The European Mesolithic

Period: Mesolithic (~11,500 - 7,000 BP)
Region: Europe
mtDNA haplogroups: U, K
Y haplogroups: I, J, F

Deer Mask Star Carr Deer Mask [25]
Carved Stone Monument Sandstone Sculpture from Lepenski Vir [26]

The European Mesolithic:

The Mesolithic in Europe was a period of great transitions both in terms of climate and of human geography. It represented a time between the end of the last Ice Age, known as the Paleolithic, around 11,600 years ago and the arrival of farming cultures from the Middle East some 9,000 years ago [1]. The end of the Paleolithic, marked the beginning of the Holocene, a period of warmer temperatures that have lasted until the present day. Temperatures rose rapidly from 11,600 years ago, potentially up to pre-industrial levels by 9,000 years ago [2]. All of this melting ice meant that the oceans swelled, and sea levels rose some 60 meters [3]. The land bridge that once connected North America to Asia disappeared, and the English Channel was formed over land where once hunter-gatherers could freely walk between what is now England and France.

The people of the Mesolithic were the direct descendants of ice age populations and maintained a hunter-gatherer way of life. Not only did these societies have to cope with large shifts in sea levels but also rapidly expanding forests [4]. Where once there was open tundra, there were now vast tracts of woodland, covering large parts of Europe. The transition to forest environments brought major changes in available game, from mammoth, steppe bison, and reindeer to elk, beaver, and bear [5]. The people living in these environments began forming larger groups and without the open plains of the Paleolithic to wander, they began constructing permanent buildings [6-7].

Archaeological data shows that these changing environments meant less mobility and the appearance of more regional cultures, compared with the widely distributed and uniform cultures of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers [8]. Unique artifacts such as the famous antler masks of the Star Carr site began to appear [9]. The technology of these late hunter-gatherers remained focused on stone tools formed into blades and points used for hunting game, working hides, and carving wood.

The Mesolithic Cultures of Europe:

Early 20th century archaeologists used to think that Mesolithic people lived in small, mobile bands that moved about an open landscape. In the 1960s finds at the site of Padina in the Iron Gates region now in present-day Serbia upended these prior notions when archaeologists found ancient buildings and evidence of complex architecture and carved stone monuments [10]. Evidence is growing from across Europe that the Mesolithic was a time of increasing populations and a shift towards settled village life.

In the Eastern Europe boreal forests Mesolithic peoples employed a diverse set of hunting and gathering strategies, including fishing and sealing, which was also common throughout the Baltic [11-12]. Finds of large burial sites have suggested these people lived in large communities [13]. They made use of local forests to produce wooden structures and buildings.

In Western Europe, the Azilian people of Northwest Spain began using more marine resources and diversified their hunting strategies [14]. One of the hallmark tools found in the region is the Azilian harpoon, which has been found at multiple sites across the region [15].

In the Ertebølle culture found in present-day Sweden, Mesolithic peoples began producing pottery, which was likely used to store foods and for cooking [16]. Pottery was not only a major technical development, but also was a sign of the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of these people. Ceramics are heavy and had never appeared before when people needed to be highly mobile.

Genetic Analyses:

Genetic analysis has shown that the Mesolithic was quite different from the preceding Paleolithic. During the Paleolithic, human hunter-gatherer bands lived in small groups that moved across large tracts of land and were constantly changing where they lived as the ice sheets expanded and contracted. This meant that ice age Europeans were genetically very similar across much of the continent [17]. After the ice sheets melted two distinct genetic regions appeared which are known to geneticists as Western Hunter Gatherers and Eastern Hunter Gatherers. These two lineages roughly follow an east-west divide as their name suggests, although Western Hunter Gatherers extend as far east as the Balkans in Southern Europe [18-19]. These two groups may have been the result of population expansion from two small groups of paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Many of the Mesolithic samples found across Europe show that they were mixtures of both Eastern and Western Hunter Gatherers, rather than one or the other.

The mitochondrial haplogroups of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers have often been found to be different than the Paleolithic people that preceded them. In the sample of 110 individuals used in our dataset here, mitochondrial haplogroup U was still very common and had been the dominant haplogroup in the Paleolithic [20], but a few examples of haplogroup K have been found which is thought to have originated in the Middle East and may have arrived with migration coming from the East [21]. Likewise, Y chromosome diversity increased. Many males belonged to haplogroup I, which was the most common in the paleolithic [17], while some individuals have been found to belong to haplogroups J and F, which were more commonly associated with West and Central Asia [22-23]. Haplogroup R1b was known to exist in Europe during the Paleolithic but appears more commonly after the start of the Mesolithic [24].


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  25. Star Carr Deer Mask:
  26. Sandstone Sculpture from Lepenski Vir,_muzej_18.jpg