The classic image of a stone age cave is quite bare bones (fossil pun in the first sentence, go me). Apart from a fire and perhaps some cave art, there’s little in there to make it seem like an appealing place to live.
However, whilst this image might have been true for our early ancestors (who likely didn’t even have those minor creature comforts) by the end of the stone age we were turning the family cave into something to be proud of.
This transformation took nearly 3 million years of human (pre)history. So we better get cracking. Join me on this whilst-stop tour of how our species turned our stone age cave house into a home.
The stone age is old
The stone age, as the name suggests, refers to the period of time when our family (called hominins) used stone tools. Of course, we didn’t only use stone tools. Bones and branches were also common implements. However, stone is most of what survived, so it gets the name. Hence the “lithic” part of the period’s technical name: palaeolithic.
Stone is a fairly easy material to work with. Early palaeolithic tools consisted of simply smacking a rock until a sharp piece broke off, great for slicing and dicing whatever our ancestors wanted. As such it should come as no surprise that the stone age started a long time ago. 3.3 million years to be exact. That’s when someone figured out how great broken stone was at cutting. This is so old that our ancestors making it looked more like modern apes than us.
Were these early stone age “people” living in caves? Well, modern chimps living on the Savannah will often take shelter underground during the hottest part of the day. If one group of early stone age hominins had a cave nearby, perhaps they did a similar thing. Certainly, we’ve found a fair few early hominins in caves. But the limited evidence of activities in these caves suggests it was a sporadic and short-term at best. I doubt they would have considered these caves “home”.
Every house needs a fire
Serious occupation of caves didn’t kick-off until 2 million years later. A few changes may have made this possible. First, these hominins were starting to look and think more like us. Secondly, they got their hands on fire. Not literally, that would hurt.
Fire can light up and heat caves, making them much more appealing. It’s also a precious resource that would need protecting from the wind. Together, this made caves a much more attractive option. We start seeing evidence longer occupations of caves by larger hominin groups.
However, it’s worth noting that for every site that shows a group living with fire in a cave we find an open-air equivalent. In fact, the earliest fire sites are out in the middle of nowhere. It takes more than half a million years before our ancestors arrive at that stereotypical image of a hominin family gathered around a fire in their stone age cave. Our ancestors started making fire ~1.7 million years ago but didn’t move it into caves until closer to 1 million years ago.
The reason for this delay might not be too exciting. We might think of our ancestors as spending a lot of time in caves, but that’s because we’ve been biased by the European record. Southern France, in particular, is just full of caves. Not everywhere early hominins lived had such a bounty of real estate. However, as hominins start expanding into cave-filled areas we start seeing a related spike in
However, as hominins start expanding into cave-filled areas we start seeing a related spike in cave-dwelling. The aforementioned first cave with fire, for example, is from South Africa (which is just generally full of caves) and comes shortly after more human-like hominins move into the region.
Don’t dead, open inside
So by around a million years ago, we’d arrived at the classic image of a stone age cave. However, one thing that stereotypical image is missing is the corpse of a loved one in the background. Shortly after we start seeing this increase in fire-powered cave-dwelling we start seeing some burials in caves (and I say shortly on a stone age scale. There’s still a few hundreds of thousands of years of difference between them).
As if that wasn’t gruesome enough, some of these remains also show signs of cannibalism. Hominins seem to have been routinely butchering and eating each other, before leaving the leftovers in a cave. Often along with other non-hominin prey, with no special treatment given to the people belonging to the same species!
Perhaps one silver lining is that some of the largest “graveyard” sites have little evidence of long-term occupation. People weren’t living alongside rotting corpses, which probably makes sense. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the “burials” of Atapeurca, although that title is a bit generous. “Corpse hole” might be a better term, as it appears to have a deep pit that hominins threw dozens of their dead into (or they might have fallen). Nobody living ever ventured down there, as best as we can tell.
A Neanderthal stone age cave
The Neanderthals were our close cousins, dominating Europe until we arrived. And dominated instead. Under their rule we start seeing the classic stone age cave image really come to fruition. They didn’t tend to venture deep into the caves, but did tick all the other boxes.
They did still often cannibalise their dead, but they also sometimes buried them too. Properly, with grave goods and stuff. In fact, for several thousand years the Neanderthals seem to be doing more burials than the contemporary modern humans. They also built hearths and curated fire in their caves. Clearly, they were the pinnacle of civilisation at the time. Even the first cave art might date back to the time of Neanderthals.
In fact, they even went above and beyond the call of duty. We’ve found evidence they were building structures deep in caves too. They’re rare and little about them is preserved, so we can’t really say what they were doing. But they were doing something strange down there.
Hopefully, this is giving you a bit of perspective on the sheer variety within the Neanderthal spectrum. Some sites feature cannibalism, so have “proper burials” and some have both. Some sites feature weird underground structures, others have early cave art. After all, the stone age was a long time; as was the Neanderthal era. They spanned continents and trying to sum up their achievements in cave development isn’t easy.
So I’ll just stop trying now.
The fanciest stone age cave around
And so we arrive at modern humans. And we wouldn’t be proper humans if we didn’t try and one-up everything that came before. Famously, we took the Neanderthal art and dialled it up to 11. The result is the beautiful cave art caves that we all know and love.
But we didn’t stop there. Burials were also dialled up to 11, particularly towards the end of the stone age. One Italian burial – nicknamed “the prince” – features hundreds of man-hours worth of beads; many of which formed into a delightful cap.
We also really beat the Neanderthal at the structure game as well. This is probably what differs most from classic reconstructions of cave art: there would be built objects everywhere. At the famous cave site of Lascaux, there are tell-tale signs of in the walls of scaffolding. It was needed to help artists reach the highest points on the ceiling. Family life would have been similarly transformed by our constructions. Abri Blanchard, France, features fire pits cut into the bedrock. These were surrounded by animal hide “walls” to trap the heat in.
That distinction between family life and cave art was important. Despite the invention of fire and candles, caves were still very dark. As a result, most activity clustered around the entrance, whilst art took place deeper in. In some cases, this division was severe, with some art sites (like Lascaux) showing no signs of residence at all.
So if you were asked what a stone age cave was like, the answer would be “surprisingly empty”.
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