The Mesolithic of Northwest Europe

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Mount Sandel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 151

Star Carr . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153

The Mesolithic of northwest Europe is the period between the end of the last Ice Age and the widespread adoption of agriculture. During the Mesolithic the region was occupied by hunter-gatherers, but the term itself refers specifically to a technological stage. Translated literally, it means "Middle Stone Age" and was adopted in the 1920s, when this period was viewed as a not particularly interesting interlude between the old and new Stone Ages—the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic. This view is no longer accepted, and the Mesolithic is now seen as the period in northwest Europe when anatomically modern humans adapted to the challenges and opportunities of the Postglacial environment. Conventionally, it spans six millennia beginning about 10,000 b.c.


The diagnostic artifacts of the Mesolithic in northwest Europe are retouched blades of chert, flint, or similar stone, referred to as "microliths," because of their often very small size; examples less than 10 millimeters long are common. These microliths were components in composite hunting weapons, usually arrows. One microlith provided the piercing tip, while others mounted in series down the shaft acted as barbs, not to secure the arrow in the wound but to increase its size and stimulate bleeding. Examples have been found in Sweden, still mounted in their shafts. The adoption of the bow and arrow as the principal hunting weapon is a characteristic of the Mesolithic, although the origins of the practice lie among the Late Upper Palaeolithic communities at the end of the Ice Age.

Microliths underwent development over time, and the various stages that have been identified have been used by archaeologists to subdivide the period. This practice has been superseded by the widespread application of radiocarbon dating. Three broad typological categories, however, are still referred to widely in the literature (fig. 1). The earliest types of microlith found in the northern part of the region were made on relatively broad blades that had been obliquely snapped, or truncated, to produce a robust tip. The origins of this type are found in Late Upper Palaeolithic assemblages referred to as Ahrensburgian. One lateral margin was abruptly retouched to facilitate insertion into the arrow shaft, and additional retouching sometimes extended around the tip and the base. These broad-blade, obliquely blunted points are widespread in southern Scandinavia, but they also are the characteristic find of the period down to about 8000 b.c. in the British Isles, the Low Countries, and northeastern France. Assemblages in which this type predominates are referred to as Maglemosian in southern Scandinavia, but outside this region they are simply termed Early Mesolithic.

Farther south, obliquely truncated blades also dominate early assemblages, but the blades themselves tend to be narrower than those used in the north and the resulting microliths more geometric in form. They seem to have been influenced by the small, simple backed blades of the Late Upper Palaeolithic Azilian assemblages. In the literature these assemblages are termed Sauveterrian, named after the type site of Sauveterre-la-Lémance in France. During the period between 10,000 and 7000 b.c., microliths of this type spread from central and southern France throughout the region, replacing the broad-blade forms as the predominant type in the north in the eighth millennium b.c. During this period microliths also became smaller, narrower, and more geometric in form.

The third major technological stage was confined to mainland northwest Europe and saw the introduction from about 7000 b.c. of trapeze-shaped microliths. This stage is called the Tardenoisian, after the type site of Fère-en-Tardenois in France. The introduction of trapezoidal microliths suggests a change in hunting tactics, the trapezes being mounted singly at the end of the arrow shaft. Trapezes did not spread to the British Isles, where Late Mesolithic assemblages are characterized by the continued development of narrow-blade geometric microliths.

The Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of northwest Europe used a wide range of materials in addition to chert and flint, but because many were perishable, few examples survive. Bone and antler provide something of an exception, and two categories of implements made from these materials have been recovered in significant numbers: barbed projectile points and heavy-duty digging tools known as mattocks. Barbed points, which functioned as arrowheads, spearheads, and harpoon heads, also are known from Late Upper Palaeolithic assemblages; during the Mesolithic many different types were made to suit specific needs. The main change over time was in the production blanks, with long splinters of bone or antler being replaced about 8000 b.c. by blanks made from split sections of long bone or antler beam. The mattocks show fewer signs of development through time. Early Mesolithic examples are made from the basal sections of the antler, whereas antler beams were favored in the Late Mesolithic. Other, spectacular finds made from organic materials include several dugout canoes and basketwork fish traps.


The Mesolithic people of northwest Europe were hunter-gatherers, and their subsistence activities were governed by what was available. There are indications, however, that toward the end of the period, some groups were beginning to manage aspects of their environment through the controlled use of forest fires to enhance its productivity. Over the six millennia of the Mesolithic period, the environment of northwest Europe underwent a series of significant changes. In terms of plants and animals, species that had been driven out of the region or into its more southerly latitudes by the harsh conditions of the Ice Age migrated northward as the climate ameliorated. Throughout most of the Mesolithic the region was cloaked in a dense mantle of deciduous woodland, although the mosaic of species varied with latitude. For example, oak was predominant everywhere; in the south, warmth-loving species, such as pistachio, formed a significant component, whereas in the north, birch was often a major component.

These woodlands provided a home for a range of animals, many of which experienced human predation. The most favored animals appear to have been red and roe deer, wild cattle, and wild boar. Moose were important early in the period, but their absence after about 9000 b.c. suggests that habitat loss and predation had led to their extinction within the region. Small animals, such as hare, beavers, and pine martens, were trapped mainly for their pelts, and birds, especially waterfowl, also were taken. Evidence from a number of sites indicates that dogs had been domesticated by this time, and their status in society is reflected by the fact that they occasionally are found to have been given formal burial in cemeteries otherwise occupied by humans. Little is known about the use of plant resources, owing to the rarity with which such material survives, although hazelnuts are almost ubiquitous.

Aquatic resources, both freshwater and marine, made a significant contribution to subsistence, but their role needs to be evaluated in light of the major changes in sea level that occurred during this period. At the height of the Ice Age much of the Earth's water was locked up in continental ice sheets and, as a consequence, sea level was greatly reduced. Estimates vary, but eighteen thousand years ago the sea level around northwest Europe may have been as much as 130 meters lower than it is today. With the melting of the ice sheets, the sea level began to rise, but by the beginning of the Mesolithic it was still around 35 meters below the present level. Britain did not become an island until the middle of the eighth millennium b.c. The effect of these changes in sea level was profound. During the Early Mesolithic the area of the North Sea was dry land, and bands of hunters could walk dry-shod from the Low Countries to southeast England. As sea levels rose, the loss of land led to population displacement. It also produced lengthening of the coastline and flooding of estuaries. These processes greatly increased the availability of aquatic resources and fish; marine mammals and shellfish became important components in later Mesolithic subsistence strategies. Substance patterns in Mesolithic northwest Europe can be illustrated by considering the faunal inventories recovered from numerous key sites.

The site of Star Carr in Yorkshire, England, provides a good example of subsistence during the Early Mesolithic. This site, which is one of several lying along the shores of a Late Glacial/Early Postglacial lake, experienced two periods of occupation during the middle of the ninth millennium b.c. As well has large numbers of Early Mesolithic microliths and barbed antler points, the excavators recovered bones of moose, wild cattle, red and roe deer, pine marten, fox, and beavers. Surprisingly, no fish remains were recovered, but birds included redbreasted merganser, red-throated diver, and great crested grebe. Edible plant remains reported from Star Carr were water chestnuts, bog bean, fat hen, and nettle, in addition to hazelnuts.

The site at Mount Sandel in the valley of the River Bann in Northern Ireland was occupied during the later part of the ninth millennium b.c., and the flint assemblage was dominated by narrow-blade, geometric microliths, although a few broad-blade forms also were present. Of the mammal bones recovered, 98 percent were of wild boar. Ireland was cut off from mainland Britain by rising sea level at an early stage in the Postglacial, and this specialization on a single species may have been due to the impoverished nature of the available fauna, few species having successfully established themselves before access was cut off. Among the birds recorded were mallard, teal, wigeon, grouse, capercaillie, and snipe or woodcock. Fish were well represented, and 80 percent of the identified bones came from salmon or sea trout. Eel and bass also were present, and plant remains included hazelnut shells, pear or apple pips, and water-lily seeds, all of which probably contributed to the diet.

The faunal assemblage from the small rock shelter of L'Abri du Pape in the Meuse Valley of Belgium provides good insight into the species preyed upon by the Mesolithic hunters of this part of northwest Europe during the eighth and early seventh millennia b.c. Mammals comprised red and roe deer, wild boar, wild cattle, otter, fox, and wild cat, although the quantities of each are small. Predation appears to have been focused on river fish and birds, of which more than thirty different species have been identified. The fish species include carp, pike, catfish, eel, salmon, perch, and shad.

The sites of Téviec and Hoëdic now lie on small islands off the coast of Brittany, but during the Mesolithic lower sea levels may have meant that they were on promontories joined to the mainland. These sites were excavated in the early years of the twentieth century, and the available details are not as extensive as for Star Carr and Mount Sandel. Nonetheless, the presence of trapezoidal microliths allows them to be placed in the later Mesolithic. Both sites consisted mainly of accumulations of food debris, called middens, into which had been inserted numerous human burials. Among the food species identified were shellfish, such as limpet, periwinkle, mussel, oyster, and scallop, and numerous fish bones, mainly of wrasse. Bird remains included waterfowl and auks; mammals consisted of red and roe deer, wild boar, fox and wildcat, and plants exploited included wild pear.

Finally, the excavated sites at Hardinxveld-Giessendam near Rotterdam in the Netherlands have provided abundant data on subsistence resources at the end of the Mesolithic and the beginning of the Neolithic. The site at Polderweg was situated on a riverbank and witnessed three phases of occupation during the latter part of the sixth millennium b.c. Throughout this period the main activity appears to have been pike fishing, probably undertaken during the second half of the winter. Roach, bream, tench, eels, catfish, and salmon also were caught, probably through the use of sophisticated traps. Beaver and otter were the most important mammals, probably trapped for their pelts, as were pine marten, wild cat, and polecat. The remains of wild boar and red and roe deer also were present in the assemblage. Fowling concentrated on ducks, and plant resources comprised acorns, hazelnut, water nut, wild apple, and various berries. The flint assemblage at Polderweg is dominated by simple blades but includes three arrowheads of a type normally found on Early Neolithic Linearbandkeramik sites in the region. The presence of simple bag-shaped pottery vessels also testifies to contacts between these Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and their Early Neolithic neighbors; unlike the nearby and slightly later site of De Bruin, however, domestic animals and cultivated grains are absent.


It is thought that the Polderweg site was occupied mainly during January and February, and the issue of the seasonal availability of resources needs to be kept in mind when considering settlement patterns in the Mesolithic. In general, hunter-gatherers needed to live a mobile, seminomadic existence, moving from one area to another as resources became available at different times of the year. The deciduous woods of northwest Europe offered a fairly homogeneous environment, but seasonal movements would have been undertaken by most groups, migrating between the coasts and the interior and between the lowlands and uplands. Movement also would have been necessitated when resources in one region became exhausted or disturbance of prey species led to diminishing returns.

Two patterns of mobility can be identified. In one, the whole group moved on a fairly frequent basis, at least each season or more often, and hunting and gathering took place within a day's march of the residential location. The American anthropologist Lewis Binford coined the term "residential foraging" for this pattern of behavior. In the alternative pattern, moves were made less frequently, and part of the group might have remained in one location over several seasons while specialist task groups were sent out to hunt and gather farther afield. Binford calls this "logistic collecting." These two patterns each represent either end of a continuum, and it is unlikely that any Mesolithic population adhered to one extreme or the other. Rather, the emphasis probably shifted on a tactical basis from season to season and from year to year. Groups may have been residential foragers in spring and early summer, when resources were generally scarce, but shifted to a more logistic strategy in autumn, which was the season of plenty. Storage of the autumn abundance may have limited the need for frequent moves in the winter.

Settlement mobility is difficult to demonstrate, but it sometimes is possible to show that a site was occupied only at certain times of the year, with the implication that at other times the people were living elsewhere. Star Carr was visited mainly in the spring and summer, Mount Sandel in the autumn, and Polderweg during the winter. Another way of monitoring mobility is through the distribution of raw materials. For example, flint found on Mesolithic sites in the Pennine uplands in northern England originated up to 80 kilometers away in Yorkshire, whereas material found at Polderweg came from the Meuse gravels 50 to 100 kilometers away. It may reasonably be assumed that these materials give an indication of the distances covered by the groups in the course of an annual cycle. Caution must be exercised in interpretation, however, as in the case of Wommersom quartzite, items of which also were found at Polderweg. This material outcrops naturally in a very restricted area of central Belgium, but artifacts made from it are found over an area of about 45,000 square kilometers, extending from the North Sea to the valleys of the Rhine and Meuse. Within this area the distribution can be subdivided into a core lying between the Meuse and Schelde in which Wommersom quartzite can form up to 77 percent of assemblages and a wider zone in which its contribution to assemblages is usually less than 5 percent. Whereas the distribution within the core area probably reflects the movements of individual groups to and from the source or the deployment of logistic task groups, the marked falloff indicated by the wider distribution is more reminiscent of the patterns generated by down-the-line trade or exchange.

These patterns of mobility have meant that archaeologists can encounter a range of site types. From the finds made, some appear to have been home bases where the whole group resided for at least part of the time, while others seem to have been the locations of more specialized activities. Among the latter are hunting camps used by logistic task groups when away from the home base and extraction sites, such as the locations where raw materials were collected and animals were killed. Home bases are the most common type of site identified in northwest Europe during the Mesolithic, which suggests that the most frequently followed pattern was one of residential foraging. Star Carr, Mount Sandel, and Polderweg probably are examples of home bases, although the latter two sites appear to have become hunting camps during a later phase of activity. The shell-midden sites along the Atlantic seaboard, such as Téviec and Hoëdic and those on the island of Oronsay in the Hebrides, may reflect specialist activities.

Population numbers are notoriously difficult to estimate, but comparison with recent hunter-gatherer populations suggests that northwest Europe at the height of the Mesolithic is unlikely to have supported more than 100,000 people and possibly far fewer. Published estimates for the British Isles at the end of the Mesolithic suggest a range of between 2,750 and 5,500. Residential foragers usually lived in small groups, or bands, made up of just a few families. Archaeology can tell little about the social relations within and between these bands. In common with recent hunter-gatherer societies, bands probably were fairly egalitarian, with leadership provided on a tactical basis by skilled individuals. Older members would have had a valued role as repositories of knowledge and experience. Relations with other bands are likely to have ranged between amity and enmity, depending on the degree of competition over resources, and probably were managed by a complex system of alliances. Toward the end of the period, as population levels increased, more complex, hierarchical social structures may have emerged. During periods of abundance it would have been possible for several bands to come together, perhaps at regular intervals. Such gatherings would have been highly necessary both socially, for the exchange of information and the maintenance of alliances, and genetically, for the maintenance of a healthy gene pool through the exchange of marriage partners.


Very little is known about the kind of structures erected on Mesolithic settlements. This is hardly surprising, given the transitory nature of most settlements. Many temporary campsites may not have had any structures other than a windbreak and a fireplace. In areas where the geology was suitable, such as the Meuse Valley in Belgium, southwest France, and the limestone regions of England and Wales, caves were used on an occasional basis. Nowhere does this seem to have been a popular or widespread practice, however, and caves were used almost as frequently as burial grounds. Some early sources make reference to "pit dwellings," holes in the ground thought to have been roofed over and occupied as shelters. This view is no longer accepted, and these features now are interpreted as tree-fall hollows, the presence of Mesolithic finds in and around them being regarded as accidental. The identification of a few substantial Mesolithic structures nonetheless indicates that this absence of evidence is in part due to the exigencies of survival.

The best examples of Mesolithic houses excavated in northwest Europe are the structures uncovered at Mount Sandel in Northern Ireland. There, three D-shaped huts were identified that could have been occupied at the same time. Each structure was 5.5 meters in diameter and had a central hearth. Walls were indicated by stake holes, which inclined inward, suggesting a superstructure of bent and tied saplings. The whole structure presumably was covered with vegetation or hides. These huts provided 30 square meters of floor space, and each could have accommodated a single family, suggesting a three-family co-residential group. Traces of similar structures have been reported from elsewhere in the region.


Compared with the preceding Upper Palaeolithic, which saw the flourishing of cave art, the Mesolithic in northwest Europe is an impoverished period, with little more to offer than a few bone and antler implements with rudimentary abstract engravings and some putative anthropomorphic figurines. By far the best example is the 125-millimeter-high statuette from Willemstad, in North Brabant, the Netherlands, dated to the mid-sixth millennium b.c. This is carved on a plank of oak and consists of the head and part of the upper body; the gender is unspecified. It was found in a peat bog and probably was a ritual deposit rather than a casual loss.

Other evidence for ritual behavior, apart from burial, is virtually nonexistent. At the site of Star Carr in Yorkshire, England, twenty-one red deer antler frontlets were recovered. They had been adapted for wearing as headdresses; rather than simply regarding them as deer-stalking disguises, it has been claimed that they are evidence for a hunting ritual. This distinction between secular and ritual behavior probably did not apply in the ninth millennium b.c., and hunting may have been a highly ritualized activity. Similar modified frontlets are known from elsewhere in northwest Europe but not in such large numbers.

Burial is the one form of ritual behavior for which there is evidence throughout the region, but even so this area stands in poor comparison with southern Scandinavia and the Baltic, from which most of the evidence about Mesolithic funeral practices has been derived. The fact that northwest Europe has produced a few hundred Mesolithic burials at most means that the great majority of people were not afforded the right of formal burial but had their mortal remains disposed of in some other way. A hint as to what happened to them is provided by the Mesolithic shell middens on the island of Oronsay in the Hebrides, Scotland. Excavation of a group of these sites failed to identify any formal burials but did recover a number of isolated bones, mostly of fingers and toes. The explanation that has been offered is that the dead were laid out on exposed platforms while they decomposed. When this process was complete, the bones were collected for disposal elsewhere; inevitably a few small bones would occasionally get lost. There is evidence for this practice from recent hunter-gatherers, and it represents a parsimonious explanation for the absence of numerous burials and the occurrence of isolated bones.

Some segments of the population were buried formally. In certain cases these were single individuals buried within or close to settlements. A good example is the burial of an adult woman of about fifty years of age during an early phase at the Polderweg settlement. She was laid on her back in an extended position (fig. 2). A greatly disturbed second burial was found nearby, along with those of three dogs. Caves featured prominently in Mesolithic burial rituals, both for individuals, as in the case of Cheddar Man, a burial of the late ninth millennium b.c. found in Goughs Cave, Cheddar Gorge, England, and for groups. Examples of the latter come from the Meuse Valley in Belgium, where ten to eleven female burials are reported from the Margaux Cave and five adults and six children from the Autours rock shelter. These cave burials all date to the ninth millennium b.c., as is also the case with the seventy or more burials reported from Avelines Hole, near Cheddar, England (most of them were found more than a century ago, however, and few details are available).

In northwest Europe the best examples of Mesolithic cemeteries outside caves are the Breton shell-midden sites of Téviec and Hoëdic. In Téviec ten graves contained the remains of twenty-three individuals, whereas at Hoëdic nine graves contained thirteen people. That many graves at these Late Mesolithic sites contain more than one inhumation is particularly interesting, as collective burial was to become a major feature of funerary rites in the subsequent Early Neolithic period. One burial at Téviec, that of a young adult man, provides further insight into life in the Late Mesolithic, in that he was found to have a transverse arrowhead embedded in his spine. Other cases of violent death are known from elsewhere in Europe, particularly southern Scandinavia and southeast Europe, and it has been suggested that the Late Mesolithic period witnessed the origins of formal warfare. The evidence is insufficient to support such a sweeping conclusion, but these cases do suggest a degree of interpersonal violence not witnessed earlier.

The end of the Mesolithic in the region is marked by a shift to the adoption of farming during the Neolithic. The reasons for this change are the subject of debate; environmental, economic, and social pressures have been proposed as the driving forces, and a single explanation is unlikely to apply throughout the region. What is not in question is that farming makes it possible to support a larger population, and population pressure must have played a part in convincing people of the advantages of adopting agriculture. The origins of farming are to be sought outside northwest Europe, in the Near East, Anatolia, and southeast Europe, and the process of adoption in northwest Europe was gradual, spanning at least a millennium. Domesticated sheep and goats are reported from the French Mediterranean site of Chateauneuf-les-Martiques in the sixth millennium b.c., whereas domestic animals are not recorded in the north of the region before the mid-fifth millennium. At one time it was believed that farming was spread by Neolithic immigrants, but it is now considered more likely that it was adopted selectively by the indigenous Mesolithic population. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the species involved and the ideas about their management had to be introduced from outside.

Two sources of this influence can be detected in northwest Europe. On the one hand, on the Mediterranean coasts, elements of Neolithic culture, such as pottery and grinding stones, begin to appear in Mesolithic assemblages in the seventh millennium b.c. On the other hand, in the northeast, pottery and specialized types of arrowhead, derived from the Early Neolithic farmers of the Linearbandkeramik culture, appeared in late Mesolithic assemblages by the beginning of the fifth millennium. In both cases elements of material culture were adopted before the first signs of domestic crops or farm animals. Given the several million years of the span of human history, the period of time over which farming was adopted in northwest Europe was brief, and by 4000 b.c. it had spread throughout the region. Hunting and gathering continued to be part of the way of life, however, for many communities for more than a millennium.

See alsoMount Sandel (vol. 1, part 2); Star Carr (vol. 1, part 2); First Farmers of Central Europe (vol. 1, part 3); Transition to Farming along the Lower Rhine and Meuse (vol. 1, part 3).


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The Mesolithic of Northwest Europe

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