A Short Introduction to the Mesolithic to Neolithic Times in Europe
The Mesolithic period falls between the Paleolithic period (also called the Old Stone Age) and the Neolithic period (also called the New Stone Age). It began over ten thousand years ago, when the glaciers of Scandinavia and the Alps had more or less retreated to their current locations.
The Mesolithic period had a warm climate that allowed forests to grow over much of Europe, places where previously there was ice and tundra. Rivers, lakes, and seas were full of fish and forests were full of game and edible plants. These changes in climate and environment enabled the hunter-gatherer peoples to advance technologically and socially.
Of course not everyone in Europe experienced this period in the same way. In southern Europe, the changes were not as dramatic and so the term Epipalaeolithic was used instead of Mesolithic for the same time period.
The Mesolithic period throughout Europe set the stage for the developments that came in the millennia that followed. The time frame for the Mesolithic period is generally given as 8000 – 4000 BCE.
The hunter-gatherer peoples of Europe were very creative in the ways they adjusted to their new environmental conditions. As a result of their successful adaptation to the new conditions, the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were not generally anxious to adopt agriculture when it appeared nearly nine thousand years ago in south -eastern Europe. This gave us the transition period where they integrated crops and livestock into their diet and blended into the farming population. This transitional period was within the Mesolithic period and it was from 7000 – 4000 BCE.
At its most basic level it was a shift from being reliant on wild animals and plants to being reliant on domesticated plants and livestock. This transition happen in two ways; the first is through colonizing farmers and the second is through local hunter-gatherers adopting crops and livestock and turning into farmers. It appears that all the principal species of plants and animals used by the early European farmers initially were domesticated in southwestern Asia.
It was around 6500 BCE when the first European farmers appeared in Greece. They appeared to be immigrants from Anatolia, however, in some parts of Greece foragers made the transition to agriculture. From Greece agriculture spread through two routes: west through the Mediterranean basin to Spain and Portugal and north and northwest along the Danube drainage and then into the river valleys that drain into the Baltic and North Seas. Within two thousand years farming reached the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel.
Agriculture did not spread at a uniform speed. And we know that not everyone in Europe converted to agriculture. In parts of northern and eastern Europe, foragers continued their lifestyle even after being touched by farming.
From the period between 5000 – 2000 BCE Europe fully transforms itself from a collection of pioneer farmers and foragers to developed farming and herding societies. Each part of Europe is of course different but there were commonalities. Farming became a stable economic system and farming societies became self-sufficient. Herds were cultivated not just as sources of meat but also as sources of milk, wool and pulling power. In the Mesolithic period stone, bone, pottery and metal were first used as ornaments then as tools. And finally in the Neolithic period, people had the time to to develop ceremonial behavior and this could be seen in burial monuments, ritual locations and the first use of bogs for offerings.
This period is different in each part of Europe and it had different names. In Continental Europe it was called Late Neolithic, while in northern Europe and the British Isles it was just called Neolithic. In southwestern, southern, and central Europe it was called The Copper Age. In southeastern Europe it was called Eneolithic Period.
For more information please read: Europe Between the Oceans by Professor Barry Cunliffe.