The Nature of the Lower Palaeolithic Social and Economic Organisation: a student essay

James Bonsall (King Alfred’s College, UK)

We have no direct evidence concerning human behaviour during the Lower Palaeolithic. No written records exist. Instead, we have to model and infer certain assumptions according to the evidence we do have. This essay will examine the ways in which prehistoric sites have been interpreted for clues as to the social and economic organisation of the European Lower Palaeolithic, by discussing four themes: evidence for settlement, hunting, technology, and possible trading links.

Home to Britain’s oldest human fossils (Renfrew and Bahn 1996), Boxgrove in Sussex is also the most important British site for this period (Roberts 1996). It is not a single site used at one time, but rather is a series of sites used over millennia (Roberts 1996). Owing to its longevity, it has seen many different environments, from open grassland, coastal and marine conditions and periglacial tundra (Roberts 1996). Evidence has been found there for flint knapping and butchery, and Mark Roberts argues that hunting did take place, citing a spear wound on horse remains as his evidence for this, and that rhinoceros, bison and giant deer would also have been on the menu. Scavenging, then, has been put out of the question, as whole carcasses have been found with cut marks made before any gnawing had taken place (Roberts 1996). Two different methods of hunting have been found at Boxgrove. Much of the butchery evidence centres around a watering hole, so hunting would have taken place when the animals were lured down to the water. The second method occurred when a group accidentally came across an animal, which is known as ‘encounter hunting’ (Roberts 1996).

The suggestion, then, is that hunting had taken place at Boxgrove and that a technology, i.e. flint knapping, was used in the hunt, and in the butchering of the animals as well. Bifacial handaxes have been found, which no doubt would have been used for butchery (Roberts 1996).

A comparison can be made with Schöningen, Germany. There, wooden spears have been found that had been carefully worked, along with associated artefacts which have a present-day parallel in Aboriginal throwing sticks (Roberts 1996). Knowing that the technology was available on the continent, we can apply it to the knowledge from Boxgrove. This is feasible because during this time Britain was physically linked to Europe (Roberts 1996). Therefore it is possible that humans were using this, if not very a similar technology, in their subsistence strategy. The Schöningen example certainly strengthens the interpretation of the spear wound to the horse.

No settlement evidence has been found near the Boxgrove hunting sites, so the meat may have been transported away. This tells us quite a lot about the social structure of Boxgrove’s occupants. It seems that humans did not kill and eat as required, but went out in formal hunting groups, with weapons at the ready, and butchering devices too. This suggests a lot of organisation, and perhaps even alludes to the sharing of food amongst the community; our ancestors had a form of co-operative social organisation. Primates that are genetically unrelated do not co-operate with each other as a general rule (Leakey 1997:67-69), so the Boxgrove hunting group, assuming it was not just a small family unit, displays signs of greater awareness, as its members recognised the need to co-operate for their survival. The butchering of whole animals, including meat, hide, fur and antler, also suggests that the hunters required the entire animal for use. It appears that they had an adequate knowledge of bone, antler and flint working, and we can suppose that hides would have been used as clothing, though any evidence for this would long since have rotted away in the archaeological record (Roberts 1996).

At Boxgrove we have evidence for hunting, and evidence for technologies, weapons and carving utensils. The demonstrated use of these technologies, together with the hunt, shows some cognitive ability existed behind the social order. The Boxgrove humans were working together for the common good, to achieve the best results. They possessed intelligence. The wide variety of animals hunted at Boxgrove shows that early humans were also very adaptable, and that they could cope with different circumstances.

Bilzingsleben, Germany, has been dated to 414,000 years old (Renfrew and Bahn 1996:141), and, like Boxgrove, is another site where hunting and technological evidence has been found. We also find possible evidence for settlement at Terra Amata, Nice, France, dated to 230,000 B.P. (Stringer and Gamble 1993), though the authors just named dismiss this site without any discussion whatsoever. However, it has since been described as a ‘Lower Palaeolithic camp’ (Renfrew and Bahn 1996:527), which no doubt will incite people to argue their views more fully.

Swanscombe, Kent, lies on a gravel and sand quarry. Animals that would have been available to hunt at Swanscombe included straight-tusked elephants, fallow deer, horse, wild ox, red deer and rhinoceros (Darvill 1987:29). Thousands of flint hand axes found in the same levels (Stringer and Gamble 1993:66), including flake tools and ovate handaxes dating from the Acheulean tradition, have been discovered there (Darvill 1987:30), while numbers of Clactonian flints were found in another level (Stringer and Gamble 1993:148). Meat was abundant, and the tools were certainly available, so it is quite likely that hunting occurred there too. Again, though, settlement evidence does not make an appearance. Archaeologists often warn that just because there is no evidence, it does not mean it was not there at some point, so, in theory, we should not necessarily expect any settlement evidence. However, Clive Gamble points out that the marine sands ensure ‘exceptional’ preservation, and even the footprint of an extinct deer has been found (Gamble 1994:26), so in this case it is possible to say with some degree of certainty that a settlement did not exist at Swanscombe, as there would undoubtedly be evidence for it.

The technology of the Lower Palaeolithic has already been mentioned. It is marked primarily by Acheulean artefacts (Gamble 1994:12), the dominant types of the time (Renfrew and Bahn 1996:157). It was a generalised technology, meaning that it produced multipurpose tools. They did a variety of different jobs and they ranged in size, shape and ‘degrees of finishing’ (Gamble 1994:10-11), although they were mainly flaked on both sides (Renfrew and Bahn 1996:303). What does this tell us about the social structure of our human ancestors from this time? The Acheulean handaxe industry evolved over hundreds of thousands of years (Renfrew and Bahn 1996:304). It is difficult to make a blade, so it requires teaching, the type of teaching you can only get from a student-teacher relationship; patience, understanding, sympathy, and authority on the teacher’s part, and curiosity, a willingness to learn and a degree of submissiveness on the student’s part. An integral factor in this would be speech. Some cognitive ability has already been demonstrated in the Boxgrove analysis, but the teaching of stone-tool manufacture requires the type of long-term understanding that can only be conveyed by speech. Watching and copying, imitation, is not enough, as the process is too complicated. The more intelligence our ancestors had, the greater their technological and social sophistication became, according to Darwin’s The Descent of Man (Leakey 1997:6). The development of the Acheulean then denotes the early human’s greater increase in intelligence, and along with that, greater social sophistication.

From the simple manufacture of stone tools we can infer with some certainty aspects of Lower Palaeolithic society. A system of dominance and submission between individuals, most likely adults and juveniles, would have existed, as would some form of speech, though not as we know it today.

We have very little evidence for economic organisation in the Lower Palaeolithic. It appears that only two commodities were highly sought after: food, and the means of obtaining it. As mentioned, there was a wide variety of animals available at this time. Based on the skeletal remains found, human groups were small and outnumbered by animals, so there was no chance of running out of food (Roberts 1996). With abundant meat supplies, the only problem was how to obtain it. Acheulean handaxes, much discussed in the literature, do not seem to have been imported from distant areas. Gamble uses Boxgrove as an example to show that the whole process of finding a flake, knapping, finishing, using and discarding it, took place within a very short radius of about 500 metres (Gamble 1994: 26). From flint source to garbage in 500 metres is quite an achievement! If this were the case, there would have been no need to import flint, in either its raw or finished form, from any significant distance. Trade or exchange, therefore, would not have occurred, for the most valued resource was readily available to early humans. Economics fails to enter the picture at all. If small units functioned on their own, as suggested in the above analysis of Boxgrove, and members of each group co-operated with one another, then trade and exchange beyond the group would not be necessary. The resources are local to the site in which they were found, with estimated distances to raw material sources of no more than 15 kilometres, with a single, known exception of 100 kilometres (Roberts 1996, Gamble 1994: 26). It is only during the Middle Palaeolithic that we see raw materials transported over greater distances, and here the idea of trade is substituted by the old favourite, ‘seasonal rounds’, or annual migration patterns (Gamble 1994: 27). With only hunting tools and meat needed for survival, it seems that there was no need for trade when those two requirements were met. It is not unreasonable to assume that other items could be traded by neighbouring or travelling groups if they met one another, and with the absence of such evidence in well preserved sites like Swanscombe and Boxgrove (Gamble1994: 26), it may be inferred that (regular) contact between groups did not take place.

They were alone, fending for themselves, surviving on only that which they hunted themselves, using tools that they made for themselves. Speculation, in absence of evidence, is feasible for the Lower Palaeolithic, in order to invite diametrically-opposed viewpoints, and thus further the discussion. If we do not have the evidence available in the archaeological record, then we should be aware of all the possibilities that are caused by it. By looking at sites such as Boxgrove, Swanscombe, Schöningen, Bilzingsleben, and Terra Amata, we have seen how the social order and (lack of) economic structure shaped the early humans of the Lower Palaeolithic. They possessed the cognitive ability to recognise danger, to assess and determine particular hunting strategies for different animals. The ability to learn, enhance and teach again, in the instance of stone-tool manufacture, would also have been applied to other areas, such as clothing, butchering, cooking, hunting and sheltering. The need for a language of some kind for these ancestors of ours is irresistible, as their learning could only be hindered without it. The rate of development of the Acheulean industry begs us to believe that some form of improved communication was apparent. The co-operation displayed in the hunt and all of its associated subjects; the tool making, the butchering, the sharing, the lack of trade, shows that these people had a well rounded society, with social orders in the form of student-teacher relationships, a dependence on the old replaced by the new; the elderly by the young.


Darvill, T. 1987 Prehistoric Britain. London: Routledge.

Gamble, C. 1994 The Peopling of Europe, 700,000-40,000 Years before the Present. In Cunliffe, B. (ed.) Prehistoric Europe An Illustrated History, pp. 5-42. Oxford: OUP.

Leakey, R. 1997 The Origin of Humankind. Oxford: Phoenix.

Renfrew, C. and P. Bahn 1996 Archaeology. Theories Methods and Practice (2ed.). London: Thames and Hudson.

Roberts, M. 1996 ‘Man the Hunter’ returns at Boxgrove. British Archaeology XVIII:8-9.

Stringer, C. and C. Gamble 1993 In Search of the Neanderthals. London: Thames and Hudson.