Information About Cave Dwellers


How did the cave dwellers live? Information about the early examples of cave dwellers and archaeological discoveries.

CAVE DWELLERS are people who occupy caves or dwell beneath cliff overhangs. Archaeologists who have studied tools, food debris, and human bones in such sites have ascertained that men have occupied caves since earliest times.

Earliest Examples. In Africa the earliest inhabited caves are Swartkrans and Sterkfontein in the Transvaal province of the Republic of South Africa. These date from the end of the lower Pleistocene time, about one million years ago. Here the bones of the fossil man Australopithecus and various stone tools he might have made have been found together with the fossilized bones of other animals. Some of the animal bones have been broken in such a way as to suggest that early man had learned to split them to extract the marrow.

Another cave of similar age is the Vallonnet Cave in France, where both stone tools and fossilized animal bones are present. These caves were probably not occupied continuously but visited from time to time by their inhabitants. The accumulation of bones in them indicates that the caves also may have been used by such animals as bears, leopards, or hyenas when they were not occupied by man.

In the middle Pleistocene time, about 500,-000 years ago, the Choukoutien Cave near Peking was inhabited by the fossil man originally known as “Peking man’ and now called Homo erectus. Stone tools, the bones of this early man, and animal bones have been found. There is some evidence of cannibalism on the part of Homo erectus at Choukoutien. Here also the earliest evidence of the use of fire has been found. It is not known whether fires were actually made at this time, or if embers were simply collected from fires started by natural causes. Whatever its source, fire would have been useful for warmth, perhaps for preparing food, and certainly for driving off wild animals. Since Homo erectus lived by hunting for meat and collecting vegetable food, he moved from one area to another at different seasons of the year, sometimes living in caves and at other times in the open.

Later Caves. Many more caves are known from the upper Pleistocene time than from the earlier periods. They are found across southern Europe and in Asia and Africa. During the first part of the upper Pleistocene, 35 to 70 thousand years ago, a population of so-called Neanderthal men was very widespread. Neanderthal fossils are known from caves such as La Ferrassie in France, Krapina in Yugoslavia, Kiik-Koba in the Crimea, Shanidar in Lebanon, Teshik-Tash in Uzbekistan, Ma-Pa in China, Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, and many others. By this time fire was in common use. In some places there is again evidence of cannibalism. For the first time in the prehistoric record, intentional burial was practiced, and ceremonial goods were often included in the graves. At Teshik-Tash, for example, a child’s grave was surrounded with the skulls of five or six goats. This attention to burial and the apparent ceremony attached to it have been interpreted as evidence for belief in an afterlife.

Archaeological Discoveries. The caves in Europe, Asia, and North Africa occupied by the Neanderthals usually contain large stone scrapers, probably used on wood and skins, as well as triangular points that were often flaked on one face, and other stone tools. At the same time, south of the Sahara in what is now South Africa, sites such as the Cave of Hearths and Montagu Cave were occupied by people who made stone tools of the kind called Acheulian. Notable among these were hand axes—large almond-shaped tools flaked on both faces—in addition to cleavers and a variety of smaller tools. Some sites, such as Montagu Cave, were visited regularly to make use of a nearby source of stone, known as quartz-ite. Tools were made in the cave and taken elsewhere to be used.

By the latter part of the upper Pleistocene, from about 10,000 to 35,000 years ago, the number of Neanderthals had decreased, and members of the species Homo sapiens, who were physically identical to modern man, had become widely distributed. With the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, man occupied vast areas of Europe and Asia and had emigrated to the New World via the Bering Strait land bridge. In Europe the stone tool assemblages of this time are referred to as the Upper Paleolithic. Much of the archaeologists’ knowledge about these industries comes from caves such as Abri Pataud and Combe Capelle in France and Grimaldi in Italy.

One of the most impressive features of this period is the painting on the cave walls in France, Spain, and Italy. In some of the caves there are also clay models of animals. The art usually depicts the same kinds of animals as those whose bones are found in the debris in the caves. The paintings and sculptures found deep in the inner parts of caves are usually interpreted as having been used in rituals to ensure the hunters’ success. On the other hand, the paintings and engravings in well-lighted portions of the caves may have been done for purely aesthetic reasons.

In other parts of Europe, as well as Asia and Africa, caves continued to be used as intermittent shelters for nomadic groups as they moved about their territory following game and searching for nuts, seeds, roots, and other vegetable foods. This kind of activity continued in some areas almost to the present day.

In the New World caves were often used as shelters. Some of these, such as Bat Cave in New Mexico or Danger Cave in Utah, have contributed substantially to our knowledge of the archaeology of North America, since they contain perishable materials like basketry or netting that are not found in more exposed sites.


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