The Mesolithic epoch, or the “middle stone age,” nowadays is interpreted as a Holocene stage of hunter-gatherer society development. Two opposing interpretations of historical status of the Mesolithic epoch have competed in archaeological science during the past century. Many researchers regard the Mesolithic as an important phase of human history and as a specific archaeological epoch characterized by a set of features in tool production, livelihood, economy, social organization, art, ideology, and so forth. Another group of Early Holocene settlement investigators regard the Mesolithic as a period of transition from a society of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers to mid-Holocene communities of early farmers and cattle breeders.
Although the term Mesolithic had been proposed as early as 1874 by M. Torell, the taxonomic importance and historical essence of this period is discussed in contemporary archaeology. The term Epipaleolithic is often applied to this period by those scientists who believe that no principal changes in culture had occurred since the 17 million BC, that is, since the beginning of deglaciation. Another group of archaeologists prefers to use the term nonceramic or preceramic Neolithic, thereby stressing that the process of productive economy formation had already begun by the beginning of the Holocene. In the course of the discussion about the historical status of the Mesolithic period and about the most suitable term for it, a series of criteria for the Mesolithic epoch has been put forward.
Mesolithic as Historical Epoch: Diversity of Criteria
The most striking features of the Mesolithic flint industry were as follows:
- Extreme microlithization of tools, blades, flakes, nuclei, and debitage
- Substantial decrease of percentage of artifacts with traces of secondary processing (e.g., retouch, truncation, chipping) and intensive use of chips (mostly prismatic microblades and blades) without further processing
- Absolute domination of the insert-based tool production technique that actively applied inserts of geometric forms (e.g., trapezes, triangles, segments), opening the possibility of reuse and interchange-ability of artifacts in different sorts of activity (e.g., hunting, butchering, gathering, tool making, clothes making, house building, household activities)
- Macrolithic forms (e.g., axes, tranchetes, adres, bits) in wide distribution in boreal territories all over the world
Traditionally, the Mesolithic is correlated with transition from the glacial period (Pleistocene) to the postglacial period (Holocene). Climate global changes were accompanied by transformation of fauna (replacement of big gregarious animals by small nongregarious species) and flora that resulted in formation of contemporary kinds and types of geographic landscapes and zones. Such transformation of natural habitat had caused reformation of the human mode of life and way of cultural adaptation.
Differential development of various spheres of a hunter-gatherers economy in direct connection with peculiarities of a local environment was displayed strikingly during the Mesolithic times. At the same time, it was not only an epoch of nonspecialized hunting of nongregarious animals but also a period when the necessary background for the transition to a productive economy had been formed. In some regions, one can trace the existence of its first developed forms (mainly Fertile Crescent mainly). In others, only specific forms of animal juveniles treating known as “live food supply” and/or simple harvesting were practiced (e.g., Black and Mediterranean Sea region).
Another specific feature of the Mesolithic economy also connected with the necessity to improve the population subsistence base was intensification of the gathering of salt and sweet water mollusks. It is traced to the origin of specific kinds of settlements known as kokkenmeddings found in Northern Europe, the British Isles, the Pyrenean peninsula, the Apennines, Crimea, and other seashore areas.
Substantial development of fishing was also connected with the necessity to secure a food supply. It was accompanied by the invention of special means (e.g., wicker nets, fishhooks, rafts, boats) and sometimes provided bases for a rather settled mode of life.
Social criteria include two phenomena traced independently to different parts of the world and different geographic regions:
- Disintegration of numerous communities of the Ice Age and growth of economic importance and social independence of small mobile groups of hunter-gatherers, as reflected in the absolute domination of short-term sites without dwellings and other household construction
- Origin of primitive forms of tribal organization, as reflected in the appearance of collective burials
Representatives of different approaches to Mesolithic culture interpretation often mention other features that defined historical specificity of this period. One of the most important among them is the invention of series of means of transport caused by the necessity to secure movement of population groups searching for new foraging territories (e.g., canoes, rafts, skies, sleighs).
The development of an exchange network resulting from the development of transportation means also is regarded as a peculiar characteristic of the Mesolithic.
The wide distribution of stone vessels for bone overcooking and for preparation of herbal tea and decoction, and possibly also meat stock, is traced to most regions of Europe. Such a practice was aimed at efficiency of food procurement maximization by extreme use of products.
Sometimes the origin of Borean (Nostratic) language unity is mentioned. Its further development is traced to the origin of ancestors of Indo-European, Ural, and Semitic languages.
Extreme rock art schematization reflected general symbolization of the outer world, and abstraction of mental activity of hunter-gatherers could be regarded as another Mesolithic culture feature.
Periodization and Chronological Frameworks of the Mesolithic
Two kinds of the Mesolithic periodization are usually used in contemporary archaeology. One of them divides the Mesolithic into two stages:
- Early stage (10,300-8,200 years BP)
- Late stage (8,200-7,000 years BP)
During the first half of the 20th century, these stages were called Azilian and Tardenoisian, respectively. Nowadays, such names are applied to local cultures distributed on the territory of contemporary France and neighboring regions.
During the past decade, one could trace the growth in popularity of the ecological approach of the Mesolithic interpretation and, as a result, a shift toward a preference for another variant of the Mesolithic period, according to which Holocene climatic phases correlate with phases of culture development:
- Preboreal phase (10,300-9,700 years BP)
- Boreal phase (9,700-8,200 years BP)
- Atlantic phase (8,200-7,000 years BP)
At the same time, it needs to be stressed that a series of Mesolithic settlements, in their flint knapping technology sites, are dated by final stages of final glacial times. The earliest examples are correlated with Allerod warming (13 million years BP), and many Dryas III settlements in the southern part of Eastern and Western Europe are interpreted as Mesolithic ones. On the other hand, a series of dates obtained for Mesolithic sites in the Boreal zone of Northern Europe are dated less than 7 million years BP.
The best explanation of such variability of Mesolithic period dating in different geographical zones was proposed by proponents of an ecological version of the Mesolithic interpretation. According to this version, the Mesolithic is regarded as an objective and reasonable response of hunter-gatherer societies to climatic and landscape changes that occurred as a result of the last deglaciation. So far as this process fit geographic regularities, it began at southern regions much earlier than at northern territories and caused further nonsynchronicity of the Mesolithic culture’s existence in different latitudes. Landscape capacity to satisfy subsistence needs of hunter-gatherers defined the upper chronological frame of the Mesolithic. Inhabitants of southern regions, whose source base was explored extensively, and often nonrationally, for a long period of time, needed to transform their culture earlier than did populations of newly settled northern territories.
Local Diversity of Mesolithic Cultures
Although the Mesolithic is characterized by general features, their peculiar displays and relative importance in different regions can vary greatly.
The southern regions of Western and Eastern Europe give us brilliant examples of flint knapping technique improvements and standardization in the genre of prismatic chipping, artifact micritization, reduction of chip secondary treatment, and domination of the insert (often of geometric forms) technique of tool making. In these regions are scarce complex settlements (except those in caves) and an absolute predominance of short-term sites without dwellings, and household objects testify to a highly mobile mode of life and a high grade of dispersion of Mesolithic population specializing in small group or individual hunting of nongregarious game (e.g., red deer, auroch, wild boar) and birds.
The northern territories of Europe illustrate a Boreal variant of the Mesolithic culture connected with a wide distribution of fishing practices and gathering of plants, nuts, mollusks, and the like. Special types of settlements on platforms and so-called kokkenmeddings reflect peculiarities of such a subsistence system caused by natural habitat features. Elk and red deer are represented among hunting species, and their importance in human life is also reflected in objects of portable art. Tool kits contain many tools for wood processing as well as many wooden and bone artifacts. Mollusk shells and fish carcasses also were used in household activities.
The Middle East displays a very different mode of Mesolithic cultures development based on the origin of early farming and cattle breeding as early as 11,000 years BP. The introduction of wheat, barley, and rye, as well as the domestication of sheep, goats, cows, and pigs, took place here. The creation of complex settlements with mono- and multicameral rectangular and circular dwellings on stone foundations and weaved walls covered by clay was inherent to early agriculturists of the Fertile Crescent. A lot of so-called “luxurious” (or simply rare) artifacts made of steatite, volcanic glass, marble, porphyry, resin, and the like have been found at such settlements. They were imported from remote northern and southern territories and indicated a high level of exchange system development.
In North America, after the last glaciation (postWisconsin time or Early Holocene), transformation of local culture was not connected with migrations from Asia for the first time in the history of American populations. The origin of the Plano culture, based on specialized hunting of bison, is regarded as an inner process caused by previous phases of culture development in a transformed postglacial landscape. During the Mesolithic, all places suitable for human life near big river flows and in foothills were inhabited. This resulted from the necessity of permanent changes of settlement places in search of game. Hunting weapons were based on a specific kind of grooved inserts called “plano points” and testify to a high level of tool production development. Wide possibilities of social culture, daily life, and ideology of Mesolithic populations of North America are opened by ethnographic analogies based on interdisciplinary studies of Indian populations.
- Bar-Yosef, O. (1980) Prehistory of the Levant. Annual Review of Anthropology, 9, 101-133.
- Braidwood, R. J. (1962). Courses toward urban life. New York: Academic Press.
- Dolukhanov, P. M., Kozlowski, S. K., & Kozlowski, J. K. (1980). Multivariate analysis of Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic stone assemblages. Warsaw-Krakow, Poland: Panstwowe wydawnictwo naukowe.
- Fischer, A. (Ed.). (1995). Man and sea in the Mesolithic. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books.
- Frison, G. C. (1978). Prehistoric hunters of the High Plains. New York: Academic Press.
- Mellaart, J. (1967). The earliest settlements in Western Asia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Sanders, W. T., & Marino, J. (1970). New World prehistory. New York: Academic Press.
- Smyntyna, O. V. (2001). Zonalnist rannyopervisnuch cultur: Doslidjennya, facty, hipotezy [Zonal features of Early Prehistoric cultures: Investigations, facts, hypothesis]. Odessa, Ukraine: Astroprint.
- Vermeersch, P. M., & Van Peer, P. (Eds.). (1990). The Mesolithic in Europe. Edinburgh, UK: John Donald.
- Wedel, W. R. (1961). Prehistoric man of the Great Plains. Norman: Oklahoma University Press.