Stone tools discovered at Lézignan-la-Cèbe in 2009 indicate that early humans were present in France at least 1.57 million years ago.
France includes Olduwan (Abbevillian) and Acheulean sites from early or non-modern (transitional) Hominini species, most notably Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. Tooth Arago 149 - 560,000 years. Tautavel Man (Homo erectus tautavelensis), is a proposed subspecies of the hominid Homo erectus, the 450,000-year-old fossil remains of whom were discovered in the Arago cave in Tautavel.
The Grotte du Vallonnet near Menton contained simple stone tools dating to 1 million to 1.05 million years BC. Cave sites were exploited for habitation, but the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic era also possibly built shelters such as those identified in connection with Acheulean tools at Grotte du Lazaret and Terra Amata near Nice in France. Excavations at Terra Amata found traces of the earliest known domestication of fire in Europe, from 400,000 BC.
The Neanderthals are thought to have arrived there around 300,000 BC, but seem to have died out by about by 30,000 BC, presumably unable to compete with modern humans during a period of cold weather. Numerous Neanderthal, or "Mousterian", artifacts (named after the type site of Le Moustier, a rock shelter in the Dordogne region of France) have been found from this period, some using the "Levallois technique", a distinctive type of flint knapping developed by hominids during the Lower Palaeolithic but most commonly associated with the Neanderthal industries of the Middle Palaeolithic. Importantly, recent findings suggest that Neandertals and modern humans may have interbred.
Evidence of cannibalism among Neanderthals found in Neanderthal settlements Moula-Guercy and Les Pradelles.
The earliest modern humans – Cro-Magnons – were present in Europe by 43,000 years ago during a long interglacial period of particularly mild climate, when Europe was relatively warm, and food was plentiful. When they arrived in Europe, they brought with them sculpture, engraving, painting, body ornamentation, music and the painstaking decoration of utilitarian objects. Some of the oldest works of art in the world, such as the cave paintings at Lascaux in southern France, are datable to shortly after this migration.
European Palaeolithic cultures are divided into several chronological subgroups (the names are all based on French type sites, principally in the Dordogne region):
- Aurignacian (c. 38,000 - 23,000 BP) – responsible for Venus figurines, cave paintings at the Chauvet Cave (continued during the Gravettian period).
- Périgordian (c. 35,000 - 20,000 BP) – use of this term is being debated (the term implies that the following subperiods represent a continuous tradition).
- Châtelperronian (c. 39,000 - 29,000 BP) – culture derived from the earlier, Neanderthal, Mousterian industry as it made use of Levallois cores and represents the period when Neanderthals and modern humans occupied Europe together.
- Gravettian (c. 28,000 - 22,000 BP) – responsible for Venus figurines, cave paintings at the Cosquer Cave.
- Solutrean (c. 22,000 - 17,000 BP)
- Magdalenian (c. 17,000 - 10,000 BP) – thought to be responsible for the cave paintings at Pech Merle (in the Lot in Languedoc, dating back to 16,000 BC), Lascaux (located near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne, dating back to somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 BC, and perhaps as far back as 25,000 BC), the Trois-Frères cave and the Rouffignac Cave also known as The Cave of the hundred mammoths. It possesses the most extensive cave system of the Périgord in France with more than 8 kilometers of underground passageways.
Experts sometimes refer to the "Franco-Cantabrian region" to describe this densely populated region of southern France and northern Spain in the late Palaeolithic.