Archaeologists divide human prehistory into subdivisions. Each of these periods refers to the dominant tool-making material of the time, with the Stone Age being the most primitive of the three. The Stone Age is further divided into three periods called the Paleolithic, the Mesolithic and the Neolithic, each of which is characterized by distinct differences in toolmaking, art, and societal patterns.
Paleolithic is a term derived from the Greek words "palaios" (old) and "lithos" (stone) and refers to the oldest of the three Stone Age periods. The Paleolithic period is divided further into the lower, middle and upper Paleolithic periods and spans a time period from between 2.5 million and 200,000 years ago.
The predominant characteristic of the Paleolithic division of the Stone Age is the simplicity of the stone tools associated with it. Simple stones were used as hammers, stones were chipped leaving sharp flakes used for cutting, and by the end of the period early humans had begun forming simple axes from large stones.
Works of art in the Paleolithic included increasingly sophisticated representation of animals, both in cave paintings and in sculpted figurines, as well as fertility figures such as the famous Venus of Willdendorf.
The Mesolithic (Greek, "meso" (middle), "lithos" (stone), or middle stone age) period is the name given to the age of prehistory between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago. Dates vary based on location, but the end of the last ice age is generally accepted by archaeologists as being the start of the Mesolithic period.
The Mesolithic is characterized by a marked diversification in hunting and gathering techniques, most likely in response to the rapid climate change which occurred towards the end of the last ice age. Advances in technology included early forms of pottery (especially in Europe) and the beginnings of agricultural cultivation.
The Neolithic Period (new stone age), which lasted from 10700 BCE until approximately 3500 BCE, is characterized by rapid advancement in human technology. The most notable of these is the cultivation of crops, known by archaeologists as the Neolithic Revolution. Along with crop cultivation came the domestication of animals, which aided in farming. The Neolithic Revolution largely put an end to the once dominant nomadic lifestyle enjoyed by early man, and prompted an era of sedentism which was the result of the creation of new permanent settlements.
The Three Stage Chronology
Some academic texts refer to the Stone Age in stages called the lower, middle, and upper Stone Age. These should not be confused or correlated to the Paleo-, Meso- and Neolithic naming conventions. The three stage chronology refers only to human prehistory on the African continent, and while the three stages encompass the same period of time as the conventional periods, the borders of each subdivision do not line up with the time periods accepted by archaeologists as listed above.