Stone Age Families

Palaeolithic humans generally lived in small nomadic family communities or clans of hunter-gatherers, who were constantly on the move seeking food by following the herds of beast their hunted. The family groups helped to provide protection in the face of competition for resources or even natural disasters and there is evidence of caring for injured or disabled group members. It is difficult to estimate life expectancy during this period, however based on archeological investigation the average age at death was about 30-40 for people who managed to live past childhood.

These groups allowed the transfer of knowledge and the development of cut lure from one generation to the next, for example how stone tools were made, what plants not to eat or how to start a fire could be vital for the survival and advancement of the tribe. Based on modern hunter-gatherer societies, it is likely that the men hunted while the women and children would gather plant food and small edibles like eggs, berries and insects. Many archaeologists believe they did have a simple form of tribal-based political structure, as each group would have likely had a leader or chief, who would organise or instruct the clan. Rituals, belief-systems, death and burials were possibly lead by a religious shaman or medicine man.

Stone Age Homes

Around 2 million years ago in East Africa, Homo habilis is thought to have made a simple shelter consisting of stones placed to hold branches of trees in position. A similar stone circular arrangement believed to be around 380,000 years old was discovered at Terra Amata, near Nice, France.

Rock Shelter

Natural caves and rock shelters were used from the Palaeolithic, such as Karain Cave (right); discovered in 1946 by Prof Kőkten, a few kilometres north of Antalya. There are a small number of chambers in the area, with only one being accessible to the public. Chamber B has around 11m of datable stratigraphy and chamber E around 8m; finds have lead researchers to believe the oldest layers are from 450,000-500,000 BC.

The Bhimbetka rock shelters located in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh show the earliest signs of human life in the region. Analyses suggest that at least some of these shelters were inhabited by human beings in excess of 100,000 years and rock art (below: depicting scenes from the everyday lives of the people who lived in the rock shelters; for example, hunting, cooking, eating and drinking) is around 30,000 years old.

( LR Burdak - Public Domain )

Karain Cave Turkey

rock shelterDramatic scene defending a rock shelter against Cave Bears from La Roque Saint Christophe (Dordogne)

Hut / Tepee

skin dwelling

After the end of the last glaciation around 12,000 years ago groups of people became semi sedentary (partially nomadic) and lived in seasonal settlements (generally inlands in the summer and by the coast in the winter). Hunting patterns would have also been on a seasonal basis depending on deer migration, wild fowl returning and fish migrating upstream. This would have also meant hunting equipment would have varied for different prey.

Settlements would have comprised of shelters built of a wooden frame in a tepee shape or bender. This frame would have been covered in animal hides or large pieces of bark. Shelters such as this would be very light and portable and the wooden frame probably would have been left in place while the covering (if animal hides) would have been taken away with the group.

skin dwelling

<< Skin hut reconstruction at La Roque Saint Christophe (Dordogne)




 Cedar-bark hut reconstruction at Yosemite National Park >>


Howick House (below) is based on a mesolithic house which was excavated from a nearby cliff-top site in Northumberland. The site was discovered in 1983 by amateur archaeologist John Davies by the identification of mesolithic flints, including microliths and some blades, eroding from the site. Thirty three radiocarbon dates from the site have been conducted, concluding that the construction of the first hut was around 7,800 BC. The Howick House is the earliest dated evidence for human settlement in Northumberland and is one of only a few Stone Age dwellings known from the British Isles.

The reconstruction took place during autumn 2002 for the BBC as part of their 'Meet the Ancestors' series. It consists of a tepee frame of birch poles (with a roof  angle of around 60°) that was reinforced with a ring of uprights and cross beams using thick pine logs.Turf was used as the roofing material, although the original roof may have consisted of a combination of turf and reed thatch.

( © Copyright Andrew Curtis - Creative Commons Licence )

Animal Bone Structure

Mammoth bones and tusk were used during the Upper Paleolithic to construct dwellings in the Ukraine and over 70 sites in Russia. A mammoth bone hut would be a circular or oval structure with walls made of stacked large bones or tusks, possibly modified to allow them to be lashed together or posted into the soil. The bones have also been used as fuel on fires, which was vital on the cold tundra where there was little firewood.

In 1965, four mammoth bone where found in huts Mezhirich (central Ukraine) by a farmer who was digging a cellar. These dwellings dated back 15,000 years ago and had a total of 149 bones in the construction.

mammoth tusk hut( Nandaro - Public Domain )


As people started to live in more permanent locations; they started to build longer-lasting dwellings built using wattle and daub with a thatched roof in a rectangular shape. Such houses would generally be concentrated in settlements and possibly within enclosures such as causewayed enclosures.

Çatalhöyük: The oldest known Neolithic settlement Çatalhöyük (the word 'höyük' means 'mound') was discovered in central Turkey in 1958 by James Mellaart. Up to 10,000 people may have lived together here from between 7500 BC to 5700 BC, when most of the rest of the world was still small groups of hunter-gatherers. Each dwelling was constructed of mud bricks and were crammed together back-to back, with no spaces or footpaths between the houses. Access to the room below was through a hole in the ceiling and a wooden ladder. Walls were of white-washed plaster and sometimes painted with scenes depicting the local landscape, animals or hunting scenes. House had shrines with bull horns and bones from the deceased, as it appears there was no central ritual area. Family groups buried their dead beneath the floors of the houses, suggesting that people were buried where they lived.

At the entrance to the site is a reconstruction of one of the dwellings. Two of the white-washed walls are decorated; one of the murals is thought to be the representation of an urban settlement, with the twin peaks of the erupting volcano "Hasan Dagi" (3253m stratovolcano, inactive since around 7500BC) in the background. Spots on the volcano's flanks have been described as "glowing firebombs of lava". The mural is also believed by many to be a map of Çatalhöyük, dated around 6,200 BC. It is painted in ochre pigments on a mud brick wall which was first prepared with many layers of lime plaster.

Since 1993 a team of archaeologists, led by Cambridge archaeologist Professor Ian Hodder, has carried out new excavations in order to understand more the people who once inhabited the site.

Skara Brae: The neolithic settlement of Skara Brae consists of eight clustered houses/workshops and is considered to be the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe. It was was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE. Discovery of the settlement occurred following a severe storm in the winter of 1850 that caused widespread damage and over 200 deaths across Scotland. The wind stripped turf from a large knoll known as "Skerrabra" and afterwards William Watt of Skaill (the local laird) began an amateur excavation of the site, but abandoned the work in 1868.

scara brae

A replica construction allows visitors to fully appreciate the interior of a prehistoric dwelling at Skara Brae. Below are Ancientcraft's representation of daily live in the houses.

Other monuments appeared in the Neolithic such as Long Barrows (long earthen burial mounds, sometimes with a stone chamber), henges, stone circles, cursus’ and more. Many of these monuments may have had a variety of uses but their exact purpose is generally unknown. Trading and economies probably started to grow in the Neolithic as people started to export and import exotic goods such as flint (or other stone tool raw materials), pottery and personal adornment.

Stone Age Clothing

Stone Age tunic

Neanderthal were the first known humans to make clothes, although there is no clear evidence for the very first clothing. It is assumed that at some point, they learned how to use the thick hides animals they hunted, to keep themselves warm and dry.

Early man made advances in the clothing of the Neanderthals, by using sharp awls or pointed tools, they were able to punch small holes in animal skins and then simply lace them with sinew and other natural cordage. It is likely that a tunic was first made from two pieces of rectangular animal hide bound together on one short side with a hole left for the head. This rough garment was placed over the head and the stitched length lay on the shoulders, with the remainder hanging down. The arms stuck through the open sides and the tunic was either closed with a belt or similar.

Archaeologists have found flax fibres in a variety of hues (pink, turquoise and black) that may have been used to make thread more than 34,000 years ago. These fibres, buried in a cave in the hills of the Republic of Georgia, would have been collected from the wild and spun, knotted and tied to make linen and thread.

It is believed that evidence of weaving has been found on over 90 pieces of clay in the Czech Republic dated at about 27,000 years ago. Archeologists at the University of Illinois identified weaving technologies depicted on Venus figurines from about 25,000 years ago and concluded that they were most probably wore in rituals, rather than as everyday wear.

Other examples of clothing, hair styles and body coverings can be seen in the Venus figurines created during the Stone Age.   

<<example skin tunic from The International Centre of Prehistory (Les Eyzies, France)

A point that may have been made from a bone needle dates to 61,000 years ago and was discovered in Sibudu Cave, South Africa. The oldest known bone and ivory sowing needles with eyelets (from 30,000 - 40,000BC) were found at a group of more than 20 sites along the Don River near the villages of Kostenki and Borshevo, 250 miles south of Moscow.

A bone needle was discovered between 1928-35 in Potok Cave in the Eastern Karavanke (Slovenia) dated from 47000 to 41,000 years ago, by Slovenian archaeologist Srečko Brodar.

The oldest known moccasin-like shoe (called the Areni-1 shoe) that was found by PhD student Ms Diana Zardaryan, of the Institute of Archaeology in Armenia during a dig in an cave in Vayotz Dzor province of Armenia, near the town of Areni.

The size 4 shoe was made from a single piece of leather, tanned using vegetable oil and shaped to fit the wearer's foot. It was well preserved because of the dry conditions in the cave and a thick layer of sheep dung which acted as a solid seal.

Simple replica deer skin shoes (right) stuffed with hay and moss are ideal winter shoes and based on the Areni-1 shoe from around 5,500 years ago.

The oldest plant-fibre sandals date to more than 7,000 years ago and discovered in the Arnold Research Cave in central Missouri

Stone Age Jewellery

Decorative jewelley was possibly used as part of every day clothing, or just for ritual burials (as ochre was sometimes used to cover remains).

Humans may have been wearing jewellery as far back as 75,000 BP, about 30,000 years earlier than previously thought, if 41 shells found at Blombos Cave in South Africa prove to have been used as beads.

The shells are from a tiny mollusk, Nassarius kraussianus, that lived in a nearby estuary. They have perforations and wear marks consistent with being used as beads, according to scientists excavating the middle Stone Age site.




<< Replica shell adorned cap & tunic (Dordogne)

Child burial at Konya Museum (Turkey) >>

Stone Age Jewellery

Ötzi the Iceman

Probably the best example of a complete set of prehistoric clothes is that belonging to the 5,300 year old Ötzi the Iceman found in the Alps in 1991. The hides, bones, antlers and feathers of six different animal species and the leaves, wood and fibre of 17 different trees and shrubs can be seen in the making of his clothing and equipment.

During the summer of 2005, I was able to visit South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano (Northern Italy) to see Ötzi and the artefacts for myself; this inspired me to create my own version of his clothing (below).

Otzi Clothes


Among the various finds was a 50cm x 33cm leather strip and another smaller fragment, which is believed to be his loincloth. Originally about thought to be about 1.8m long, the Iceman’s loincloth consisted of long, narrow strips of goat hide joined by over-sewing with animal sinews. Both ends of the loincloth were slightly rounded and towards the centre it tapers about 23cm. The edges of the loincloth were not finished off.

The loincloth would have been drawn between the Iceman’s legs and fastened at the front and back with his belt. This fragment was probably the front bib of the loincloth, because all the clothes, the Iceman was wearing face-up, have been preserved better. The back part of his clothing were exposed to the elements unprotected and therefore largely destroyed.

Such lumbar or pull-through loincloths were used by the North American Indians.


Above his shoes, the iceman was covered with two separate leather stocking-like leggings that were attached to his belt and fitted loosely around his thighs and lower legs. Each legging was around 65cm in length and were made of several pieces of goat hide with a deerskin strap sewn onto one end that could be tied down when doing up the shoes, preventing the leggings from riding up.The leggings were worn with brown hair side out.

Similar leggings were also worn by North American Indians well into the 19th century.


The iceman was not found with a leather tunic; however it is likely this type of garment would have been used in cooler conditions and because it is more comfortable than wearing a deer hide coat next the the skin.


When he was discovered, the Iceman was wearing only his right shoe. The shoes were made of various materials including animal skins and hay:

  • The leather sole was made from brown bear hide that had been cured in a mixture of bear brains and fat from its liver
  • Deer leather formed the upper guard that helped prevent rain/snow entering the shoe and unlike the sole, the uppers were worn with the fur on the outside
  • The upper shoe was mounted on a mesh of braided linden bark
  • The sole bindings were made of calf leather
  • Straw and moss was used for insulation/lining

Ötzi’s are the second oldest known shoes - the oldest being a 5,500-year-old moccasin-like shoe (called the Areni-1 shoe) that was found during a dig in an Armenian cave in 2008. It is exceptionally well preserved because of the dry conditions in the cave and a thick layer of sheep dung which acted as a solid seal. Sandals have an even longer history, with the oldest specimens, dated to more than 7,000 years ago, discovered in the Arnold Research Cave in central Missouri.

In 2004 Czech researcher Dr. Petr Hlavacek from Tomas Bata University, made a number of replicas to determine how well the shoes functioned. After a 12 mile distance to the glacier where Otzi was found., Hlavacek said that the grass worked very well as an insulator and wicked moisture away from his feet. Hlavacek told Discover magazine that when he stepped into a stream he felt no discomfort, “The shoes were full of water but after three seconds it was very warm” and had a “comfortable feeling. This is because this layer of hay if full of air holes and air is the best warm insulation.” Further experiments by archaeologist Anne Reichert reveal that a leather strip running across the sole provided a surprisingly good grip on icy ground, but the soles were not waterproof.

Two other theories have emerged; one from Professor Willy Groenman-van Waateringe. The other theory is from experimental Archaeologist Jacqui Wood, who believes that Ötzi's shoes may have been the upper part of snowshoes and that the item currently interpreted as part of his backpack, is actually the wood frame and netting of one snowshoe and animal hide to cover the torso.


As there was no sign of fasteners, it is assumed that the Iceman’s upper clothing was tied with a belt that was originally about 2m long (it was in several pieces when found) reaching around his hips twice. At the centre was a 20cm x 6cm pouch, stitched with hide lacing that went completely around the pouch, except for a 7cm opening in the center at the top edge. It also had a 15m long lace attached to one side to tie it closed. The belt pouch contained 3 flint tools (made from similar, if not identical flint), 1 bone awl and a lump of tinder fungus:

  1. Scraper: It has a thick triangular cross-section and has been worked on all edges and there are traces of "sickle gloss", indicating that it was used in cutting grasses or grain stalks.  
  2. Drill: It has a square cross section that is much broader and thicker at one end tapering to a fine point. This makes it ideal for hand drilling or it could have been hafted to a shaft. 
  3. Small flake: This small fragment would have been difficult to hold but its thin edge would allow for fine carving, notching. 
  4. Bone awl: probably made from the long leg bone of a goat, sheep or ibex, it has a curved cross section at the center with one end finely worked to a point, the other being slightly rounded. The point was sharp enough for making holes to repair his clothing. 
  5. Tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius): consists of four pieces which when put together, are about 5cm square. Microscopic analysis of the tinder fungus in the pouch showed traces of iron pyrite particles in its fibrous structure, although no pyrite was discovered near the Iceman or his equipment.

Hide Coat

The coat was made of long, numerous rectangular strips of goat skin that were joined by over-sewing on the inside, with animal sinews used as thread. The oblong, square cut pieces were arranged so that the robe was a pattern of vertical, alternating light and dark stripes. At shoulder height, the strips were sewn in a horizontal direction.

The coat is approximately 95cm long, extending from the shoulders to the knees. On the front of the garment was almost certainly open because of the cloak in the open state has a width of 138cm, which means that the two irregularly cut fronts overlap. There is no evidence that the coat was closed and held together with any fixings. In all likelihood a simple belt or cord would be used to tie the coat at the waist.

No pieces of the shoulders of the garment were ever recovered, so there is some speculation as to whether the Iceman’s coat had sleeves. The upper garment likely reached down to the Iceman’s knees

Bear Skin Hat & Grass Cape

Hat: The iceman wore a 20cm tall hat on his head, made of four individually cut pieces of brown bear (Ursus arctos)  fur, stitched in the overcast technique. It included leather straps, which might have served as a chin strap. It was found near his body in the glacier and unlike the other items of clothing made of fur, the cap remained largely intact. 

The lower part of the hat consists of a single 52cm x 7.5cm wide strip of bear skin, which is sewn together along the narrow sides. Two 9cm wedge-shaped strips of bear skin are sewn to the lower part of the hat to form a hemispherical shape. The top centre of the hat is formed from a pointed oval piece of fur, 11cm x 3.5cm. At the bottom of the cap are two holes through which the two 8 to 9mm wide leather straps are pulled and knotted. 

Grass Cape or Mat (not shown) : During investigations of the glacier where Ötzi's body was found, the remains of three large grass plaits/braids were found, leading to the conclusion that these were part of a sleeveless cape. The Iceman’s cape was made of 1m long stalks of plaited/braided reed-like Alpine grass. The original length may have been about 90cm and could have covered the his entire torso and his thighs and was open in front and may have had slits for his arms, but no evidence remained for this. The upper edge of the cape is in a simple Binding twine braided. At this edge on a regular intervals of 6-7cm, several grass strings were attached, but whose function is unknown.

Further analysis indicates that the cape would not fit the shape of his body, as the shoulder area would have been too narrow. It would have made carrying his backpack very difficult as well. New theories suggest that it could have been a sleeping mat, head covering, part of the backpack, or even serve as camouflage during a hunt. Some Alpine shepherds wore grass and straw cloaks for rain protection into the 20th century.

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