Saturday Profile: Mesolithic Man - Stone Age man had the time of his life

ten years ago we would have thought that this man was the type who, on finding his mother dead one morning, might roll her body into a shallow trench before heading off, grunting, to catch his lunch, or perhaps drag a woman by the hair back to his cave.

Not so. This week it was revealed that Stone Age humans living at Carrowmore, County Sligo in Ireland about 7,400 years ago built the earliest tombs yet identified in Western Europe.

A tomb is a significant thing: it indicates respect for the dead (which to any other animal is just new meat) and that you are prepared to take time building and preparing a special place for them. The Carrowmore find includes the bones of up to 50 cremated people lying in a free-standing stone building at the centre of three concentric stone circles, each stone carefully chosen for size. This was no lean-to; it was the fruit of real devotion.

Allied to that finding, in recent years we have discovered that so many of our other preconceptions about the people who lived in the Stone Age (more properly known as the Mesolithic era) were wrong. Grunting, male- dominated unsophisticates? Not at all. They had a spoken language perhaps as rich as ours, for their mental capacity was the same. They lived communal lives in which women had an important place. This was a population that had a balanced diet, and chewing gum (made from birch bark tar, and favoured by teenagers) to go with it. They had an enviable, healthy lifestyle that only required them to "work" (that is, hunt) two or three days a week, and where summer fashions could include a coat made from swans' skins.

They were about as tall as us; they lived almost as long (though more children would have died young). But they didn't have mobile phones, traffic jams, or impenetrably-wrapped sandwiches.

Yet while our pre-agricultural ancestors may have been technologically naive, they had a satisfactory life.

"The common misconception is that they were living on the edge of starvation, in small groups, wandering around from place to place," says Peter Rowley- Conwy, Reader in Archaeology at the University of Durham. "But we know from studies of sites and environmental conditions then that life was probably a good deal easier for most people, for the most part, than convention has it."

Following the end of the Ice Age and the retreat of the ice sheets from Britain and Ireland about 10,000 years ago, the weather was a degree or two warmer than now (a fact revealed by ice core samples from the Arctic), and the land was covered with fast-growing trees taking advantage of the rich soil. For a hunter-gatherer, food was plentiful: "There were five large animal species to hunt - elk, roe deer, red deer, wild boar and aurochs, the wild cattle," says Dr Rowley-Conwy. "That offered a reliable food supply because they won't all have a bad year at the same time. There were plants, fruits and berries as well. And there was always fishing, both in the sea and rivers."

Nor were they condemned to a peripatetic life. Instead, archaeologists have uncovered encampments, whose size varies from 25 to 50 inhabitants in the interior (where fishing would not provide a resource) to between 100 and 200 at the more fecund coastal regions. Rather than skulking in caves, they made buildings from branches covered with animal skins.

The period is called the "Mesolithic" for the flint tools - "liths" - uncovered in numerous digs around Europe. Making stone tools was a communal effort, in which even the children would take part, learning from adults how to make the implements they would later use to tip weapons, to grind and crush food such as berries, and skin animals.

That may seem ordinary. But what marks out Mesolithic humans is the respect that they paid to their dead.

The significance of burying your dead, and having a tomb, is hard to underestimate. "This is one field where archaeology has really changed our views in this century," says Dr Rowley-Conwy. "What we now realise is that hunter-gatherers had a very, very rich spiritual life. After all, their mental capacity was exactly the same as ours." (The unrelated Neanderthals, with a limited mental and linguistic capacity, had died out 20,000 years before.)

"Some excavations in Yorkshire have found skulls of deer with the antlers still intact, but with a couple of extra holes drilled into them," Dr Rowley-Conwy notes. "The thinking is that people, perhaps the shamans in the tribe, used to put them on in rituals of some sort."

Talk of rituals, and spiritual life, and Stonehenge of course comes to mind. Among its enduring mysteries is that of its location. "It is not next to the river, not the highest hill, not the deepest valley," says Andrew Lawson of Wessex Archaeology. But re-examination in 1996 of a circle of 20-foot pine stakes at the site, which were first discovered in 1966, could offer the answer. Carbon-dating suggests that the stakes were placed in 8,000BC - almost as soon as the islands were habitable. They would have looked just like totem poles and performed the same function - monuments to gods or chiefs, at a ritual site.

When first found, they were largely ignored by scientists, who reckoned Mesolithic people would not build such structures. Now, we know better. Mesolithic humans had the time and the intelligence, and - most important - the religious imperative. When you consider the building projects, sometimes lasting decades, that their descendants undertook to site cathedrals all over Europe, the greater surprise is that anyone doubted that Stone Age peoples could put up such lasting monuments.

It was in some ways the endless summer: communal property, no capitalism (for there was little need to trade) and only the occasional territorial skirmish with other tribes for hunting rights to a forest or river. Women had an important role, reckons Dr Christopher Meiklejon of the department of anthropology at Winnipeg University. "Women had a political power in these societies," he notes. After all, the females were the ones who kept the tribes alive, though there are no surviving details to say whether polygamy or polyandry (multiple husbands) were practised. (Both are found in primitive tribes today.) "There is evidence to suggest that women lost most of their political power, and for them thing got worse, with the arrival of agriculture." This phase lasted for about 2,000 years.

Farming began in the Middle East and gradually spread, displacing or incorporating hunter-gatherers. Agriculture can support more people per square mile, and is an entirely settled lifestyle.

Yet men as well as women suffered by the arrival of agriculture. "Farming presents a worse-quality diet, because you're only eating a couple of basic crops," says Dr Rowley-Conwy. "And it has a worse effect on your teeth because you're grinding down wheat, which will have stones in it, rather than tearing meat. Hunter-gatherer skeletons have better teeth and are taller." The average early farmer was only about 5' 3" tall - the result of undernourishment, not genes.

New diseases also arrived, from viruses carried by animals that were being domesticated. Among those was smallpox, which was only eradicated in the past decade.

Indeed, there are many signs that the hunter-gatherers regarded the incoming farmers with all the affection of Millwall fans encountering their Chelsea counterparts after a bad loss. Some later farmers' settlements were fortified, but it's hard to say whether there was outright war; more that the farmers came, saw and their method conquered. Some groups appear to have traded (bartering furs and tools for food) while others seem to have preserved antipathy.

Eventually it was a cooling of the climate which meant that the hunter- gatherer life (if not the people) was gradually displaced, over about 1,000 years, away from the interior towards the coastlines where ready food was more plentiful. And then it finally died out, leaving us with our world today.

Even so, when we look at Mesolithic man or woman, we see ourselves. Their DNA is the same (so much so that a 9,000-year-old skeleton from the Cheddar Gorge shows a direct line of maternal descent to a teacher living there). All that has changed is our environs. We, like they, have temples and tombs, and tribes and affiliations. If we are increasingly coming to respect Stone Age man, it is perhaps because we are recognising that in many ways, he knew the good life. Can we say the same today?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future