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date: 25 January 2021

Hunter-Gatherers in the Post-Glacial World

Abstract and Keywords

By investigating the history of research on hunter-gatherers in the post-glacial (Holocene) period, this chapter provides an introduction to the chapters in this section of the handbook. In particular, the origins and development of Mesolithic studies in Europe are explored, as this research has been important for framing post-glacial research not just in Europe, but also in other world regions. The Mesolithic has often been characterized as something of an archaeological backwater in between two more dynamic and exciting periods (the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic). However, each of the regional studies in this section of the handbook demonstrate that this period saw many social, economic, environmental and technological changes, as well as elements of continuity with what came before. This period can now be characterized by innovation and a diversity of responses that hunter-gatherers made to a changing ecological, cultural, and social world.

Keywords: Hunter-gatherers, Mesolithic, post-glacial, Holocene, environment, innovation, continuity, change

Introduction and Aims

This part of the handbook examines some of the major transformations affecting hunting and gathering societies during the opening phases of the current post-glacial period, the Holocene. After a series of climatic fluctuations at the end of the Pleistocene, the start of the Holocene is defined by the appearance of substantially warmer and more stable global temperatures. These changes triggered rapid environmental adjustments across the planet, including major sea-level rises, extensive flooding of coastal lowlands, deglaciation of extensive areas, especially in higher latitudes, coupled with major shifts in the distribution of various plant and animal species. Viewed in these terms, the post-glacial period is defined by the onset of major climatic and environmental change and human responses to that.

At this juncture, hunter-gatherer communities were living across a wide range of different world regions, and would have been forced to adjust to the challenges and opportunities generated by the new and often unfamiliar conditions. This should make research into the hunter-gatherer societies of this time period particularly interesting. However, for a number of reasons, the archaeology of this period has a rather unusual research history, but one that is now showing signs of major expansion and diversification as a number of central new research questions emerge.

In many parts of the Old World the archaeology of the post-glacial period has been defined as the ‘Mesolithic’—the Middle Stone Age—and has been presented as a rather quiet backwater or lull in longer-term human history. One older, overarching theme in Mesolithic studies is the tracing of a series of rather basic human adjustments to the new environmental conditions, either by the development of new microlithic stone tool technologies across large areas, the emergence of broader-based subsistence strategies, or the colonization of new areas freed from the ice. These developments have been presented as a major disjuncture from what happened before (the Palaeolithic) and what would follow (the Neolithic, which saw the first sustained use of domesticates). Many older accounts suggest that after (p. 438) these initial changes, local Mesolithic hunter-gatherer populations reached a cultural ceiling, after which there was only limited development and innovation. As such, the Mesolithic has come to be presented as a rather uneventful and largely self-contained period, one that forms an awkward bridge between the dramatic rock art and elaborate material culture of Ice Age big game hunting societies of the preceding Upper Palaeolithic and the onset of farming societies in the succeeding Neolithic, with the coeval explosion in evidence for increased symbolic expression and monumentality.

Viewed in more global terms, this portrayal of the cultural adjustments taking place among hunter-gatherer societies at the end of the Pleistocene and into the Holocene is rather simplistic. This part of the handbook aims to redress this balance by examining some of the fundamentally important developments taking place in the post-glacial period across a broadly representative series of world regions. In tracing out the sequence of developments and adjustments taking place in these areas, several key themes become clear. First, there was often major continuity across the Palaeolithic–Mesolithic transition as populations adjusted to new conditions with older stocks of knowledge and cultural traditions, rather than a sudden rupture. Second, the Mesolithic period itself is marked by major regional diversity and also long-term cultural dynamism among local hunter-gatherer groups. For example, it is possible to ascertain great internal variability among the different communities occupying landscapes affected by changing environmental conditions. Some groups were certainly relatively small and mobile, leaving only ephemeral remains, but other cultural patterns also appear. For example, there were phases of marked cultural fluorescence in many areas, especially in rich aquatic ecosystems that formed the focus of new kinds of more permanent settlement and intensified cultural and economic activity. However, these developments did not necessarily occur in a linear sequence—in some areas, relatively settled and socially complex hunter-gatherers were later replaced by the return of lower population densities and more mobile bands.

It is now clear that the Mesolithic—broadly defined—is far from being a kind of cultural interlude, but is in fact a highly dynamic period with its own unique coherence, which sets it apart from other historical phenomena (Zvelebil 1998, 24). Other important technologies such as pottery, which had been invented by hunter-gatherers in the Upper Palaeolithic, also saw widespread uptake among hunter-gatherers in this early post-glacial period (see Hommel, this volume; Jordan and Zvelebil 2009). Of equal importance were the series of major economic and cultural changes already underway in several key regions, for example, in the rise of domesticated farming economies in the Near East at the end of the Pleistocene, a pattern of domestication led by hunter-gatherers that was mirrored in other regions of the globe at different times (see Harris; Outram, this volume).

This introductory chapter begins by discussing the general environmental changes that define the start of the Holocene across the world, and which form the framework by which this period has been generally understood. It then reviews some of the main traditions of archaeological research and interpretation into the Mesolithic, tracing how these concepts have been used to define the period and present depictions of its hunter-gatherers. These patterns of environmental change, coupled with the general review of archaeological approaches and interpretations, provide a general framework for reviewing the content of each of the chapters. These are organized into two groups. The first group focuses on developments taking place in temperate, lower-latitude regions, such as Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean (Moore; Smith; Rabett and Jones; Habu, this volume). Here, the post-glacial period (p. 439) equated to warmer conditions and major ecological change. The second group focuses on more northerly regions of Europe, which were at this time emerging from much colder conditions, and also witnessed major changes (Svoboda; Warren; Riede, this volume).

The final discussion aims to recast this period as a major area for future research into hunter-gatherers. Thus, the primary goal of Part III is to examine the intersections of all these changes in environmental conditions, subsistence strategies, and social life as they are played out in the archaeological sequences drawn from different world regions. These recast the post-glacial period as a time of both major cultural continuity and also fundamental change, and serve to highlight the inherent variability and dynamism of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, an intriguing historical phenomenon, which archaeologists are just starting to acknowledge and address, drawing on a raft of new methods and approaches.

Global Environmental Changes in the Post-Glacial Period

The global climate has always been changing, and long-term human evolution has taken place in the context of frequent environmental fluctuations, with conditions frequently alternating between warmer and colder periods. Specific patterns of climate change across the world have been thoroughly explored through the analysis of a range of different types of evidence from terrestrial and aquatic organisms (Birks and Ammann 1999) through to the chemical composition of the ice preserved in Antarctica and Greenland (Bender et al. 1994). From a range of evidence, it is possible to identify the onset of significant changes in environmental conditions at the end of the glacial period (the Pleistocene) and into the post-glacial (the Holocene). Beginning around 11,500 bp, the Holocene is the present geological epoch and it is a unique phase of sustained climatic stability, marked by high sea levels and warmer conditions. In contrast, the end of the Pleistocene was marked by a series of sudden climatic fluctuations prior to the full onset of the Holocene (Figure 18.1).

Hunter-Gatherers in the Post-Glacial World

Figure 18.1 Oxygen isotope levels from ice cores (y-axis) reflect temperature changes from the late glacial into the post-glacial period (after Scarre 2013).

At about 25,000 years ago there were full glacial conditions (the Late Glacial Maximum: LGM), which lasted until about 18,000 years ago. One of the key components (p. 440) of the LGM was that thick ice sheets extended down from the Arctic, covering northern Eurasia and much of the northern part of North America, with smaller regional ice sheets located in other mountainous regions. As a result, temperatures on land were as much as 20°C lower than they are today (Roberts 1998, 62). A consequence of the fact that much of the world’s water was frozen in the ice caps also meant that sea levels were significantly lower than today—as much as 100 m lower than present levels. Vegetation was also affected by glacial conditions: most of Europe was devoid of forest, there were significant reductions in tropical rainforests and in the tropics, vegetation was forced into lower altitudes (Roberts 1998, 66). The LGM was also relatively arid, with both cold and hot deserts expanding beyond their present locations (Scarre 2013, 179).

Towards the end of the Pleistocene, there were a series of shorter warm and cold periods prior to the onset of the full post-glacial. This included the Bølling-Allerød interstadial, which saw generally warmer conditions: at the height of this warmer phase the polar front was as high as Iceland (Roberts 1998, 70). However, these warmer conditions halted around 13,000 years ago with the sudden onset of the Younger Dryas, with a short, but extensive return to colder conditions. At its most extreme, the polar front reached as far south as Iberia during this brief cold period (Roberts 1998, 70). The Younger Dryas ended abruptly around 11,500 bp (Alley et al. 1993) with the full onset of warmer post-glacial conditions, which have remained relatively stable to the present day.

The effects of these periods of warming and cooling, and eventually the climatic stabilization that marked the onset of the Holocene, varied from region to region. The biggest changes in tropical and sub-tropical belts were to sea levels, which rose due to the melting ice sheets to the north. This caused the inundation of coastal areas and the loss of land, as well as the restructuring of major river systems. In contrast, higher latitudes were marked by extensive deglaciation, the replacement of polar deserts by tundra, followed by the spread of shrubs and pioneer forests and, eventually, deciduous woodland. Indeed, the climate was favourable enough during the onset of the Holocene that boreal woodland was found further north than its current geographic limit (Foley et al. 1994). Changes in vegetation also affected fauna: the megafauna that characterized the Upper Palaeolithic died out, and there was a northern movement of mammals that favoured open landscapes, including reindeer (caribou). The spread of deciduous woodland into the north was concomitant with the dispersal of mammals including deer, wild pig, and aurochs. Warming seas and oceans also led to increasingly rich coastal ecosystems, albeit ones subject to flooding and inundation through rising seas. Some parts of temperate Europe, for example, saw the loss of enormous landmasses, including Doggerland in what is now the North Sea. Other effects included the slow infilling of lakes, isostatic lift (the rebound of land due to the removal of the weight of ice), and the initiation of peat growth in some areas.

Hunter-Gatherers: Adjustments to a Post-Glacial World

By the onset of the post-glacial period, most of the world was already populated with well-established hunter-gatherer communities occupying different ecological niches. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) had already moved out of Africa in the Pleistocene and spread to virtually all parts of the globe. For example, Eurasia, apart from the most northern extremes, was inhabited by modern humans at various points: South Asia was occupied (p. 441) somewhere between 70 and 50,000 years ago (see Petraglia and Boivin, this volume), and South-East Asia and Indonesia were occupied around 50,000 years ago (see O’Connor and Bulbeck, this volume). Australia had been inhabited by people more than 45,000 years ago (see Davidson, this volume). Much of central and southern Europe had been inhabited from about 35,000 years ago (see Pettitt, this volume) and both North and South America were definitely occupied by people at the end of the Pleistocene, possibly even earlier (see Kornfeld and Politis, this volume).

In the following centuries and millennia these people faced major challenges as these broader environmental changes in the post-glacial period took effect and forced them to adjust to changing conditions. In part, and alongside another species, this required adjustments to how and where people made a living, but as a uniquely cultural species, there were also social, cultural, and technological adjustments. Major changes are documented in the forms of new lithic traditions and new forms of material culture utilized, including the dispersals of pottery among many groups across large areas; there also seem to have been major shifts in social organization, settlement, and subsistence. These developments are presented in detail in the chapters in this part of the handbook. However, in order to understand these developments it is important to place current knowledge against a background of broader research traditions, which this chapter now moves on to explore in more detail.

Traditions of Archaeological Research into the Mesolithic and the Post-Glacial Period

So how have archaeologists made sense of the post-glacial period? The way in which post-glacial cultures have been researched and understood by scholars in the past has framed the study of people living at this time. This is partly to do with older notions of characterizing humans, but also relates to how scholars have classified the post-glacial period, which in Europe has been tied to defining the challenges of defining the ‘Mesolithic’ (Zvelebil 1998). In the nineteenth century, archaeologists were clearly able to identify major differences between the material remains of Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods (Rowley-Conwy 2007). It was in the latter part of the nineteenth century that Lubbock suggested the Stone Age should be divided into the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) and New Stone Age (Neolithic), a sequence he suggested not only for Europe but also, tentatively, for parts of Africa and Asia (Lubbock 1865). By this point, archaeologists had found Palaeolithic stone tools associated with extinct Ice Age animals such as mammoths, who clearly had lived in a different geological period (Lyell’s Pleistocene). This geological period was also characterized by a different environment, one defined by Ice Ages. In contrast, the Neolithic period was more recent, particularly associated at this point with polished stone tools, but also domesticated cattle (Rowley-Conwy 1996, 942; Zvelebil 1998, 2). It was Hodder Westropp in 1872 who first invented the controversial phrase the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) to describe the lithic assemblages that he claimed came from an intervening period between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic (Rowley-Conwy 2006). However, there was resistance to this, and debate on whether an intermediate phase was even necessary.

By the end of the nineteenth century, archaeologists were trying to make sense of the archaeological record by looking at modern living populations in order to understand (p. 442) the past (ethnology). A crucial component of this mode of thought was the idea that people evolved, both socially and physically, from ‘primitive savages’ through to civilization. Inspired by Darwinian evolution, it was suggested that humans evolved through a series of unilinear stages (see Pluciennik, this volume): at one end was the most basic of peoples—hunter-gatherers—while modern Western civilization saw itself as the most evolved (Trigger 2006, 171–7). Increasingly, archaeologists began to conceive of a major disjuncture between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic, the former being associated with hunter-gatherers, and the latter associated with agriculture. The Mesolithic, although still a highly contentious period at this point, was also placed firmly on the hunting and gathering side, essentially the ‘wrong’ side of civilization (see also Spikins 2008, 4).

The term ‘Mesolithic’ was not widely adopted until a few decades into the twentieth century, and even then, only by archaeologists studying particular areas (predominantly Europe). In the Near East, there was no need for a chronologically distinctive period, as people started the domestication process at the end of the Pleistocene. Here, then, the chronological sequence was the Palaeolithic, followed by the Epi-Palaeolithic (defined as the period of hunting and fishing with the harvesting of cereals) and then the Neolithic (agriculture). In other areas, archaeologists chose to describe this awkward intervening period as the proto-Neolithic or simply the Middle Stone Age (Spikins 2008, 4; Zvelebil 1998, 2). In other areas, other phrases were used to describe the cultural developments in the important transitional period between the Pleistocene and the Holocene (see chapters by Davidson; Politis and Kornfeld). So even from its earliest inception no one could quite agree precisely what the Mesolithic represented, whether or not it was a distinctive chronological period or whether it could be defined by a coherent set of traits.

One problem in attempts to understand the Mesolithic was that there had been very few archaeological investigations of the post-glacial period in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was because scholars focused primarily on either the preceding Palaeolithic period, or subsequent Neolithic period, with their distinctive stone tools sets (Bahn 1996, chapter 5). One exception was in Scandinavia, where the excellent preservation of Holocene archaeology in the form of shell middens meant that remains were investigated from an early stage, for example with the work of Worsaae in Denmark, who explored middens in the mid-nineteenth century (Trigger 2006, 80–2). This began a long tradition of work on the Scandinavian Mesolithic, which remains one of the most intensively studied regions of Europe in this period (see, for example, Larsson et al. 2003).

By the time Gordon Childe started writing his culture-historical archaeology in the early part of the twentieth century, Mesolithic studies in Europe were still under-developed in comparison with other prehistoric periods. Childe (1942) did eventually see the need for an intervening period between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic (Zvelebil 1998, 2), but in many areas the evidence was still poorly understood, primarily defined not by what it had, but by what it lacked: the sophisticated rock art and lithic technologies of the Palaeolithic, and the agriculture and pottery of the Neolithic.

A new phase of research into the European Mesolithic was initiated by Grahame Clark, who made a significant advance in Mesolithic studies by drawing on broader ecological approaches and discussing hunter-gatherer technological adaptions to the environment (Trigger 2006, 353–60). Clarke supported the notion that the Mesolithic was a culturally distinctive period of prehistory, and explored economic adaptations in order to try to understand social and cultural organization. Clark’s work at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr (p. 443) was also significant, marking the start of a more concerted effort to investigate Mesolithic sites in this part of Europe (Clark 1954). With the development of the New Archaeology from the 1960s onwards, the processual interest in the role of environment in human culture further galvanized this ecological focus of the Mesolithic. The role of the environment and ecological adaptation saw intensive research (e.g. Evans 1975), and the palaeo-economic work at Cambridge in the 1970s was of particular importance and broader influence (see Higgs 1975).

At this point, work concentrated on understanding how people made a living from particular environmental situations, and this was achieved through quantifying assemblages (particularly animal bones), investigating seasonality, ascertaining how much time and energy was required to obtain food, and the calorific value of foodstuffs (Milner 2006, 71). It became clear that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were exploiting a distinctive, and extremely rich, environmental niche. In addition to this, studies of lithic styles demonstrated that the Mesolithic was technologically different from both the preceding Palaeolithic and subsequent Neolithic (e.g. Woodman 1978; Wymer 1977). Thus Mesolithic research began to have a distinctive character, which emphasized the process of environmental adaptations by hunter-gatherers living in the rich environments of the early Holocene. This view of the Mesolithic was consistent with the anthropological view of hunter-gatherers as portrayed in Man the hunter as well-adapted to particular environmental circumstances. Grahame Clark’s site of Star Carr came to be seen as representative of the Mesolithic as a whole at this time: small-scale, mobile hunter-gatherer bands settled into optimally exploited environments.

The combination of an increased interest in the Mesolithic period, the focus on how hunter-gatherers had adapted to the new environmental setting of the post-glacial period, and the sense that the Mesolithic was culturally distinctive led to a major shift in thinking in the 1980s. At this point, there was increased emphasis on the idea that Mesolithic communities were not only ecologically and technologically distinctive, but also culturally variable. For example, not all Mesolithic people were small-scale, mobile hunter-gatherers; it was argued that the Mesolithic, particularly of northern Europe, saw the first evidence for complex hunter-gatherer groups. This suggestion worked particularly well for southern Scandinavia, but soon came to dominate discussions of other parts of the world (e.g. Price 1985; Rowley-Conwy 1983; Rowley-Conwy and Zvelebil 1989; Zvelebil 1986; Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy 1986). This idea was further supported by the excavations of substantial Mesolithic cemeteries such as at Skateholm in Sweden (Larsson 1984; 1988). The findings at Skateholm were not unique, but consistent with other Mesolithic cemeteries in Europe, such as Lepenski Vir in the Iron Gates of the Danube, Olenii Ostrov, northern Russia, and Teviéc and Hoëdic in Brittany, all of which were drawn into discussions at this time. Ethnographic parallels were deployed, particularly with the Northwest Coast, and issues such as storage, population density, and social ranking were discussed (Spikins 2008, 4). Continued palaeo-environmental work identified hunter-gatherer manipulations of the environment, including deliberate burning (e.g. Edwards 1990).

In the late 1980s and 1990s new perspectives on the Mesolithic emerged. The growth of interpretive (post-processual) archaeology which, until this point, had looked mainly at the Neolithic, expanded its focus to include discussions of hunter-gatherers in the post-glacial period, primarily in north-west Europe. Interpretive archaeology critiqued the ecological and adaptive approaches of processual archaeology, citing environmental determinism as (p. 444) one of the main problems of investigating the Mesolithic from an ecological viewpoint. Instead, focus was placed on Mesolithic people as active social agents, making choices about how to adapt to the post-glacial world, not just in terms of economy but also socially and culturally. Four key areas have been explored as part of the interpretive investigation of the Mesolithic. First, there was a growth in interest in the landscape inspired by phenomenological approaches (Tilley 1994) and work on perceptions of the environment (Ingold 2000). The landscape focus switched from looking at palaeo-economic site catchment analysis towards human experience. An important component of this approach was the use of ethnographic analogies with extant hunter-gatherer groups in order to explore the potential significance of landscape in terms of myths and belief systems (Cummings 2000; Zvelebil 2000), but also everyday space and place (McFadyen 2006). Second, there was an increased interest in Mesolithic belief systems and world views (Zvelebil and Fewster 2001). This related not only to perceptions of the landscape, but also explored human–animal relations (Conneller 2004) and the detailed exploration of Mesolithic cemeteries, particularly in Scandinavia (Nilsson Stutz). This has drawn on ethnographic accounts of both animism and shamanism (Zvelebil 2008, 48–52). The third theme explored in depth by interpretive archaeologists was that of identity. Again, drawing on ethnographic explorations of personhood (Fowler 2004), different possible constructions of person have been explored in Mesolithic Europe (Cobb 2007; Finlay, this volume). This approach has also drawn on growing investigations of gender in relation to the Mesolithic (e.g. Finlay 2006). Finally, there has been a renewed interest in technology, not just as an adaptation to environmental circumstances but as a social process. This approach is part of a wider interest in materiality (McFadyen 2006), and explores the life history of objects as they are made (the chaîne opératoire), used, and discarded (cf. Gosden and Marshall 1999). Scholars have been able to investigate the authorship of Mesolithic tools (Finlay 2000) and the deposition of specific sets of materials in particular places in the landscape (Warren 2006).

The current state of Mesolithic studies is that the Mesolithic is now seen as a unique and distinctive period in its own right, with its own internal dynamics (Spikins 2008; Zvelebil 2008). It is not a chronological stop gap, nor a simple story of environmental adaptation. Emphasis is now placed on addressing variability with an attempt to understand local adaptations, but also to reconstruct specific traditions and practices, mortuary rituals, and concepts of materiality and personhood (see Bailey and Spikins 2008; Conneller and Warren 2006). Overall then, in some world regions such as north-west Europe the last three decades have seen major intellectual shifts in the way that the Mesolithic has been researched and understood, though these developments have been limited for the most part to a few regions marked by long-term research histories with more detailed archaeological sequences.

Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers of the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene

Reflecting the environmental changes in the Holocene, the chapters in this part of the handbook are organized into two groups: those that present case studies of hunter-gatherers inhabiting tropical and relatively temperate zones in the late Pleistocene/early Holocene, and those (p. 445) that examine changes taking place in more northerly regions, specifically in Europe, which reflect the dense concentration of research effort directed there. These chapters approach the archaeology of the post-glacial period in these different world regions from a range of different research perspectives, as outlined above, illustrating unique sequences of hunter-gatherer culture change, while also highlighting how and why these patterns of change have been researched and understood, and where new research might proceed.

Hunter-Gatherer Culture Change in Western Asia and the Mediterranean

In the first chapter in this part, Moore discusses the post-glacial sequence in western Asia and around the Mediterranean. This case study is important because it illustrates the fact that we cannot employ the term ‘Mesolithic’ to describe all post-glacial developments across the world. This is because in western Asia, which remained temperate even during the LGM, the transition towards an agricultural way of life was already underway at the end of the late glacial. Here, hunter-gatherers had started to domesticate both plants and animals (the period known as the Epi-Palaeolithic). Therefore, in this area, we are dealing with cultural sequences where there were long processes of significant economic, social, and cultural change before the end of the Pleistocene. These societies would eventually become full agro-pastoral settled farming communities, which defined a new and fully ‘Neolithic’ way of life (and see introduction to Part V).

In his chapter, Moore highlights the fact that western Asia provided an extraordinarily rich environmental niche, which saw legume, cereal, and caprine domestication, followed by the taming of cattle and pigs. Moore suggests that it was the combination of new environmental conditions together with new social opportunities provided by larger and more permanent settlements that was the driving force behind these initial domestications (see also Harris; Hayden, this volume). Thus, in this narrative it is clear that it was the hunting and gathering peoples who innovated change in this area. By the start of the post-glacial in western Asia, domesticated plants and animals are found in association with the construction of sedentary villages, monumental architecture, complex burial rites, and lavish sets of material culture. This is the ‘Neolithic’—in the earliest phase, this was aceramic (the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B) and later on, with pottery (the Neolithic). By the second phase of the Neolithic in western Asia settlements grew, including well-documented examples such as Çatal Hüyük.

In contrast, Moore notes that the shores of the Mediterranean did not see these developments and these areas were sparsely populated by hunter-gatherers in the post-glacial period. In the Aegean and Greece, Mesolithic hunter-gatherer sites are found primarily on the coast and seem to be indicative of mobile groups utilizing both terrestrial and marine resources. Within this area, the Franchthi cave has been thoroughly investigated and includes both occupation debris and burials. The central and western Mediterranean sequence shares many similarities with that of Greece. Occupation sites suggest sparsely populated landscapes, and highly mobile hunter-gatherers using both terrestrial and marine resources. The major difference with this area, however, is that inland sites are documented in the central and western Mediterranean, some at quite high altitudes, suggesting the (p. 446) slightly different resource exploitation of this area. Just as at the Franchthi cave, cave sites in this area also have long sequences of occupation, and some elaborate material culture is also recorded.

In Greece, hunting and gathering ceased with the arrival of the Neolithic from western Asia. This does seem to suggest a simple transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic, from hunter-gatherer to farmer as originally envisaged by scholars investigating this period (see Part V). However, in the central and western Mediterranean there is a thousand-year hiatus between hunter-gatherer occupation and the arrival of the first farmers, which Moore suggests is indicative of a severe decline in Mesolithic populations. This indicates a much more complex narrative than Mesolithic people being replaced by, or subsumed into, incoming Neolithic populations. Indeed, it highlights regional differences in the successes of hunting and gathering populations in the post-glacial world. It is quite clear, then, that there were not identical patterns of adaptation to the changing conditions of the post-glacial period. Furthermore, there is clear evidence for important internal dynamics in this period, as highlighted in the central and western Mediterranean sequence. Fruitful avenues of future research can focus on specific traditions of practices that emphasize local variability across this area.

Early Holocene Developments in Africa

Like other parts of the globe, post-glacial Africa saw substantial environmental change: rising sea levels, warmer and wetter conditions, and changing flora and fauna. All of these had considerable impacts on the people living there. What is important with the African sequences is that they highlight the variety of ways in which people adapted to these changing conditions. Smith outlines these changes in different regions. In northern Africa, the ‘Khartoum Mesolithic’ is found in the early post-glacial, represented in the archaeological record by the use of ceramics and a microlithic industry, and sites were associated with lakes and rivers. Smith suggests that these hunter-gatherers were reliant on both fish and wild sheep and also pots for seed processing. There are also some early examples of domesticated cattle in this sequence, probably from the Levant which, combined with the evidence for the extensive utilization of wild sheep, may point to hunter-gatherers experimenting with animal husbandry, resulting in a localized domestication event (also see Outram, this volume). It is clear that this sequence sees new relations with plants and animals, and people experimenting with both ceramic technology and local animal domestication. It is also interesting that these hunter-gatherers appear to have been subsequently replaced by the expansion of herders around the Mediterranean, although there was possibly some overlap between the extant, predominantly foraging, populations and the incoming herders. This highlights the fact that these populations did not exist in isolation, but were tied into broader regional and historical transformations. It would be fruitful to explore in more detail the role that the extant hunting and gathering population played as herders expanded into this region.

The sequence in southern Africa has been studied extensively, both archaeologically and in relation to rock art. Microlithic industries are found widely in the post-glacial period of southern Africa and there is evidence that people increasingly hunted solitary browsers and pigs. Smith notes that the way of life which commenced in the post-glacial continued until (p. 447) around 2,000 years ago, when domesticated animals and pottery were first introduced from the north. In this sequence, then, there was the long-term success of hunting and gathering lifeways and it makes an important contrast with archaeological sequences in North Africa, where there was an earlier shift to agriculture. Clearly, in this environmental context agriculture was not as easily adopted as it was to the north, but future research could examine other reasons—social, political, or economic—for the slower adoption of agriculture in this region. The foragers of southern Africa are also considered important for understanding historically documented hunter-gatherers in this area, where there is a long-standing debate on the continuity of various foraging populations, as well as the impact on incoming herders (see Hitchcock, Part VI).

Post-Glacial Hunter-Gatherers in South and South-East Asia

Rabett and Jones consider the evidence from the post-glacial period from both South and South-East Asia. There are some important contrasts between these two broader sequences, which illustrates not only the different ways people dealt with the changing environment in the post-glacial world, but also the unique internal social processes underway at this time. In some parts of South Asia, the Holocene sequence is poorly understood, but where it is known, sites are found in a range of habitats, suggesting a fairly large and dispersed hunting and gathering population within these landscapes. In contrast to the European Mesolithic, Rabett and Jones detail how there was no cultural transition from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic, and no shift to microlithic technologies, which is found in many other areas of the world at this time. What does define the onset of the Holocene is the increasing amount of representational art, especially rock art. Some cemeteries are also known from this area, associated with settlement, and are suggestive of increased social complexity and territoriality. While technologically there was considerable continuity with what came before, culturally there seems to be some evidence for increased complexity within the Mesolithic. This points to a sequence where there were significant changes, driven not just by external environmental change, but also by important internal mechanisms, and these need to be studied in their own terms. It is only later in the Holocene that the eventual arrival of agriculture in this region is seen.

In South-East Asia, the start of the Holocene saw a continued emphasis on hunting and gathering the same species as in the Pleistocene, even though there were changing environmental conditions. Thus, in this area there is clear evidence for the continuity of practice. Moreover, marine resources had been important in South-East Asia since the arrival of the first modern humans from Africa, but there are post-glacial sites where the abundantly available marine resources were not utilized. Bone tool use did seem to increase in some areas, however, which may have coincided with the increased use of marine foods in these areas only. This demonstrates people’s differing responses to changing environmental opportunities, and that environmental upheaval did not necessarily result in economic change. Thus, in this sequence it is possible to identify quite complex local patterns of adaptation and different technological and ecological groups. Rabett and Jones argue that the post-glacial period saw people both sticking to older ways of life and adapting to new changes in South-East Asia. The social and cultural implications of this could be explored in more detail in the future.

(p. 448) Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene Hunter-Gatherers of Korea and Japan

Habu discusses the post-glacial sequences in East Asia, discussing both the Jomon culture of the Japanese archipelago and the Chulmun culture of the Korean peninsula. These are some of the longest hunter-gatherer archaeological sequences in the world. However, these sequences also highlight some of the challenges of making sense of long-term hunter-gatherer archaeological sequences. They also challenge our notions of defining post-glacial hunter-gatherer society. The Jomon and Chulmun were both complex and sedentary hunter-gatherers, who were involved in the sophisticated management of wild plant resources. They had artistic ceramics and elaborate material culture. However, instead of being ‘on the way’ to becoming agriculturalists, as has been suggested for similar groups elsewhere (see above), these groups were very late in adopting agro-pastoralism. The Jomon period eventually ended with the arrival of rice agriculture around 2500 bp: this is the same as the Chulmun, arriving sometime in the second millennium bc.

The Jomon sequence is also interesting for hunter-gatherer studies more broadly because it does not show a steady increase in complexity and sedentism. Instead, Habu points to major reconfigurations in the middle Jomon period, with a return to more mobile bands after a period of social collapse. Indeed, three major periods of upheaval can be identified in the hunter-gatherer post-glacial sequence, dating to 11,000, 7000, and 4000 bp. These changes seem to be related to changing subsistence strategies, including specialization and the intensified use of specific wild resources. At certain points, there is evidence of the over-specialization of resources, which led to the collapse of socio-economic systems. This may well have happened at a number of points in prehistory, and also more recently as well. It highlights the importance of identifying internal changes in specific regional hunter-gatherer sequences and is an exciting avenue for future research in all world regions. This research is important because it highlights that the post-glacial period in East Asia was a period of growing population associated with the intensification of particular resource use. However, this was not a continuous development as there is now growing evidence for sudden cultural adjustments or perhaps even collapses. This sequence also shows that there was not a slow and steady period of increasing cultural elaboration and complexity, with an inevitable social evolutionary outcome, but a much more dynamic and complex sequence. These were multi-various societies with considerable variation over both space and time.

Mesolithic Europe

In the final three chapters this part of the handbook, the authors consider the post-glacial sequences of central and northern Europe. In the chapter on the post-glacial of Danubian Europe, Svoboda investigates the areas around the Danube River, the major river course in south-east Europe running from southern Germany to the Black Sea. This area was already the focus of occupation in the preceding Upper Palaeolithic (also see Pettitt, Part II), but Svoboda argues that this area became more peripheral to broader developments in the Mesolithic period. Svoboda argues that where there are Mesolithic settlements in the (p. 449) Danubian area they are found in distinct regional clusters and are relatively small in size, especially when compared with many of the large north European sites. Likewise, lithics were primarily procured from localized resources, which again forms a notable contrast with preceding far-reaching exchange networks from the Upper Palaeolithic. Occupation took place on a range of sites, including at open-air sites, in caves, and in rock shelters, and there is good evidence for the utilization of a range of resources, including both aquatic foods, such as salmon, and terrestrial foods, showing the diversification of the economy at this time.

Danubian Europe also contains the well-documented but unique settlement site of Lepenski Vir, located in the Danube Gorges in modern-day Serbia, comprising trapezoidal structures with stone-lined hearths and red-plastered floors. These structures are also associated with burials and stone-carved fish sculptures, although there is the suggestion that these were later in date. Further sites have been identified along this 100 km of river after extensive investigations from the 1960s onwards (Whittle 1996, 25). This sequence is also well known for the burials found on the shores of the Danube in the Iron Gates, and includes sites at Vlasac, Schela Clodovei, and Lepenski Vir itself. However, Svoboda argues that much of the rest of the wider area may well have been only sparsely populated. Right at the end of the Mesolithic, the area saw the arrival of new peoples from the south-east, marking the start the Neolithic from about 6000 bc. This sequence, then, clearly illustrates the contingent nature of the Mesolithic in this area. There is evidence for both sparsely occupied areas and densely inhabited and socially complex micro-regions. It is also important to note that the group of sites around Lepenski Vir has been portrayed in the literature as one of the areas where ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers evolved in the post-glacial period, and that these people were well on their way to ‘settling down’ (Hodder 1990, 31).

Warren’s chapter on the Mesolithic of north-west Europe argues that while the European Mesolithic has been exemplified by the presence of ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers (see above), the peoples within this area were actually very variable. Warren notes that the post-glacial of north-west Europe should be understood in terms of a variety of changes, which affected all aspects of life: he highlights in particular the massive environmental and climatic changes underway at this time. However, there were also considerable continuities with preceding periods, which should not be ignored. The outcome of this mix of continuity and change was multiple traditions, possibly originating from multiple populations. Warren notes that there is evidence for broad cultural groupings across north-west Europe in the early Mesolithic. By the later Mesolithic, however, smaller-scale territories can also be identified, although people were still involved in extensive trade networks. He suggests that there are subtle hints in the archaeological record for changes across broad areas of north-west Europe around about 7000 bc, which may have been the impact of climatic changes and even more catastrophic events. As with Habu, then, Warren is arguing that there was an ongoing series of social and cultural shifts throughout the Mesolithic, not just at the onset of the post-glacial period. This is a theme that could be explored in more depth in the future.

Warren then goes on to discuss the Ertebølle of southern Scandinavia, who have been presented by scholars as the archetypal ‘complex’ hunter-gatherer society of Mesolithic Europe. This group is notable for its broad-spectrum economy (including intensive use of marine resources), its early use of distinctive ceramics, the use of prestige material culture, (p. 450) and cemeteries. In the past, the Ertebølle have been presented as the culmination of generalized trends observed elsewhere in the European Mesolithic, and exemplars of complex hunter-gatherers at the end of the evolutionary path from simple to complex, who ultimately took up farming. Warren critiques this approach, arguing that the Ertebølle were one of a number of groups for whom complexity (in the ethnographic sense) came and went as they organized and reorganized themselves over time. It was not, therefore, the inevitable outcome of a long period of social, economic, and political evolution, but simply one possible outcome from many, and one that was flexible and optional. Likewise, other sequences in the European Mesolithic should not be simply compared to the Ertebølle sequence and (inevitably) found to be lacking in one or more components. Instead, Warren argues that each group should be understood in its own terms. Specifically, following on from Zvelebil (2009), he argues that the Mesolithic is actually a multitude of historical processes, all of which led to different end-points. He suggests that using the insights from interpretive archaeology and also initiating new research programmes should enable scholars to identify regional variability and the localized nature of specific cultural processes. In the last chapter in this part, Riede discusses the resettlement of northern Europe in the late glacial and post-glacial periods. The resettlement of previously uninhabited parts of Europe was en abled by the dramatic environmental and geological changes at the end of the glacial period. Riede illustrates how these processes can be studied not just through the now very detailed environmental data for this period, but also the archaeological evidence (especially in the form of lithics and technocomplexes), population modelling, and radiocarbon sequences from various key areas. Using this approach, Riede demonstrates that the resettlement process was not as straightforward as it had been assumed: it did not involve a simple ‘wave of advance’ where people gradually moved northwards. Instead, there were bursts of activity where people moved northwards, but these were frequently curtailed by a deterioration of environmental conditions, or at 12,900 bp by the eruption of the Laacher See volcano in Germany. In the British sequence for the late glacial period, for example, populations seem to have at some points been in contact with continental populations, while at other times they were isolated. Likewise, the populations newly expanded into southern Scandinavia found themselves isolated from other groups after the Laacher See eruption. Since there is good evidence for widespread trade networks between populations at this time, this enforced isolation may not have been desirable for the populations involved.

Using this regionally specific approach, Riede concludes that there were two main types of population expansion patterns in the late glacial period. The first saw hunter-gatherers moving into topographically diverse regions in northern Europe: these groups utilized a mixed hunting and gathering economy with reduced resource specialization. The second expansion was of specialized hunter-gatherers: these groups followed reindeer herds. These reindeer specialists may also have been able to acquire exotic and prestige resources such as amber and furs, which they then traded in much wider exchange networks. By the start of the Holocene, the northwards expansion continued as far as Fennoscandia, and reindeer utilization was increasingly accompanied by marine adaptations (and see Wickham Jones, this volume). Tool-kits were correspondingly expanded and complex patterns of trade and exchange were re-established. It is possible to argue that, while initially hunter-gatherers were exploiting specific environmental niches that had become available to them, in the long term, specific resource exploitation choices would have had enormous implications for the types of society that could exist (also see Hayden, this volume). Once again, this demonstrates the importance of (p. 451) exploring historically contingent histories of the Mesolithic, which would have had multiple outcomes.

Discussion and Future Research Directions

In earlier accounts, the post-glacial period, or Mesolithic as defined in many parts of Africa and Eurasia, has often been presented simply as a chronological juncture, the period between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic. The Mesolithic has also been seen as a period when hunter-gatherers were in the process of adapting to new post-glacial environmental conditions. While accounts of this period have had an internal coherence, one result of this research trajectory has been that Holocene hunter-gatherers have been portrayed as rather homogeneous. It is obvious that the enormous environmental changes taking place at the end of the Pleistocene and into the early Holocene affected hunter-gatherer groups living in many different world regions. However, more recent scholarship has shown that these processes were more contingent and variable than had previously been thought. Diversity, not homogeneity, is key in the study of this period. While the chapters in this part of the handbook do not cover every part of the globe, they do give a sense of the more localized patterns of behaviour that were played out throughout the world in the post-glacial period. Very briefly, key elements of these broader patterns are now highlighted.

First, the post-glacial period can be understood as a period of both continuity and change. There are some examples of abrupt change at the start of the post-glacial, relating not only to the changing environmental conditions but also to the types of societies that were emerging at this time. This includes the emergence of ‘complex’ societies, but there was a range of other social configurations in the post-glacial period. Other changes can be seen in sequences across the globe, including changing technologies (stone, bone, and ceramic), resource utilization, and ritual practices. However, massive environmental changes did not always result in change. The chapters in this part demonstrate the importance of continuity in some areas, particularly relating to trade, exchange, mobility, and social organization. Traditions of practice, particularly social networks, seem to have continued unbroken from the Upper Palaeolithic into the Mesolithic in some areas.

Second, changing environmental conditions clearly had an enormous impact on the ways in which people could make a living. This varied across the globe, but there were substantial shifts in the types of flora and fauna available to people. Furthermore, ecosystems shifted and moved, landmasses disappeared as the sea levels rose, and new foods became available. However, there was a diverse range of responses to these changes. Some hunter-gatherer economies were in flux before the start of the Holocene, and involved the intensification of particular resources. In some cases, these intensifications eventually led to domestication and farming, yet others led to different types of hunting and gathering societies, such as the ‘complex’ Ertebølle of southern Scandinavia, or the Jomon of Japan. In other cases, there were no changes at all to hunter-gatherer economies. This demonstrates that people chose precisely how to respond to changing environmental conditions. There were certainly challenges for people dealing with a world in flux, but also opportunities—not just economic ones. Quite clearly, new environmental opportunities enabled people with resources to go on and pursue intense social, political, and ritual lives (also see Hayden, this volume).

(p. 452) Third, the post-glacial period saw considerable change and flux over time and there was quite clearly regional variation. Some parts of Europe, for example, were densely occupied in the Mesolithic, while it appears that other parts were virtually empty. Moreover, this was not consistent over time: some areas saw peaks and troughs of population, being inhabited at some points, devoid of people at others. Likewise, the social organization of groups was also liable to change. There is evidence for both ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ groups (in the ethnographic sense), but societies did not evolve from one to other in a linear progressive sequence. Instead, there is substantial evidence for internal dynamism, which saw groups regularly switching from one to the other and back again. The example of the Jomon of Japan suggests a dynamic and complex sequence of regular growth and collapse, and associated concentrations of population.

Thus, it is clear that the post-glacial is neither a period simply of environmental change nor a homogeneous, self-contained entity, but an important time when there was a whole series of historically contingent and dynamic processes underway. The authors of the chapters in this part of the handbook have highlighted current research into the post-glacial period as well as key areas for future research. Here the three areas that will see further exploration as the study of the post-glacial period expands are summarized.

  1. 1. Better information on local environmental variability is required. The diverse environmental conditions that occurred during the post-glacial period have been discussed. However, it is important to do further work on more localized sequences of environmental change. It is quite clear that post-glacial environmental changes manifested themselves quite differently in different parts of the globe—and these small differences were important to local populations. Understanding changing conditions over time in particular areas will enable scholars to understand the range of challenges people were presented with at this time and local responses to these.

  2. 2. A better sense of cultural variability across time and space is needed. Internal dynamism and variability in particular sequences has already been highlighted, showing localized outcomes for people in the post-glacial period. There was a range of social opportunities within the new environments of the post-glacial (see Hayden, this volume), which individuals, or entire groups, could use to their advantage, and with some sequences complex groups emerged. Yet this did not happen in many areas. We now need to try to understand regional sequences in their own terms, anticipating cultural variability. In many areas, this will require sustained archaeological programmes of research so that we have the necessary data to investigate this.

  3. 3. New data on their own are not enough. New ways of thinking about these detailed cultural and environmental sequences are also required. In order to understand the internal socio-political dynamics of these various post-glacial societies we need to integrate approaches from both processual and interpretive schools. By combining considerations of engagements with landscape, cosmology, identity, and technology, as well as environmental adaptations, we can explore the multitude of ways that hunter-gatherers existed in the post-glacial.

These, then, are the challenges—and opportunities—facing post-glacial studies in the twenty-first century: understanding the complex mix of changing environmental (p. 453) conditions, localized sequences, and individual cultural choices about how best to live in the post-glacial world.


This part highlights some of the challenges and opportunities involved in studying prehistoric hunter-gatherers in the post-glacial period. As outlined above, the post-glacial has clearly, and for a variety of reasons, been a problematic period for archaeologists to define and make sense of in the past. This is, in part, because of an enduring preoccupation in periods either side of the post-glacial, but also because of the enduring legacy of specific modes of thinking, which continue to pervade hunter-gatherer research. The basic challenge now is to move beyond the simpler and older chronological, technological, and socio-economic definitions of this period. While the range of chapters in this part do not cover every area of the globe, they do demonstrate how regional sequences are now understood in their own terms, and not just parts of broader accounts. All the chapters in this part make it clear this is an important period of ongoing change, driven in part by the environment and resulting in a range of technological, social, and economic responses. Critically, there is increasingly the sense of the more localized patterns of change being played out throughout the world. Many future research questions remain, so that this major phase of human cultural adjustment now forms one of the most exciting and important research fields in hunter-gatherer studies.


I am very grateful to Peter Jordan for offering useful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.


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