Peau Noire, Masques Blancs: Self-Image in the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in Scotland

By Murray, Jane | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Peau Noire, Masques Blancs: Self-Image in the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in Scotland


Murray, Jane, Antiquity


Approaches to the British Mesolithic-Neolithic transition currently focus on the role of the native Mesolithic, offering opportunities to explore processes of internal social and economic transformation rather than those of migration and colonization (Dennell 1985; Thomas 1991; cf. Case 1969). Interpretations range from theses of evolutionary adaptation based on systems theory to versions of a structuralist Marxist dialectic, invoking revolution. Global perspectives on the adoption of agriculture demonstrate that such explanations represent extremes in the spectrum of possible trajectories of change, which in fact may follow a wide variety of modes of accommodation and competition between different economic and social systems (Gregg 1988). There is a need to examine each instance of transition individually, within the theoretical frameworks, if the character of specific cases is to be understood.

In working on the Neolithic in Scotland accidents of geomorphology constantly enjoin awareness of the presence of the Late Mesolithic. Post-glacial isostatic uplift has raised the zone of western Scottish Late Mesolithic coastal settlement above the effects of marine destruction, preserving Obanian cave deposits and shell middens (Mellars 1987), and offering opportunities for lithic collection around the old shorelines of the southwest (Coles 1964). The same littoral, along the upper edges of the raised beaches, was a favoured location for chambered tomb construction around the Firth of Clyde. Spatial coincidence between these two classes of evidence provides opportunities to explore possible relationships, and has encouraged the development of models invoking direct sequence (e.g. Pollard 1990).

Traditionally, Mesolithic studies have focused on adaptive responses to environment, generating evolutionary explanations of the transition (Clark 1980). It has commonly been suggested that the rich coastal economies of northwest Europe facilitated sedentism, acting as a pre-adaptation to agriculture (Rowley-Conwy 1983). As the extent of settled agriculture among Early Neolithic populations in Britain has come under question, however (e.g. Thomas 1991: 19-28), Ian Armit & Bill Finlayson (1992; 1996) have set out an adjusted model. They argue that the varied marine environment of west coast Scotland predicated the adoption of patterns of logistic exploitation, which survived into recent historic times in the West Highlands, and which probably did not involve any measure of permanent settlement before the Iron Age. The Late Mesolithic is thus suggested to have been characterized by mobility within defined territories, allowing for the development of considerable economic specialization and role differentiation. Neolithic options offered such a society additional opportunities for diversification and status negotiation while causing minimal disturbance to existing lifestyles. Domestic livestock, a little cereal cultivation, and pottery production could all easily be absorbed within current routines. Pre-existing social networks found expression in regionally various pottery styles and chambered tomb types, the latter being of particular importance in the acting-out of on-going power negotiations. In sum, Armit & Finlayson envisage economic continuity and accelerated development of social complexity.

A fundamental difficulty with the above model lies in the absence of evidence for increasing social complexity in Late Mesolithic Scotland. Across Britain the poverty of the archaeological record relating to this period is so great as to resemble hiatus (Bradley 1978: 7-8). Within Scotland, sites with microlithic technology are nearly all dateable to between c. 7500 and 5000 cal BC, while recognizably Neolithic evidence emerges only after c. 4000 cal BC. Apart from a few dates on unassociated charcoal, 5th-millennium readings come mostly from shell middens, some of which, notably on Oronsay, produce simple lithics, together with bevel-ended bone implements and the well-known barbed harpoons (Mellars 1987; Finlayson 1995). …

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