A Mesolithic period, also called Mesolithic (after ancient Greek μέσος mésos “middle, middle”, and λίθος líthos “stone”), is defined for post-glacial Europe between the younger Old Stone Age (Upper Paleolithic) and the New Stone Age (Neolithic). This was triggered by the new living conditions set by the reforestation of Central Europe at the beginning of the Holocene around 9600 BC (10th millennium BC). Humans had to learn to hunt still game in the forests instead of the disappearing big game of the cold steppes and to increase fishing. The Middle Stone Age was terminated by the spread of the productive economy (agriculture and animal husbandry) of the Neolithic, which varied from region to region. It lasted in the southeastern European region until about 5,800 BC, while in the northwestern European region it ended only around 4,300 BC.
In the Mediterranean region, the term “Epipalaeolithic” is used much more frequently in addition to the term “Mesolithic”. While in North Africa the European Mesolithic and the Upper Paleolithic are summarized as “Epipaleolithic”, the Mesolithic appears occasionally, but then specified in combined terms like the “Khartoum Mesolithic”. For western Anatolia, both “Mesolithic” and “Epipaleolithic” are common. In spatially overlapping representations, the term is rather used as a means of temporal classification without hiding a lifestyle that was specific for Europe and a few West Asian areas due to their ecological conditions and the persistence of different hunter-gatherer societies.
The term Mesolithic, restricted to western Eurasia, was introduced by Otto Martin Torell in 1874 and Hodder Westropp in 1866. It is mainly applied to Central and Northern Europe.
The Central European Mesolithic is divided – mainly on the basis of so-called microliths – into:
The individual sites prove a regionally different expression:
The end of the Middle Stone Age, with the beginning of the Neolithic, is associated in Europe with the appearance of the first peasant cultures. These appeared earlier in the south than in the north:
Mesolithic burials are rather rare, but some cemeteries are known from the Late Mesolithic, especially from Denmark and southern Sweden (Skateholm, Vedbaek-Bogebakken). On the islands of Île d”Hœdic and Île Téviec in the department of Morbihan (France) even stone slabs were used as grave borders. At Castleconnell in County Limerick, Ireland, there was evidence of cut stone axes and early cremation burials. Early Mesolithic human remains comparable to cave finds from Belgium and France were discovered in Blätterhöhle near Hagen. In Liguria, in the northwest of Italy, not far from the city of Albenga, in 2017.
A feature of the Late Mesolithic are skull burials, such as in the Great Ofnet Cave near Nördlingen, in the Hohlenstein-Stadel in the Lone Valley and in the cave ruin “Hexenküche” on the Kaufertsberg near Lierheim (district of Donau-Ries).
A Middle Stone Age grave discovered in 1962 on the vineyard near the district of Groß Fredenwalde in the municipality of Gerswalde in the district of Uckermark in northeastern Brandenburg represents a special feature. The remains of six individuals (three adults and three children) were found there. Mesolithic graves with a comparably large number of deceased are known only four times in Europe so far. In 2014, an unusual 7000-year-old burial was found on the vineyard. A young man about 1.60 m tall was buried standing upright to his knees in a pit, and only after the upper body had decomposed was the burial sealed with a hearth. This burial disturbed an older child burial, and in the same year an infant burial was also recovered adjacent to it. The various burials suggest that the vineyard was the site of the oldest cemetery in northern Central Europe. Other Mesolithic graves come from Unseburg and Coswig in Saxony-Anhalt.
In Europe, more than 74 of about 2100 people have been buried in a sitting or semi-sitting position (Bäckaskog”s wife). Another 31 graves may have contained seated burials. This type of burial, especially in Scandinavia, has led to Neolithic bone cairns in megalithic sites being interpreted as seated burials.
Characteristic for the epoch are the so-called microliths, tiny projectiles made of flint and other raw materials. A distinction is made between microliths made of special, very small blades (microblades) and geometric microliths, which were made by deliberately breaking and then retouching larger blades. In Northern Europe, shafted flint axes, so-called core and disc axes, were used.
The first daggers (knives with a cutting edge on both sides) preserved with organic sheaths are documented from the Mesolithic. A dagger preserved with bast wrapping, made of a large flint blade retouched on both sides, exists from the site of Nizhneye Veretiye in northern Russia, with radiocarbon dates of the find layer around ca. 8000 B.C. In the site of Olenij Ostrov in Karelia, a “bone dagger with glued-in flint blades” of about the same age was found.
Because of the storage of finds in peat bogs, there is excellent organic preservation of artifacts from many archaeological sites, for example fishing nets made of bast (Friesack site), arrow shafts made of pine and hazel wood (Duvensee site), fish traps, birch bark vessels, bark bottoms (Duvensee site), and net floats.Fishing hooks were made of deer antler (Bois-Ragot site, Pont d”Ambon site, both France) or bone. Bernhard Gramsch lists 38 fishhooks made of organic material found in Havelland west of Berlin. The specimen from the Kleinlieskow district (Cottbus-Nord open pit lignite mine) was also made of bone.
Dugouts and paddles are attested several times. Bows made of various conifers are documented from Friesack (Brandenburg) and northern Russia. The so-called “guardian bows” are permanently installed bow traps.
After campsites had already been inhabited on a long-term basis in the Gravettian (e.g. in Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov), sedentarization generally increased somewhat in the Middle Stone Age. The reduced tail area of hunter-gatherers can be proved, among other things, by the origin of flint raw material. Mesolithic groups used multiple habitation sites seasonally. Structures indicative of windbreaks and huts were found at Mesolithic excavation sites. The more common windbreaks are characterized by a few postholes (arranged in a straight line or in an arc). At Mount Sandel (c. 6960-6440 B.C.) in Ireland, a large number of postholes indicate a solid building. Presumably, the Morton site in Scotland (4700-4300 B.C.) was repeatedly inhabited, as indicated by rows of holes for post or poles that probably supported wind screens.
Sites with remains of stone ramparts and foundation-like stone settings have been discovered in Norway north of the Arctic Circle. In Tverrvikraet near Gamvik, in the province of Finnmark, the remains of a small rectangular house were found. On the island of Träna, the remains of a 6000-4000 year old house were found. Postholes on the inside of the walls and a central fireplace do not allow any other interpretation. At Varangerfjord in Norway near the border with Russia, circular arrays of postholes were found suggesting pit houses and tents, then later Gressbakken houses. The approximately 8500-year-old Tingby House in Sweden is considered Scandinavia”s oldest house. A reconstruction stands near the site on the grounds of a branch of Kalmar”s Län Museum.
Campsites of the Maglemose culture were excavated in Denmark and northern Germany (Holmegård IV, Sværdborg I and Ulkestrup Øst I), where the remains of the hut floors were still preserved, consisting of interwoven strips of bark and split tree trunks. At Ulkestrup Øst I, the huts had rectangular or trapezoidal floor plans and floor areas between 6.25 and 24 m². Roofs and walls were made of birch twigs and
Under the shell midden of Moita do Sebastião in Portugal, a larger construction was found, dated to 5350-5080 B.C. An open semicircle of 61 postholes suggests a protective structure against the north winds. Pieces of clay with grass imprints found nearby point to a roof made of rushes and stalks of sweet grasses (gramineae) coated with clay. Cooking pits were also found.
Causes of the change in diet were, in particular, the migration of the large herd animals and the better availability of gathering material (fruits, shells, etc.), but also improved techniques for catching small animals and the strong development of fishing. Hunting takes place on standing game, as the large herds of the Paleolithic such as reindeer, saigas, and wild horses had migrated. The prey spectrum of the Middle Stone Age consists mainly of forest dwellers such as red deer, roe deer and wild boar (see Hohen Viecheln habitation site). In addition, the hunting of fish, birds and small animals has been proven. On the coasts of north-central Europe, the Kongemose culture (6000-5200 BC) produced the first Køkkenmøddinger (kitchen waste piles), which are more numerous on the Atlantic coast.
Already in the early Mesolithic, the hazelnut made an important contribution to the diet. The enormously rapid expansion in this age is associated with the spread of man, who consciously or unconsciously promoted the proliferation of the hazelnut by creating hazelnut stocks. This could be the first cultivation of a food crop in Europe, although this cannot be proven. Thick layer packs of nut shells from the Duvensee site, specialized roasting sites for processing extensive nut stocks, nut crackers, and modeling of the extent of early Holocene nut use demonstrate that it may have exceeded the yields of early agriculture.
From a birch pitch gum that is about 5700 years old, researchers were able to deduce that duck and hazelnut were part of the diet in northern Europe at that time.
The Mesolithic was characterized by the retreat of the ice of the Weichselian cold period in northern Europe and the associated rapid warming of the climate during the Preboreal. In areas previously dominated by glacial tundras, first sparse, then increasingly dense forests developed, as isopoll maps show. The mixed pine-birch forest of the Boreal was followed by hazel and finally mixed oak forest of the Atlantic with the immigration of warmth-loving species. The settlement boundary shifted to the north. The sea level rose by almost 100 m between 9600 and 5000 BC.
There are rock paintings and small art in the form of richly decorated bone and antler tools. Human figures and elk scepters made of antler are found in the burial ground of Olenij Ostrow (Karelia). Overall, the Mesolithic is conspicuously poor in human representations.