(Chapter III, section 1)


The historical setting

The Mesolithic cultural period, which follows the final Palaeolithic in Europe, is wholly post-Pleistocene in that continent, and extends roughly from immediately post-glacial time to 3000 B.C. and later.

The Mesolithic manner of living was primarily similar to that of the Upper Palaeolithic. People still relied on hunting and the gathering of wild vegetable products for food, and the population must have remained as sparse as ever. Man had acquired but one domestic animal—the dog, which may have helped in hunting, but which was not bred for eating, and hence served as only an indirect source of food. The Mesolithic economy was, therefore, a prolongation of the Upper Palaeolithic system into relatively recent times; in the technical sense, however, there were certain improvements; with the introduction of microliths composite weapons were made; dugout canoes furnished good water transportation, and tree-felling axes must have made the building of adequate houses possible. The forerunners of the textile arts were probably developed to permit the manufacture and use of fish nets, good basketry, and matting.

The cultures of the Mesolithic period in Europe may be divided into two elements of different origins, which in many regions met and blended. One was the intrusive Tardenoisian with its advanced microlithic technique, which came in from the south across the straits of Gibraltar, and perhaps around the eastern end of the Mediterranean.1 These migrations into Europe from the south were caused by climatic shifts incident upon the final glacial retreat. As the glacier moved northward to take up its last stand in the high Scandinavian land-mass, the erstwhile well-watered and temperate belts of North Africa and the Near East suffered a gradual desiccation. As the rain-belt moved northward, zones of temperate and sub-tropical climate shifted from Africa to southern and central Europe, and the climate of Europe became warmer in early post-glacial times than it is at present. The people who brought the elements of the Tardenoisian complex northward had been accustomed to hunting on open grasslands before their arrival in Europe, and they, therefore, settled in sandy regions and treeless highlands, since neither their tool kit nor their general manner of living was suited to a forest environment.

The second cultural element was furnished by the survival of the old Upper Palaeolithic techniques, employed by the descendants of the reindeer hunters. The gradual growth of forest in what had formerly been the North European tundra belt forced them to learn a new kind of hunting and to live on the flesh of new animals, while the warming of northern waters gave them an abundance of fish and molluscs, focussing their attention not only on the forest but also on the rivers and sea.

In the north and west of Europe, where the glacier lasted the longest, cultures of Aurignacian and Magdalenian tradition survived into the full Mesolithic when some of them blended in varying degrees with the newly arrived Tardenoisian. In outlying regions, such as the north coast of Ireland and Finnmark in Norway, flint implements of Upper Palaeolithic inspiration may still have been made as late as the time of Christ.

For the purpose of simplification, therefore, the history of the Mesolithic period in Europe may be reduced to two elements: (1) an invasion of microlith-makers from southern regions which had been temperate and desirable during the Late Pleistocene, but which were now drying up and becoming less habitable than Europe; (2) survival of the Palaeolithic people of Europe in various regions and in varying intensity, but concentrated especially in the northern forest belt, along the western coasts, and in the centers where the ice had lasted longest, notably, Norway and Switzerland.


1 Clarke mentions this second route as a possibility. Clarke, J. G. D., The Mesolithic Settlement of Xorthern Europe, pp. xiv—xv.