Understanding the Initial Colonization of Scotland

By Finlayson, Bill | Antiquity, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Initial Colonization of Scotland


Finlayson, Bill, Antiquity


Introduction

Scotland was substantially ice free by 13000 BP and by around 12,500 BP temperatures were probably similar to those of the present time. The subsequent Loch Lomond stadial glaciation did not entirely cover the country and left most eastern and southern parts still free from ice. Much of Scotland was therefore available for colonisation from 13,000 BP onwards, with reindeer herds providing a possible reason for human immigration. The earliest radiocarbon dates for the occupation of Scotland are 9000-8500 BP; they come from excavations on the island of Rum off the west coast (Wickham-Jones 1990), from Daer in Clydesdale (SAN 1998) and from Fife Ness in Fife (Wickham-Jones & Dalland 1998). There is therefore a 4000-year gap between deglaciation and the first dated site.

Evidence exists that may point to earlier occupation, but it is very fragmentary (Wickham-Jones & Woodman 1998). The tendency in recent years has been to assume that there was an earlier occupation, but that we have so far failed to detect it, either because we have been searching in the wrong places, or because the evidence is not recognizable among later quantitatively diagnostic material. In the absence of hard data, the hypothesis of occupation before 9000 BP is based on a number of arguments, including (tenuous) environmental and artefactual evidence, and our understanding of human behaviour.

The continuing and noteworthy scarcity of evidence presents us with an interesting challenge, far more interesting than a quest for the date for the arrival of the earliest person in Scotland. Some scholars such as Rowley-Conwy (1997) now propose that the complex hunter-gatherer societies they have identified in the late Mesolithic may have developed earlier, but that evidence for such early societies is undiscovered because of coastal inundation. Indeed, Coles has suggested that Doggerland, the land between southern Britain and Denmark, may have been the focus for population in the early Mesolithic (Coles 1999). To assess such a proposition it is important to determine what is happening around 9000 BP. Contra Rowley-Conwy, was there an increase in European Mesolithic populations? In southern Scandinavia did it cause an economic intensification, and in Britain did it lead to an increase in the range and density of occupation, followed by an intensification that produced the marine-dominated economy visible in the Obanian shell midden sites? Is it possible that this intensification is a result, not so much of an overall population increase, as of the cumulative increase in local population densities associated with sea-level rise?

Bjerck, looking at the colonization of the Norwegian coast, has raised three important points that appear relevant to the colonization of Scotland (Bjerck 1995):

1 The Norwegian coast was not occupied as soon as it became available, but when colonization occurred it appears to have been relatively rapid. This appears to be similar to the situation in Scotland.

2 What appears with hindsight to be a rich coastal environment may not have appeared as such to people who had not developed the specialized skills and kit for exploiting an arctic marine economy. The marine aspects of the Scottish Mesolithic economy are clear. While perhaps not requiring such an extreme specialized adaptation as they would in the Arctic, they would certainly have required some elements similar to those needed in Norway, not the least of which would have been seaworthy boats and a good knowledge and understanding of local weather, wind, waves and coastlines. Once these essentials are grasped, then colonization of these areas could proceed rapidly as the environmental wealth could be exploited.

3 Perhaps the most important point is the issue of motivation. Colonization is not just a matter of available land, especially where economic adaptations may be required. The motivation may be visible in terms of increasing population density, but we should be wary of assuming a simplistic cause and effect process here. …

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