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What were the main differences between Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies

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The departure of ice sheets from the British Isles in circa 18,000 B. P. led to reoccupation in about c. 12,500 B. P. At this time, the climate was harsh, terrain baron, food scarce and survival difficult. To occupy such a disagreeable place, the glacial hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic were hardened nomads who followed food supplies. Their main food sources were fish, elk, deer and mammoths. They probably seasonally migrated back and forth to continental Europe. Beginning around 8,000 B. C. however, the climate began to warm up and sea levels rose separating Britain from Europe stopping the seasonal migration.

This climate change led to a change in food and plant life being more diverse and plentiful. As a result, life during the Mesolithic was considerably more comfortable than during the Upper Palaeolithic. Mesolithic society changed as a result and the differences in the two periods’ societies will be explored in this essay. Upper Palaeolithic Britain was resembled the tundra of Northern Canada today. The flora was sparse consisting of inedible ferns and pine and boreal trees towards the end of the era and these were of little value for woodworking.

The fauna would have been fierce to cope with such living conditions and animals such as mammoths would clearly pose a challenge to even the most proficient hunting society. These people constantly moved and usually inhabited caves. Places that naturally have little flint sources have been host to discoveries of flint tools suggesting the Upper Paleolithic people were highly mobile. An example of this is Kent’s Cavern in Devon where flint was sourced from the Salisbury Plain 100 miles east and it has been posited that groups also travelled to meet and trade goods and perhaps sent out dedicated expeditions to acquire flint.

Creswell Crags is a series of caves in a gorge inhabited during the Upper Palaeolithic in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Artefacts recovered from this site and recently discovered cave art show a degree of sophistication of Upper Palaeolithic society. Decorative finds include a bone engraved with a horse picture, mammoth ivory pin’s with etched lines as well as many well made flint butchery tools and weapons come from this site. (Dawkins and Mello, 1879) Creswell Crags is considered an important Palaeolithic site as it was previously thought no cave art from this time existed in Britain. Pike, Gilmour and Pettitt, 2005, pp. 49-50) A wealth of flint tools and few cut marks on animal bones show butchery was conducted with great skill here. Animal hides were likely to have been removed for clothing and tent covers. Despite evidence of a hunting and butchery proficient society, and the special cave art, Creswell Crags shows us the Upper Palaeolithic society was rudimentary. Overall, the Upper Palaeolithic seems an inhospitable time. The inhabitants of Britain endured these very unfortunate conditions they had to live with.

With very low temperatures in winter and diminutive food sources, they are commendable to be able to survive at all let alone tackle immense mammoths and have the culture they did. Though, evidence for dire times has been recovered from Upper Palaeolithic Gough’s Cave in Somerset, where human bones with post-mortem scratch marks indicate cannibalism. Luckily for humans, the succeeding period in prehistory was not as dismal by far. Evidence from the pollen record shows the Mesolithic period saw Britain gradually gain a more stable environment and became warmer overall, bringing a wide array of new fauna and lush flora resources from roughly c 8. ,000 B. C. after the final retreat of the ice sheets. Britain was divided from the rest of Europe in about c. 6,500 B. C. therefore, ending the seasonal migration practised by the former Palaeolithic inhabitants. From c. 3,000 B. C. the flora became essentially the same deciduous trees that Britain has today with, oak and elm being dominant. These trees are of much better quality for woodworking than the pine trees of the Upper Palaeolithic and as a result, woodland clearance appears to be the purpose for most Mesolithic flint tools whereas Upper Palaeolithic tools were primarily for butchery.

This extensive change of environment is key to the difference between Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies. Subsequent to the Upper Palaeolithic, “British pre-history” now encompasses a larger land mass as Scotland emerges from ice and people had travelled to Ireland. Mesolithic people had evolved to a greater extent and “were physically identical to us in every respect”. (Pryor, 2003, p. 79) In contrast to Britain’s Upper Palaeolithic inhabitants, people now had a more plentiful and diverse range of resources to utilise, for example; plentiful high quality trees provided timber for fuel, shelter and tools.

Their living overall environment became more favourable as the temperatures rose. Life for Britain’s inhabitants had become more comfortable and a rather different and perhaps more advanced society to that of the Upper Palaeolithic ensued. Hunter-gathers exploited the new improved climate, developing improved hunting, fishing and gathering strategies. Christopher Smith’s Late Stone Age Hunters of the British Isles concludes that Mesolithic people adapted to live in a certain suitable environment instead of living in multiple ones like the Upper Palaeolithic people did.

That is to say that Mesolithic people settled suitable places and adapted to live in them. Mesolithic social organisation altered from that of the Palaeolithic’s in addition. The norm now was there would be a main settlement of which hunting parties would move out to smaller satellite camps to obtain food for the main settlement, which was usually conveniently located near a lake of river. People probably gathered plant food to compliment their predominately meat composed diets. The Mesolithic population grew and settlements became more permanent, far removed from the Palaeolithic’s nomadic existence of pursuing food sources.

Whilst considerably before the Neolithic’s Agricultural Revolution, there is definite evidence Mesolithic people initiated basic crop growing, experimenting with different edible plant species to safeguard their productivity. Farming was unavailable during the Upper Palaeolithic as they would not have been able to manipulate the land effectively due to two reasons; their adverse climate, resulting in poor soil quality and their constant relocation meant not tending to a specific plot of land.

As a result of a more diverse and plentiful diet of vegetables and meat, the Mesolithic inhabitants of Britain’s life expectancy probably increased compared to Upper Palaeolithic. Mesolithic people increased usage of microlith tools, often mounted on bone or wood, helping the Mesolithic people use the new animal and plant resources available. Although essentially similar in design, these tools appear overall better made than the Palaeolithic’s and recovered Palaeolithic flint tools were primarily for butchery whilst Mesolithic flint tools were for tree felling and woodwork.

Mesolithic tools are often and use of antler with barbs in them. With these definite changes, some similarity did exist between the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies. Perhaps the foremost is burial practises and rituals, being essentially indistinguishable. Britain’s inhabitants from both periods practised the excarnation process and placed human remains on large collective piles. These communal burials were routine until the Bronze Age.

Another similarity between the two periods is although Mesolithic people did indeed migrate more infrequently than Upper Palaeolithic people, they did overall remain nomadic hunter-gathers, just to a much lesser extent. Starr Carr, a hunting camp that was located at the edge of ancient Lake Pickering, North Yorkshire provides archaeologists with a wealth of information as this site was as a microcosm of Mesolithic life. Excavated by Grahame Clark, the site was occupied from c. 7,500 B. C. and consists of a main settlement set back from the shoreline with multiple outer lying smaller camps.

During the Mesolithic, this area was not too dissimilar to the Norfolk Fens today (wet lands). The site included an elevated birch planked deck, originally situated on the edge of the lake. This pier-like structure was presumably for fishing however fish bones were not recovered from Star Carr. Smith suggested out this is probably because of acid in the peat that was strong enough to disintegrate fish but not mammal bones whilst Pryor thinks the until recently frozen North Sea had not been colonised by fish yet. (Pryor, 2003, p. 85) The peat enabled artefacts to be well preserved.

Archaeological finds here include around 17,000 flint artefacts, animal bones, stone and amber beads, and, crucially, a wooden paddle (indicating boating, maybe for fishing and/or travelling), 21 ornate antler headdresses and remains of canis familiaris (a dog). The headdresses are deer skull with antlers mounted on it to make a person resemble a deer. Smith argued they were for disguise whilst hunting but Clark said they were of shamanistic usage. Artefacts recovered from Star Carr show the occupiers were proficient hunters, fishers (disputed), boatmen and had a ritualistic culture. (Scarre, 2001, pp. 5-86) The site was revisited by a small group of hunters each year because animals such as deer and boar drank from the lake in addition to being a water source for drinking washing and so forth, making it an expedient place to live. (Scarre, 2005, pp. 396-397) The remains of a dog recovered from the site led Danish zoologist Magnus Degerbol to argue for the domestication of dogs, presumably for hunting and an alarm system, in his article in The Prehistoric Society, Volume 27 page 35. The implications of Mesolithic hunting dogs are significant and imply vastly superior hunting techniques and society compared to the Upper Palaeolithic’s.

However, the occurrence of dog domestication at Star Carr has not been proven (it may have been wild and its proximity to the site coincidence) and the history of dog domestication is a debated topic among archaeologists. Tim Schaller-Hall believes the site was one of primarily religious usage. (Pryor, 2003, p. 90) Much like the deposition of metalwork in watery places of the Bronze Age from a wooden planked deck, Schaller-Hall argues Star Carr was where and animal bones were deposited here in a ritualistic manner and that the site was a meeting place for feasting probably between multiple tribes.

Evidence to support this claim is the fact that many tools recovered from Star Carr had not been used and it is unlikely that items that take much effect to make would be misplaced. However, this theory; that Star Carr was not a hunting camp, but was a religious and social event place, is not the orthodox one. Despite being an elusive and ambiguous site, Star Carr does prove that people started to settle down, to an extent; in one place and indicates a sophisticated society with its extraordinary headdresses, network of satellite camps and possibility of dog domestication and shamanistic activity.

Another prominent Mesolithic site is Thatcham in Berkshire where evidence for a Mesolithic village consisting of light temporary tent-like structures has been discovered surrounded by remains dating to about 8000 B. C. (Thatcham through the ages, 2007) According to Britain B. C. by Francis Pryor, page 92, “Thatcham was clearly a place where people settled repeatedly” due to “distinct concentrations of flint and other debris” and flints show signs of being worked more than once. Thatcham has yielded a wide range of materials including burnt rocks and charcoal deposits indicate fire and in turn; domestic cooking.

Thatcham was inhabited by more than one family and was revisited seasonally and for extended periods in the same way that Star Carr was. The pollen record shows the site was located in birch woodland and was near a lake. In roughly 7,500 B. C. the site was flooded and covered with layers of peat preserving many artefacts well. A further model of a Mesolithic life is the site of Mount Sadle, County Antrim, radiocarbon dated to about 6,500 B. C. Again located in close proximity to water, this site is notable due to it containing evidence for Britain’s oldest domestic dwellings.

Two distinct styles have been identified. Simple tent like structures, that somewhat resembled the Native American tipi with external hearths and the other style are large circular huts consisting of stakes placed into the ground making the building’s frame which was covered in hides, these buildings usually had internal hearths. The latter building was quite complex for its time and shows that Mesolithic people put more care into their living places as they were more permanent compared with the crude makeshift, often cave habitation of the Upper Palaeolithic.

Although there is some evidence of social and cultural continuity between the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic such as both were nomadic and identical burial practises, the latter period was undoubtedly more developed and different socially, culturally and technologically than the former. Essentially, the change in climate led to change in flora and fauna, then consequently, hunting, living methods and tools. Star Carr, Thatcham and Mount Sadle provide us with a deep understanding of Mesolithic society and enable a comparison with the Upper Palaeolithic.

Society during the Upper Palaeolithic consisted of entirely nomadic hunter-gathering and inhabiting where they could, often caves. On the contrary, Mesolithic society became easier and quality of life better due to an agreeable climate. This brought about more static living and care about where they inhabited like locating a decent place to live semi-permanently and the quality of housing exemplified by Mount Sadle. Perhaps unfair to describe the Upper Palaeolithic as uncultured, (Creswell Crags’ cave art and decorative items) the Mesolithic appears more developed culturally.

For example, the extraordinary headgear discovered at Star Carr indicates ritualistic culture and/or wise hunting methods by disguise and not forgetting Schalla-Hall’s belief that Star Carr was a wholly religious site. The possibility of dog domestication, presumably for hunting would show further advancement. Mesolithic tools and decorative items like Star Carr’s amber beads usually surpass the quality than the Upper Palaeolithic’s.

Typified by Star Carr, Mesolithic society altered its hunting strategies becoming more efficient at gathering food than the Upper Palaeolithic in that more permanent settlements became commonplace in areas of food resource interest, differing greatly to the wholly nomadic Upper Palaeolithic inhabitants of Britain whom entire tribes constantly had to move from cave to cave in search of herds of deer, for example. The Mesolithic’s initiation of farming served as a pre-requisite to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution as the social norm of static living necessary for farming first came about during the Mesolithic period.

The foremost reason for this change in society is due to Britain being isolated from continental Europe, thus, migration to the continent was not possible and improvement in climate. In short, there is a definite and clear transition between the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods instigating numerous social changes. Paramount of these is the far less relocation of and increased quality of settlements, after that; new hunting strategies. All said changes were a direct result of, or at least party influenced by the Mesolithic’s warmer climate.

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