Mesolithic Britain: First things first!

Welcome to part one of our look at the Mesolithic period in the Prehistory of Britain! In this, we try to include the basics – what you really need to know – and some interesting things that you might never have thought of. By way of an introduction, it might be useful to consider the words of Prof Penny Spikins of the University of York, who wrote that “Mesolithic Europe was a world in which there were towering glaciers, cataclysmic floods, tsunamis, and rising and falling seas. There is evidence for various sudden and cataclysmic events, which would have left a trail of effects on human societies.”1

When was the Mesolithic?

First things first, let’s begin with a chronology, when was the Mesolithic? In very broad terms, researchers of the period see it beginning just a few hundred years after the end of the last Ice Age, and that significant changes can be seen between 10,000-9,000 BC. This is a later date than when we trained as archaeologists – then the Mesolithic was thought to have begun around 8,000 BC – but recent discoveries and advances in dating techniques has led to the onset of this interesting, yet still mysterious period being pushed back by up to 2,000 years. The end of the Mesolithic begins in the years around 4,000 BC and sees the onset of the Neolithic.

For archaeologists who specialise in the Mesolithic, one of the reasons it is so interesting is that it sits between the Palaeolithic with the arrival of modern humans and their art, and the Neolithic and the creation of tombs and monuments. Unlike the Palaeolithic, archaeologists researching this period are no longer interested in the evolution of humans as people of the time are the same as you and me. What is different is the way they live, their culture and beliefs. It is by examining and interpreting the evidence left behind that archaeologists can piece together the story of their lives.

What evidence do we have?

The main sources of evidence we have for this period are environmental data and artefacts. As you might expect, environmental data can tell us much about the climate, plants and animals that formed the world of Mesolithic people. Covering a period of over 5,500 years, the Mesolithic data has revealed some very important stories.

Early in the Mesolithic, the first challenge for people was the rapid warming of the climate, which occurred at the end of the last Ice Age at around 9600 BC. This sudden warming, possibly linked to changes in the Gulf Stream, of course led to the retreating of the ice covering much of Britain at that time. Warming is a relative term, however, and we shouldn’t be tempted to think of Britain as having a tropical climate at this time. Temperatures were still low, but the now tundra-like areas of Britain offered people chances of hunting game and foraging. Sea-levels gradually rose and in combination with an effect known as isostatic rebound (the land ‘rising’ as the weight of the glacial ice is removed), saw the flooding of much of what researchers have called ‘Doggerland’ which is now under the North Sea.

"Doggerland" by Max Naylor - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doggerland.svg#mediaviewer/File:Doggerland.svglessened)

“Doggerland” by Max Naylor – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doggerland.svg#mediaviewer/File:Doggerland.svglessened)

At around 6200 BC, seismic activity and landslides off the coast of what is now Norway triggered a tsunami. This is known as the Teggen tsunami and it had a wave estimated to be 10m high and, as well as going quite some distance inland, also led to what has been termed ‘the breaching’ of the Straits of Dover; in other words the formation of the English Channel and Britain becoming an island. There are still traces of ancient forest just beyond our present shoreline. In Lincolnshire, for example, there are stumps of old trees beyond the inter-tidal zone at Theddlethorpe which have been radiocarbon dated to between 6174-5961 BC. There are more such sites dotted around our coastline.

What were the other environmental consequences of climate change?

The plant life of Britain changed quickly in response to these events. At around 10,000 BC for example, Dwarf Birch were to be found growing in what was to become Oxfordshire, under tundra-like conditions, but that these plants were replaced by grassland and trees such as sliver birch just 200 years later as the temperature warmed. The picture is similar in other parts of Britain such as the Southwest (Dorset to Cornwall). At Starr Carr in North Yorkshire at 9,000 BC the peninsula on which people established themselves was dominated by Birch trees and ferns. Along the water’s edge grew willow and aspen, and there were extensive reed and sedge beds in the shallows.

Later still, more temperate woodland species like oak came to dominate. It has been estimated that by around 5,000 BC, the transformation from tundra-like, arctic conditions to warmer and wetter weather was complete. By that date there was a mosaic of vegetation with the most frequent landscape, almost 60%, being mixed deciduous woodland. There was some pine/birch woodlands and, in the southern Pennines for example, these climatic changes were in part responsible for the development of blanket peat.

If you wandered around ‘Oxfordshire’ at this time (c.5000 BC) you would be likely to find alder growing in the valley bottoms and lime, oak, hazel, ash and elm on the better drained gravel terraces and higher slopes. As a result of the spread of woodland, the horse which was already living both here and in Doggerland, moved to the more open terrain to the south and would not appear in Britain again until it was reintroduced in the Bronze Age some 3000 years later.

The people of the Mesolithic were, as far as we can tell, hunter-gatherers, that is they hunted game for food and also gathered wild food such as fruit, berries, nuts etc. So in addition to changes in the plant life of Britain another aspect of climate change was the animal species they hunted. As the climate warmed and the woolly mammoth and woolly rhino became extinct and reindeer moved away they were replaced by elk, wild boar and deer. Evidence from across Britain has shown that many of the species we see today, were also here during the Mesolithic period. Among the bigger animals there were red and roe deer, wolves, bears and wild ‘cows’ known as aurochses (aurochs sing.). Aurochses were about 1.5 times larger than most modern-day bulls – and were known to be aggressive as they were still living in parts of Eastern Europe until the 17th century. Smaller species such as fox, badger, pine marten, weasel, polecat, shrew, mole and many others were also present. The rivers of Mesolithic Britain contained many species of fish which are familiar too – pike, perch, salmon and trout for example. Birds too would be familiar to us with swan, crane, heron, lapwing and buzzard to name but a few.

So, in many ways the landscape and wildlife of Mesolithic Britain would look familiar to anyone travelling there from 21st century Britain. What would not be familiar would be how the people lived and their culture, and we’ll have explore that in our next blog.

1 Spikins, P. (2007) Mesolithic Europe : glimpses of another world. In: Bailey, G. and Spikins, P. (eds) (2008) Mesolithic Europe. Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-17.

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