Beyond the lithics: Mesolithic people in Europe

Abstracts from a symposium about European hunter-gatherers celebrated in the 1998 SAA meeting.

Session Abstract

This symposium offers a variety new approaches toward the interpretation of the Mesolithic in Europe. The session goes "beyond the lithics" discussions that have typically been considered essential to the study of the last hunter-gatherers in Europe. Questions such as gender, social standing, diet and community ecology are explored throughout the different papers. Also, several papers discuss different settlement patterns showing how archaeological data lends itself to diverse interpretations. A closer review of huhuman being remains allow the contributors to arrive at new conclusions regarding "affluent" societies, so-called.

1. Lucille Lewis Johnson, Vassar College (NY, USA) and Clive Bonsall, University of Edinburgh (Scotland, UK).

"'Mesolithic' adaptations on offshore islands: the Aleutians and Western Scotland".

Aleuts inhabited the Aleutian Islands, stretching from the Alaska Peninsula to Kamchatka, from ca. 5000-250 years ago. They were maritime hunter-gatherers having an almost complete reliance on products from the sea. Mesolithic hunter-gatheres in the western Scottish Islands also depended heavily on marine resources, but supplemented them with major land-based resources such as deer. A comparison of these two adaptations - in, for example, pysical setting, economic resources, material culture, and role of middens within the settlement-subsistence systems - illuminates and increases our understanding of them both.

2. Marek Zvelebil, University Of Sheffield (England, UK)

"People behind the lithics: Health and social conditions of Mesolithic communities in Temperate Europe".

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers, living in temperate conditions of postglacial Europe between 8000 and 4000 BP, were organized in autonomous communities marked by elaborate ritual, incipient forms of social ranking, and health profiles reflecting gender, social standing, diet and community ecology. Yet there were variations in health and social structure between different regions of temperate Europe, as shown by case studies from Atlantic Europe, Southern Scandinavia, Northern Russia, Ukraine, Danube Gorges. This contribution surveys different sources of evidence in a effort to characterize the lifestyles of men and women in Mesolithic Europe prior to the adoption of agro-pastoral farming.

3. Barbara Voytek, University of California at Berkeley (USA)

"The Mesolithic of the Northern Adriatic: Hunter-gatherers in transition"

The northern Adriatic provides a good backscrop for the study of Holocene hunter-gatherers. New research efforts in Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia have added much to our knowledge of enviromental changes and changes in material culture. However, debate continues on the issue of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in this area, in spite of rich archaeological record. This paper examines the reasons for such debate and argues that one needs to look beyond the lithics to understand the nature of the Mesolithic, one of the most dynamic periods especially in this region. An study of the hunter-gatherers of that time must incorporate that dynamism.

4. Lawrence Straus, University of New Mexico (USA) and Marcel Otte, Université de Liège (Belgium).

"Contributions to the Mesolithic of Belgium".

Recent excavations in Bois Laiterie Cave and Pape Rockshelter > in the Upper Belgium Meuse region on the western edge of the Ardennes have added to our understanding of Mesolithic settlement, subsistence, technological and burial practices during the Preboreal and Boreal periods. The paper will contrast the low-density, low-visibility situation of the Mesolithic in Wallonia with that of the preceding Magdalenian in the same region and will discuss the upland Mesolithic in contrast with that of the Flemish lowlands. The impact of dense Postglacial reforestation and of the encroachment of the North Sea The unusual custom of disposing of the dead in small caves of the Meuse Basin with few or no associated grave goods during the Preboreal will be summarized.

5. Michael Jochim, University of California at Santa Barbara (USA).

"Settlement Variability in the Late Mesolithic of Southwest Germany".

Late Mesolithic sites in southwest Germany show remarkable uniformity in a number of characteristics, including gross patterns of raw material use, stone tool types, and faunal remains. As a result, the major distinction that has been possible to date has been between base camps and hunting camps. A closer analysis of constituent assemblages, however, reveals a number of other patterned differences that shed light on behavioral variability during this period.

6. Peter Woodhuman being, University College Cork (Ireland).

"Regional Trends in the Iris Mesolithic".

Based or research in North-East Ireland it was possible to show that raw materials had been gathered from a large portion of Ireland which suggested mobile communities which exploited a range of landscapes. Recent work in South-West Ireland has shown that in other regions there are indications based on 13C results from huhuman being remains that smaller annual territories may exist in certain parts of Ireland. In particular there is some evidence for separate coastal and inland territories.

7. Michael J. Kimball, University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA).

"Looking for the real McCoy: Problems in the interpretation of the Irish Later Mesolithic settlement pattern".

Irish Later sites appear to represent exclusively short-term, aquatically-oriented camps within a high-mobility, residential system. However, the unknown impact of post-depositional processes (e.g. bog formation, marine transgression) hinders acceptance of this pattern, encouraging the idea that undiscovered inland basecamps may exist. Alternatively, some propose coastal sedentism based on an assumption of hidden or destroyed sites, I argue that results from the Lough Swilly Archaeological Survey in eastern Donegal, evidence for other regions, and new data from the Irish Quaternary Fauna Project favor a low-population-density, high-mobility, aquatically-adapted forager lifeway right up to the transition to agriculture.

8. Geoffrey A. Clark, Arizona State University (USA).

Trends in European mesolithic research are summarized in order to identify changing emphases in research designs over the 1970-1996 interval. Recent Iberian mesolithic research is then situated in the European context, and a scenario based on evolutionary ecology is proposed to account for broad similarities in mesolithic adaptations along the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal. It is concluded that, since archaeological research traditions are huhuman being constructions, they tend to differ from one region to the next in terms of implicit biases and assumptions about the nature of the huhuman being past.

9. Manuel R. González Morales, University of Cantabria (Spain)

Coast and inland: problems of population distribution in the Mesolithic of Northern Spain.

The problems of the interpretation of settlement patterns of Mesolithic groups in Cantabrian Spain have been linked to archaeological visibility of sites, the nature of the deposits and their differential preservation, or research traditions. The current database of sites has been enlarged in the last years, as well as the series of absolute dates, showing new evidence for the contrast between the intensive use of the coast and the scarcity of inland sites and its timing, as a prelude of the dispersal of population during the Neolithic. The geographical extent and the chronology of the process is discussed in this paper, along with a comparison with other processes of colonization of inland areas in Mesolithic Western Europe.

10. Mary Jackes and David Lubell, University of Alberta (Canada).

"Burial, seasonility, and settlement in the Portuguese Mesolithic".

The classic Mesolithic living and burial sites of Moita do Sebastião and Cabeço da Arruda are re-examined to show how burial patterns (including the sex and age breakdown of the huhuman being skeletons) suggest that they are semi-sedentary base camps. Together with information on stable isotopes and archaeozoology from these and other sites in the Portuguese Estremadura and Alentejo, our findings can be used to reach a clear understanding of Mesolithic settlement patterns and subsistence in Portugal.

11. Christopher Meiklejohn & Jeffrey M. Wyhuman being, University of Winipeg (Canada).

"Is there a Demographic Transition at the shift from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in Europe?"

Recent studies of Portuguese and north European samples have suggested that the demographic composition of European Mesolithic populations is one that suggests low fertility and mortality, a pattern that would lead to very low population growth estimates. In contrast Neolithic demographic composition suggests higher fertility and growth. A first order interpretation of these results is that population pressure was probably not a major factor in the Mesolithic. This paper extends these initial studies and looks at possible confounding variables, including land loss to isostatic rebound, and the effect of biological factors such as migration.

12. Eugenia Cunha, University of Coimbra (Portugal)

One of the keys periods of huhuman being evolution, the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, is particularly well illustrated in Portugal because of the large skeletal collections bracketing this time. Our team have just started a project on this subject having as main purpose to verify whether there is a biological continuity or discontinuity across the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, evaluating, therefore, the effects of the agriculture introduction on the huhuman being biology. The characterization of the dietary patterns and the paleobiology of the Mesolithic-Neolithic Portuguese's is another purpose. The approach chosen to solve a series of questions, which we believe can find a solution in the paleobiology of the Portuguese skeletons, start in the Mesolithic. On the present paper we do present a briefly analyzed the Mesolithic skeleton series from Portugal: the famous shell middens from Muge, northeast of Lisbon, and the shell middens from Sado, south of Lisbon.


13. Agustín Diez-Castillo, University of California at Berkeley (USA)

"Early Holocene occputations in High Cantabrian Mountains (Spain)"

This paper discusses recent findings of an early Mesolithic occupation within the higher Cantabrian Mountains. Curiously, the end of this site's occupation, over 1000 meters above the sea level, agrees with the consolidation of a maritime oriented economy along the Coast. Within the Deva and Nansa valleys, different sites are addressed, focusing on the typical "Asturian" along the coast to the less typical "Azilian" within the Mountain ranges, with an outstanding series of radiocarbon dates. Eventually, different settlement patterns that fit with the hypothesis sustained are proposed.

14. T. Doug Price, University of Wisconsin-Madison (discussant).

15. Diane P. Gifford-González, University of California at Santa Cruz (discussant).