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Transformations? The Mesolithic of North-West Europe

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the nature of 'transformations' in Mesolithic societies in north-west Europe. I argue that transformations were an all pervasive aspect of Mesolithic life, although archaeologically we have tended to focus on a small subset of these; often at a comparatively large scale, and still related to old ideas about evolution and progress-perhaps especially in the concept of 'complex hunter-gatherers'. The most commonly cited example of the Mesolithic in north-west Europe, the Ertebolle of southern Scandinavia, is considered in this context, and issues of bias and variability are addressed. The Mesolithic is highly variable as an archaeological phenomenon in this region, and many aspects of that variability reflect genuine differences in the past. We should ensure that our accounts of 'transformations' in this period are respectful of the multiple potential scales at which this variability is manifest.

Keywords: Mesolithic, north-west Europe, Ertebolle, complexity, variability, progress

Scholars no longer believe in a general model of the Mesolithic. Several researchers argue that there is now substantial evidence that Mesolithic societies displayed diversity in their constitution, structure and ways of interacting with the landscape.

(Larsson 2009, xxviii)

This chapter examines the transformations in Mesolithic communities of north-west Europe, loosely defined as incorporating France, Holland, Belgium, southern Scandinavia, northern Germany, Britain, and Ireland (Figure 24.1). Post-glacial settlement by hunter-gatherers appears to have been associated with a variety of changes: from routines of movement and subsistence, through to changes in beliefs and political relationships. These have often been associated with the rise of ‘complex hunter-gatherers’, associated with sedentism, territorial rights, specialized economic routines, social hierarchy, developed exchange, and ritual. Archaeologically, these are exemplified by the Ertebølle of southern Sweden and Denmark. Beyond this, however, the Mesolithic of this region as a whole is variable and the character and nature of transformations within and between these communities is also richly variable.

The development of the concept of ‘Mesolithic’ communities in Europe demonstrates the intimate links that have always existed in archaeological thought between notions of change over time and conceptions of progress (see Clarke 1980; Rowley-Conwy 1986; 1996). Initial accounts of the Mesolithic struggled to reconcile the apparent poverty of these people with the rich archaeological record of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe that preceded them. The Mesolithic was a challenge to dominant notions of progress over time. Whilst we have moved far from the notion that the Mesolithic was a period of regression ‘between cave painters and crop planters’ (Rowley-Conwy 1986) the notion of progress remains embedded in our constructions of the Mesolithic, especially in terms of the development of trends such as social complexity (see below). My main argument in this short chapter is that this notion of change over time has obscured our understanding of alternative transformations and that these require emphasis.

Transformations? The Mesolithic of North-West Europe

Figure 24.1 Location of key regions discussed in the text.

(Map created using ArcGIS® software by Esri.)

(p. 538) Zvelebil argued that ‘the Mesolithic is a social tradition, contingent upon the preceding cultures of the late Upper Palaeolithic, and situated historically from the end of the last glaciation within the post-glacial period…The Mesolithic represents a historical process involving hunter-gatherer communities’ (Zvelebil 2009, xlviii). This broad framework underpins the discussion of transformations here (see below for discussion of this definition and a suggested refinement). The Mesolithic in north-west Europe sees particular historical communities, with particular traditions and ways of understanding the world, reacting to changes in their familiar landscapes and exploring new landscapes, encountering plants, animals, and people as they did so. One of the key historical processes that they engaged with, on a day-to-day basis, was the reaction of their landscapes to the climate changes characteristic of the Pleistocene/Holocene transition and this provides the starting point for our discussion.

Changing Landscapes

Transformations? The Mesolithic of North-West Europe

Figure 24.2 Changing sea levels since the late glacial had a profound influence on the north European landscape. Redrawn from Coles (1998).

The impact of late- and post-glacial climate change on the physical landscape of north-west Europe was complex. Climate warming at the start of the Holocene was very rapid, but the response of the landscape occurred at varying speeds. Potential cyclicities of Holocene climate change (e.g. Bond et al. 1997; 2001) are debated, notwithstanding arguments that the Holocene sees a comparatively ‘stable climate’ in comparison to earlier periods. Solar, marine, and volcanic influences were significant at different times (Jansen et al. 2007). Differences in climate regimes, and not simply temperature, included variation in precipitation connected to changes in flood regimes in major river systems at a European level (e.g. Macklin et al. 2006), and the potential role of natural fire in maintaining vegetation (p. 539) regimes in northern Britain has seen substantial discussion (e.g. Tipping 1996). The scale of climate and environmental change during the early Holocene of north-west Europe was profound. Our models work better at the larger scale than the local, and in many cases they are underdetermined by local data. This is a key problem in relating scales of change in the past. Against this background, two key processes can be distinguished for ease of discussion: changes in sea level and in terrestrial fauna/flora.

Sea-level change resulted from the combination of ice-wastage feeding an absolute rise in global sea level (glacio-eustasy) and rebound of landmasses once ice was removed (glacio-isostasy), as well as the weight of water on landmasses (hydro-isostasy) and the forebulge in the Earth’s crust created by loads. The resulting models are complex, especially in areas of ice accumulation where rebound is significant, but the processes can be generalized as involving sea-level rise inundating large areas of landscape, with some uplifting in and adjacent to areas where ice accumulated significantly, as for example in much of western Scotland and northern Ireland or parts of Denmark and southern Sweden, although not all areas preserve all coastlines. It is mainly in the small areas of uplift noted above that coastal sites from some parts of the Mesolithic are preserved above modern-day sea level, and these are very important for understanding the period. Comparing these places to those without preserved coastlines is a significant biasing factor in our accounts. The extent of landscape transformation is best illustrated by Doggerland, the extensive north-west European coastal plain that once linked Britain and the continent (Figure 24.2) and appeared to play a key role in late glacial/early Holocene settlement of these regions, its eventual loss leading to considerable transformations in people’s lives (Gaffney et al. 2009; see below). Further east, the transformation of the freshwater Ancylus Lake into the saline Baltic Sea was another fundamental transformation of geographies.

Plants and animals recolonized north-west Europe at varied tempos resulting from the interplay of their dispersal speed, presence of refugia, and competitive interactions. The vegetation sequence is generalized as one of light scrub giving way to birch and hazel woodlands then full deciduous woodlands, although the nature of these woodlands was regionally variable. Some early Holocene woodlands have few modern comparisons, for example the birch woodland found at low-altitude and high temperatures in northern England in the early Holocene (Spikins 1999). Debate exists on the extent to which the early–mid-Holocene (p. 540) woodland incorporated open areas (Vera 2000; and see Whitehouse and Smith 2009). Changes in fauna saw the replacement, over varying time periods, of the large mammals (characteristic of open landscapes) with woodland dwellers. Thus reindeer, horse, giant deer/Irish elk were displaced by auroch, boar, red and roe deer. Major geographical barriers to dispersal of plants and animals included the Irish Sea and the English Channel, and both Ireland and Britain have more restricted floral and faunal assemblages than continental Europe. In the case of Ireland it is possible that most large fauna were absent; auroch were absent, red deer appear to have been introduced in the Neolithic (Woodman et al. 1997), and wild boar may have been deliberately introduced by Mesolithic settlers. They may also have been introduced to the major islands of the Baltic (Zvelebil 2008).

Reaction to deglaciation led to many other effects, such as the slow infilling of lakes, changing river regimes as sediment supplies from upstream and offshore transformed, and the initiation of peat growth in some areas (possibly locally facilitated by human activity: Simmons 1996). Many of these were slow processes, but local manifestations of re-adjustment could be dramatic. One of the most significant events of the early Holocene was a large tsunami associated with a major offshore landslip west of Norway at c.8200 cal bp: the Storegga event (Weninger et al. 2008). The Storegga event has been connected to a variety of archaeological evidence—not always convincingly—but its likely impact on a settlement system with a strong coastal aspect would have been profound. Weninger et al. concluded that ‘the Storegga Slide tsunami would have had a catastrophic impact on the contemporary coastal Mesolithic population’ (Weninger et al. 2008, 17). The ‘8200 cal bp cooling event’, a regional cooling episode of considerable severity, has not yet been convincingly associated with particular changes in human settlement (but see Edwards et al. 2007 and Berger and Guilaine 2010). The final emptying of the ice-dammed Lake Aggasiz in North America, which may have provoked the ‘8200 cal bp’ event, may have led to a rise in global sea level of c.50 cm at c.6250 cal bc (Weninger et al. 2008). The coincidence of the timing of these events in the late seventh millennium cal bc may have been significant and it is surprising that a concatenation of events of this scale has not produced more direct evidence for human response when the 8200 bp cooling event, shorn of any coastal impacts, does appear to correlate to significant changes in south-eastern Europe (Bonsall et al. 2002/3). This may relate to the comparatively poor chronological resolution of our models of human settlement.

Most of the time, the impacts of climate change were smaller scale and hard to identify, but were likely to be very important to past populations, especially as some, at least, took place on time scales recognizable across the generations or to individuals: a traditional settlement area, now flooded; an outcrop of high-quality stone, now lost; landscapes that one generation had walked on, now beneath the sea; stone tools, battered, rolled in beach deposits, but still recognizable as worked. These transformations were a key aspect of the textures of Mesolithic life in the region, if possibly expressed most dramatically on the coasts. That they remain analytically difficult to access does not mean we should ignore them.

The Big Picture

The Mesolithic in north-west Europe is defined by convenience and convention rather than hard boundaries. In much of the region the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary obscures (p. 541) continuity of human occupation, and drawing any kind of distinction between late/latest/final Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers and first Mesolithic (or even Epi-Palaeolithic) hunter-gatherers is meaningless (see below). The transition from the late glacial into the Holocene was characterized by a complex sequence of environmental changes associated with a sequence of warm and cold periods before the more sustained warming of the Holocene. The re-colonization of northern Europe sees a diverse range of archaeological cultures, and regional variations thereof, many seeming to have broad correlations with major environmental changes, although our understandings of cause and effect are rather limited. In overall terms, the late Upper Palaeolithic Magdalenian (with Hamburgian and Creswellian regional facies) is followed by Federmessergruppen associated with the warmer periods of the Allerød interstadial, and Ahrensburgian and related groups during the Younger Dryas stadial before the start of the Mesolithic, all with varied patterns of mobility and settlement (see, for example, Barton et al. 2003; Conneller 2007; De Bie and Vermeersch 1998; Street 1998; Street et al. 2002). Ahrensburgian groups appear to have made extensive use of the low plains of northern Europe, and relied heavily on reindeer, which appears to have been intensively exploited. These groups may have extended as far as northern Britain (e.g. Ballin and Saville 2003), but the cold conditions of the Younger Dryas are generally associated with very little evidence for settlement in the north of the region considered here.

The onset of the Holocene is generally associated with a transformation in final Upper Palaeolithic assemblages, especially in terms of increased microlithization. However, considerable technical and typological links exist, especially between the Ahrensburgian and early Mesolithic, but also with other traditions. In Benelux, for example, De Bie and Vermeersch (1998, 39) argue that Ahrensburgian groups expanded from the north into areas abandoned by Federmessergruppen and that ‘with the onset of the Holocene, some Early Mesolithic tool assemblages are clearly derived from the Ahrensburgian, whereas knapping techniques at other sites seem to point to Federmesser influences’, suggesting that even in its earliest manifestations Mesolithic cultures were not an outcome of a single tradition, but were formed by integrating different traditions or even, in this case, populations (for similar processes in northern Scandinavia, see Blankholm 2009). Genetic evidence (e.g. Oppenheimer 2006) may suggest two strands of Mesolithic expansions, from Iberia and the Balkans, further raising the possibility of discrete populations meeting, integrating, and transforming (see also Gamble et al. 2006). Recent years have seen some emphasis on interactions between communities at the end of the Mesolithic—with groups of hunter-gatherers and farmers (both possibly mobile at different scales and in different ways) forming new kinds of communalities in the context of frontier or border zones that allow for the renegotiation and transformation of identity (see Kostakis 2005). Gronenborn, for example, suggests of the fifth millennium cal bc in Germany that ‘(w)e know that out of migrant and local communities certain multi-traditional societies emerged which formed the basis for Neolithic social and political life’ (Gronenborn 2009, 540). A longer perspective suggests that late Mesolithic communities adopting and integrating ideas from agricultural neighbours and reformulating and changing the nature of their communities is simply a continued manifestation of a trend that existed throughout the Mesolithic.

Again at the most general level, settlement expands back across north-western Europe in the Mesolithic, and most areas see Mesolithic settlement of some kind, including, it appears, the colonization of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the latter lying at 60°N latitude, and which may have seen the deliberate introduction of ungulates (Edwards et al. 2009). (p. 542) Evidence for settlement early within the Mesolithic is surprisingly absent from some areas, such as the island of Ireland where the first evidence lies in the centuries following 8000 cal bc (Bayliss and Woodman 2009; Woodman 2009), but colonization can only be considered in terms of the strategies and decisions of colonizing groups (Finlayson 1999) and there may have been little justification for colonization of some areas, whilst small-scale pioneering visits may have low archaeological visibility. Population growth has not been accessed in a meaningful way but is often assumed to have taken place at a gross level although there has been little or no serious discussion of the impact of oscillations in population over time (for discussion, see Spikins 2000). It should not be seen as a necessary driver of social change in the period without clear demonstration that it was happening at a particular time and place.

Subsistence strategies changed over time as landscapes changed. A diversification of settlement and resource base appears to have taken place with much local variation and a range of evidence for exploitation of a variety of plants, animals, and fish (both fresh- and sea water). It would be tempting to discuss a ‘broad-spectrum’ diet, but our models lack precision to really assess change over time to any meaningful degree. As noted above, some Mesolithic communities may have deliberately introduced boar to islands, and ‘management’ of wild animals has been discussed significantly in the literature: domestic dogs were present, occasionally treated with some formality in funerary contexts (Larsson 1990) and a captive bear from La Grande-Rivoire (Isère, France) suggests complex relationships linking humans and other animals (Chaix et al. 1997). Marine and lacustrine resources were important, to some communities at least. The role of deep-sea fishing has been questioned (Pickard and Bonsall 2004), but the extensive and intensive use of marine resources on a very large scale by some Mesolithic communities is well attested and exemplified by the Ertebølle (see below). Plants too, appear to have been very significant to some communities (for a review see Zvelebil 1994): at Staosnaig, in western Scotland, tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of hazelnuts were found in one feature, the product of some 5,000 trees (Mithen et al. 2001). Diets may have been very varied: even in comparatively small areas, such as the islands of Britain or Ireland, isotopic data suggest communities with very distinct diets, some appearing to rely mainly on terrestrial sources of protein, others on marine sources (e.g. Milner 2006): trends over time to an increasing marine influence at a European level are possible, but influenced strongly by biases (see below) and are the subject of fierce debate (see Milner et al. 2004 and responses, especially Richards and Schulting 2006).

The extent of ‘regionalization’ of Mesolithic groups varies over time. In the early Mesolithic some broad cultural groupings appear to exist and these can span large areas. The early Mesolithic (Maglemosian) is broadly similar in Britain, southern Scandinavia, and Germany: comparable artefact types, comparable site locations, depositional practices—even similar headdresses constructed of red deer antler. One must assume that these related groups of communities extended across the dry land of the North Sea Plain (e.g. Figure 24.2). David (2009) has demonstrated that traditions of bone and antler tool manufacture are also stable across broad areas in the earlier parts of the Mesolithic, itself suggesting a considerable strength of regional tradition at a broad scale. Later in the Mesolithic, in some regions at least, very small territories are apparently present. Marchand (2007, 27), for example, reviews multiple, separate inland and coastal archaeological groupings in late Mesolithic Brittany, and some models have attempted to track the movement of women in marriage between inland and coastal groups (Schulting and Richards 2001). Yven argues that this restriction of space in Brittany is a development from the middle Mesolithic onwards (Yven 2004). A genuine (p. 543) trend to smaller ‘territories’ over time appears to be present across much of the region. Yet the meaning of these archaeologically defined territories remains difficult to assess (Bergsvik 2003; Warren 2009) and it would be too simplistic to associate particular archaeologically defined groups with any kind of ethnic or biological population. Most groups appear to be extensively linked by exchange networks, which again operate at multiple differing scales. For everything that divides communities, other themes can be adduced that link them.

Across this broad region, one can sometimes identify periods of change, but there appear, consistently, to be exceptions or variations in how changes work through particular contexts. For example, at the largest of scales most of Europe switches to trapezoidal microlithic arrowheads at c.6500–6200 cal bc, the later dates coming from further north (Verhart 2008, 172), the change happening against a proliferation of local archaeological groupings. Britain and Ireland, the former probably newly separated from the continent, do not make this change, and might therefore appear cut off from broader trends. At some stage in the centuries following 7000 bc, however, changes in the nature of the Irish Mesolithic take place, from a structured and archaeologically visible early Mesolithic to a late Mesolithic situation characterized by limited evidence, sometimes interpreted in terms of an apparently more ephemeral, mobile settlement system, but in truth, poorly understood (for discussion and outline of interpretive models, see Woodman and Andersen 1990). These changes are also associated with transformations in the character of stone tools, creating a distinction between Ireland and Britain. The reasons for and nature of this change are poorly understood, but may be broadly paralleled in Germany following 7000 bc, where ‘during the late Mesolithic the number of archaeologically visible sites decreases’ (Gronenborn 1999, 137). In southern England and Wales a tradition of cave burial appears to end in the centuries immediately following 6000 bc indicating ‘changes in attitudes to the dead’ (Conneller 2006, 147); the tradition in England probably ending much earlier than it did in Wales and neither change matching wider transformations in the form of lithic assemblages from ‘early’ to ‘late’ Mesolithic in this region, often the basis for our chronological modelling (and that distinction itself increasingly broken down as more detailed work establishes more refined typological sequences).

The time-scales here are approximate, but hint of multiple changes across broad areas in the centuries following 7000 cal bc. Gronenborn suggests that this period was a time of ‘crisis’ for Mesolithic groups in central Europe (Gronenborn 1999, 137), and the impact of climate change and tsunamis at the end of this millennium was noted above, and may have formed part of the challenges facing communities. It would be tempting to think that the significance of changes at the end of the seventh millennium bc in north-west Europe was connected with this ‘crisis’, but we know all too little about the rhythms of change in Mesolithic Europe, as many of our chronologies are comparatively crude. Critically, it is difficult to assess whether this frequency of change is unusual in the period in this region—the long review of changes from the late glacial onwards may suggest that change of this kind was more-or-less routine. Speculatively, it is interesting to note that recent work in the Mediterranean suggests that:

(t)he abrupt climate change of 8200 cal bp has had a clear taphonomic impact on the first Neolithic and the last Mesolithic sites in valley bottoms and in karst areas…These processes explain how difficult it is for prehistorians to find evidence for the transition between the Mesolithic and Neolithic.

(Berger and Guilaine 2010, 45)

(p. 544) Some of the causal links between apparently synchronous events in different areas may need to be carefully evaluated.

In general, therefore, the Mesolithic can be seen as a number of transformations to existing ways of life including the combination of traditions from different sources. Changing landscapes presented a series of changes to settlement routines, especially, perhaps, the scale and character of routine mobility. There are hints of key periods of change, but our chronological resolution for connecting widely disparate changes is poor. Transformations were an ongoing aspect of Mesolithic life, even understood at this large scale.

The Ertebølle: Exemplars

The latest Mesolithic communities of southern Scandinavia (the Ertebølle) are a dramatic archaeological manifestation of Mesolithic lifestyles and provide evidence for both intensive and extensive subsistence strategies and complex internal and external social relationships. As noted above, they often form the dominant image of the Mesolithic of Europe (see below for discussion).

Marine resources targeted by Ertebølle communities include seal and small whales as well as an extensive range of fish and shellfish. Many sites are located in prime fishing locations and stationary fish traps were used and a variety of hooks, nets, and spears/leisters have been recovered to catch marine and freshwater fish. The Ertebølle utilized a ‘delayed return’ economic system (Woodburn 1980) whereby considerable investment in facilities is made; this included substantial log boats (Andersen 1985). Some forms of exploitation were very specialized: the inland site of Ringkloster appears to have been particularly targeted for pine marten fur (Andersen 1998; Richter 2005) and Aggersund for the exploitation of migratory swans (Andersen 1979). It has often been argued that such specialized practices were related to extensive trade networks, especially the role possibly played by fur in exchange with neighbouring farmers (for review, see Zvelebil 2008). Mammals were also extensively exploited, Blankholm arguing that land mammal exploitation was ‘very substantial compared to that of marine resources’ (Blankholm 2008, 117). Kubiak-Martens (1999) has demonstrated the wide range of plant foods also utilized alongside the archaeologically ubiquitous hazelnut. The economy in general appears to be broad spectrum, with some very specialized aspects.

Evidence for Ertebølle buildings is hard to come by: excavations at Tågerup, Scania include two circular huts (c.7.5 m diameter) and one ‘long house’, 15 m × 6 m with post holes and pavements (Karsten and Knarrström 2001). Such structures, however, are exceptional. Material culture includes some very fine and highly decorated objects, but is often fairly simple, described as being of a ‘minimal nature’ (Price and Gebauer 2005, 140). A small range of ceramics are present and appear to form part of a broader regional tradition of pointed-based vessels, and may relate to contact with ceramic-using hunter-gatherer groups to the east, as well as farming Neolithic communities to the south (Gronenborn 2009). Perforated shoe last adzes were imported from farming communities to the south and may have played a role in the maintenance of power and prestige relationships in Ertebølle communities (Klassen 2002). Metalwork was also imported, and some copper axes may indicate contact with Serbia (Klassen 2002). The nature of exports is less clear: seal fats, forest products, and furs are often discussed.

(p. 545) Burial evidence is varied in kind, but the archaeological imagination is dominated by cemeteries (see Nilsson Stutz 2003), especially Vedbæk-Bogebakken and Skateholm. These cemeteries hint at status variations between individuals, but there are few systematic patterns and the nature of hierarchy and gender relationships remains debated. Interpersonal violence is attested on many skeletal remains (for discussion see Thorpe 2003) and has sometimes been connected with evidence of territoriality in artefact distributions and morphology; some of the postulated territories are small (but see above for discussion of the difficulties of interpreting this data). The burials have allowed some examination of Ertebølle belief systems, sometimes drawing heavily on historical and environmentally founded an alogies with (near) modern hunter-gatherers of northern Europe (e.g. Zvelebil 2003) and it has been argued that hunter-gatherer ideological systems of these kinds played a key role in structuring the adoption of agriculture in the Baltic (Zvelebil 2008).

The Ertebølle thus appear to manifest the culmination of many of the generalized trends of the European Mesolithic. In the face of increased aforestation and the increased length of coastlines caused by climate change, they operated an extensive and intensive economy, with a major emphasis on marine resources (most accounts stress this aspect of the economy rather than any other). Considerable investment was placed in substantial long-term facilities such as fish traps, and some communities appear to be sedentary, not mobile. Both are argued to lead to the increasingly exclusive association of communities with particular places. Territories were small, apparently representing the culmination of the reduction in territory size from the broad European plains of the late glacial and early Holocene. These territories may themselves be linked with the appearance of cemeteries, as ancestral markers, and the evidence for interpersonal violence. Ritual was complex, and wealth was present. Trade and exchange relationships existed with neighbouring communities, including farmers, and appeared to focus on non-utilitarian artefacts. As such the Ertebølle appear to be archaeological exemplars of ‘complex hunter-gatherers’ and, as the latest Mesolithic communities in their region, the climax of a historical process of change. Ultimately, for many commentators, the adoption of agricultural technologies by these hunter-gatherers is itself the outcome of these same processes.

Other Stories

The detail by which we understand the Ertebølle, and the ease-of-fit of this model with generalized evolutionary schema, has allowed them to stand in for the Mesolithic as a whole in north-west Europe, with these particular processes of transformation often assumed to take place elsewhere. Many factors have encouraged this substitution including: a long history of research in south Scandinavia incorporating very high-quality excavations; an emphasis on excavating shell middens, with the consequent availability of faunal data; integration of archaeology and the natural sciences in the Scandinavian research traditions; an emphasis on underwater archaeology (e.g. Andersen 1985; 2009) that until recently was still comparatively unusual in north-west Europe; some spectacular finds not easily paralleled in other parts of north-west Europe; and a strong tradition of publishing in English. The Ertebølle are also the final Mesolithic culture in their region, and one that played an important role in the transition to agriculture in this area. Thus their particular manifestation of ‘complexity’ can (p. 546) be seen as a progressive historical trend. Archaeology is yet to shed the influence of social evolutionary thinking and this undoubtedly encourages the tendency to see the Ertebølle as the exemplars of the European Mesolithic. As Brinch Petersen and Meiklejohn argue:

It looks as if this expression (complexity) instead of being an analytical term, a heuristic devise (sic), has become the ultimate goal, with all hunter-gatherers ending up with this designation…the tendency of today is quite clear, namely the later a Mesolithic group is to be dated, the more intensified tends to be its characterisation.

(Brinch Petersen and Meiklejohn 2007, 187)

There are strong reasons to doubt that this process is universal or straightforward as a historical trajectory. Firstly, some of the assumed characteristics of ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers may not have been present in the Ertebølle: the identification of sedentism, for example, is much discussed, Blankholm concluding that ‘(t)he evidence for widespread sedentism or semi-sedentism is equivocal’ (Blankholm 2008, 121). More importantly, the nature of coastal change in southern Scandinavia means that it is generally only later Mesolithic coasts that are available to us to examine coastal settlement. Therefore, ‘we are prevented from evaluating the distinctiveness of the Ertebølle in relation to earlier periods of the Mesolithic’ (Blankholm 2008, 120; see also Brinch Petersen and Meiklejohn 2007).

Furthermore, many of the attributes of ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers (long-distance exchange, hierarchy, sedentism, cemeteries, etc.) are not solely found late in the period, but move in and out of archaeological focus at different times in different places in Europe. Meiklejohn and colleagues, for example, have examined the appearance of cemeteries in the Mesolithic of Europe, arguing that contrary to the frequent statements that they appear in the latest parts of the Mesolithic ‘they extend across the time breadth of the Mesolithic with apparent Upper Palaeolithic roots’ (Meiklejohn et al. 2009, 639). Rowley-Conwy has argued that ‘numerous examples reveal complexity coming and going frequently as a result of adaptive necessities’ (Rowley-Conwy 2001, 64) and that evidence for intensification in the late Mesolithic of Britain, Ireland, and Denmark is lacking (Rowley-Conwy 2004). Rather than indicating the culmination of a particular trajectory, the transegalitarian/complex Ertebølle are best understood as one manifestation of one way in which hunter-gatherer societies may organize themselves, amongst many possibilities (see also Binford 2001; Kelly 1995).

As increasing quantities of work are undertaken by an increasingly dynamic community of Mesolithic archaeologists in Europe, alongside the wealth of materials recovered in the developer-led archaeological sector, a clearer sense of different hunter-gatherer lifestyles across time and space is becoming apparent. Louwe Kooijmans, for example, argues that:

Until a few years ago and for want of something better; similar developments for the transition of hunter-gatherers to farmers to those supposed in Denmark were presumed for the Lower Rhine Basin late Mesolithic, i.e. a shift to a more sedentary society with a strong seasonal exploitation system, although archaeological evidence was almost non-existent and rather different from that in Scandinavia.

(Louwe Kooijmans 2007, 292)

Detailed recent work in the Netherlands suggests both similarities—in the use of very long-term seasonal camps—and differences from the Ertebølle, the latter especially manifest in material culture, which is argued to provide links to the loess lands to the south and (p. 547) to northern France. Meanwhile, ‘(r)esearch in the southern Netherlands appears to point to the exact opposite (of the dominant Ertebølle model): more specialisation in the early Mesolithic, and smaller settlements in the late Mesolithic that also appear to have been used for shorter periods’ (Verhart 2008, 181; note possible parallels to Ireland, above). The archaeological record of Britain and Ireland is, superficially at least, very different from that of southern Scandinavia, with little evidence of cemeteries, sedentism, or elaborate trade networks with farmers (see below) and Conneller and Warren (2006) have stressed that this material should be dealt with on its own terms and not as an impoverished reflection of the Ertebølle materials.

Understanding the Mesolithic of north-western Europe as encompassing a multitude of ways of living as hunter-gatherers each with their own trajectories of development in broadly related environments suggests that a finesse to Zvelebil’s definition of the Mesolithic at a European scale as ‘a historical process’ is required (Zvelebil 2009, see above). Discussion of a singular process carries implications of a single outcome. A more useful definition would be of the Mesolithic as a multitude of historical processes, leading to different, if connected, end points. Such a definition is also more in keeping with current models of evolution. These are critical of the idea of progression over time and emphasize the ways in which evolution leads to variability, and in particular that evolution has itself led to ‘the evolution of evolvability’ (Sterelny and Griffiths 1999, 286)—the opening up of new possibilities for evolution.

Changing Archaeological Practices

Understanding alternatives to the Ertebølle model is complicated by the regional and evolving character of the evidence, which arises from the interplay of three factors: people’s lives in the past, the preservation of evidence of those lives, and research histories; all of these heavily influenced by variations in the landscape. In this, of course, we must also consider the wholly transformative character of archaeological practice, where chance finds, or new analytical developments, can profoundly shift the study of a period. Liz Nilsson Stutz, for example, has argued that the discovery of Mesolithic cemeteries at Vedbæk-Bøgebakken and Skateholm played a key role in transforming the nature of archaeological understanding of Mesolithic communities in southern Scandinavia leading to a much richer perception of hunter-gatherer lives, and a focus on social relations:

The effect on our view of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer was immediate and thorough. This image was no longer other, no longer faceless…. our definition of the late Mesolithic society clearly began to shift from being ‘simple’ to being ‘complex’ … the discoveries also contributed to a re-evaluation of the late Mesolithic as a whole.

(Nilsson Stutz 2003, 162–3)

Valdeyron (2008, 183, 200) suggests that the Péquart’s excavations at Teviec and Höedic had a similar impact in France. The recent excavation of high-quality wetland archaeological sites in the Netherlands has led to a substantial increase in our knowledge of this region, but also to an expansion of dry-land archaeology, as Dutch researchers attempt to (p. 548) place sites with high-quality preservation into a broader archaeological context (see e.g. Rensink 2006). In this sense it is notable that the Mesolithic archaeology of Ireland, traditionally dominated by stone tools, has been enriched by finds of fish traps, baskets, lakeside platforms and related settlements, and burials within the last decade (e.g. Collins 2009; McQuade and O’Donnell 2007; Mossop 2009). These finds include significant examples of wetland archaeology and human remains, the two major transformative classes of archaeological evidence for the Mesolithic. The full impact of these finds on our broader models of Mesolithic life in Ireland has not yet been systematically explored.

Changing analytical techniques are also breaking down some of our familiar categories and thus causing their own transformations. Isotopic analyses of human bone for example present a challenge in providing information on an individual, which we must then find a way of relating to the time-scales of evidence incorporated into a midden, to choose another common source of dietary information: often these data seem incompatible, raising further questions about what, precisely, our different units of information relate to. The breaking down of our analytical units is also shown in new applications of high-resolution dating. The routine use of AMS dates on short-lived samples in conjunction with Bayesian modelling has been able to provide much greater precision in estimation of site age and longevity. Thus a possible short-lived phase of large (c.6 m diameter) huts appears to take place in northern Britain from c.8000–7600 bc on current evidence. It has also been possible to revisit old sites and challenge our interpretations: re-dating of Mount Sandel, in northern Ireland, demonstrates that rather than a sequence of huts, each associated with large and small pits, many of the large pits come after the use of huts on the site had ended, leading the excavator to make tentative links to contemporary pit features in Britain (Bayliss and Woodman 2009, 121) including pit alignments that may have served ritual functions (Murray et al. 2009). Increased resolution of this kind will transform our understandings of change over time in the Mesolithic. Zvelebil (2009) argues that at present we cannot write histories of the Mesolithic, but the increased application of Bayesian modelling to the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition in north-west Europe has begun to shift our attention to a generational time-scale, with profound implications for the kinds of histories that we are required to write of this period (Bayliss et al. 2007; Whittle and Bayliss 2007). It is wholly conceivable that, in certain circumstances, we will be able to write histories of the Mesolithic period.

Changing Scales

Running alongside changing analytical techniques have been significant changes in the nature of archaeological narratives of the Mesolithic period. The rise of an avowedly ‘interpretive’ Mesolithic archaeology since the late 1990s and early 2000s, has seen attention focus on particular contexts of human lives, often with an explicit emphasis on gender and other social identities and the relationship of communities with the landscapes that surround them. This ‘shift from subsistence to substance, to a more explicit focus on the textures and tasks of daily life’ (Finlay 2004, 68) suggests a further suite of transformations for us to consider.

An emphasis on the identification of children in the Mesolithic landscape, for example, has repopulated landscapes in Scotland and Denmark, and added to our understanding of (p. 549) site dynamics (e.g. Finlay 1997; Sternke and Sørensen 2009). The transformations in people’s lives as they aged were probably the most immediate and profound transformations they experienced and yet we have often ignored them (but see Strassburg 2000). Similarly, startling evidence of ritualized burial practices of considerable complexity is often treated as a source of data for the nature of society, whilst the transformation of a living person into a dead relative, and the changes in social relations this implies, has seen less attention.

We must also assume that world views transformed, alongside changes in subsistence and settlement. This is, of course, difficult to access analytically. Finlay (2003a) has argued that the microlith itself may have served as an important metaphor for Mesolithic communities, with the multiplicity of components in a tool containing microliths potentially incorporating multiple people into a single object and acting as a reminder of the community. Changes in Ireland to a non-microlithic, non-composite stone tool technology are argued to be associated with changing metaphorical understandings of community, which may have been invested more in the construction of larger, semi-permanent features such as fish traps or weirs (Finlay 2003a; 2003b). Such accounts are stimulating, but still rare: all too often, we separate out the discussion of world view from consideration of changing patterns of settlement or subsistence. This is unfortunate, because the two were clearly linked. Crate, for example, discussing the impact of recent climate change on the Viliui Sakha of north-eastern Siberia argues that:

These people can adopt some other mode of subsistence…Less is known about how the local effects of global climate change will play out in terms of a people’s cultural predilections, the restacking and appropriating of their belief systems, and their cognitive orientation—their preconceptions of and assumptions about ‘home’, that cyclical arrangement of annual changes that supports the variety of plants, animals and ecosystems.

(Crate 2008, 575)

It is in this context that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change see the erosion of traditional Inuit knowledge as a threat to these communities’ adaptive capacity, and that the Inuit Circumpolar Conference argued that climate change is an infringement of their human rights as it will lead to a loss of their culture and therefore their identity (Anisimov et al. 2007, 661). Too little is currently known about the long-term impacts of climate change on world view. The Mesolithic may provide a valuable point of reference.


I have argued that the Mesolithic of north-west Europe is characterized by ongoing transformations, many of which we only poorly understand the reasons for. The Mesolithic of this region witnessed profound transformations in people’s lives. From our distant perspective, many of the day-to-day changes in people’s lives remain obscure, and we have tended to focus more on the large scale and the general. Yet large-scale changes were manifest in people’s day-to-day lives, and analyses that separate one from the other are incomplete.

Increasingly evidence demonstrates considerable variation in the Mesolithic of north-west Europe, and some of the dominant models of the period require finessing. (p. 550) The multiple transformations in this period take place against a background of significant changes in the environment and in association with the complex histories of other groups, including, of course, those practising agriculture. Our descriptions of such transformations require us to emphasize variability and the developing potential for changes: the ‘evolvability’ of these cultures. In this sense, it is important to note that our understanding of the nature of hunter-gatherer diversity in the late glacial and early Holocene is very limited. As Jordan and Zvelebil have argued, the recent recognition of substantial ceramic use amongst many late- and post-glacial hunter-gatherers in northern Eurasia highlights strongly that ‘the material and technological diversity of the late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers was probably far greater than we can even start to imagine’ (Jordan and Zvelebil 2009, 76). In this sense, limiting the ‘transformations’ of the Mesolithic to one narrative is highly problematic. We know too little about the possible starting points, stopping points, and ends of such histories. The Mesolithic should not be perceived as part of a singular historical trajectory, nor as a process leading to complexity, but as a period of time when varied hunting and gathering communities actively constructed and negotiated their place in the world in a particular context. The Mesolithic was not a singular process, but the playing out of processes, with a variety of outcomes.


I would like to thank Vicki, Marek, and Peter for inviting this contribution and for their patience during its production. Nicky Milner and Thomas Kador provided valuable feedback on an earlier draft—I am grateful for their comments. Earlier versions of this chapter were presented at Aberdeen and Dublin, and I am grateful to the audience at both for discussion. Needless to say, all errors and misunderstandings are my responsibility alone.


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