A Walk In The Mesolithic

On my regular walk around the neighbourhood, I climb a gentle hill behind the house which affords me a view of the broad river plain below, stretching across fields and patches of woodland to distant hills, craggy above the mist of miles.

Often I pause at the crest of the hill and just stand there, looking at the hills.

A re-enactment of hunter-gatherers surveying the landscape in authentic costume at the end of the ice age (C) National Geographic
(BTW this is not me, nor are they my local hills – image from NatGeo)

Since lockdown I’ve wondered whether I’m hankering for the farm shops and roadside cafés I know are just waiting for me in those hills, laden with juicy produce and abundant cake. (It will go off if it isn’t eaten, you know.)

Other times, most days in fact, I like to imagine what the view would have been like for an ancestor in the Mesolithic. (No point in imagining the landscape further back in time – it was ice all the way north).

The Mesolithic period in Europe is in some ways even more fascinating than the Palaeolithic. For those new to the subject, the Palaeolithic is the Ice Age way of life, hunkered down in caves hiding from sabre-toothed tigers during winter and out on the tundra hunting reindeer and mammoths in the summer. The Mesolithic came after the ice began to melt, when the landscape began to warm up and change.

Freed from ice and permafrost, the land grew grasses and moss. Later on, shrubs such as hazel and willow appeared, interspersing sedge and reeds to build a dense layer of vegetation that decayed into layers of soil until it was deep enough to support larger trees.

Wildlife adapted too.

Mammoths moved further north and east into the continuing wastes of Siberia and the Arctic. Into the space left by those giants moved smaller creatures – deer, birds migrating and resident, small mammals, lizards, and many mini invertebrates.

Frogs. Newts. Hedgehogs.

Human adaptation also moved with the times.

We know from archaeological record that the stone tools used in hunting became smaller, more adept at bringing down small game birds than larger prey. Harpoons, for fishing in the myriad streams and waters that crept up onto the land when the sea levels rose and the rainfall began to be wet and not dry snow.

The Mesolithic is the time of Doggerland.

A mysterious landscape lost under the North Sea, whose denizens must have left centuries of artefacts behind them in the years between the ice retreating and the sea encroaching. Sometimes fishing boats dredge up remnants from the sea bed, tangled in trawl nets like the bones of some Leviathan.

And this is the world I imagine from the brow of the hill every morning, gazing over the town that hugs the curve of the ridge, spans the wide river, spreads out over the floodplains with one eye on the risk.

I look to the distant hills and imagine myself a Mesolithic traveller, camped on the side of this ridge. The mature woodland behind me shrinks to mere scrub, the flat river valley far below filled with marshes and causeways.

I know that the hills many miles away contain valuable stones – rare resources for shaping into the tips of my arrows, and pretty sparkling pebbles to trade as charms.

In the fresh morning air, above the 21st century, I know there’s no way I’d survive the Mesolithic life. The landscape can’t support many of us in that way – and didn’t, back then. The way of life most of us in the modern world have come to expect was totally unthought of. The resources we have harnessed in the intervening millennia have left us unable to support ourselves in the way people survived back then.

Before farming, before concrete, before oil.

But deep, so very deep, in climate change.

There is no going back to the Mesolithic. When I walk the hill in the clear morning’s silence, I take a path between woodland which didn’t exist even forty years ago and fields of pasture grazed by cattle and horses, bounded by wire and hawthorn hedges.

It feels like it’s been this way forever, like I’m treading an ancient ridgeway path that the Stone Age hunters would have recognised, but I’m wrong. The hills in the distance are clad with barley and wheat, oilseed rape and maize. In between are factories making everything from rubber tyres to supermarket ready meals. The fields are grazed by modern cattle much smaller than the aurochs which once browsed our ancient forests.

Our journey to Now is a story of successful adaptation, of looking at the world and seeing opportunities, and of exploiting what we find to make our lives easier, and now we see the damage done because there’s nowhere new to explore.

We’ve filled the world, edge to edge, enough to anticipate a need for rewilding.(link to Knepp on YouTube)

The journey from Here to the Future will use the same brilliance to overcome the challenges we face as our ancestors harnessed to turn themselves into us.

It will, because it will have to.

This week’s links, marginally connected to the post above:

Searching for the people of Doggerland: article on Current Archaeology. Bonus link: Doggerland Art Project.

A new free MOOC from the University of York: Explore Star Carr, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, and learn what life was like over 10,000 years ago.

Underwater archaeology at Bouldnor Cliff in the English Channel collects evidence of Mesolithic activity, via University of Warwick and a random lobster.

Ravenserodd and other lost settlements of the East Yorkshire coast from the blog of Dr Caitlin Green (@caitlinrgreen).

Also Ravensrodd – The Town Under The Sea from writeonthebeach here on WordPress.

Some of the above via Mesolithic Miscellany on Twitter, with lots of lovely links in their timeline.

Published in: on June 27, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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