to') and the climatic period after the Ice Age as Neo-thermal.
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