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Mesolithic - Life Before Farming

Guide to the Mesolithic

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Boulder Sculpture from Lepenski Vir, Serbia

Boulder Sculpture from Lepenski Vir, Serbia

Mazbln

The Mesolithic (or "middle stone") period is traditionally that time period in the Old World between the last glaciation at the end of the Paleolithic (~12,000 years ago) and the beginning of the Neolithic (~7000 years ago), when farming communities began to be established.

During the first three thousand years of what scholars recognize as the Mesolithic, a period of climatic instability made life very interesting in Europe, with gradual warming abruptly switching to 1200 years of very cold dry weather called the Younger Dryas. By 9000 BC, the climate had stabilized to close to what it is today. During the Mesolithic, humans learned to hunt in groups and to fish, and began to learn how to domesticate animals and plants.

Climate Change and the Mesolithic

The retreat of the Pleistocene glaciers, a steep rise in sea levels, and the extinction of megafauna (large-bodied animals) were accompanied by a growth in forests and a major redistribution of animals and plants. After the climate stabilized, people moved northward into previously glaciated areas, and adopted new subsistence methods. Hunters targeted medium-bodied animals like red and roe deer, aurochs, elk, sheep, goat and ibex. Marine mammals, fish and shellfish were heavily used in coastal areas, and huge shell middens are associated with Mesolithic sites along the coasts throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Plant resources such as hazelnuts, acorns and nettles became an important part of Mesolithic diets.

Mesolithic Technology

During the Mesolithic period, humans began the first steps in land management. Swamps and wetlands were purposely burned, and chipped and ground stone axes were used to cut down trees for fires, and for constructing living quarters and fishing vessels.

Stone tools were made from microliths—tiny chips of stone made from blades or bladelets and set into toothed slots in bone or antler shafts. Tools made of composite material—bone, antler, wood combined with stone—were used to create a variety of harpoons, arrows, and fish hooks. Nets and seines were developed for fishing and trapping small game.

Boats and canoes were constructed, and the first wooden tracks to cross wetlands were built. Pottery and ground stone tools were first made during the Late Mesolithic, although they didn't come into prominence until the Neolithic.

Settlement Patterns of the Mesolithic

Mesolithic hunter-gatherers moved seasonally, following animal migrations and plant changes. In many areas, large permanent or semi-permanent communities were located on the coast, with smaller temporary hunting camps were located further inland.

Mesolithic houses had sunken floors, which varied in outline from round to rectangular, and were built of wooden posts around a central hearth.

Mesolithic Art and Ritual Behaviors

Decidedly unlike the predecessor Upper Paleolithic art, Mesolithic art is geometric, with a restricted range of colors, dominated by the use of red ochre. Other art objects include painted pebbles, ground stone beads, pierced shells and teeth, and amber. Star Carr has some red deer antler headdresses.

The Mesolithic period saw the first small cemeteries; the largest so far discovered are at Skateholm, with 65 interments. Burials varied: some inhumations, some cremations, some highly ritualized "skull nests" associated with evidence of large-scale violence. Some of the burials included grave goods, tools, jewelry, shells, and animal and human figurines; goods that archaeologists suggest are evidence of the emergence of social stratification.

The first megalithic tombs—collective burial places constructed of large stone blocks—were constructed at the end of the Mesolithic period. The oldest of these are in the Upper Alentejo region of Portugal and along the Brittany coast; they were constructed between 4700-4500 BC.

Warfare in the Mesolithic

By the end of the Mesolithic, ~5000 BC, a very high percentage of skeletons recovered from Mesolithic burials show evidence of violence: 44% in Denmark; 20% in Sweden and France. Archaeologists suggest that the violence arose towards the end of the Mesolithic because of social pressure resulting from competition for resources, as Neolithic farmers vied with hunter-gatherers over rights to land.

Sources

This entry is a part of the About.com Guide to European Prehistory, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Bailey G. 2007. Archaeological Records: Postglacial Adaptations. In: Scott AE, editor. Encyclopedia of Quaternary Science. Oxford: Elsevier. p 145-152.

Cunliffe, Barry. 2008. Europe between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD 1000. Yale University Press.

Peterkin GL. 2008. European, Northern and Western: Mesolithic Cultures In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 1249-1252.

Price, TD 1989 The reconstruction of Mesolithic diets. In The Mesolithic in Europe. C. Bonsall, ed. p. 48-59. John Donald Publishers, Edinburgh.

Spikins P. 2008. Mesolithic Europe: glimpses of another world. In: Spikins P, and Bailey G, editors. Mesolithic Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p 1-17.

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