Age of the Degeneracy - reconstructing the Late Mesolithic of Britain

Image Source - my own, taken today, of a flint blade from an old finds box. Thetford Forest. It would have been recorded as a snapped blade, possibly transitional Mesolithic-Neolithic. Now in the 21st Century I understand that this blade was strictly, Mesolithic. I no longer believe there was transition.

I've written a novel. The story provided me with an escape from unbearable life. The tale has two primary settings, both circa 6,000 years ago.  One in what is now South Iraq on the edge of the marshes where civilisation starts to take shape, and the other in South East Britain, as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers meet Neolithic farmers. It is a little play on parts of the Genesis story.

I was cut off from all Nature. I am only just now starting to reconnect. It will be a very long healing experience if I decide to maintain it. Because I'm running short of hope. I had very little access to data. I had to scrap around in order to attempt any understanding of how the Mesolithic British may have experienced life, and was left with little more than contemplation. This is how I reconstructed a fictional South-eastern British environment 6,000 years ago:

Natural Britain during the Early Holocene

Birch scrub advanced first. Followed by pine, yew, and other evergreens.  This is the Age of Star Carr. The tundra grasslands receded with this rapid advance. Temperatures increased annually. Waters began to rise.

The birch grew taller. Alder joined them. Willow and holly. Followed by oak. Lime and hazel arrived on the British peninsular of North West Europe. Wych elm, hawthorn, blackthorn then ash. In South Eastern Britain, it was the lime which dominated as the most common tree.

Tree biodiversity was actually quite limited in Late Mesolithic Britain. Because the North Sea (Doggerland), and the English Channel, flooded with thawed out glacial waters to make Britain an island, before more species could shift across any land-bridge.

Later Mesolithic SE Britain.  Wild-woods or temperate-forests?

I suspect that the term temperate rainforest should be reserved for the wetter parts of the British Isles. Particularly for the west. Across the drier south-east of Britain, I propose that it would be better to describe it as wildwood.  Even here I suspect that the ecology was incredibly rich, with mosses, lichen and fungi.  Some areas of the wildwoods were kept quite open by the actions of large wild bovines that generated their own woodland pastures. Others were more dense.

The British canopy was not continuous. Breaking it were small glades, and some larger plains. These were kept open by browsing and grazing herbivores that herded in the open - aurochs, red deer, bison, roe deer. A distinct ecology existed on these small scrubs and prairies. 

Equally there were lowland marshes and fens of reed bed with water-logged islands of alder carr. Often, belts of these ran up the riparian terraces of river valleys to provide rich habitats for birds, beavers, and pig. The rivers were clean, and ran naturally within their floodplains except for the works of beavers. Upper stretches of chalk streams would have been choked by Summer watercress. Alder and willow trees dominated the riparian belts. Banks were not cut, and rivers wider, bordered by the roots of alder, or by gravel shores. They often flowed around riverine islets and over gravel banks. Water channels changed their many courses through the marshes of deltas.

Bird-life was devoid of some species that have adapted to and follow human agriculture, but could have included some surprise species no longer in the British Isles such as black woodpecker, black stork, and European eagle owl. These in addition to species such as titmice, woodcock, wood pigeon, tawny owl, bustards, and cranes. Goshawks would have been a widespread raptor across the forests, and white tailed eagles not an uncommon site.

Mammalian predators included wolf, brown bear, lynx, fox, badgers and martens

Image Source - taken on the phone today.

I've demonstrated in recent posts that the Mesolithic hunter-foragers in Britain, most likely descended either from the Ice Age Epigravettians of Italy and South East Europe. They or / and perhaps recent arrivals from South West Asia, who had crossed a dry Aegean. A recent study of ancient genomes supported the former population.

We know that they appear from genetics to be dark skinned and possibly with light coloured eyes.  That is just a fine detail. To those people that make a deal out of it, I ask why? And I love the reconstructions of western hunter-gatherers by Tom Björklund.

What was the environment in South East Britain, 6,500 years ago? How had they adapted to the changed environment?  Their ancestors had survived the Ice age mammoth steppe. They had survived so long on the tundra.  What challenges had the Holocene's new forests thrown at them? 

How I portray Late Mesolithic Britons in fiction

Their ungulate prey species had dispersed from herds in the open, and into the woods. There, they were more difficult to locate, and could quickly disappear into cover. They had less need to form large herds.  Temperate forests release a lot of their calories only during the autumn. To survive, Mesolithic hunter-foragers needed to be exceptionally intelligent. They needed to break up into smaller bands, and adapt to a forest way of life

How I portray Late Mesolithic Britons in fiction

The wild-woods may not have always been dense. Yet they would have been difficult for humans to traverse by foot. Deadwood would have laid across everywhere. Its rot fed the ecology. Moss and dead leaf-mould, deep. Some alder rain-forests would have been likely waterlogged and swamped. Walking across these environments uses a lot of calories that are otherwise precious.

It was probably easier to travel by waterway whenever possible. Although upper rivers might be seasonally clogged by growth, and beaver dams a trial. Watercraft include dugouts, but also canoes of bark or animal skin. It would have been the way to travel.

During this travelling, few people would have been encountered. The bands dispersed in order to make best use of resources. Human population was likely very sparse across Britain.

Food opportunities were seasonal:

Image Source.  Mysterious 11,000-year-old skull headdresses go on display in Cambridge

Late Winter / Early Spring. Bands would have radiated out of winter encampments, hunting deer, pig, among other prey species. But these themselves were losing all winter fat. The Mesolithic people may have relied heavily on caches of roasted nuts and other preserves. Or chewed tree resin and inner bark to stave off hunger. Fish were available, through traps, nets, spears. Eel, chub, salmon and pike. This may have been the lazy time, when they sat around hearths, preserving expensive energy.

Late Spring.  Wild greens, pignuts, tubers, flowers, cat-tails, buds, even young tree leaves of elm and hawthorn. Slow game - birds eggs and chicks. Possibly European pond turtles. Roots such as those of cat tail could be dried and ground into flour.

Summer.  I have my fictional hunter-foragers moving to the coast during summer, where they meet up with other bands for sports and social networking. There they could have foraged sea beet, sea lettuce, samphire, buckthorn berry, and shellfish. Mussels, oysters, clams, cockles, razor shells, whelks, crabs.  Perhaps hunted seals on the beaches and sea flats.  Cetaceans would have been vastly more abundant in the seas, and whales would beach, providing opportunities. Sea canoes might have provided the opportunity to fish with nets, or to hunt small cetaceans. Late summer inland, and wild berries - raspberry, mulberry, sloe, brambleberry, elderberry, buckthorn, hawthorn.  Early fungi such as puffballs, parasols, chicken-of-the-woods.

Autumn / Early Winter.  Busy squirrels and martens could be snared.  Game is now at its fattest.  But this would also be a time for foraging nuts and seeds. The hazel-nut may have almost been a staple, at least as a preserve.  It would have been roasted. It can be ground into flour to make bread and biscuits. Acorns were also abundant. They could be rinsed and soaked to remove excessive tannins, then added to flours. Pine nuts if many of their trees remained in South East Britain. Wild grass seeds could be harvested.  Beech probably arrived with the Neolithic. I imagine the small camps being busy at this time of year, processing acorns and nuts to be cached as food reserves.
Image Source. Aurochs in a wild wood.

The dark honeybee was most probably abundant in the lime tree forests. I’m sure that their hives in dead trees would have been exploited for honey and wax. The honey could be eaten, or used to make mead - perhaps adding some berries for yeast. Birch and tree sap could also be enjoyed, and fermented to make alcohol. Hallucinogenic mushrooms would have been exploited. The beeswax would also be added to tree resins to make their glues.

Favoured prey species for hunting would have been the red deer, also roe deer, wild boar, aurochs (enormous wild cattle), European bison if they remained, fox, badger, beaver, etc. Bird species on the menu probably included geese, ducks, cranes, swans, bustards, wood pigeons, turtle doves, woodcock, snipe, etc.  My savages had the domestic dog, but it is a more husky or laika-type, that does not bark. It is useful for tracking prey by scent. Dogs also provide companionship and warmth in a den.

The belief system that I designed for my fictional savages was animist. The sense of self, and of afterlife, is projected onto everything natural - prey, trees, tools, the forest, and otherwise. Areas of natural resources became sacred. My fictional savages had female shamans, and were matrilineal. Celebrations and feasts would be frequent. They would engage in sports.  I also suggested some ritual cannibalism, if only to prevent the ghosts of enemies from extracting revenge on the living. I portrayed them as very egalitarian, with little personal property, and no chieftains. But they had different roles for either gender, and the elders were respected.

My fictional savages have a totem-identity, but I'm not sure that would have been the case. Again, my choice was to tie them to local nations set into a larger territory called a wilderness. These nations I divided into smaller more practically sized family bands. None of this is based on any strong anthropological evidence, and was entirely my own creativity.  In reality, bands could have had a wider more homogeneous identity, and ranged wider across the British Isles, free of tribal territorial restrictions. Yet I see this as leading to conflict.

Birth rate in my savages was controlled by extended nursing and delayed weaning in comparison to the Neolithic farmers. This reduced fertility. Otherwise competition would grow for limited natural resources, and local prey extinctions. Warfare between bands would follow as an ultimate population control.


That is how I creatively wrote the British Late Mesolithic.

Western Hunter-Gatherers - the European Mesolithic

The final in my series exploring the hunter-gatherer cultures of modern humans within Western Eurasia. First I briefly looked at Apidima fossils as evidence that modern traits had been in Europe from an early date. With the Aurignacians, I investigated the earliest known modern human culture in Europe. With the Gravettians, I learned about how hunter-gatherers adapted in the lead up, and into the Last Glacial Maximum How they divided into the Solutrean Culture of Iberia and France in the west; and with the Pavlovian and Epigravettian Cultures of Italy, Czech and the East. With the Magdalenians I discovered how they burst back following Last Glacial Maximum, and through the warmer Bølling–Allerød interstadial.

Above image is my own. Years ago, I recorded several flint microblade waste cores, of which the above wasn't the most regular or impressive. But it's a photo that I could still resource. These artefacts, along with a tranchet axe-head and a few microliths that I recorded, were Mesolithic. I thought that it would be nice if I could bring this series to a close with something, a bit more personal.

Genetics

Let me first sum up the whole Upper Palaeolithic story according to Ancient DNA.

We have established that the Aurignacians had descended from Basal Eurasian (in South West  Asia or further north among descendants?) when they split from ANE (Ancient North Eurasian). An early expansion into Western Europe first occurred circa 43,000 years ago, but a volcanic event in Italy may have terminated this occupation, with it resuming afresh circa 37,000 years ago.  They had since admixed with Neanderthals, and on average had 4-5% Neanderthal DNA with long segments. Neanderthals were likely still present in Western Europe, when the Aurignacians arrived there.

Through all of these Upper Palaeolithic cultures, prey species, conditions, and temperatures varied across the entire Eurasian range, with woodlands sometimes forming in Iberia, as opposed the the great Mammoth Steppe further east. Consequently, cultures and perhaps genomes divided into western and eastern blocks over time.

After 33,000 years ago, the Gravettians arrive from the North East, to replace the Aurignacians. Pushed by worsening climatic conditions, they also divided into west and east. Some descendants or relatives of the Aurignacians must have still been surviving, for Genetic studies suggest that during this period of stress, that the original Gravettians were in turn replaced by people who had more Aurignacian-like DNA. The technology and the artefact culture did not evidence this reversal of population.

Last Glacial Maximum passes, and 17,000 years ago, the Magdalenian Culture arises. The population behind this change were not so much the Solutrean of the west, but the people of the Epigravettian of Italy and the East. And they carry Aurignacian DNA. Very late, the Creswellian Culture develops in Britain, along with the Hamburgian around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago.

That brings me up to date with the Western Hunter-Gatherers and the approach of the Holocene.

WHG as a genetic component

So which of these groups did this component descend from?

Chasing this up brings me back to:


In this study, the authors found that WHG ancestry could be located into the Epigravettian genome. That hunter-gatherers had moved up primarily from the eastern and southern refugia to reach places like Britain.

WHG haplogroups so far identified

yDNA are I2a1 (I-M26) and R1b1a1a (R-M7)
mtDNA are U (mainly U5, U2 and U4)

Were the Earlier Mesolithic people of Britain related to those associated with the Creswellian points? Possibly. Or they could represent a fresh migration most likely not from the recently dominating Magdaenian Culture, but from the descendants of the earlier Epigravettian of SE Europe, possibly with admixture from  fresh populations crossing a dry Aegean from SW Asia:

Wikipedia:

The WHG displayed higher affinity for ancient and modern Middle Eastern populations when compared against earlier Paleolithic Europeans such as Gravettians. The affinity for ancient Middle Eastern populations in Europe increased after the Last Glacial Maximum, correlating with the expansion of WHG (Villabruna or Oberkassel) ancestry. There is also evidence for bi-directional geneflow between WHG and Middle Eastern populations as early as 15,000 years ago.

The WHG of Western Europe is sometimes referred to as the Villabruna or Oberkassel Cluster. They attracted public attention, when analysis of their DNA revealed that they were genetically likely to have had dark hair, and dark skin, with some individuals probably having light coloured, even blue eyes.  Dark skin was likely to have been a feature of earlier, Upper Palaeolithic fore-bearers. Despite low UVR levels, they found other ways of dealing with poor vitamin D production. Their diet may have compensated for the low UVR.

Image Source. Photo by Werner Ustorf (Flickr). Cheddar Man reconstruction.

A separate population appeared in Eastern Europe, defined as EHG (Eastern Hunter-Gatherer) and an SHG (Scandinavian Hunter-Gatherer) admixed between the two groups.

Image Source. Map of distribution for WHG genetic cluster across Europe.

Mesolithic Europe

These were the last of the European hunter-foragers who needed to adapt to climatic and environmental changes of the Holocene period. The Younger Dryas (12,900 to 11,700 years before present) represented a return of bitterly cold conditions before the rapid commencement of the Holocene. See the below trend in temperatures. Temperatures in Greenland rose by 10 C in only a decade.

Image Source.  Evolution of temperature in the Post-Glacial period according to Greenland ice cores (Younger Dryas)

Flora change followed this rapid rise in annual temperatures. During the Earlier Mesolithic, tundra grasslands were gradually replaced by birch scrub, followed by forest. Species to reach Britain included birch, alder, pine, and alder. During the Later Mesolithic, temperatures continued to rise. Lime (Linden), hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, ash, elm / wych elm, followed. Beech probably didn't arrive until the end of the Mesolithic period. It had previously been speculated that Late Mesolithic lowland Britain would have been covered by one continuous wildwood canopy. However, pollen analysis has suggested some areas of open grassland, possibly kept open by the ruminations of large herbivores such as aurochs (wild cattle), bison, red deer, and roe deer. There has been some suggestion that the hunter-gatherers may have been managing these areas, and extending them with fire. This may have improved the regeneration of hazel (hazel nut was likely to have been a very important food source), and better, more open hunting conditions, where ungulates herd together in the open.

Lithics

The knapped flint and stone tools of the Mesolithic are largely characterised by the production of very small blades known as microliths. These would often be notched into small geometric shapes. Arrows were likely composite, with a microlith point, and small microlith barbs being glued and / or bound along the shaft behind that point. Microliths may have had further uses as microburins (piercers or borers for hide clothing etc) or as scalpel blades for working wood, bone, and antler. A further stone tool associated with this period is the Mesolithic tranchet axe head.

A tranchet axe head that I recorded during my surveying years.

Antler working

Star Carr is a well known archaeological site in North Yorkshire that dates to between 11,280, and 10,500 years before present. This places it shortly after the end of the Younger Dryas during the Earlier Mesolithic.

Image Source.  Star Carr collection at Yorkshire museum - mesolithic spear tips from the earliest known post glacial settlement in England. Star Carr has become the type site for the NW European Earlier Mesolithic.

Notes for Mesolithic Western Europeans. The last free people of Europe.

Lola, Mesolithic girl on National Geographic

The above is a link to a reconstruction by Tom Björklund of a Mesolithic girl who lived in what is now Denmark. It is a very unique and creative reconstruction, because nothing physical of this girl nicknamed Lola survives into our archaeological record! She is only known by her DNA (and that of recently eaten food) that she left on a lump of birch tree pitch that she had chewed as a gum some 5,700 years ago. But I really like this reconstruction. I think that she makes a beautiful wild child. Straight out of the lines of a novel that I'm trying to write.

Analysis of her DNA strongly suggests brown toned skin, if not dark brown. Her hair dark brown. The DNA supports that her eyes were light coloured. Perhaps blue, blue-green or hazel? I'll return to Lola, but first these features correspond to those suggested by the genomes of other Mesolithic remains scattered around Europe.

Cheddar Man

Cheddar Man who lived in South West Britain around 10,000 years ago is the best known. The revelation several years ago that the DNA sequenced from his genome, suggests both dark skin and blue eyes caused quite a commotion. A lot of people didn't like it, and accused the geneticists of woke.

We always knew that the earliest modern humans were likely to have plenty of melanin. Subsisting on a hunter-gatherer diet that was rich in dietary Vitamin D meant that there was little adaptive pressure for them to lose this dark skin in a hurry. Just as some hunters in the far north and far south have retained dark skins into recent times. The emphasis to reduce melanin may not have arrived until following major shifts to a poor, agricultural diet in northern zones. The DNA associated with very light skin of modern Western Europeans may not have arrived until quite recently (prehistorically speaking).

We also had Villabruna Man in Northern Italy. His presence and DNA is less known to the general public. But even before the controversy of the Cheddar Man reconstruction, we knew from Villabruna and other remains that he lacked certain genetic indicators of light skin and:

Additional evidence of an early link between west and east comes from the HERC2 locus, where a derived allele that is the primary driver of light eye color in Europeans appears nearly simultaneously in specimens from Italy and the Caucasus ~14,000-13,000 years ago.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4943878/

But one recent study proposes that there were at least two distinct clusters of hunter-gatherers around Europe at the close of the last Ice Age:

On the basis of the genetic variation of present-day Europeans, this could imply phenotypic differences between post-14 ka hunter-gatherer populations across Europe, with individuals in the Oberkassel cluster possibly exhibiting darker skin and lighter eyes, and individuals in the Sidelkino cluster possibly lighter skin and darker eye colour.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-05726-0

 I think that may be close to the truth, that there was most likely a variation in skin tones and eye colours across Europe during late prehistory.

Then we met 'Elba the Shepherdess' from Galicia, Spain. She dates to around 9,300 years ago. Analysis of Elba's ancient DNA suggests that she was dark-skinned and haired, and brown-eyed. Her remains had spectacularly been excavated along with three aurochs (wild cattle). Her relationship to these aurochs has raised extremely controversial questions about possible domestication. I do like the aurochs. I might make them the a subject of a later post.


Imagination


British Archaeology has long been going through a struggle where it tries to lose its roots within the Arts, and relocate itself within the (social) sciences. Clinging vigorously to data, they fear telling any stories (which is what hi-story does). In my own creative writing, I have my British hunter-gatherers at the close of the Mesolithic as shameless animists, who see themselves very much as a part of Nature. Mine are trapped into nations or tribes, divided into semi-nomadic bands who wander a larger region that I call a wilderness. In the background (but no longer in the novel) from their own golden age, they look back through folklore to an earlier time when they were more free, to wander further, one nation, following herds of steppe and forest bison.

In their own contemporary wilds 6000 years ago, I have them hunting red deer, roe deer, wild pig, aurochs (wild cattle), red squirrel, martens, seal, porpoise, whales, beaver, fox, waterfowl (ducks/geese), bustards, cranes, wood pigeon, woodcock, fishing/trapping eel, salmon, trout, chub, pike. Foraging for hazelnut, acorns (which they need to process to reduce tannin), cat-tails, wild garlic, pig-nuts, harvesting wild grass seeds, tubers, roots, tree sap, flower buds, lichens, sea lettuce, samphire, berries (blackberry, raspberry, elderberry, hawthorn), black bee honeycomb (yes they make berry mead and alcoholic birch sap), greens (including some springtime tree leaves), tree inner bark (in desperation or to chew), fungi (bollettes, blewitts, ceps, chanterelle, puffballs, chicken-of-the-woods and many more), mussels, sea molluscs /shellfish, crustaceans. I did also include beechnuts, but then found that the beech may have only just arrived with the Neolithic. Ugh! 

One thing that this creative writing has helped me understand about the British Late Mesolithic, is that the forests at that time lacked a wealth of biodiversity. Britain had parted from the European Continent too soon following the glaciers - Ireland more so. Few tree species had made it here. The temperate wild-woods (I don't think all of those in the south-east could have been classed as rain-forests) could be very mean with any calories between early winter and mid spring. I emphasise that in the story, the need to gather in late summer and through the autumn, and to process and store what they could. Acorns and hazel nuts could be roasted and even ground into a flour to make breads.  Wild grass seeds may have been added. The game would have been fatter at that time of year, and the salmon would run. Oh, I dare to suggest that my hunter-foragers are also gardeners of their wilds, encouraging hazel and birch to spread and survive.

Late winter may have been comparatively miserable, where the bands would laze close to hearths. Conserving valuable calories of their energy.

I enjoy imagining the wild-woods of SE Britain 4000 BCE. Perhaps not all temperate rain-forest, but neither anything like a modern day woods. Deadwood, flooding, saplings, rot, deep ferns and mosses. They would have been difficult to pass through by foot. Waterway would have been preferred. Trees with mosses and octopus boughs. Lime (linden) trees, elm, wych elm, oak, birch, alder, willow, ash, pine.  Wolves, lynx, brown bear. Eagles, black woodpeckers, and goshawks. But I don't imagine it all as wild-wood. I have opted in my imagined Britain 4000 BCE, for lots of small glades, and larger open plains that in the story, I call prairies. Here herds of aurochs join those of red and roe deer, to keep this scrub and grassland opened up. Bustards parade by orchids, while the cuckoo calls.

But all in my imagination. Not fact.



Returning to Lola in Denmark. The gum also revealed that she was lactose intolerant, and this has also been found in other genetic remains of this period. The DNA of hazel and mallard duck was also on the gum, and it is thought that hazelnut and duck may have been her recent meals. I think it is incredible archaeology that a lump of birch pitch could produce such a result. The 5,700 ybp was based on radio carbon dating of the lump of Mesolithic chewing gum.

When I was a voluntary archaeologist and field walker, I would treasure any microliths, microlith waste cores (I had a few), and a tranchet axe head (below) that I found from the Mesolithic. It was always my favourite period of prehistory. When people would have related to other species as a part of the Natural World to which they belonged. Innate animism that I strongly relate to as an autistic biophilliac. Or did they? Next post I will look at Gobekli Tepe and other sites of this same period across Anatolia. Have we simplified the savage?


So for all of their imperfections and inaccuracies, here are the faces of the Mesolithic. The last truly free wild people of European Nature. The last savages of Europe. Before we started to screw it all up.  Lola is my favourite.