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Life During the Ice Age

The winters of Ice Age Europe some 15,000 years ago were harsh, but modern human--Homo sapiens--had developed clever ways to cope with the cold. These residents of eastern Europe sewed clothes from animal hides and built sturdy shelters from mammoth bones. When food was abundant, they buried supplies in the permafrost--an ancient form of deep-freezing.


© AMNH / Rod Mickens

Cro Magnon diorama (Homo sapiens)

Modern humans displayed a wide range of cultural and technological abilities not seen among our earlier hominid relatives. These new humans had developed true language and could make highly sophisticated tools. They created art and practiced elaborate rituals. Indeed, these hominids exhibited virtually the entire array of behaviors that characterize people today.


© AMNH Exhibitions

Site of Cro Magnon diorama; Mezhirich, Ukraine

Focus On: Homo sapiens

When: around 150,000 years ago to present
 Where: around the world
 Brain Size: around 1,400 cubic centimeters
 Diet: plants, meat and other animal products and processed foods
 Average Adult Height:
 females: 1.6 meters (5 feet, 3 inches)
 males: 1.7 meters (5 feet, 7 inches)
 Average Adult Weight:
 females: 54 kg (119 pounds)
 males: 65 kg (143 pounds)

Early Architecture

More than 15 tons of bones from the remains of 95 mammoths were needed to construct the bone hut re-created here. Archaeological evidence indicates that residents of this site built four large huts, each with a different arrangement of bones--the earliest example of distinctive architectural styles.

Why Do Humans Have Different Skin Colors?

Modern humans living in northern Europe some 15,000 years ago almost certainly had fair skin, as shown in this diorama. But they were undoubtedly descendants of Homo sapiens with dark skin. Skin color is often associated with exposure to sunlight: populations in sunny, tropical regions tend to have darker skin, which protects against skin cancer. But why did fair skin evolve? Some researchers think it boils down to vitamins.

The body depends on ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun to produce Vitamin D. Fair skin lets in more UV light than dark skin, so DNA mutations that led to lighter skin helped people stay healthy in Europe and other regions that get fewer hours of sun.


© Bryan & Cherry Alexander/Science Photo Library/Photo Researchers, Inc.

A young Inuit hunter from Igloolik wearing a fur trimmed hood. Nunavut, Canada.

Dark-skinned people living in regions where UV-light levels are relatively low--for instance, in northern Canada--sometimes develop rickets from low levels of vitamin D.

A New Technology

Stone tool making became more sophisticated when humans began to use slender fingers of stone called blades, rather than broad flakes, as the starting point for their tools. To produce blades by the most advanced technology, the toolmaker first shaped a stone into a rough cylinder, then hammered around the edge to remove several long, narrow blades in a row. These served as blanks that could be modified to make a wide array of highly specialized tools.

Blade tools were often adapted to meet very specific needs. Notched blades became awls for piercing and tapered blades became knives for cutting.

Tiny Tools

Toolmakers eventually used advanced blade technology to create tiny implements known as microliths. These may have been fastened to handles or shafts to make arrows or other composite tools.

Bone, ivory and antler are difficult to work and were rarely shaped into tools until about 50,000 years ago. But modern humans living in Ice Age Europe often used these materials to make handles, needles, spear tips, fishhooks and harpoons.

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