Publication of The Mesolithic Age in Britain (1932) and The Mesolithic Settlement of Northern Europe (1936)

Monday, May 31, 2010

The picture, reconstructs a site near Broadway where young archaeologists found flint microliths (used about 8,000 years ago) It shows a mesolithic hunting group, who lived in the period just after the last Ice Age.

The last prehistoric period to be named and understood in any detail was that between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. In the early twentieth century it was designated the Mesolithic, literally 'the middle Stone Age.' Some of the reasons for this late identification and designation lie in the fact that its study fell between disciplines as well. At that time the Paleolithic period, from 30,000--10,000 BC, characterized by big-game hunters with large tools and cave paintings, was the province of geologists. The Neolithic period, from about 5000--2000 BC was the province of archaeologists. The 3,000 years of the Mesolithic were therefore a puzzle.

This time, ca. 9000--6000 BC, was thought to be a period of cultural regression because people had used simpler and smaller stone tools, or microliths, as distinct from the larger stone tools used during both the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. So what was the Mesolithic? No great leaps forward in human culture seemed to be evident, and it was so insignificant that there was a debate about whether it was a period in its own right, or whether it should be called the epi-Paleolithic or the proto-Neolithic. During the late nineteenth century the great French archaeologist Gabriel de Mortillet claimed that Europe was unoccupied during the period between the cave painters and the crop planters--or him there was no Mesolithic. In the 1920s Gordon Childe dismissed it as making a negligible contribution to European culture.

In 1932, less than ten years after Childe's dismissive comments, English archaeologist Grahame Clark revolutionized our understanding of this period. The Mesolithic, Clark argued, was a time of major transformation in European prehistory. At its beginning humans were living as they had for the last 30,000 years, and at its conclusion they had adopted agricultural economies, had ranked societies, and had altered the natural environment to suit themselves. Clark believed the microliths they used were the basis of a versatile tool kit--a set of tools that could be adapted in a number of ways on a variety of resources--or arrows, spears, fish barbs, or as sickles for hunting and gathering. Instead of being evidence of forgetting how to make big tools, they were proof that big tools were no longer needed. Life in the Mesolithic required a whole range of smaller and composite tools, because people had diversified their food resources.

In his two books, The Mesolithic Age in Britain (1932) and The Mesolithic Settlement of Northern Europe: A Study of the Food-Gathering Peoples of Northern Europe during the Early Post-glacial Period (1936), Clark proved that the great changes in climate that had occurred during the Mesolithic period had an enormous impact on the environment in northern Europe and on the lives of the people who lived there. The effects of climate change included rising sea levels, which resulted in flooding of low coastal areas and the creation of new high coastlines, and global warming, which resulted in significant changes to vegetation and animal communities. Paleobotanic research and pollen analysis documented a radical change from open tundra to widespread forests by 8000 BC. The retreating Arctic ice cap caused the extinction of larger animals such as mammoths. Larger herbivores such as reindeer followed the ice cap north, while the smaller red deer adapted to the forest by living in smaller herds, and others, such as roe deer and wild boar, adapted by extending their ranges. There were a greater variety of smaller animals available for food, such as wildfowl, and there were more coastal resources, such as fish and shellfish. The humans who inhabited this warmer landscape made social, economic, and technological adaptations to survive.

Clark demonstrated that the archaeology of the Mesolithic provides evidence of a more intense exploitation of this new environment by hunter-gatherers. Smaller-scale resources, such as shellfish, nuts, and small birds, became important parts of the human diet, and they developed new hunting and harvesting strategies to maximize seasonal forest and marine resources and broadened the basis of their subsistence to include more species. Domesticated dogs appeared at around this time, probably as an aid to hunting and killing animals. These economic and technological developments during the Mesolithic period made a greater degree of sedentism possible. Humans reoccupied seasonal sites on lakeshores and seashores and in forests and at rock shelters in expectation of seasonal resources. At some point they may have stayed year-round in expectation of these resources and the need to defend them and their territory. Abundant and reliable food sources also meant a growth in population, economic success and wealth, and the development of trade networks. Clark was convinced that some of the characteristics of the Neolithic period originated during the Mesolithic.

Further Reading Clark, J. G. D. 1932. The Mesolithic Age in Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Clark, J. G. D. 1936. The Mesolithic settlement of Northern Europe: A study of the food-gathering peoples of northern Europe during the early post-glacial period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Fagan, B. 2001. Grahame Clark: An intellectual life of an archaeologist. Oxford: Westview. Rowley-Conwy, P. 1999. Sir Grahame Clark, 1907\u20131995. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: The great archaeologists, ed. T. Murray, 507\u2013529. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Rowley-Conwy, P. 2001. European Mesolithic. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: History and discoveries, ed. T. Murray, 478\u2013491. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.


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