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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Know Your Prehistory (3) --
Mesolithic Progress.
by Joy Saynor.

This third article is concerned with a comparatively short time span-a mere eight and a half thousand years, compared to the some hundreds of millenia of the Palaeolithic ages-but these few thousand years contained within themselves the seeds of the future "Neolithic Revolution," which transformed man from a wanderer on the face of the world to a settled member of a stable community of farmers and herdsmen. Prehistorians have given the term "Mesolithic," (from the Greek mesos meaning intermediate), to emphasise the characteristics of this period.

The two best known Mesolithic cultures, one in western Asia and one in northern Europe, were both brought into being by climatic change which followed the final retreat of the glaciers some ten thousand years ago. The new climate phase, (now more appropriately termed the "Neothermal" rather than "Postglacial" for world-wide terms of reference), has been more closely investigated than any previous geological era. This has been made possible by radio-carbon analysis augmented with the more recent analysis of fossil pollen.

The stress of and conditions in western Asia forced a new way of life into being; in contrast in northern Europe, a gentler climate allowed man to adapt more gradually to change. In Europe, as the ice retreated and the temperature gradually rose, warmth-demanding trees -- oak, elm and lime -- joined the great pine forests stretching from the Pennines to the Urals. Northsealand joined Britain to northern Europe; higher sea levels than today, (rising some three feet a century, circa 12,000 and 4,000 BC) ensured a plentiful supply of fish and fowl in the myriad lakes, meres and marshes. Between these two areas in Asia and Europe, for instance in the western Mediterranean zone where ecological conditions changed far less, no great cultural changes took place in the period.

The Mesolithic culture of western Asia best known to pre-historians is that of communities following the way of life first studied at the Wady en-Natuf -- the Natufian -- a culture which initiated (very tentatively) the domestication of animals and plants as well as continuing the old methods of hunting and fishing. The Natuflans were settlers of a strip of land some forty miles inland from the eastern Mediterranean, between Beirut and the Judean desert, with outlying settlements in Syria and Egypt. The earlier Natufians combined earlier Advanced Palaeolithic techniques in the working of blades and burins, and the use of bone and antler, with a characteristic Mesolithic abundance of microliths, (minute, but delicately trimmed, flint tools), many of which fitted well into the slotted handles of bone, and doubtless wooden, reaping knives. That they still hunted for food is indicated by the carved heads of wild animals on knife handles, and by the absence of domestic animal bones.

Excavations at Tell es-Sultan, (the site of Jericho), have revealed the most complete record of any Asian Mesolithic group, beginning in about 7,800 BC, (radio-carbon dating), with a simple camp round the spring, and progressing to well-constructed round huts with sunken floors and beehive-shaped brick walls.

Food was mainly obtained by hunting gazelle, supplemented on a very small scale with (probably), wild grain. A similar variety of grain still grows in the area today. It would have been harvested with the microlith-set reaping-knives referred to above, but not ground in a quern: only stone rubbers have been found. And grain does not appear to have been stored for future use.

The Natufians buried their dead, with usually more than one occupant in each grave, at their place of settlement, occasionally with ceremony. For example at Eynam, a monumental circular tomb with plaster-lined walls was sunk a metre into the ground. The Mesolithic period in Europe differed in several respects from that in Asia. Farming later reached much of Europe from outside: it was not an internal development. Furthermore, the old way of life was adapted to a widened geographical context in improved climatic conditions. The outstanding hunter-fisher people of the north European plain were the Maglemoseans, taking their name from the seasonal camp excavated at Maglemose -- Big Moss -- near Mullerup in Zealand.

They vigorously exploited the possibilities of sea, river and land, catching fish from paddled boats with hook and line, spear and net, hunting elk, auroch, (extinct wild ox), red and roe deer, and wild pig with spears and bows and arrows, and felling forest trees with axes supplemented with adzes and chisels. An early settlement of four households following this way of life was discovered at Star Carr, near Scarborough, and later groups thrust along the east coast, into Scotland and across westwards to the Isle of Man and Ulster.

As time passed, Maglemosean culture became fragmented into many local cultures, and by, at latest, 4,000 BC (rc dating), immigrant farmers were introducing cereals, sheep and goats to Northern Europe -- the beginnings of the Neolithic Revolution. Northsealand disappeared for ever; Britain was an island.


  1. Gordon Childe -- The Prehistory of European Society. (1958.)
  2. Graham Clark -- World Prehistory. (1961.)
  3. Ed. Peter Ucko and G W Dimbleby -- The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals. (1969.)
  4. C D Darlington -- The Evolution of Man and Society. (1969.)
  5. K M Kenyon -- Digging up Jericho. (1957.)
Other articles in this series.
Issue (year) KAR number Article number Title
Winter 1971 #26 8 Iron Age Progressions
Summer 1971 #24 7 Bronze Age Beginnings
Winter 1970 #22 6 Bronze Age Beginnings
Autumn 1970 #21 5 The Neolithic Period
Spring 1970 #19 4 The Neolithic Revolution
Winter 1970 #18 3 Mesolithic Progress
Autumn 1969 #17 2 The Emergence of Homo Sapiens
Summer 1969 #16 1 The Dawn of Man
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