Substantial Settlement in the European Early Mesolithic: New Research at Star Carr

Article excerpt



The pioneer settlers who reoccupied northern Europe towards the end of the Younger Dryas cold event and the start of the Holocene are considered to have lived in small, dispersed groups and to have been highly mobile. We report here new results from the excavations at the site of Star Carr, England, dating to about 9000 cal BC, which show it be over 80 times larger than the small, ephemeral sites considered typical of the period. A large platform, or platforms, comprised of worked timbers is a unique feature for this date and covers at least 30m of lake edge. A post-built hut structure with signs of long-lasting or repeated occupation has also been found.

We make the case that pioneer groups here invested significant amounts of time and labour in building structures in favoured landscape settings--behaviour that in northern and western Europe is more typically associated with changes in socio-economic organisation several thousand years later.

The Pleistocene/Holocene transition in north-west Europe

During much of the Younger Dryas cold event (c. 10 900-9600 cal BC), northern Europe was held in the grip of tundra or park tundra conditions (Usinger 2004). There is considerable debate over the northerly extent of human occupation during this period but it is likely that most of northern Europe (e.g. Scandinavia, northern Germany, northern France, Britain and possibly Belgium) was abandoned and remained largely uninhabited apart from incursions by the occasional hunting party (Terberger 2004; Cromb4 et al. 2011). The Younger Dryas ended abruptly with rapid climatic warming at about 9600 cal BC and was followed by the Preboreal, when open woodlands of birch and pine gradually colonised northern Europe.

The later part of the Younger Dryas and the beginning of the Preboreal marked the recolonisation of northern Europe by Final Palaeolithic (Ahrensburgian and epi-Ahrensburgian) and Early Mesolithic groups. The groups who migrated into these empty landscapes are considered to have been small in size and highly mobile, 'pioneer' rather than 'residential' communities (Housley et al. 1997). For example, in Sandy Flanders, Belgium, 25 years of intensive survey revealed that Early Mesolithic sites are numerous but tend to be small in size (<20/25[m.sup.2]) and as a result are thought to represent highly mobile groups of relatively small size (several families) (Crombe et al. 2011). Further north, in Norway, colonising groups generated small sites that were only occupied briefly. Here colonisation of the entire coast of Norway appears to have taken place over a few hundred years, commencing at c. 9800 cal BC. This evidence has been seen to indicate small groups of marine adapted hunter-gatherers who spent most of their time in boats (Bjerk 2009). Similar sites in eastern Middle Sweden have also been viewed as the product of highly mobile people with a developed boat culture (Wikell et al. 2009).

Similar points have been made on the basis of research in central Europe (an area not abandoned during the Younger Dryas). Here evidence for small Early Mesolithic sites and high mobility contrasts with Late Palaeolithic sites, which tend to be larger and produce dense concentrations of artefacts (Jochim 1998, 2006; Fischer 2006; Tolksdorf et al. 2009). This has led Gramsch (2004: 197) to suggest a gradual immigration of new hunter-gatherer groups made up of a small number of families.

The explanation for high levels of mobility and small group size in inland areas tends to be attributed to the emergence of forested environments over the course of the Preboreal and the nature of associated faunal species such as elk, aurochs, red and roe deer. In woodland environments these animals are either relatively solitary or live in small, dispersed groups which consequently may have led to people moving continuously through the landscape in search of prey (Fischer 2006; Crombe et al. …