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.