The Mesolithic and Neolithic Era

The Mesolithic Era

The Mesolithic Period, or Middle Stone Age, is an archaeological term describing specific cultures that fall between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic Periods. While the start and end dates of the Mesolithic Period vary by geographical region, it dated approximately from 10,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE.

The Paleolithic was an age of purely hunting and gathering, but toward the Mesolithic period the development of agriculture contributed to the rise of permanent settlements. The later Neolithic period is distinguished by the domestication of plants and animals. Some Mesolithic people continued with intensive hunting, while others practiced the initial stages of domestication. Some Mesolithic settlements were villages of huts , others walled cities. (6)

The Neolithic Era

An array of Neolithic artifacts, including bracelets, axe heads, chisels, and polishing tools.
Figure 1-7: An array of Neolithic artifacts by Michael Greenhalgh is under licensed CC BY-SA 2.5

The term Neolithic or New Stone Age is most frequently used in connection with agriculture, which is the time when cereal cultivation and animal domestication was introduced. Because agriculture developed at different times in different regions of the world, there is no single date for the beginning of the Neolithic. In the Near East, agriculture was developed around 9,000 BCE, in Southeast Europe around 7,000 BCE, and later in other regions. Even within a specific region, agriculture developed during different times. For example, agriculture first developed in Southeast Europe about 7,000 BCE, in Central Europe about 5,500 BCE, and Northern Europe about 4,000 BCE. In East Asia, the Neolithic goes from 6000 to 2000 BCE.

Pottery is another element that makes the dating of the Neolithic problematic. In some regions, the appearance of pottery is considered a symbol of the Neolithic, but this notion makes the term Neolithic even more ambiguous, since the use of pottery does not always occur after agriculture: in Japan, pottery appears before agriculture, while in the Near East agriculture pre-dates pottery production.

All these factors make the starting point of the Neolithic somewhat fuzzy. It should be remembered that the origin of the term lies in a late th century CE classification system and we must keep in mind its limitations. (6)

A Revolution?

In order to reflect the deep impact that agriculture had over the human population, an Australian archaeologist named Gordon Childe popularized the term “Neolithic Revolution” in the 1940s CE. However, today, it is believed that the impact of agricultural innovation was exaggerated in the past: the development of Neolithic culture appears to have been a gradual rather than a sudden change. Moreover, before agriculture was established, archaeological evidence has shown that there is usually a period of semi-nomadic life, where pre-agricultural societies might have a network of campsites and live in different locations according to how the resources respond to seasonal variations. Sometimes, one of these campsites might be adopted as a basecamp; the group might spend the majority of time there during the year exploiting local resources, including wild plants: this is a step closer to agriculture. Agriculture and foraging are not totally incompatible ways of life. This means that a group could perform hunter-gatherer activities for part of the year and some farming during the rest, perhaps on a small scale. Rather than a revolution, the archaeological record suggests that the adoption of agriculture is the result of small and gradual changes.

Agriculture was developed independently in several regions. Since its origin, the dominant pattern in these separate regions is the spread of agricultural economies and the reduction of hunting and gathering activities, to the point that today hunting economies only persist in marginal areas where farming is not possible, such as frozen arctic regions, densely forested areas, or arid deserts.

Major changes were introduced by agriculture, affecting the way human society was organized and how it used the earth, including forest clearance, root crops, and cereal cultivation that can be stored for long periods of time, along with the development of new technologies for farming and herding such as plows, irrigation systems, etc. More intensive agriculture implies more food available for more people, more villages, and a movement towards a more complex social and political organization. As the population density of the villages increase, they gradually evolve into towns and finally into cities. (7)

Changes During the Neolithic Era

By adopting a sedentary way of life, the Neolithic groups increased their awareness of territoriality. During the 9600–6900 BCE period in the Near East, there were also innovations in arrowheads, yet no important changes in the animals hunted was detected. However, human skeletons were found with arrowheads embedded in them and also some settlements such as Jericho were surrounded with a massive wall and ditch around this time. It seems that the evidence of this period is a testimony of inter-communal conflicts, not far from organized warfare. There were also additional innovations in stone tool production that became widespread and adopted by many groups in distant locations, which is evidence for the existence of important networks of exchange and cultural interaction.

Living in permanent settlements brought new ways of social organization. As the subsistence strategies of Neolithic communities became more efficient, the population of the different settlements increased. We know from anthropological works that the larger the group, the less egalitarian and more hierarchical a society becomes. Those in the community who were involved in the management and allocation of food resources increased their social importance. Archaeological evidence has shown that during the early Neolithic, houses did not have individual storage facilities: storage and those activities linked to food preparation for storage were managed at village level. At the site of Jarf el Ahmar, in north Syria, there is a large subterranean structure which was used as a communal storage facility. This construction is in a central location among the households and there is also evidence that several rituals were performed in it.

Another site in northern Syria named Tell Abu Hureyra, displays evidence for the transition from foraging to farming: it was a gradual process, which took several centuries. The first inhabitants of the site hunted gazelles, wild asses and wild cattle. Then, we see evidence of change: gazelle consumption dropped and the amount of sheep consumption rose (wild in the beginning and domesticated in the end). Sheep herding turned into the main source of meat and gazelle hunting became a minor activity. Human remains show an increase of tooth wear of all adults, which reflects the importance of ground cereal in the diet. It is interesting that once pottery was introduced, tooth wear rates decreased, but the frequency of bad teeth increased, which suggests that baked food made from stone-ground flour was largely replaced by dishes such as porridge and gruel, which were boiled in pots. (7)

One of the best known prehistoric sites in the United Kingdom, Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe. Located in the same county as Stonehenge, Avebury lies north of the better-known site. Constructed over several hundred years in the third millennium BCE, the monument comprises a large henge with a large outer stone circle and two separate smaller stone circles situated inside the center of the monument. Its original purpose is unknown, although archaeologists believe that it was likely used for ritual or ceremony . The Avebury monument was part of a larger prehistoric landscape containing several older monuments.

The chronology of Avebury’s construction is unclear. It was not designed as a single monument but was the result of various projects undertaken at different times during late prehistory . Experts date the construction of the central cove to 3,000 BCE, the inner stone circle to 2,900 BCE, the outer circle and henge to 2,600 BCE, and the avenues to 2,400 BCE. The construction of Avebury and Stonehenge indicate that a stable agrarian economy had developed in this region of England by 4000 to 3500 BCE. (8)

Neolithic Culture

Neolithic societies produced female and animal statues, engravings , and elaborate pottery decoration. In Western Europe, though, this period is best represented by the megalithic (large stone) monuments and passage tomb structures found from Malta to Portugal, through France and Germany, and across southern England to most of Wales and Ireland. (8)

Stonehenge

Image of an above ground layout of Stonehenge. In the top corner right of the plan is an entry way leading to the large earthen grounds where the megalith lies. At the center of the map are the stone markers laid out in a circular pattern denoting the plan of Stonehenge.
Figure 1-8: Above ground layout of Stonehenge Drawn by en:User:Adamsan is under licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Perhaps the best known megalithic henge is Stonehenge, located on Salisbury Plain in the county of Wiltshire in south central England. Archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE. The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BCE. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones in the innermost ring of Stonehenge were raised between 2400 and 2200 BCE, although they may have been at the site as early as 3000 BCE.

Although human remains have been found at the site, archaeologists are uncertain whether the site served funerarypurposes, ritual purposes, or both. Its alignments with the sunrise of the summer solstice and sunset of the winter solstice present the possibility that the site served as a rudimentary astronomical calendar to help early agrarian societies acclimate to the approaching growing season and harvest.

Picture of Stonehenge. The perspective captures how the heavy stones comprising the structure have been remarkably positioned to form a post-and-lintel layout.
Figure 1-9: Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England by Diego Delso is under licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

Even the smallest bluestones weigh several tons each. These stones, so-called because they appear blue when wet, were quarried approximately 150 miles away in the Prescelli Mountains in southwest Wales. Even more impressive, the quarrying and transport of the stones took place without the aid of the wheel, requiring a sophisticated method of transport and construction involving felled trees and earthen mounds. The larger Sarcen stones that form the post–and–lintel ring and he free-standing trilithons were quarried approximately 25 miles to the north of Salisbury Plain, requiring the same transport system of felled trees and earthen mounds. (8)

Avebury

Picture of Avebury Hinges. The perspective captures how the proportionately placed row of large stones serve as a fence across a hilly plain.
Figure 1-10: Avebury Hinges by Diliff is under licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Passage Tombs

Passage tombs or graves consist of narrow passages made of large stones and one or multiple burial chambers covered in earth or stone. Megaliths were commonly used in the construction of passage tombs and typically date to the Neolithic. A common layout is the cruciform passage grave, characterized by a cross-shaped structure.

Picture of the Newgrange Monument. The perspective captures the mound-like structure rising from the lush green pasture.
Figure 1-11: Newgrange Monument, Ireland by Popsracer is under licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

The Newgrange monument is comprised of a large mound built of alternating layers of earth and stones, covered with growing grass and with flat white quartz stones studded around the circumference. The mound covers 4500 square meters of ground. Within, a passage stretches through the structure ending at three small chambers.

Newgrange contains various examples of abstract Neolithic art carved onto its rocks. These are separated into 10 categories consisting of curvilinear forms like circles, spirals, arcs, serpentiforms, and dot-in-circles, as well as rectilinear examples such as chevrons, lozenges, radials, parallel lines, and offsets.

There is no agreement as to what the site was used for, but it has been speculated that it had some form of religious significance due to its alignment with the rising sun which floods the stone room with light on the winter solstice.(8)

The End of the Neolithic Era

Image of a greenish-metallic slab of copper.
Figure 1-12: greenish-metallic slab of copper by Chris 73 is under licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

At least two factors mark the transition from the prehistoric era to the ancient era. The first is the transition from stone to metal. Towards the end of the Neolithic era, copper metallurgy is introduced, which marks a transition period to the Bronze Age, sometimes referred to as the Chalcolithic or Eneolithic Era. Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin, which has greater hardness than copper, better casting properties, and a lower melting point. Bronze could be used for making weapons, something that was not possible with copper, which is not hard enough to endure combat conditions. In time, bronze became the primary material for tools and weapons, and a good part of the stone technology became obsolete, signaling the end of the Neolithic and thus, of the Stone Age. (7)

The second factor is the transition from oral storytelling to writing. Whereas prehistoric peoples depended upon word of mouth and images to pass along their culture and traditions, by 3000 BCE, humans living in Mesopotamians begin creating a written script to record their ideas. With this innovation in human history, the shift from pre-recorded history to recorded history begins. (1)