January 21, 2001

In anthropology, the Paleolithic Period, or the Old Stone Age, is the name given to the earliest period of human development and the longest phase of human history, beginning about 2 million years ago and ending between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, depending on geographic location.

The period between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago is called the Upper Paleolithic Period, and our knowledge of the people of this period is derived from analysis of fossil remains, and artifacts and fragments of artifacts found in association with fossils. With radiocarbon dating techniques, it is often possible to fix the date of any stratum in which fossils and artifacts are found to within one or two thousand years, which provides us with a rough calendar for the history of Paleolithic groups of humans.

One such group is the Gravettian people, who apparently lived 29,000 to 22,000 years ago in a region extending from Spain to southern Russia. Now Olga Soffer et al (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), after detailed microscopic analysis of clay impressions from two Gravettian sites in Czechoslovakia, present convincing evidence that these Gravettian groups not only wove basketry and textiles, but they also apparently wove nets that were probably used for hunting small animals.

The latter evidence comes from the presence of weaver's knots that are commonly used to make nets of secure mesh. The idea is that the clay impressions of net fiber patterns occurred in living quarters while the ground clay was not yet baked by fire.

This discovery has evidently caused some excitement in the anthropology community, since the hunting of small animals with nets was most likely a community effort rather than the work of individual male hunters, and if this is true, then our picture of the social structure of these Paleolithic groups may need to be revised.

QY: O. Soffer, Univ. Illinois Urbana-Champaign (217) 333-0302.
(Science 29 August) (Science-Week 12 Sep 97)



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