Woodland Clearance in the Mesolithic: The Social Aspects

By Davies, Paul; Robb, John G. et al. | Antiquity, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Woodland Clearance in the Mesolithic: The Social Aspects


Davies, Paul, Robb, John G., Ladbrook, Dave, Antiquity


Introduction--clearings and food procurement

Since the pioneering work of Smith (1970) it has been increasingly recognised that Mesolithic populations had an impact upon their surroundings. In the UK most of the evidence is palaeoecological, in particular via pollen and charcoal (e.g. Simmons 1975, Simmons 1999), snails (e.g. Preece 1980; Preece et al. 1986; Davies & Griffiths 2005) and fungal spores (Innes & Blackford 2003). Most convincing are the fine resolution pollen analyses (FRPA) of Simmons and Innes (1996). At the present time, the evidence is sufficient to suggest that there were woodland clearances during the Mesolithic period, and many authors invoke direct human causation (anthropogenic clearance) although it is often also acknowledged that natural processes (e.g. lightning strike, storms) are also possible causal agents (naturalistic clearance). Brown (1997) has recently convincingly demonstrated that such natural openings would leave an identical signal in the palaeoecological record as humanly created gaps. It has also recently become apparent that such clearances are not restricted to the uplands (see Fyfe et al. 2003; Davies & Griffiths 2005, and also Preece et al. 1986 for an Irish example). This has weakened previous arguments for an anthropogenic cause, based upon consistent upland settings, more or less on the tree-line where woodlands were perhaps thinner and more easily manipulated by human populations.

Nevertheless, however clearings were created, it is also generally accepted that they were utilised by Mesolithic populations for food procurement. Whether there was deliberate manipulation (i.e. management) and removal of tree cover through fire clearance, girdling or coppicing to encourage browse that in turn attracts game animals (e.g. Simmons 1975, 1999; Caseldine & Hatton 1993), or opportunistic hunting use afforded by naturally created clearings (e.g. Brown 1997) is, therefore, in some senses irrelevant. The implication, in both cases, is that clearings had an economic use; they were places used for food procurement, usually as part of an annual round (see Mellars 1976; 1978). Even where the browse-attraction model has been questioned, such argument has focused on the benefits of clearance for encouraging plant food resources rather than animal ones (e.g. Mason 2000). Rarely is there mention, let alone serious and lengthy discussion, that such clearances may have been made or used for other reasons, Evans (1999) being a notable exception.

Just as Brown (1997) was right to question whether the emphasis upon deliberately created clearances was right, so it is legitimate to consider why there is so much emphasis upon a resource procurement function for such clearances. It is widely recognised that there is only circumstantial archaeological evidence, in that some locations where clearances have been demonstrated in the palaeoecological record have also yielded artefacts of a similar date. Notwithstanding the fact that the two sets of data are never securely integrated in time, and also often vary considerably in their spatial proximity, it is also the case that artefactual evidence for butchery near or within such clearances is generally lacking. Such is the paucity of data that Simmons (1999: 214) was forced to suggest that cleared areas were 'not necessarily the same spots used for sleeping, tool repair and food processing'. Such activities, it is argued, would scare any game one wished to attract anyway. Quite apart from the fact that once a major kill had been made there would be little point in remaining 'hidden', at least for the immediate future, this argument leaves open the possibility that food procurement strategies within and around clearances can be inferred whether or not there are any supporting archaeological data. This seems far from ideal, if not tautological. We must go back to the basis of the evidence for clearings--the palaeoecological record- and admit that even though such clearances seem certainly to have occurred, the record is neutral with respect to origin, meaning or intention. …

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