People of the Upper Paleolithic


In 1868, fossil remains of five individuals who lived in the Early Upper Paleolithic (the Aurignacian epoch) some 30 thousand years ago were discovered by Louis Lartet in a grotto near Cro-Magnon, the Vezere valley, France. Ornaments made of perforated sea shells and animal teeth, and traces of red ocher were found near the skeletons. The cultural deposits of the cave contained many flint and bone tools and bones of Pleistocene animals – deer, horses, lions, etc.

Cro-Magnon remains are among the first human remains to be discovered. They have come to be so widely known that all Upper Paleolithic habitants of Europe are still traditionally called “Cro-Magnons”.

Cro-Magnons were members of the species Homo sapiens. They were quite dissimilar from the Neanderthals, who had lived in Europe before them and had possessed a less advanced (Middle Paleolithic) culture. Having migrated to Europe from Africa or the Near East around 40 thousand years ago, the Cro-Magnons eventually replaced their predecessors. Cave paintings, rendering animals no less skillfully than the best examples of world animalism, attest to a high mental level.

While being ancestral to modern Europeans, the Cro-Magnons revealed a number of characteristics which set them apart from modern people. M.M. Gerasimov described how those people looked like: “The reconstructed appearance of Cro-Magnon man offers some idea of this peculiar prehistoric type. Overall, it is cranially closer to Europeans than are other individuals of that time. The forehead is rather unusual – it overhangs the eyes and is wide, with a protruding middle part. The anatomy of the eye sockets (their closed chamber) provides a possibility to reproduce deeply sunk eyes. Despite rather prominent nasal bones, the reconstructed nose is straight and short, with a horizontal base. Its wings are neither wide nor high, and have a distinct outline. The profile view suggests that the midface was, as it were, concave.”

M.M. Gerasimov noted the high stature of Cro-Magnons (180 cm and more in males) and the specific proportions of their extremities – relatively short arms, long legs, and a high shin-to-hip ratio. “An appearance more suited for hunting under the specific conditions of the Upper Paleolithic,” he wrote, “is hard to imagine. Hunting at that time required a long-range movement (running) with a high muscular effort. Those were strong handsome people.”


Location of the Upper Paleolithic
grotto of Cro-Magnon, France.

Cranium of a male from
Cro-Magnon. Plaster cast.

Cranium of a male from
Cro-Magnon. Plaster cast.

Gerasimov’s sculptural reconstruction
of Cro-Magnon man. Plaster.

Upper Paleolithic Stone and
Bone Tools from France 



An excellently preserved skeleton of a male aged 20-25 was discovered by A.N. Rogachev in 1954 in a shallow oval grave at the Upper Paleolithic site of Markina Gora (Kostenki XIV) on the Don, Voronezh Region. The estimated age of the burial is 32 thousand years.

Judging by a strongly flexed position of the skeleton and by traces of red paint on the bones, the body had been tightly wrapped or tied up and strewn with ocher. No burial goods were present, but the associated cultural layer contained Early Upper Paleolithic (Aurignacian) tools – blades, scrapers, burins, etc. – as well as animal bones (mainly those of wild horses).

The Markina Gora skeleton was examined by G.F. Debetz, who estimated the individual’s age at 20-25. The man was rather low-statured (about 160 cm). The morphology of his skeleton is generally quite modern. Certain cranial features, including very narrow braincase, low and narrow face, marked prognathism (anterior protrusion of the midface), and very wide nose, are typical of tropical populations. The trait combination links the cranium with those of Papuans and Melanesians.

Certain other Upper Paleolithic crania from Europe, too, display “tropical” features. Bodily proportions of Early Upper Paleolithic people reveal southern characteristics as well. This also concerns the arm proportions of the Markina Gora individual, whose forearm was relatively long compared to the shoulder.

The meaning of those facts is yet unclear. Modern geographic human groups (so called “races”) had not completely formed by the Upper Paleolithic, and some of their characteristics may have incidentally appeared in various parts of the world. On the other hand, tropical features may indicate that anatomically modern humans had migrated to Europe from the south, specifically from Africa. Genetic data favor such possibility.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the supposedly Upper Paleolithic age of the burial has not been proven by absolute (radiocarbon) dating methods. The burial may actually be rather recent and unrelated to the enclosing cultural layer. If so, the appearance of the Markina Gora individual is even more difficult to explain.

M.M. Gerasimov, like G.F. Debetz, believed that people of such appearance or their direct ancestors had actually migrated to Europe in the early Upper Paleolithic from areas lying far south. Therefore he endowed the reconstructed individual with tropical characteristics including curly hair. The future will hopefully show whether or not this “artistic liberty” of the scientist and sculptor was warranted.


Location of Kostenki XIV
(Markina Gora) Upper Paleolithic site.

Man from Kostenki XIV (Markina Gora),
reconstructed by M.M. Gerasimov.
M .M. Gerasimov with his colleagues
in archeology during the excavations
at Kostenki XIV (Markina Gora)
in the 1950s.
M .M. Gerasimov taking the human
skull out of the grave. Kostenki XIV
(Markina Gora).
M .M. Gerasimov with A.N. Rogachev
 (head of expedition) at Kostenki XIV
(Markina Gora).

Mikhail Gerasimov’s Career
Mikhail Gerasimov as an Archaeologist
Reconstruction of the Face from the Cranium
“Sinanthropus” (Member of the Species Homo Erectus)
Homo Neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man)
Neanderthal Child from Teshik-Tash
People of the Upper Paleolithic
People of the Mesolithic
People of the Early Iron Age
Drawings by M.M. Gerasimov