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The Mesolithic
The Epipaleolithic
Mesolithic Europe
Epipaleolithic Europe
Fosna–Hensbacka culture
Komsa culture
Maglemosian culture
Lepenski Vir culture
Kunda culture
Narva culture
Komornica culture
Swiderian culture
Epipaleolithic Transylvania
Mesolithic Transylvania
Schela Cladovei culture
Mesolithic Southeastern Europe
Levantine corridor
Zarzian culture
Stone Age

In Old World archaeology, the Mesolithic (Greek: μέσος, mesos "middle"; λίθος, lithos "stone") is the period between Paleolithic and Neolithic, the three periods together forming the Stone Age. The term "Epipaleolithic" is often used for areas outside northern Europe, but was also the preferred synonym used by French archaeologists until the 1960s.

The type of culture associated with the Mesolithic varies between areas, but it is associated with a decline in the group hunting of large animals in favour of a broader hunter-gatherer way of life, and the development of more sophisticated and typically smaller lithic tools and weapons than the heavy chipped equivalents typical of the Paleolithic. Depending on the region, some use of pottery and textiles may be found in sites allocated to the Mesolithic, but generally indications of agriculture are taken as marking transition into the Neolithic. The more permanent settlements tend to be close to the sea or inland waters offering a good supply of food; much of the Mesolithic population was probably nomadic for all or most of the time. Mesolithic societies are not seen as very complex, and burials are fairly simple; grandiose burial mounds are another mark of the Neolithic.

The Mesolithic has different time spans in different parts of Eurasia, it was originally post-Pleistocene, pre-agricultural material in northwest Europe about 10,000 to 5000 BCE, but material from the Levant (about 20,000 to 9500 BCE) is also labelled Mesolithic. The term is less used of areas further east, and not all beyond Eurasia.

Outside Europe and the Levant[edit]

While Paleolithic and Neolithic have been found useful terms and concepts in the archaeology of China, and can be mostly regarded as happily naturalized, Mesolithic was introduced later, mostly after 1945, and does not appear to be a necessary or useful term in the context of China. Chinese sites that have been regarded as Mesolithic are better considered as "Early Neolithic".[1]

In the archaeology of India, the Mesolithic, dated roughly between 10,000 and 6,000 BCE, remains a concept in use.[2]

In the archaeology of sub-Saharan Africa, Lower Paleolithic is replaced by "Early Stone Age", Middle Paleolithic is replaced by "Middle Stone Age" and Upper Paleolithic by "Later Stone Age" according to the terminology introduced by John Hilary Goodman and Clarence van Riet Lowe of South Africa in the early 20th century. Therefore, care must be taken in translating "Mesolithic" as "Middle Stone Age", as the latter term has an unrelated technical meaning in the context of African archaeology.

In the archaeology of the Americas, an Archaic or Meso-Indian period, following the Lithic stage, somewhat equates to the Mesolithic.

Terminology – Mesolithic or Epipaleolithic?[edit]

Mesolithic microliths

The term "Mesolithic" is in competition with another term, "Epipaleolithic", which means the "final Upper Paleolithic industries occurring at the end of the final glaciation which appear to merge technologically into the Mesolithic".[3]

In the archaeology of Northern Europe, for example for archaeological sites in Great Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, Ukraine, and Russia, the term "Mesolithic" is almost always used; in the archaeology of other areas, the term "Epipaleolithic" may be preferred by most authors, or there may be divergences between authors over which term to use or what meaning to assign to each. In the New World, neither term is used (except provisionally in the Arctic).

  • Some authors use the term "Epipaleolithic" for those cultures that are late developments of hunter-gatherer traditions but not in transition toward agriculture, reserving the term "Mesolithic" for those cultures, like the Natufian culture, that are transitional between hunter-gatherer and agricultural practices. But the Natufian is very often classified as Epipaleolithic.
  • Other authors use the term Mesolithic for a variety of Late Paleolithic cultures subsequent to the end of the last glacial period whether they are transitional towards agriculture or not.

History of the concept[edit]

The three -lithics are subdivisions of the Stone Age in the three-age system developed since classical times and given a modern archaeological meaning by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, a Danish archaeologist, in the early 19th century. Subdivisions of "earlier" and "later" were added to the Stone Age by Thomsen and especially his junior colleague and employee Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae. John Lubbock kept these divisions in his work Pre-historic Times in 1865 and introduced the terms Paleolithic ("Old Stone Age") and Neolithic ("New Stone Age") for them. He saw no need for an intermediate category.

When Hodder Westropp introduced the Mesolithic in 1866, as a technology intermediate between Paleolithic and Neolithic, a storm of controversy immediately arose around it. A British school led by John Evans denied any need for an intermediate, the ages blended together like the colors of a rainbow, he said. A European school led by Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet asserted that there was a gap between the earlier and later. Edouard Piette claimed to have filled the gap with his discovery of the Azilian Culture. Knut Stjerna offered an alternative in the Epipaleolithic, a continuation of the use of Paleolithic technology. By the time of Vere Gordon Childe's work, The Dawn of Europe (1947), which affirms the Mesolithic, sufficient data had been collected to determine that the Mesolithic was in fact necessary and was indeed a transition and intermediary between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic.[4]


The start and end dates of the Mesolithic vary by geographical region. Childe's view prevails that the term generally covers the period between the end of the Paleolithic and the start of the Neolithic, the times of these events vary greatly; moreover, the various Mesolithics within the span might be as short as roughly a thousand years or as long as roughly 15,000 years depending on the circumstances. If the Mesolithic is more similar to the Paleolithic it is called the Epipaleolithic.

The Paleolithic was an age of purely hunting and gathering while in the Neolithic domestication of plants and animals had occurred, some Mesolithic peoples continued with intensive hunting. Others were practising the initial stages of domestication (see Khiamian).

The type of stone toolkit remains one of the most diagnostic features: the Mesolithic used a microlithic technology - composite devices manufactured with Mode V chipped stone tools (microliths), while the Paleolithic had utilized Modes I–IV. In some areas, however, such as Ireland, parts of Portugal, the Isle of Man and the Tyrrhenian Islands, a macrolithic technology was used in the Mesolithic;[5] in the Neolithic, the microlithic technology was replaced by a macrolithic technology, with an increased use of polished stone tools such as stone axes.

The Levant[edit]

Mesolithic 1[edit]

The first period, known as Mesolithic 1 (Kebarian culture; from 20,000–18,000 BCE until 12,150 BCE), followed the Aurignacian or Levantine Upper Paleolithic periods throughout the Levant. By the end of the Aurignacian, gradual changes took place in stone industries. Small stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets can be found for the first time, the microliths of this culture period differ greatly from the Aurignacian artifacts. This period is more properly called Epipaleolithic.

By 20,000–18,000 BCE the climate and environment had changed, starting a period of transition. The Levant became more arid and the forest vegetation retreated, to be replaced by steppe, the cool and dry period ended at the beginning of Mesolithic 1. The hunter-gatherers of the Aurignacian would have had to modify their way of living and their pattern of settlement to adapt to the changing conditions, the crystallization of these new patterns resulted in Mesolithic 1. New types of settlements and new stone industries developed.

The inhabitants of a small Mesolithic 1 site in the Levant left little more than their chipped stone tools behind, the industry was of small tools made of bladelets struck off single-platform cores. Besides bladelets, burins and end-scrapers were found. A few bone tools and some ground stone have also been found, these so-called Mesolithic sites of Asia are far less numerous than those of the Neolithic and the archeological remains are very poor.

Mesolithic 2[edit]

The second period, Mesolithic 2, is also called the Natufian culture, the change from Mesolithic 1 to Natufian culture can be dated more closely. The latest date from a Mesolithic 1 site in the Levant is 12,150 BCE. The earliest date from a Natufian site is 11,140 BCE.[citation needed] This period is characterized by the early rise of agriculture that would later emerge into the Neolithic period. Radiocarbon dating places the Natufian culture between 12,500 and 9500 BCE, just before the end of the Pleistocene.[6] This period is characterised by the beginning of agriculture,[7] the earliest known battle occurred during the Mesolithic period at a site in Sudan known as Cemetery 117.

Natufian culture is commonly split into two subperiods: Early Natufian (12,500–10,800 BCE) (Christopher Delage gives c. 13,000–11,500 BP uncalibrated, equivalent to c. 13,700–11,500 BCE)[8] and Late Natufian (10,800–9500 BCE). The Late Natufian most likely occurred in tandem with the Younger Dryas, the following period is often called the Pre-Pottery Neolithic; in the Levant, unlike elsewhere, "Mesolithic pottery" is not talked of.


Two skeletons of women aged between 25 and 35 years, dated between 6740 and 5680 BP, both of whom died a violent death. Found at Téviec, France in 1938.

The Mesolithic began with the Holocene warm period around 11,660 BP and ended with the introduction of farming, the date of which varied in each geographical region. Regions that experienced greater environmental effects as the last glacial period ended have a much more apparent Mesolithic era, lasting millennia;[9] in northern Europe, for example, societies were able to live well on rich food supplies from the marshlands created by the warmer climate. Such conditions produced distinctive human behaviors that are preserved in the material record, such as the Maglemosian and Azilian cultures, such conditions also delayed the coming of the Neolithic until as late as 5000–4000 BCE in northern Europe.

There is some evidence for the beginning of construction at sites with a ritual or astronomical significance, including Stonehenge, with a short row of large post holes aligned east-west, and a possible "lunar calendar" at Warren Field in Scotland, with pits of post holes of varying sizes, thought to reflect the lunar phases. Both are dated to around 8,000 BCE.[10]

As the "Neolithic package" (including farming, herding, polished stone axes, timber longhouses and pottery) spread into Europe, the Mesolithic way of life was marginalized and eventually disappeared. Mesolithic adaptations such as sedentism, population size and use of plant foods are cited as evidence of the transition to agriculture;[11] in one sample from the Blätterhöhle in Hagen, it seems that the descendants of Mesolithic people maintained a foraging lifestyle for more than 2000 years after the arrival of farming societies in the area;[12] such societies may be called "Subneolithic". In north-Eastern Europe, the hunting and fishing lifestyle continued into the Medieval period in regions less suited to agriculture.

Ceramic Mesolithic[edit]

In North-Eastern Europe, Siberia, and certain southern European and North African sites, a "ceramic Mesolithic" can be distinguished between 7000-3850 BCE. Russian archaeologists prefer to describe such pottery-making cultures as Neolithic, even though farming is absent, this pottery-making Mesolithic culture can be found peripheral to the sedentary Neolithic cultures. It created a distinctive type of pottery, with point or knob base and flared rims, manufactured by methods not used by the Neolithic farmers. Though each area of Mesolithic ceramic developed an individual style, common features suggest a single point of origin.[13][citation needed] The earliest manifestation of this type of pottery may be in the region around Lake Baikal in Siberia, it appears in the Elshan or Yelshanka or Samara culture on the Volga in Russia c. 7000 BCE,[14][15] and from there spread via the Dnieper-Donets culture to the Narva culture of the Eastern Baltic. Spreading westward along the coastline it is found in the Ertebølle culture of Denmark and Ellerbek of Northern Germany, and the related Swifterbant culture of the Low Countries.[16]


Mesolithic cultures[edit]

Periodization: The Levant: 20,000 to 9500 BCE; Europe: 9660 to 5000 BCE; Elsewhere: 10,000 to 400 BCE

Some notable Mesolithic cultures:

Name Geographical range
Azilian culture Western Europe
Balkan mesolithic cultures Southeastern Europe
Capsian culture Tunisia and Algeria
Fosna-Hensbacka culture Norway
Harifian culture Israel
Kebaran culture Levant
Jōmon cultures Japan
Jeulmun culture Korea
Komsa culture Norway
Kongemose culture Scandinavia
Kunda culture Baltics and Russia
Iron Gates culture Romania/Serbia
Maglemosian culture Northern Europe
Natufian culture Levant
Neman culture, Belarus Lithuania and Poland
Nøstvet and Lihult cultures Scandinavia
Sauveterrian culture Western and Central Europe
Tardenoisian culture Belgium and France
Zarzian culture Southwest Asia
Iberomaurusian culture Morocco

List of Mesolithic sites[edit]

Some notable Mesolithic sites:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zhang, Chi, The Mesolithic and the Neolithic in China (PDF), 1999, Documenta Praehistorica. Poročilo o raziskovanju paleolitika, neolotika in eneolitika v Sloveniji. Neolitske študije = Neolithic studies, [Zv.] 26 (1999), pp. 1-13 dLib
  2. ^ Sailendra Nath Sen, Ancient Indian History and Civilization, p. 23, 1999, New Age International, ISBN 8122411983, 9788122411980
  3. ^ Bahn, Paul, ed. (2002). The Penguin archaeology guide. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-051448-1. 
  4. ^ Linder, F. (1997). Social differentiering i mesolitiska jägar-samlarsamhällen. Uppsala.: Institutionen för arkeologi och antik historia, Uppsala universitet. 
  5. ^ Driscoll, Killian (2006). The early prehistory in the west of Ireland: Investigations into the social archaeology of the Mesolithic, west of the Shannon, Ireland. 
  6. ^ Munro, Natalie D. (2003). "Small game, the Younger Dryas, and the transition to agriculture in the southern Levant" (PDF). Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte. 12: 47–71. 
  7. ^ Bar-Yosef, Ofer (1998). "The Natufian Culture in the Levant, Threshold to the Origins of Agriculture" (PDF). Evolutionary Anthropology. 6 (5): 159–177. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1998)6:5<159::AID-EVAN4>3.0.CO;2-7. 
  8. ^ Delage, Christophe, ed. (2004). The last hunter-gatherers in the Near East. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports 1320. ISBN 978-1-84171-389-2. 
  9. ^ Conneller, Chantal; Bayliss, Alex; Milner, Nicky; Taylor, Barry (2016). "The Resettlement of the British Landscape: Towards a chronology of Early Mesolithic lithic assemblage types". Internet Archaeology. 42. doi:10.11141/ia.42.12. 
  10. ^ V. Gaffney; et al. "Time and a Place: A luni-solar 'time-reckoner' from 8th millennium BC Scotland". Internet Archaeology. Retrieved 16 July 2013. 
  11. ^ Price, Douglas, ed. (2000). Europe's first farmers. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0521665728. 
  12. ^ Bollongino, R.; Nehlich, O.; Richards, M. P.; Orschiedt, J.; Thomas, M. G.; Sell, C.; Fajkosova, Z.; Powell, A.; Burger, J. (2013). "2000 Years of Parallel Societies in Stone Age Central Europe" (PDF). Science. 342 (6157): 479–481. doi:10.1126/science.1245049. 
  13. ^ De Roevers, p.162-163
  14. ^ Anthony, D.W. (2007). "Pontic-Caspian Mesolithic and Early Neolithic societies at the time of the Black Sea Flood: a small audience and small effects". In Yanko-Hombach, V.; Gilbert, A.A.; Panin, N.; Dolukhanov, P. M. The Black Sea Flood Question: changes in coastline, climate and human settlement. pp. 245–370. ISBN 978-9402404654. 
  15. ^ Anthony, David W. (2010). The horse, the wheel, and language : how Bronze-Age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691148182. 
  16. ^ Gronenborn, Detlef (2007). "Beyond the models: Neolithisation in Central Europe". Proceedings of the British Academy. 144: 73–98. 
  17. ^ Detlef Gronenborn, Beyond the models: Neolithisation in Central Europe, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 144 (2007), pp. 73-98 (87).

Further reading[edit]

  • Dragoslav Srejovic Europe's First Monumental Sculpture: New Discoveries at Lepenski Vir. (1972) ISBN 0-500-39009-6

External links[edit]