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Mesolithic in Europe

Text of D.T.price-The European Mesolithic

  • Society for American Archaeology

    The European MesolithicAuthor(s): T. Douglas PriceReviewed work(s):Source: American Antiquity, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Oct., 1983), pp. 761-778Published by: Society for American ArchaeologyStable URL: .Accessed: 24/11/2011 05:18

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  • annuAt ieview of otl woRtl aRchaeotocy

    Coordinated by Eugene Sterud


    T. Douglas Price

    This brief review is intended to acquaint the reader with recent research and thought on the European Mesolithic. The period is characterized by hunter-gatherer adaptations between the close of the Pleistocene and the introduction of food production. A number of developments support an argument for a rapid intensifi- cation of human subsistence and settlement practices and organization, prior to the utilization of domesticated plants and animals.

    The exact contrary of what is generally believed is often the truth.

    Jean de Bruyere (1645-1696)

    The last fifteen years have witnessed a tremendous growth in research on the European Meso- lithic. Two major international congresses have been held in Warsaw and Potsdam (Koztbowski 1973; Gramsch 1980) along with several smaller symposia (e.g., Actes du Congres 1977; Kozlowski 1976). Numerous regional and national syntheses have appeared in print (Aurora 1976; Biagi 1980; Boroneanj 1982; Brinch Petersen 1973; Clark 1976; Clark 1975; Cullberg 1975; Dolukhanov 1982; Gob 1981; Gob and Spier 1982; Gramsch 1973; Indrelid 1975, 1978; Jacobi 1976, 1978; Kobusiewicz 1975; Koltzov 1977; Koztowski 1972, 1975; KozFowski and Koztowski 1979; Mathyushin 1976; Maury 1977; Mellars 1974, 1978a; Mikkelsen 1975; Morrison 1980a; Newell 1973; Palmer 1977; Pankrushev 1978; Phillips 1975; Price 1980; Rozoy 1978; Sakellaridis 1979; Schild et al. 1975; de Sonneville-Bordes 1979; Starkov 1980; Straus 1979; Taute 1980; Tringham 1971; Vermeersch 1982; Welinder 1973, 1977; Whitehouse 1971; Woodman 1978; Zvelebil 1980, 1981).

    Site reports on major excavations appear almost monthly. Mesolithic Miscellany, a newsletter, appears twice a year with current information and research reports. An atlas of the Mesolithic in Europe has been drawn up by Koztowski (1980). A catalog of Mesolithic skeletal remains in West- ern Europe is available (Newell et al. 1979). A major statement on the nature and significance of human adaptation in early Postglacial Europe has been issued by the doyen of Mesolithic studies, Grahame Clark, in Mesolithic Prelude (1980).

    Clearly, there has been an information explosion in the investigation of this period of European prehistory. It is impossible even to outline the major developments in these few short pages. I shall attempt here to discuss only some of the highlights-a sort of Reader's Digest version-concen- trating on the general nature of the Mesolithic, on several very significant research projects and

    T. Douglas Price, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706

    Copyright c, 1983 by the Society for American Archaeology 0002-7316/83/040761-18$2.30/1



    their results, and, in conclusion, on certain trends and tendencies in the investigation and inter- pretation of the prehistory of prefarming Postglacial Europe.


    The environmental situation of the European Mesolithic must be emphasized at the outset of this synopsis. Because of a long history of intensive investigation, northwestern Europe is perhaps the best known area in the world in terms of changes in climate, fauna, and flora at the close of the Pleistocene and through the early Postglacial. The scenario of ice, tundra, birch, pine, and oak forest succession is familiar to virtually every student of prehistory.

    Such "key" sequences, however, with detailed information and excellent preservation, tend to dominate our thinking, obfuscating our understanding of the landscape elsewhere in Europe dur- ing this period. The environment of southeastern Europe, for example, closely resembled that of the Near East, the heartland of many early domesticates (cf. Bottema 1974, 1978; Dennell 1978). The transition from Pleistocene to Postglacial conditions in the Aegean and Balkans was not dramatic. There is very little evidence for prefarming adaptations distinct from the late Paleo- lithic throughout much of the region. In only a few areas have Mesolithic horizons been recog- nized.

    Near the close of the Pleistocene, southern Europe including Spain, Portugal, Italy and much of France, was inhabited by many of the species of plants and animals that would later appear in the Postglacial environments of northern Europe. Large areas of northern Spain, for instance, were dominated by deciduous oak forest along with a wide range of temperate-zone fauna-red deer, roe deer, and wild pig-at the same time that reindeer were beginning to abandon the German Plain for points north.

    Indeed, one's perspective on the nature of the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic depends in large part upon geographical and environmental considerations. Prehistorians in southeastern and southern Europe frequently designate Postglacial prefarming adaptations as Epipaleolithic (cf. Boronean; 1982; Rozoy 1978). In these areas, more subtle changes in environ- ment and human adaptation, along with the relatively rapid introduction of plant and animal husbandry, serve to diminish the visibility of the Mesolithic and, often, the intensity of research on the subject.

    It is most conspicuously in northwestern Europe, where the consequences of Postglacial warm- ing had the greatest impact, where tundra-dwelling reindeer hunters were replaced by communi- ties exploiting forest and coast, and where agriculture was late in arriving, that the nature and vitality of the Mesolithic is more readily observed and recorded.

    Definition of the term Mesolithic, thus, has been a volatile and difficult issue. In spite of numerous characterizations of this word over the last 50 years, it has become clear that the term has significance only in a temporal sense (cf. Price 1981a).

    Archaeological remains exhibit a number of dimensions of variability, including time, space, and form (Spaulding 1960). It is futile to presume that each of these aspects will coincide neatly in readily definable chronological and cultural units (cf. Stoltman 1978). The Mesolithic is not associated exclusively with the utilization of microlithic tools, nor with the exploitation of forests and coasts, nor with the domestication of the dog.

    The Mesolithic is simply that period of the Postglacial prior to the introduction of agriculture. To attach more specific formal traits to the term can only reduce its utility. The date for the onset of the period can be fixed by convention at 10,000 B.P. (Mellars 1981). The date for the end of the period is geographically variable. The spread of food production across Europe was a time-trans- gressive phenomenon, beginning around 8000 B.P. in the southeast and reaching the British Isles and southern Scandinavia by approximately 5500 B.P. (Waterbolk 1982).

    In this context, in which I use the term Mesolithic only in a temporal sense with local connota- tions, it is perhaps more meaningful to refer to early Postglacial hunter-gatherers. Nevertheless, because of the long history of the term as part of a widely shared vocabulary, Mesolithic will be employed throughout this paper, with the caveat that the term refers only to early Holocene foragers in Europe-nothing more is implied or intended.

    762 [Vol. 48, No. 4, 1983]



    Southeastern Europe The Mesolithic of southeastern Europe was virtually unknown less than 20 years ago. Although

    much of the area is still terra incognita for the early Holocene, results from several projects offer some perspective.

    Colonization of most of the islands in both the eastern and western Mediterranean did not begin until the Neolithic (Cherry 1981; Guilaine 1979; Lewthwaite 1981). Reports of Mesolithic artifacts and burials from the Cycladic island of Kythnos (Honea 1975) have been questioned by Cherry (1979). However, utilization of obsidian sources on the island of Melos (Dixon and Renfrew 1973) by mainland inhabitants as early as 12,000 B.P. (Perles 1979) documents the seafaring capabili- ties of late Pale olithicc groups in this region. This evidence and other information on the extensive utilization of the sea in this period comes from the site of Franchthi Cave in the Argolid of Greece (Figure 1). Investigations at this site since 1967 hae provided a detailed picture of human occupation n in the south of Greece over the last 20,000 years (Jacobsen 1976, 1981).

    By 10,000 B.P., the inhabitants at Franchthi were exploiting marine resouresources and a wide range of terrestrial resources. Evidence for the hunting of red deer and other large game animals, the collecting of marine molluscs and land snails, and the utilization of several species of wild plants including lentils, vetch, pistachios, almonds, wild oats, and

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