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?   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.

Image Source.  11,000-year-old skull headdress from Star Carr.

Food opportunities were seasonal:

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, 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.  The salmon run on more British rivers than today.  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. Edible fungi including bollettes, ceps, chanterelles, deceivers, and many more will carpet the wildwoods.
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, tarpan / wild horse, 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 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. Conflict between bands would follow as an ultimate population control.

Have I romanticised my Mesolithic Britons? Absolutely I have. I am envious of their freedoms, their relationship with Nature. I see progress as degenerative. 

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.


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:


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.


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.

Gravettian - into the Big Freeze

Image Source. The Venus of Brassempouy.

The Gravettian overlaps the late Aurignacian, dating from circa 33,000 years ago, and surviving until 20,000 years before present. This included the coldest peak of the last Ice Age, the Last Glacial Maximum around 24,000 years ago until 18,000 years ago. These really were Ice Age Europeans. Travel as far north as Britain must have taken place during warmer intervals. Otherwise the Gravettian is found in a band across Western Eurasia, which stretches from Portugal and the Basque region, through France, Germany, Czech republic, as far east as Georgia and South Russia.

Image Source. Female face. Ivory carving, Dolní Věstonice.

Gravettian yDNA haplogroups so far discovered are CT, I, IJK, BT, one C1a2 and one F.
Gravettian mtDNA haplogroups overwhelmingly U (mainly U2 and U5), with one M.

The Late Gravettian developed into a culture in France and Iberia, that we call the Solutrean. Meanwhile in the south east of Europe, from the Italian peninsula across the the Western Steppe, it diverged into the Epigravettian culture, which overlaps for much of its range with the Mammoth Steppe.

We identify a genetic ancestry profile in individuals associated with Upper Palaeolithic Gravettian assemblages from western Europe that is distinct from contemporaneous groups related to this archaeological culture in central and southern Europe4, but resembles that of preceding individuals associated with the Aurignacian culture. This ancestry profile survived during the Last Glacial Maximum (25,000 to 19,000 years ago) in human populations from southwestern Europe associated with the Solutrean culture, and with the following Magdalenian culture that re-expanded northeastward after the Last Glacial Maximum. Conversely, we reveal a genetic turnover in southern Europe suggesting a local replacement of human groups around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, accompanied by a north-to-south dispersal of populations associated with the Epigravettian culture. 
A previously unknown population replacement event that was archaeologically invisible, occurring during the peak of the Ice Age.  This DNA was then passed on via the Solutrean people to the following Magdalenian people. 
Image Source. Triple Burial at the Upper Palaeolithic Site of Dolní Věstonice.

These people buried their dead more frequently in graves than did the Aurignicians.  The grave of three male teenagers at Dolní Věstonice was particularly enigmatic. The person on the left, has a hand placed over the stomach of the middle character, where red ochre had been applied. The central person had a curved spine, diagnosed as caused by chondrodysplasia calcificans punctata (CCP).  The body on the right had been placed facing down. Red ochre had also been applied to the heads of all three.

A Mirror into the Past and Present. On the Dolni Vestonice Triple Burial. 2020. Olga Viviana Nauthiz Szynkaruk
For their last journey, the individuals have been richly equipped with headdresses made of the teeth of the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus), wolf (Canis lupus), and unidentified large predators. In the mouth of DV15, a mammoth ivory disc was placed.
Image Source. Gravettian points.

Prey appear less restrictive than for the earlier period which focused on reindeer. The Gravettians hunted deer, mammoth, hares, lions, bear, foxes. Rather than use split antlers as points, they used flint blades known as Gravettian points. There is evidence that the Gravettians had access to bows and to the spear thrower. Furthermore, they may have had the first domesticated animal, the dog.
Image Source (Flickr).  Altamira Cave Paintings. By Carlos Calamar

British Gravettian

Image Source (modified).  Find-spots in Britain of Gravettian tanged points. Northern Britain was covered by ice sheets, and the North Sea was dry, connecting Great Britain to the Continent.

Image Source. The Venus of Willendorf.


The Gravettians entered Europe in the long, slow run up to the Last Glacial Maximum, and endured much of it. Although they inhabited a vast region of Western Eurasia, their culture remained constant, albeit with some divisions between west and east. The Pavlovian Culture developed in the east as mammoth-hunters.  The Gravettians often buried their dead with much ceremony, wearing seashell beads, ivory, and animal teeth. They were successful and adaptive Ice Age hunters, preying on deer, reindeer, mammoth, fox, hare, hyena, wolf, seal, and foraged for shellfish. They lived in circular, semi subterranean shelters, but were mobile. Skilled artists with cave paintings and carved ivory. They tipped projectiles with flint blade points, and may have used bows, boomerangs and atlatls. Nets were woven, and lamps of stone used. They may have developed an early relationship with dogs.

During the Last Glacial Maximum, although their artefact culture continued, there was a population replacement event by people closer related to their Aurignician predecessors.  These later Gravettians fostered the Solutrean Culture in France and Iberia, and the Epigravettian culture of the east and south east.

Aurignacian - Reindeer hunters and first modern artefact culture of Europe

Image of the Lion Man.  The Oldest Portable Art: the Aurignacian Ivory Figurines from the Swabian Jura (Southwest Germany).  Harald Floss

The Aurignacians were not the first Europeans.  With the previous post on the Apidima 1 skull fragment from Greece, dated to circa 210,000 years ago, I established that humans with modern Homo sapiens features may well have been wandering in and out of parts of Europe for a very long time. Neither was Apidima 1 the first European. Earlier humans, including Neanderthals had been around Europe for a very long time. Before them, earlier hominins, such as Homo heidelgergensis; and Homo antecessor who left artefacts and footprints on a Norfolk beach, some 800,000 to 900,000 years ago. Recently, stone tools found in Ukraine during the 1970s have been dated to 1.4 millions years of age, and may be associated with an Homo erectus type hominin.

Not the first Europeans, but here in this post I am going to investigate the earliest modern human artefact culture that we currently know to have established itself in Europe, and even in Britain. I'm going to discuss the Aurignacians.

Image.  Animation and Graphic Narration in the Aurignacian. Marc Azéma

Thought to have spread into Europe from SW Asia in the Levant, where the culture is also found, it has been proposed that an earlier origin could be the Zagros Mountains of Western Iran, where similar tools have been recorded.

Aurignacian yDNA haplogroups so far discovered are C1a, C1b, and K2a
Aurignacian mtDNA haplogroups include N, R, and U.

Of these, only the mtDNA hapologroup U is still common in modern Europe.

The genetic history of Ice Age Europe. Nature 2016. Fu, Posth, Hajdijak etal.  (Full download here)

Concluded that a 37,000 year old Aurignacian genome has some continuity into the modern European population, and was more akin to modern Europeans, than was a contemporary sample from China. The division between Western Eurasians, and Eastern Eurasians dates back to include the Aurigacians in the West. A contribution to modern European DNA has been identified albeit a small percentage. The genomes sequenced indicated that they were likely dark-skinned and brown eyed, but with reservation.

Here we present genome-wide data from three individuals dated to between 45,930 and 42,580 years ago from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria1,2. They are the earliest Late Pleistocene modern humans known to have been recovered in Europe so far, and were found in association with an Initial Upper Palaeolithic artefact assemblage. Unlike two previously studied individuals of similar ages from Romania7 and Siberia8 who did not contribute detectably to later populations, these individuals are more closely related to present-day and ancient populations in East Asia and the Americas than to later west Eurasian populations. This indicates that they belonged to a modern human migration into Europe that was not previously known from the genetic record, and provides evidence that there was at least some continuity between the earliest modern humans in Europe and later people in Eurasia. Moreover, we find that all three individuals had Neanderthal ancestors a few generations back in their family history, confirming that the first European modern humans mixed with Neanderthals and suggesting that such mixing could have been common. 
Recent arrivals into Europe, with connections to present day West Eurasian populations, and they had some recent Neanderthal ancestry mixed into modern.

According to Wikipedia:
The Proto-Aurignacian and the Early Aurignacian stages are dated between about 43,000 and 37,000 years ago. The Aurignacian proper lasted from about 37,000 to 33,000 years ago. A Late Aurignacian phase transitional with the Gravettian dates to about 33,000 to 26,000 years ago.
That is actually a very long time period. One research project proposed a Europe-wide population of only 1,500 at a time. Extended over a long period of many thousands of years.

The early Aurignacian dispersal of modern humans into westernmost Eurasia. PNAS 2020. Haws, Benedetti, Talamo and Zinsious.

Looks at the entry into Iberia, and revises the date.
Image. Antler points and a perforated baton from the Early Aurignacian.  Origin and Development of Aurignacian Osseous Technology in Western Europe: a Review of Current Knowledge  Élise Tartar

Interview with Dr James Dilley on the use of these antler points. He suggests that a lack of good wood with which to construct spear shafts may have led to them employing more breakable split antler points to preserve the valuable shafts. The points could have also improved the bleeding out of quarry. Perforated batons are also common on their sites. Use is unknown.

Flint bladelets as with some later cultures, are often a feature of Aurignacian sites. Typical hunter's lithics utilising flint with great economy.

Continental sites produce volumes of reindeer bone. It seems to have been their target prey.

Their landscapes were increasingly cold, open, and treeless.

Culturally they left high quality cave paintings in South France, and carved ivory pieces in Germany. The first Venus figure. The Lion Man. They often painted and sculptured lions, which may have been important to their belief system.
Image of the Venus of Hohle Fels.  The Oldest Portable Art: the Aurignacian Ivory Figurines from the Swabian Jura (Southwest Germany).  Harald Floss

British Aurignacian

Image. Recorded Aurignacian sites in Britain.  Coastline would have been far further out than in the above image. The North Sea was dry, and Britain connected to the continent.

The Timing of Aurignacian occupation of the British Peninsula.  Edinburgh Research Explorer 2012. Dinnis.R

A study of flint burins to type in comparison with sites in Belgium and France. Occupation of the British peninsular would have been impossible for long periods. The conclusion:

British Aurignacian burins busqués are technologically indistinguishable from those found in Belgium and at Abri Pataud in southern France c. 32 000 14C BP, or c. 37 000 cal BP. Therefore, the Aurignacian can be considered to have appeared in Britain at this same time. The proposed c. 32 000 14C BP appearance of burins busqués accords with the few radiocarbon dates from other sites which directly date Aurignacian occupation of Britain. Morphologically similar lozangic-type osseous points are also present at Abri Pataud and in Britain at this time. This period apparently coincides with or closely follows the most significant warm phase during the lifetime of the Aurignacian: Greenland Interstadial 8. An environmental response to this climatic amelioration is therefore a plausible reason for the extension of Aurignacian ranges northwards at this time.

In spite of an overall paucity of material, the presence of two bladelet production techniques suggests that there were at least two Aurignacian occupations of Britain, or that occupation was sufficiently prolonged to encompass the replacement of one by the other. The precise timing of what is interpreted as the more recent of the two techniques – the Paviland burin method – is currently unknown.
More than one occupation during warmer periods around 32,000 years ago, or / and 37,000 years ago. These coincide with warmer interstadials. Find-sites include Goughs Cave, Kents Cavern, and Goats Hole, Paviland. Britain's classic Aurignacian skeletal remains are those of The Red Lady of Paviland. A male who had died in Britain circa 31,000 years ago.

Image of the Aurignacian flute made from vulture bone.  The Oldest Portable Art: the Aurignacian Ivory Figurines from the Swabian Jura (Southwest Germany).  Harald Floss

Video. Hear the bone flute being played.


Ice Age reindeer hunters on the European tundra with a talent for the arts. They hunted with split antler tipped throwing spears. They had music, and made flutes, using the long leg bones of vultures. They were talented artists, leaving ivory and bone sculptures, and their famous cave paintings.  They were few, and moved around far, following herds and shifts in the bitter weather. Their landscape was open and cold, treeless. Fauna would have included reindeer, tarpan / horses, steppe bison, woolly rhino, mammoth, cave lions, and hyenas. The lion may have been ritually important to their belief systems. They most probably encountered another type of human in Europe - the Neanderthals. Four percent of their own DNA, with long segments, originated among the Neanderthals.  The artefact culture survived for thousands of years, until the approach of the Last Glacial Maximum some 25,000 years ago. They persist in a few percent of modern West Eurasian DNA.

In addition to reindeer hunting, some sites are associated with ancient coastlines, and pierced seashells have been found as personal ornamentation. No evidence of fishing, but they may have foraged for shellfish. Ornamentation also includes the teeth of carnivores such as lions and foxes. Red ochre was applied on some remains.

This investigation has really helped me to imagine them. The Europeans who lived here before Last Glacial Maximum. I was really surprised just how many resources there are available online. I've barely touched on this subject. I have only touched on their cave art

I don't want to violate copyright by sharing Tom Björklund's fantastic art work here, but here is a link to his take on the Aurignacian people. I think that creativity blended with archaeology really helps:

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.

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.

 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.


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.