Mesolithic Period

Complex Hunter-Gatherers in Eurasia

Carnac Standing Stones, Brittany
The earliest standing stones at Carnac on the Brittany coast were raised during the Mesolithic period. Thierry Tronnel / Corbis / Getty Images

The Mesolithic (basically meaning "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 B.C.E., 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

Climate changes during the Mesolithic included the retreat of the Pleistocene glaciers, a steep rise in sea levels, and the extinction of megafauna (large-bodied animals). These changes 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, auroch, 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, 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; the first fish weirs, deliberate traps placed in streams were constructed.

Boats and canoes were constructed, and the first roads called wooden trackways were built to safely cross wetlands. Pottery and ground stone tools were first made during the Late Mesolithic, although they did not 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 coasts, with smaller temporary hunting camps 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. Interactions between Mesolithic groups included the widespread exchange of raw materials and finished tools; genetic data suggest that there was also large-scale population movement and intermarriage across Eurasia.

Recent archaeological studies have convinced archaeologists that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were instrumental in beginning the long slow process of domesticating plants and animals. The traditional switch to Neolithic life ways was fueled in part by an intensifying emphasis on those resources, rather than the fact of domestication.

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. The Mesolithic site of Star Carr contained some red deer antler headdresses.

The Mesolithic period also saw the first small cemeteries; the largest so far discovered is at Skateholm in Sweden, 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, such as tools, jewelry, shells, and animal and human figurines. Archaeologists have suggested that these 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 B.C.E.

Warfare in the Mesolithic

By the end of the Mesolithic, ~5000 B.C.E., 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.