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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?