Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic Humans
Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) Period
The names for these periods all derive from the Greek word “lithos” which means a stone.
Humans in the Palaeolithic period were cave-dwellers or wandering groups of hunters. This was the “Ice Age,” when glaciers spread over much of Europe. This was about 300 generations ago. Over hundreds and thousands of years, the nomadic tribes moved around for survival (southward when cooler -during winter or glacial periods, northward when it got relatively warmer – summer or interglacial periods). People were subject to the hazards of the environment and would have eaten wild plants and animals. Big animals that were hunted in Europe were reindeer and mammoth.
There were several concurrent species of humans on earth during the Paleolithic. The oldest human remains in Britain were found in West Sussex, 500,000 years ago (Boxgrove man). A Neanderthal was found in Kent from 400,00 years ago. Neanderthals were in Europe while Modern humans were evolving in Africa, our ancestors. Modern humans made it to France by 40,000 years ago.
Exercise: Read “The Ice Ages,” “Home Sapiens in Africa,” “Settling the World,” and “Art and Ritual” in World History, Philip Parker, 2016. On a map, find the migration of Homo Sapiens into North America, Australia, and Europe over the period from 50,000 to 15,000 years ago.
Exercise: On Curiosity Stream, watch the BBC production, Stonehenge. In Part 1, the Red Lady of Paviland is discussed (who was found in West Wales in 1823). This was actually a young man in his late 20s from 33,000 years ago. He was buried with mammoth bones of the same age. Why do archeologists speculate that the hunter and mammoth were buried together, and what does this signify for the human beliefs of Paleolithic man?
Exercise: As seen on the Stonehenge assigned video, why do you suppose cave artists made paintings that were in such small spaces that humans could not have been the intended viewers? Why do you suppose the cave art was made? Use any resources.
The Paleolithic ends with the melting of the ice, around 11,000 BC.
The Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) Period
The Mesolithic period, roughly dated 10,000 BC to between 6,000 and 4,000 BC :
As the earth warmed and the woolly Mammoth died out, hunters transitioned to hunting red deer. Tundra became forest, but people stuck to the watery edges where they could fish, avoiding the dense forests. Humans migrated back and forth between settled areas with the seasons to find the resources and food they needed to survive.
For example, in Scotland (which, along with the rest of Britain was still attached to the continental mainland during most of this period until a 6100 BC tsunami finished separating it from the rest of Europe), people moved around a network of islands, each with unique natural resources. For example, base camps were found on Islay, Oronsay, Coll, Colonsay, and other islands. On Orosay, there were shellfish, on Colonsay, there were hazelnuts. Finely worked flint blades were found on a fishing camp on the Isle of Coll (artifacts 7000 BC). The stone artifacts used for hunting and skinning animals changed from the Paleolithic period to become more sophisticated, with finer edges.
What did the 5,000 people in Mesolithic Britain believe?
Exercise: Watch Part 2 of Stonehenge, BBC, on Curiosity Stream. What does the Mesolithic antler headdress signify about the belief systems and world view of these humans?
The Neolithic (New Stone Age) Period
The transition between Mesolithic and Neolithic culture
The transition between Mesolithic and Neolithic culture took place at different times in different places. Neolithic culture is characterized by permanent settlements, agriculture, and domesticated animals. These developments began in the Middle East at around 8,000 BC and then migrated to Greece and India about two thousand years later, and then up into Europe.
Like in the Paleolithic when different species of humans coexisted for a very long time, Mesolithic hunters and Neolithic farmers also coexisted until a complete transition to an agricultural based society.
In the assigned video, BBC’s Stonehenge, the Carnac Stones in Brittany are discussed as a “collision of worlds” and a “monumental tipping point in human history.” These standing stones were constructed by Mesolithic hunters, supposedly to demonstrate their strength to the new farmers coming to Britain. The transition from a nomadic hunter gatherer society to a settled, agricultural one was the most transformative in human history. This allowed humans to support larger and larger populations. Now we couldn’t go back if we wanted to – there are too many people to support.
Exercise: What other “monumental tipping points” have happened in human history?
Part 1 – The Age of Ancestors
The first generations of farming families believed they could commune with their ancestors. They built various kinds of stone tombs for burial and communion. Many of the tombs were decorated with carvings or paintings. Bones were left in the open and tended to be separated by type (a pile of skulls, a pile of leg bones, etc.). The dead were no longer individuals but part of the communal family ancestry. People could walk into the tombs to commune with the spirits of the dead.
There are hundreds of stone tombs in Ireland, where I have visited most often, and hundreds more scattered throughout Scotland and England. Unfortunately, some of the tombs have been torn apart for the stone building materials over the millennia. Shown left are some photos of a Portal Tomb (or dolman) from Poulnabrone.
The farmers also constructed barrows for burial, many of whom can still be seen across Ireland, Scotland and England.
It took a large, cooperative community to build the barrows and stone tombs, and must have taken lots of time away from farming. You can imagine how important the belief system around communing with ancestors must have been.
According to the assigned video, BBC’s Stonehenge, the tombs also laid claim to farmland for the tribe and the ancestors. There were violent consequences for violating the claims to land. There were many battles over land at the top of hills, which was strategically valuable. Many flint arrowheads and bones with fatal wounds were found at the top of hills, such as Crickly Hill in Gloucester-shire. Population explosions due to the new farming lifestyle meant that societies had to develop ways to live together without violence.
A valuable feature of Ireland is the layers and layers of peat bog (slowly decaying vegetation) which has built up over the millennia, handily preserving the archaeological record below. In the west of Ireland, the Ceide fields preserved in a massive scale the ancient stone walls and other artifacts from a Neolithic farming community in 3500 BC.
According to the assigned video, BBC’s Stonehenge, researchers have been using steel rods to map the walls of this farming community. They stretch for 100 km and served as cattle enclosures. This was a dairy economy, and the farmers had to separate the dry from the milking animals. Dried peat was used for fuel. The top of the wall was 1 meter high. In the peat, one can see the record of human activity. Pollen grains are preserved in the peat, and researchers insert long tubes to extract the chronological record. Pine pollen was dominant at 4500 BC, but by 3500 BC it was herb and grass pollen, signifying the transition to farming. A significant find was cereal pollen, wheat, oats, and barley. To cook the cereal, they needed pottery. It was a new diet. They ate boiled wheat, flatbread, bread and butter.
However, human remains show farmers were less healthy than hunter-gatherers. Milling grains took a physical toll. Skeletons showed worn vertebrae. They had to grind grain for an hour each day to make enough bread for a family. However, the productivity of farming made it irresistible as a survival strategy.
The photo above shows a tree preserved in the peat bog from the Ceide fields. This tree was a feature of the museum on site. Shown below is a photo of an exhibit showing the family building the stone walls.
Part 2 – The Age of Cosmology
During the Neolithic, there was a transition from simple ancestor worship to the concept that people had a place in the cosmos, not just here on earth. People in Britain and Ireland created monuments in stone, astronomically aligned, using sophisticated geometry and requiring huge community cooperation and collaboration. Many of the monuments that were built across the land were connected with each other, either astronomically, geometrically, or both. This tradition went on for more than a thousand years. The monuments predate the Egyptian pyramids. The artifacts such as pottery that were found with the monuments were artistically and technically beautiful, and show the presence of a priestly class of people.
The most famous monument is Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain.
- Build a model of Stonehenge, using the materials brought back from the Stonehenge gift center.
- Use the BBC Stonehenge video and the books brought back from the Visitor Center to compile a list of the functions of stone circles and cursuses to Neolithic peoples.
- Discuss the geometry of Stonehenge or Avebury with your teacher. Your teacher has non-digital photographs of Avebury in an album.
Part 3 – The Age of Bronze
The Bronze Age began in the near east in 3300 BC but the start of the age varied by hundreds of years in different geographical locations. In the assigned video, Stonehenge, the narrator describes how, in 2500 BC metal hit Britain with the arrival of the Beaker People (metal prospectors). In SW Ireland, County Kerry, there was copper ore and the Beaker People from other places in Europe taught the Irish how to smelt it.
The Amesbury Archer was a metalworker, buried with his tools. Archaeologists know by tooth analysis that he was born in the Alps of Central Europe. The fact that he was buried with his tools shows a new way of thinking about individuals, an acknowledgment of who they were.
Since Copper was a soft metal, the Beaker People showed the Irish how to make bronze by combining it with tin. The tin was found off the Cornish coast. Bronze is an alloy hard enough to be useful as tools and weapons. In the early Bronze age, axes were made, later it was swords. The objects offered more than just utility, they also offered status and prestige. This ushers in a new era – a different way to demonstrate wealth.
Exercise: How does the video explain the connection of Bronze Age people to water, and specifically to rivers? How did trading develop among the people in the Bronze Age?