Palaeolithic Wales

Palaeolithic - 250,000 to 8000BC

Also known as The Paleolithic or The Old Stone Age

 The Shropshire Mammoth


The Palaeolithic is generally divided as follows;

Lower Palaeolithic - Began 3 million years ago and ended about 70,000 BC

Middle Palaeolithic - Lasted between 70,000 and 40,000 BC

Upper Palaeolithic - Began around 40,000 BC and ended in Europe, around 12,000 B.C


The history of Wales begins with the arrival of human beings in the region thousands of years ago. 

Early Neanderthals lived in what is now Wales at least 230,000 years ago, while Homo sapiens had arrived by about 29,000 years ago

 The 'Palaeolithic' or 'Early Stone Age' period is the time popularly known as the 'Ice Age'. It saw very cold periods (glacials) when ice covered all of Wales, and warm periods (interglacials), such as the one today

 As the ice advanced and retreated, the sea level rose and fell, leading to the land bridge between Britain and Europe appearing, disappearing and reappearing again.

Because the different species of early man were all nomadic hunter gatherers, following the animals, this land bridge was essential to the early settlement of Britain.

 Of course the animals followed food resources as well, so as plant species recolonized Britain when the ice retreated, the herbivores followed, and with them came the carnivores.

When the ice advanced, the reverse occurred

 Knapped  Hand Axe and Scraping Blade

 The characteristic feature of the Palaeolithic age was usage of stone tools in the knapped form. Tools were also made up of bone and wood. Other organic materials used included vegetable fibres, leather, etc. Around 99% of human history consists of this age. The climate consisted of a series of interglacial and glacial periods where periodic fluctuations between cool and warm temperatures took place.

 During this age, humans used to be grouped together in societies operating on a small scale. Their source of livelihood used to be hunting animals in the wild and gathering plants

 700,000 years ago Britain was a peninsula of the Eurasian continent. Southern and Eastern Britain were linked to Europe by a wide land bridgeand in the position of the English Channel was a large river flowing westwards and fed by tributaries that later became the Thames and Seine

 Sites such as Boxgrove in Sussex show the arrival in the archaeological record of Homo heidelbergensis around 500,000 years ago. These early peoples made flint hand axes and hunted the large native mammals of the period. They drove elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses over the tops of cliffs or into bogs to kill them.

The extreme cold of the following Anglian Stage is likely to have driven humans out of Britain altogether and the region does not appear to have been occupied again until the ice receded during the Hoxnian Stage. This warmer time period lasted from around 300,000 until 200,000 years ago and saw the flint tool industry develop at sites such as Barnfield Pit and Baker's Hole in Kent.

Leaf Shaped Spear Points

 The more advanced flint technology permitted more efficient hunting and early humans remained in Britain until the following period of cooling known as the Wolstonian Stage, 352,000–130,000 years ago. Britain first became an island about 350,000 years ago.

 The earliest known human remain discovered in modern-day Wales is an early Neanderthal jawbone, found at the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site in the valley of the River Elwy in North Wales, whose owner lived about 230,000 years ago in the Lower Palaeolithic period

 There is little evidence of human occupation during the subsequent Ipswichian Stage (Eemian Stage) between around 130,000 and 110,000 years ago. Meltwaters from the previous glaciation cut Britain off from the continent during this period which may explain the lack of activity. There appears to have been a gradual decline in population between the Hoxnian Stage and this time, suggesting that the absence of humans was the result of gradual depopulation

 From 180,000 to 60,000 there is no evidence of human occupation in Britain. From 60,000 to 40,000 Britain was grass land with giant deer and horse, with woolly mammoths, rhino and carnivores. Modern man had arrived in Britain by around 44,000 years ago.

The earliest evidence is part of a jawbone found in a cave near Torquay, dating to around 44,000 years ago.

The Upper Palaeolithic is often divided into three sub periods:

  •  The Early Upper Palaeolithic (before the main glacial period),
  • The Middle Upper Palaeolithic (the main glacial period)
  • The Late Upper Palaeolithic (after the main glacial period)

Evidence of Neanderthal occupation of Britain is limited and by, 30,000 BC, the first signs of modern human activity, the Aurignacian industry, are known. The most famous example from this period is the "Red Lady of Paviland" (actually now known to be a man) in modern day coastal South Wales.

A final ice age covered Britain between around 70,000 and 10,000 years ago, with an extreme cold snap between 22,000 and 13,000 years ago called the Dimlington stadial (with the Last Glacial Maximum at around 20,000 years ago). 

This may well have driven humans south and out of Britain altogether, pushing them back across the land bridge that had resurfaced at the beginning of the glaciation, possibly to a refuge in Southern France and Iberia.

Sites such as Gough's Cave in Somerset dated at 12,000 BC provide evidence suggesting that humans returned to Britain towards the end of this ice age, in a warm period known as the Dimlington interstadial, although further extremes of cold before the final thaw may have caused them to leave again and then return repeatedly.

 The environment during this ice age period would have been a largely treeless tundra, eventually replaced by a gradually warmer climate, perhaps reaching 17 C (62.6 F) in summer, encouraging the expansion of birch trees as well as shrub and grasses.

The first distinct culture of the Upper Palaeolithic in Britain is the Creswellian industry, with leaf-shaped points probably used as arrowheads. It produced more refined flint tools but also made use of bone, antler, shell, amber, animal teeth, and mammoth ivory. These were fashioned into tools but also jewellery and rods of uncertain purpose.

The dominant food species were wild horses and Red Deer, although other mammals ranging from hares to mammoth were also hunted, including rhino and hyena.


Relief Carving of Horse on Antler

Line of Animal Heads Engraved on Rib 

Burial seemed to involve skinning and dismembering a corpse with the bones placed in caves

 From 12,700 to 11,500 years ago the climate became cooler and dryer, in what is known as the Younger Dryas period. Food animal populations seem to have declined, although woodland coverage expanded.

 Tool manufacture in the Final Upper Palaeolithic revolved around smaller flints, but bone and antler work became less common. Typically there are parallel-sided flint blades known as "Cheddar Points." There are scrapers, some of which are carved with what may be calendars. However, the number of known sites is much larger than before and more widely spread and many more open air sites are known

 In Wales most of the evidence we have for the earliest Palaeolithic settlements come from caves. These caves are found in limestone areas, for example in parts of Denbighshire,(North East Wales), Gower and South Pembrokeshire (South Wales).

 Settlement in Wales was apparently intermittent as periods of cooling and warming led to the ice sheets advancing and retreating.

Cro-Magnons (the first anatomically modern humans) are believed to have arrived in Europe about 60,000 years ago

They are known to have had a presence in by Wales 29,000 years ago due to the discovery of the skeletal remains of the "Red Lady of Paviland". This is actually the skeleton (lacking the skull) of a young man, and is the oldest modern human remains yet discovered in Wales

 The first evidence we have for humans in Wales comes from the site of Pontnewydd Cave near St Asaph, Denbighshire 

Here, excavations have identified the remains of an early form of Neanderthal, which lived around 230,000 years ago.

 The Neanderthal jawbone and stone tools were found at the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site in the valley of the River Elwy in Denbighshire, North Waleswhich is about 30 miles from Plas Kynaston, Cefn Mawr.

 The Elwy Valley has  areas of Carboniferous Limestone  which leads to the formation of caves by the action of water.

 The Neanderthals at Pontnewydd Cave made tools using the local stones picked up near the cave; including cutting tools, scrapers and hand axes. Handaxes have been discovered at Coygan Cave in Carmarthenshire — a site now destroyed by quarrying.

Modern humans, first appear in Europe about 60,000 years ago. This appearance is marked by the use of new types of stone tools made from long thin blades struck from a block of flint. These blades were much more versatile than those of the Neanderthals.

Early modern humans also developed the first art. Cave paintings from this period have survived in France and northern Spain — areas unaffected by the return of the glaciers.

 In Wales a wall carving in a south Wales cave could be Britain's oldest example of rock art.

The faint scratchings of a speared reindeer are believed to have been carved by a hunter-gatherer in the Ice Age 12- 14,000 years ago.

Also engraved and carved bones have been found. Perhaps the most significant site to have produced this material is Paviland Cave This is home to the earliest human burial found in Wales, dating to around 29,000 years ago.

The Paviland limestone caves of the Gower Peninsula in south Wales are by far the richest source of Upper Palaeolithic material in Britain, including burins and scrapers dated to about 28,500 years ago

 The Red Lady of Paviland, a human skeleton dyed in red ochre, was discovered in 1823 in one of the Paviland limestone caves of the Gower Peninsula in Swansea, South Wales. Despite the name, the skeleton is that of a young man who lived about 29,000 years ago at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic Period He is considered to be the oldest known ceremonial burial in Western Europe. The skeleton was found along with a mammoth's skull, fragments of small cylindrical ivory rods, fragments of ivory bracelets and seashells

 Other caves occupied during this early part of the last glacial include Cae Gwyn and Ffynnon Beuno (both in Denbighshire), and Hoyles Mouth (Pembrokeshire). This latter cave was used around 30,000 years ago.

  The faint scratchings of a speared reindeer 
possibly Britain's oldest example of rock art 

Ice sheets spread across Wales reaching their greatest extent between 20,000 and 18,000 years ago, at this time, animals retreated south, forcing the people who hunted them to follow

 During the following Ice Age (known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM))Northern Europe may have been completely depopulated of humans. It locked up so much water that sea level fell by up to 60 metres.

The shape of Wales
Around 18,000 years ago the ice sheets began a slow retreat and the animals and then the people began to return

Towards the end of the last Ice Age, between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago, as the climate became warmer, people returned to live in the region of the British and Irish peninsula about 14,700 years ago as the Ice Age started to end, after an absence of about 5,000 years

 According to modern research eighty per cent of the DNA of most white Britons, has been passed down from a few thousand individuals who hunted in this region during the last Ice Age. This would indicate a significance which dwarves all subsequent migrations to Britain from Europe

 Wales appears to have been abandoned from about 21,000 years ago until after about 14,000 years ago,

The ice had disappeared around this time from Southern Britain, but the North was still under the ice sheet. Britain was a treeless Tundra

It is believed that they had returned by around 14,500 years ago, but the earliest evidence from Wales dates to around 12,500 years ago at caves such as Paviland and Hoyles Mouth, with a burial found at Kendrick's Cave on the Great Orme dating to about 12,000 years ago.

At that time there were still land links between Britain and the continent, and between Britain and Ireland. These people lived by hunting and later by gathering roots, nuts and berries in the woodlands which gradually spread northwards with the improvement in climate.

There was a lesser cold period from about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago but settlement seems to have continued in this period.

Around 9500 BC rising sea levels due to ice melting caused Ireland to be separated from Britain

However, continuous habitation by modern humans dates from the period after the end of the last Age, around 9000 BC

 Around 7,500 BC the land-bridges to continental Europe were covered by the rising sea levels from melting ice and Britain became an island


 Wales became roughly the shape it is today by about 7000 BC and was inhabited by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers

With the end of the last glacial, the evidence for people living in Wales increases greatly and changes in character. This date is used to mark the end of the Early Stone Age (Palaeolithic) and the start of the Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic).

Wales has many remains from the Mesolithic and Neolithic.