The Palaeolithic, meaning Old Stone Age, covers the earliest history of humans. Hominids, human-like creatures with the ability to make stone tools, emerged in East Africa about 2.5 to 3 million years ago. Modern humans, homo sapiens, emerged about 200,000 years ago and followed earlier hominid species to spread around the world.
In Britain the period is generally subdivided into: Lower Palaeolithic starting about 500,000 year ago (although recent finds at Pakefield in Norfolk appear to date back 700,000 years) with the earliest forms of man (one of which has been found at Boxgrove in Sussex and dated to 500,000 years ago) and the predominance of tools made from pebbles, like handaxes (see picture to the left) and choppers; Middle Palaeolithic, starting about 300,000 years ago the period the Swanscombe skull, from quarries in Dartford, dates to, the era of Neanderthal man and the predominance of flake-tools over most of Europe and Asia; Upper Palaeolithic (starting perhaps as early as 40,000 BC), with Homo Sapiens using blades and burins and painting the cave art of western Europe. The Red Lady of Paviland in Gower, Wales, now known to be a man, dates to the Upper Palaeolithic, to about 26,000 years ago.
No Palaeolithic human remains have been found in Buckinghamshire, but Palaeolithic tools have been found. They are not always closely dated, however, and many are noted as being Palaeolithic but not Lower, Middle or Upper. The only closely dated Lower Palaeolithic artefacts are a handaxe and a tranchet axehead from Seer Green Holt. A tranchet axehead is made by carefully knapping flat flakes from a nodule. Tranchet comes from the French 'tranche', which means slice. Upper Palaeolithic finds include one handaxe from Sedgmoor Cottages in Wycombe and several flakes, showing the manufacture of artefacts, from Statnalls Wood in Pitstone, Bishopstone and Marsh near the Kimbles.
Many Palaeolithic remains have been buried by gravel terraces formed as rivers migrated across the landscape, therefore many artefacts have been found in gravel quarries. Animal remains dating to the Palaeolithic have also been found in quarries. A musk ox skull was found in Taplow Station Pit. Aurochs (ancestor of cattle) bones and giant red deer antlers were found in Larbourne Farm gravel pit in Thorney. The only well-studied quarry deposit is at Pitstone, in chalk quarry 3. Several very old river channels were cut into the chalk, the oldest one was dated to 140,000 - 170,000 years ago by uranium dating. In this channel many animal bones of woolly mammoth, horse, brown bear, wolf, lion and northern vole amongst others were found. This is probably the earliest occurrence of woolly mammoth in the UK. In a channel above this hippopotamus, rhinoceros and giant deer bones were also found, reflecting a warm period between the Ice Ages.
The Palaeolithic period ends around 10,000 BC at the end of the last Ice Age. Humans were able to move around more freely after the ice sheets had receded and this mobile period is known in Britain as the Mesolithic.