Paleolithic Period

Image - A Paleolithic mammoth-bone dwelling (16,000 to 12,000 BC) in Mezhyrich, Kyiv oblast. Image - Ornament: late Paleolithic zigzag ornament in red ochre on a mammoth shoulder bone (excavated in Mizyn, Chernihiv oblast). Image - Paleolithic artefacts excavated in Luka-Vrublivetska. Image - A reconstruction of a mammoth dwelling excavated in Molodove, Chernivtsi oblast. Image - Paleolithic primitive musical instruments, excavated in Molodove, Chernivtsi oblast. Image - A Paleolithic bracelet excavated in Mizyn, Chernihiv oblast, ca 15,000 BC (incised mammoth bone).

Paleolithic Period [Палеоліт; Paleolit]. The earliest period of human development, lasting until approx 8000 BC. In Western archeology the Paleolithic Period (or Old Stone Age) is divided into two epochs: the Lower Paleolithic (to 40,000 BC) and the Upper Paleolithic (40,000–8000 BC). These, in turn, consist of several eras or cultures. Notwithstanding some significant differences between Ukrainian and (Western) European Paleolithic cultures, Ukrainian archeological studies follow this basic scheme.

The Paleolithic Period coincides with the geological age known as the Pleistocene, which is marked by a general cooling of the earth's temperature and the corresponding expansion and retreat of glaciers. The three successive waves of glaciations (known as the Mindel, Riss, and Würm glaciations in Western European nomenclature and by other names in Central and Northern European and Soviet classification schemata) that occurred in Europe from approximately 600,000 BC are of particular interest to the study of human development. The Pleistocene epoch ends at the same time as the historical Paleolithic Period (ca 10,000–8000 BC) with the final retreat of glaciation over most of Europe and the coming of a new, warmer geological age, the Holocene.

The oldest evidence of human presence in Ukraine (found in Luka-Vrublivetska) has been dated to as early as 300,000 BC. A small number of other Acheulean culture (ca 300,000–100,000 BC) sites have been excavated in Ukraine, providing evidence that early humans lived there in hunter-gatherer bands. However, evidence of substantial settlement in Ukraine begins only with the onset of the Mousterian culture (100,000–40,000 BC), occasionally referred to as the Middle Paleolithic. This period began with the mild temperatures of the Riss-Würm interglacial and then continued with the Würm glaciation, which caused temperatures to fluctuate as it moved back and forth in three phases lasting to 10,000–8000 BC. The population growth experienced in such a glacial period resulted partly from the early humans’ increasing ability to adapt to cold conditions. More important was the large number of game animals that could be hunted and the abundant vegetation cover which could be gathered in spite of the colder climate.

Mousterian culture sites have been discovered in Ukraine mainly in the middle-Dnister River and Dnieper Rapids regions and in the hills of southern Crimea (see Crimean Mountains). Such locations offered the shelter of river terraces or caves. Evidence indicates that surface dwellings were constructed somewhat similar in appearance to igloos, using animal skins and some form of posts on a foundation of animal bones (particularly mammoths). Remains of cave dwellings, temporary camping grounds, flint extraction locations, and flint workshops have also been found. The ubiquity of hearths in all forms of Mousterian shelters indicates that the ability to make fire had become widespread. A variety of locally made flint tools (particularly side-scrapers and points) have been unearthed at Mousterian sites, indicating a varied usage. Nevertheless, flint technology was not particularly well-developed in this period.

Mousterian culture humans lived by hunting and gathering. The game during this period included mammoths, the woolly rhinoceros, bisons, deer, wolves, and bears. Foods gathered included fruits, leaves, roots, bird eggs, and mollusks.

The Mousterian culture inhabitants of Ukraine were Neanderthals who lived in small groups that scholars believe may have been matriarchal and matrilineal. The fact that they buried their dead in a ritualized manner on their sides in a flexed position indicated that these people had probably developed at least a rudimentary religious consciousness.

A major change took place ca 40,000 BC when the Mousterian culture was supplanted by a series of Upper Paleolithic cultures. Although a direct causal link cannot be established, this was probably owing to the appearance of the (modern) Cro-Magnons and the demise of the Neanderthals. The genesis of Cro-Magnons in Ukraine is a subject of debate, with some (mainly Soviet) scholars viewing this as an indigenous evolutionary process and others deducing that they migrated into Ukrainian lands. Origins notwithstanding, significant developments took place during this period.

One of the most obvious changes during the Upper Paleolithic was a remarkable increase in the variety of implements used and the quality of their manufacture. End-scrapers and burins became particularly widespread at this time. The manner in which flint was worked from cores was improved. Different types of raw materials, including bone, antler, and ivory, were commonly used. High-quality flint was actively sought and transported over long distances (possibly as a barter item).

Upper Paleolithic settlements tended to be more permanent than their Mousterian counterparts. They became also more widespread throughout Ukraine (with a concentration in the previously settled Dnister River and Dnieper River areas) as the population increased during this period. Hunting and gathering remained primary occupations, with evidence indicating considerable improvements in hunting technology and organization. Fishing became common during this time. Large Upper Paleolithic settlements, covering up to 10,000 sq m and featuring elaborate mammoth-bone dwellings, were excavated in Mizyn, Mezhyrich and other sites in the Kyiv region and Chernihiv region.

A fundamental change occurred in the Upper Paleolithic with the emergence of an esthetic consciousness. Whereas the remains of art objects are unknown at Mousterian culture sites, Upper Paleolithic discoveries include decorated bone, ivory, and antler objects, shell pendants, ivory bracelets, and ivory figurines of women, mammoths, and birds. Remains of flutes and bone percussion instruments indicate that Upper Paleolithic man also created music.


Efimenko, P. Pervobytnoe obshchestvo (Kyiv 1953)

Arkheolohiia Ukraïns’koï RSR, vol 1 (Kyiv 1971)

Klein, R. Ice-Age Hunters of the Ukraine (Chicago 1973)

Andrij Makuch

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3 (1993).]

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