The Stone Age: The Mesolithic Period

The word Mesolithic derives from the Greek: Mesos ‘middle’ and Litho (stone). It is an archaeological concept defining groups and cultures falling between Palaeolithic and Neolithic; a kind of stepping stone, helping to neatly connect the earlier and later periods of the Stone Age.

Indeed, the Mesolithic period began as the last glacial era came to an end. Mesolithic humans enjoyed the warmer climate and a greater range of food. As such, they tended to stay longer in fixed places and so began the birth of agriculture as people started to raise crops and domesticate animals:

About 8,500 BCE – goats;
8,000 BCE – sheep;
7,000 BCE – pigs and cattle.

Those animals began as controllable sources of food, skin and bone, and later the animals provided milk, manure and wools and were eventually used for drawing ploughs and carts, replacing the need for human labour.

Agricultural development

However, the adoption of any form of agriculture was a very gradual process spanning two to three millennia. Yet, although agriculture was expanding it did not follow that settlements were permanent. The system of nomadic agriculture continued, whereby soil-exhausting methods such as slashing and burning, or ‘swidden’ were used.

Swidden is a process whereby in a plot of land the vegetation is cut down and the remnants fired to drive away the pests. The ash is used to nourish the soil so that another crop can be grown quickly. This method can be used several times, but eventually the soil loses its nutrients and has to be rested, often for several years.

The unpredictability of agriculture emphasises the idea that the Mesolithic period was a transitional period and not only in agriculture. The domestication of animals, such as dogs, possibly for hunting; and fishing tools such as harpoons, nets and paddles were all gradual processes.

Human survival

Furthermore, some historians see the invention of agriculture as part of the struggle of the human race’s survival; mankind and technology against nature. Others identified the transition to agriculture as being the interim, Mesolithic period and the flood of inevitable innovations as a trigger for a Neolithic Revolution.

Some advocate a triple revolution theory including, agricultural, urbanization and industrial, but the word revolution is rather inappropriate; there were certainly, great changes but they were gradual, occurring over many years; and born of necessity.

The Mesolithic culture evolved in many ways, for example, they built a bigger and stronger form of housing, but they were still fairly light structures most of which could not withstand the harsh weathers. As such the nomadic lifestyles took much longer to shake off.

Artefacts

The Mesolithic culture did evolve significantly when it came to tools and small items such as bows and pottery, and weapons such as spears and later arrows. (Pictured is a Mesolithic axe).

Such artefacts have been found mainly in Europe, Asia and Africa which shows that human societies were certainly changing. Cities and development of trade followed on from accumulative technological innovations in agriculture which had been introduced during the Mesolithic period. People were learning how to choose their plants; and to make specific sites to plant their own products. With the creation of plantations came better tools, such as the sickle and sandstone grain mills; also hoes which were eventually replaced by ploughs. The plough certainly had one of the greatest effects on the evolution of mankind, especially when animals were able to draw them.

Stella Milner

See also Stella’s articles on the Palaeolithic Period and the Neolithic Period.

Learn more about the prehistoric ages in Stella’s book, The Prehistoric Ages from the ‘Small but Interesting History Books’ series.