The Mesolithic Period, or Middle Stone Age, is an archaeological term used to describe specific groups of cultures defined as falling between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic Periods. While the start and end dates of the Mesolithic Period vary by geographical region, we can date it 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 at the same time others were practicing the initial stages of domestication. Some Mesolithic settlements were villages of huts and others walled cities. The type of tool remains a diagnostic factor for the area: Mesolithic tools were generally composite devices manufactured with small chipped small stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets. The Paleolithic had utilized more primitive stone treatments, and the Neolithic mainly abandoned the modes in favor of polished, rather than chipped, stone tools.
Backed edge bladelet
Mesolithic tools were generally composite devices manufactured with small chipped small stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets.
Art from this period responds to the changing weather conditions to a warmer climate and adaptation to relatively sedentary lifestyles, population size, and use of plant foods—all evidence of the transition to agriculture and eventually the Neolithic. Still, food was not always available everywhere, and Mesolithic populations were often forced to become migrating hunters and still settle in rock shelters. It is difficult to find a unique type of artistic production during the Mesolithic Period, and it is believed that people most likely continued the art forms developed during the Upper Paleolithic (the latest period of the Paleolithic). These include cave paintings and engravings, small sculptural artifacts, and early architecture.
Mesolithic Rock Art
A number of notable Mesolithic rock art sites exist on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. The art consists of small painted figures of humans and animals, which are the most advanced and widespread surviving from this period, certainly in Europe, and arguably in the world, at least in the earlier works. It is notable for the number of places included, the largest concentration of such art in Europe. The human figure is frequently the main theme in painted scenes. When it appears in the same scene as animals, the human figure runs towards them. Hunting scenes are the most common, but there are also scenes of battle and dancing, and possibly agricultural tasks and managing domesticated animals. In some scenes gathering honey is shown, most famously at Cuevas de la Araña en Bicorp.
The Man of Bicorp
The Man of Bicorp holding onto lianas to gather honey from a beehive as depicted on an 8000-year-old cave painting near Valencia, Spain.
The painting known as The Dancers of Cogul is a good example of the depiction of movement in static art. In this scene, nine women are depicted, something new in the region. Some are painted in black and others in red. They were seen dancing around a male figure with abnormally large phallus, a figure that was rare, if not absent, in Paleolithic art. Along with humans, there are several animals, including a dead deer or buck, impaled by an arrow or atlatl, lying in the bottom center.
Dance of the Cogul
El Cogul, Catalonia, Spain.
The native Mesolithic populations were slow in gradually assimilating the agricultural way of life, beginning with just the use of ceramics. It took a thousand years into the Neolithic period before they adopted animal husbandry (which became especially important to them) and plant cultivation to any appreciable degree. When they eventually developed interest in the more fertile areas utilized by the late Danubian cultures, they became the threat that compelled the Danubian farmers to fortify their settlements.
Findings from Archaeological Excavations
Excavation of some megalithic monuments in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and France has revealed evidence of ritual activity, sometimes involving architecture, during the Mesolithic Period. One megalith (c. 9350 BCE), found submerged in the Strait of Sicily, over 39 feet long and weighing nearly 530,000 pounds was discovered under over 130 feet of water. Its purpose remains unknown. In some cases, however, megalith monuments are so far removed in time from their successors that continuity is unlikely. In other cases, the early dates, or the exact character of activity, are controversial.
An engraved shale pendant unearthed in Star Carr, England in 2015 is believed to be the oldest Mesolithic art forms on the island of Great Britain. Engraved jewelry from this period outside of Scandinavia is extremely rare. Although the hole in the upper angle of the rock suggests that it was worn, archaeologists are currently undertaking analysis on the object to determine whether this was actually the case. The similarity that the incised patterns bear to similar pendants found in Denmark might suggest contact with cultures on the continent or migration from the continent to Britain. However, these possibilities remain under investigation.
Star Carr pendant
The incised lines bear striking similarities to similar objects found in Denmark.
In North-Eastern Europe, Siberia, and certain southern European and North African sites, a "Ceramic Mesolithic" can be distinguished between 7,000-3,850 BCE. Russian archaeologists prefer to describe such pottery-making cultures as Neolithic, even though farming is absent. These pottery-making Mesolithic cultures can be found peripheral to the sedentary Neolithic cultures. They created a distinctive type of pottery, with point or knob base and flared rims, manufactured by methods not used by the Neolithic farmers. Though each area of Mesolithic ceramic developed an individual style, common features suggest a single point of origin. The earliest manifestation of this type of pottery may be in the region around Lake Baikal in Siberia.