7. The Mesolithic Era of Northwest Europe

As many of you know I have given my heart to the Mesolithic Era of the British Isles and have spent decades envisioning what life was like then. I believe that we peaked as a species, biologically and spiritually, and have been on the decline to extinction ever since. Nothing that surrounds me today would lead me to think otherwise. After 65 million years of evolution Mesolithic people had achieved it all with secure nutritious food, a pharmacology that worked, an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, and a way of life that remains unsurpassed, rich with spiritual practices and an abiding belief in awe-inspiring mystery. And yet, they knew their place in the world and perceived themselves as only a feature of it within a mind-boggling array of wonder and beauty. It is the final era of the Stone Age, brought to its knees by the Neolithic farmers who led the way to a doomed species and decimated planet.

There are two words used to classify this era: Mesolithic and Epipaleolithic. Epipaleolithic is usually used to refer to post glacial hunters and gatherers while Mesolithic refers primarily to North and Northwest Europe and in some cases to people in various modes of transition to the Neolithic. Sometimes the degree of hunting and gathering is distinguished by one word over the other but for my purposes I will stay with the term Mesolithic. As an era it is recognized as the intermediary or transition between the Upper Paleolithic and the Neolithic.  It preceded agriculture while succeeding the last Ice Age between 10,000 and 4000 BCE.  As with all eras the timing widely varies from region to region allowing for a span of 15,000 to 1000 years. But for Northwest Europe our window remains 10,000 to 4000 BCE. Mesolithic Europe began with the Holocene warm period about 11,660 years ago and ended with the birth of agriculture. It lasted for millennia in Northern Europe. People were thriving with fabulously rich diets that utilized countless species of plants that came about once the ice melted. Resulting marshlands created a cornucopia of food and such widespread abundance certainly contributed in delaying any interest in farming even when farming was taking place in close proximity and about which Mesolithic people had knowledge.  But I think there was a whole lot more to it than that. Hunter-gatherers had evolved over millions of years. In the previous chapters we see clearly that as a way of life it included incredible things with a deep and spiritual awareness of the power and mystery of the places, plants and animals that surrounded them. Why after cultivating such an extraordinary way of life would a people walk away from it in exchange for animal cruelty and the poor nutrition of Neolithic mono cropping? I doubt they walked away from it willingly. Farming, herding, timber longhouses, pottery, and numerous other things displaced and marginalized Mesolithic people until they finally disappeared. But they left some marvelous archaeological sites that have been studied for a long time and will continue to be studied for centuries to come, provided we actually survive as a species.

Microlith technology was the industry of the age. Microliths are extremely small stone tools usually made from flint, chert, bone, horn, and antler. They are only a centimeter long and a half centimeter wide. Microliths were manufactured by retouching the waste from larger tools. Six to eighteen of these tiny points were fastened to larger hunting weapons such as spears and harpoons. Even one or two might be found attached to arrowheads. Microliths were usually produced by pressure but occasionally by percussion into an assortment of shapes such as triangular, trapezoidal, and lunate.

The Azilian culture of northern Spain and southern France lived about 12,000 years ago. They had lost ground compared to the Magdalenian that had preceded them. The Magdalenian had been well fed ice age hunters but when the ice melted the food supply became greatly diminished and the Azilian were impoverished even though they co-existed with other tribes. I don’t know who those other tribes were or that they made out any better. And yet the Azilian managed to decorate pebbles. They manufactured microliths points with rounded, retouched backs and had flat bone harpoons. Although struggling, the Azilian were early pioneers of the Mesolithic era.

Aveline’s Hole is a burial cave found in Somerset, England that contained the remains of 21 individuals buried 10,200 to 10,400 years ago. These people were also early pioneers of the Mesolithic Era. The bones reveal that they were struggling too. Their teeth showed signs of poor nutrition during childhood and they weren’t long lived. At the time there was still a land corridor between France and England so the people of Aveline’s Hole were a long way from the ocean and its nutritional bounty. I often wonder why they had ventured so far from familiar resources. And yet even with the evident hardship the graves left behind contained animal teeth, amulets, red ochre, and all the signs that the deceased were given ritual attention. Crosses had been engraved on the cave walls that bear a striking resemblance to those found in Northern France, Germany, and Denmark.  Unfortunately, most of this site was destroyed by World War II bombings.

Cramond is a Mesolithic seaside site near Edinburgh, Scotland. It is 9500 years old. It is believed that the people were nomadic hunter gatherers who used the site seasonally. Archaeologists have found the remains of pits and stake holes used to construct shelters. Discarded hazelnut shells have been found in abundance as well as shells from the oyster and mussel beds nearby. Many microliths were also found. Life was definitely on the uptick.

Star Carr is an incredible site located in North Yorkshire, England, occupied from 8770 BCE to 8460 BCE. It is situated near the outflow of former Lake Flixton, a Paleolithic lake probably created by retreating glaciers.  The residents appear to have lived on the upslope of the bank while most of the activity took place at the lake’s edge below. It might have been a seasonal village. Star Carr was inhabited during the boreal and pre-boreal climate periods. The Ice Age had ended but sea levels were not high enough yet to fill the Channel. This area was abundant and the site revealed food and materials from beaver, red deer, roebuck, elk, moose, auroch, bear, hare, as well as wolf, lynx, bear, fox, pine marten, badger, and hedgehog. And there were fabulous treasures found too: objects rendered from red deer, elk and moose antler, and articles made from the bones of elk, moose, auroch, and birds. Items were found that were made from amber, shale, hematite, and iron pyrite along with tightly rolled pieces of birch bark, birch resin, and worked wood. The cache included tools made from flint found twelve miles away on what was the beach at the time. Nearly 200 projectile or harpoon points made of antler were found.  And the archaeologists found 21 red deer skullcaps, probably headdresses. The antlers were still attached to the stag skulls, two holes were perforated through the skulls so that the wearer could see from beneath the mask, and the interior of the skull was smoothed. The antlers were trimmed with great artistic care. Some of the antler artifacts appeared to be deliberately broken and the red deer headdresses had been respectfully deposited at what had been the lake’s edge, suggesting that the deer were regarded as deeply sacred.  Much of this site was locked in peat which preserved the bone and wood artifacts extremely well. Star Carr is also the site of Britain’s oldest structure. It was eleven feet wide and supported by as many as eighteen posts, probably conical or domed and likely covered with hide, thatch, turf, or bark. Evidence suggests that the support posts were replaced as needed and the structure was occupied for 200 to 500 years. The floor was covered with moss, reeds, and other plant material and was eight to twelve inches deep. A platform of split timbers of aspen and willow was also found along what would have been a boggy shoreline. We had finally reached our apex.

Howick House found in Northumberland, England is another spectacular find from 7600 BCE and occupied for about 100 years. The structure was round and thought to have been permanent because the supporting posts were quite stout. Inside the structure were numerous hearths containing the remains of burnt bones and hazelnut shells. Some of the hearths appear to have been used only for roasting nuts suggesting large quantities might have been roasted and stored. At the time Howick House was a coastal location that provided an abundance of flint, animals, wood for fuel and structures, fish, seal, seabirds, eggs, shellfish, and a source for fresh water.

The Maglemosian people lived in the forests and wetlands of northern Europe between 9000 and 6000 BCE. Similar sites have been found in England, Sweden, and Northern France, and from Denmark to Poland. They left behind fishing and hunting tools rendered from wood, horn, bone, and flint, and they had mastered microlith technology. Their microliths were sharply edged and found attached to spear heads and arrows. The Maglemosian worked with domesticated dogs, made huts from bark, and although still nomadic hunter-gatherers there has been evidence found that suggests they were somewhat settled as well. The rise in sea level has inundated a great deal of their territory making study of these people challenging if not impossible.

A culture named Kongemose lived in Southern Scandinavia about 6000 to 5200 BCE. They were hunter-gatherers who created long flint stone flakes that were used for making rhombic arrowheads, scrapers, drills, awls, and toothed blades. The Kongemose people also produced fine microliths that constituted the edges of decorated bone daggers. They hunted red deer, roebuck, and wild boar while supplementing their diet with fish and seafood.

The last Glacial Maximum ended about 18,000 years ago. Almost all of Britain had been covered in ice and the sea level was a whopping 390 feet lower than it is today. Doggerland is the name given to the landmass exposed about 14,000 years ago behind retreating ice. Although now under the southern North Sea it once connected Britain to mainland Europe until about 6500 to 6200 BCE. It was ultimately flooded by melting glacial ice. Doggerland stretched from Britain’s east coast across to the present dry coast of the Netherlands and the western coasts of France and Germany. Its expanse of low lying tundra extended up to the northernmost edge of Scotland. About 8000 BCE Doggerland was a place of lagoons, salt marshes, mud flats, beaches, inland streams, rivers, fresh water marshes, and lakes. It was probably the richest hunting, fowling and fishing found in all of Europe at the time. It has been speculated that a tsunami could have triggered the eventual flooding of Doggerland about 8200 BCE at which time occurred a submarine landslide in Norway called the Storegga Slide. A high point called Dogger Bank may have remained an island until 5000 BCE but Britain did become finally isolated from the Continent. Although the existence of Doggerland remains somewhat theoretical it’s hard to understand why. Many artifacts have come up in fishing nets far from the coast including an eight and half inch barbed antler point, mammoth and lion remains, a 40,000 year old Neanderthal skull fragment, along with many other mammal remains, tools, and weapons.

There are many other Mesolithic sites than the few I have mentioned. But there is one that truly enthralls me, left behind by the Ertabolle culture. They lived in Denmark and the region of Southern Scandinavia at the end of the Mesolithic era. Similar cultures have been found in Northern Germany and Northern Netherlands. The Ertabolle were hunter-gatherers in the midst of transition into the Neolithic era. They were somewhat transitory within their own territory, with a local continuity going back to at least 5600 BCE.  The Ertabolle had large year round settlements and seasonal smaller ones. Their dwellings contained firepits and were probably used mostly for sleeping and storage because much of their active lives took place outside, often around fireplaces that were surrounded by stones. Mud and clay hearths have been found as well as a fungus used as tinder to start their fires. Evidence suggests there was some animal husbandry being considered. They had limited uses of barley and emmer wheat although they themselves didn’t grow it but had acquired it from other groups farther south. It appears as though the grain was used to ferment into beer as well as a beverage that contained blood and nuts.

The sites also offered up the evidence that the Ertabolle had contact with the Linear Pottery culture located near Limburg. Coiled pottery had been fired on a bed of coals. Beakers and lamps have been found. Considering the long, dark winters of that snowy North Country I imagine those lamps were of great value inside their cozy huts.

Archaeologists also found evidence of conflict, as well as cemeteries. The way in which individuals were buried is interesting and varied. Some had been cremated; some had been buried in boats. Grave goods included red ochre and antlers. Women had been buried with their necklaces and belts decorated with animal teeth and shells. The Ertabolle even buried their dogs complete with similar grave goods and in dog cemeteries.

They left us artifacts of wood, bone, antler, and flint. The Ertabolle manufactured flake axes, long lithic flake knives, arrowheads, wooden prongs and points, antler points, and carved bone tools. And they had apparently achieved an abundance of leisure time allowing for the creation of all kinds of artistic things. The Ertabolle were wood carvers who embellished functional pieces. They polished and engraved ornamental bone and antler artifacts with geometric designs, and anthropomorphic or zoomorphic forms. The Ertabolle left us bird, boar, and bear figurines carved from polished amber. They wore jewelry made from animal teeth and shells, and had developed a needle netting technique out of spun plant fibers. Although many of their sites are now under water what has been found plays beautifully into the true meaning of “Paleo diets” and the connection between innovation, tools, and food.

The Ertabolle people lived near open water, creeks, river dunes, and bogs. They were extremely healthy coastal eaters. A refuse dump or possibly kitchen middens has been found that contains oyster shells, mussels, snails, and bones. Here were a people who had perfected dugout canoes and hunted whale and seal. Best of all, they left us details.

The economy of the Ertabolle was an economy of fish. Archeologists have found the tools for angling and spearing. They had weirs made from hazelnut sticks, wickerwork traps, spears made with attached hazelnut tines, and fish hooks rendered from red deer bone. One hook was found with the line still attached. Their dugout canoes were well and thoughtfully made. The bottoms were lined with clay allowing for a fire to be burned while afloat. That implies to me that their seafaring journeys might have long and cold. It is thought that the Ertabolle had genuinely seafaring boats as well but none have been found yet. Many species of fish have been found including shark and other deep sea varieties. The presence of fat burning lamps strongly suggests whaling and the possible technology to render blubber into actual whale oil. The Ertabolle diet also included many land mammals, birds, and even snakes, as well as a luxury of plants.

The Ertabolle ate boiled nettle (Urtica dioica), orache (Atriplex), sea beet roots (Beta maritima) and goosefoot (Chenopodium album). They also ate acorns and the seed from manna grass (Glyceria fluitans). And the berries were abundant including raspberry (Rubus idaeus), dewberry (Rubus caesius), strawberry (Fragaria) dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna and oxycantha), rowanberry (Sorbus aucuparia), crabapple (Malus) and rose hips.

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Responses to “7. The Mesolithic Era of Northwest Europe”

  1. I’m happy to know about all of this…most, new information to me.
    Most intriguing is the idea that humanity peaked during these times. I will enjoy thinking about that more.

    And, of course, I’m always happy to know what they ate :)

    • If food is what intrigues you, you must peruse the Appendix in Sacred First Foods’ menu at the top of the blog’s table of contents. The Appendix lists the edible plant species indigenous to the UK.