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Mesolithic Art & Culture

Paintings, engravings, sculpture
Epipaleolithic flora & fauna

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Ain Sakhri Lovers sculpture, masterpiece of Mesolithic art
Ain Sakhri Lovers. A sublime example of minimalist Mesolithic sculpture Image by Joyofmuseums. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is the Mesolithic?

The term 'Mesolithic' refers to a transitional phase between the mobile hunter-gatherer culture of the Paleolithic and the settled farming lifestyle of the Neolithic.

Both lifestyles were greatly influenced by climate and environment, so the time needed to transition from one to the other varied region by region.

In some areas, like Iraq and Australia, there was no Mesolithic period at all - Iraq, because agriculture began very early (c.10,000 BC); Australia, because it remained a hunter-gatherer culture until the 18th century.

But in other areas the Mesolithic lasted for more than 5,000 years.

To confuse matters further, the term Mesolithic only applies to Eurasia. Elsewhere, the period is known as the Epipaleolithic.

Origins

The term 'mesolithic' comes from the greek 'mesos' (middle), and 'lithos' (stone), and was first used in 1872 by the Irish archaeologist Hodder Westropp (1820–85).

For the earliest artworks, see: Oldest Art in the World.

When did the Mesolithic Begin and End?

The Mesolithic Age begins at the end of the Magdalenian era, the final phase of Stone Age culture, about 10,000 BC. However, its duration varies region-by region.

Approximate dates of the Mesolithic are as follows:

For more about the chronology of the Stone Age, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

What Happened During the Mesolithic?

The Mesolithic (Epipaleolithic) was one of the most unpredictable periods of prehistory.

This stemmed from the climate warming which occurred at the end of the Ice Age, around 12,000 BC.

As Europe warmed, its hunter-gatherer environment became increasingly unpredictable, as ecosystems responded to rising temperatures.

Reindeer (the staple meat of the late Upper Paleolithic) slowly began to disappear northwards, the landscape gradually evolved from bare tundra to woodland and forest, and each species - human and animal - was forced to deal with new predator-prey relationships.

Environmental Changes

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Mesolithic Culture

Mesolithic Art

Rock Painting & Engraving

Famous Mesolithic Rock Art

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Sculpture

Prehistoric sculpture was also continued during the Mesolithic Age, although most freestanding works made out of wood or bone, have likely been lost. What's more, the tradition of venus figurines had already ended during the Magdalenian.

Pottery

During the late Mesolithic, as settlements in Europe began to expand, so did demand for earthenware pottery, although its route into Europe is rather murky.

Pottery originated in China around 18,000 BC (Xianren Cave and Yuchanyan Cave) and is believed to have found its way overland into Western Asia (Iran), where it arrived no later than 8,000 BC.

Ancient Chinese pottery spread into Japan, and Russia and eventually into Europe - either through the Middle East and along the Danube river into southern and central Europe, or along the Volga to the Baltic and then to Ertebølle in Denmark.

Note however, that pottery dating to 15,500 BC was discovered at Vela Spila cave on Korcula Island, off the coast of Croatia. This suggests that pottery was invented in several different places - a suggestion supported by the discovery of pottery remains dating to 9,400 BC in central Mali, in the SW Sahara region of Africa.

At any rate, despite pottery having been created since 18,000 BC, it only became a universal product during the Neolithic, with the invention of kilns and, later, the Potter's Wheel.

Megalithic Architecture & Art

Long before the Mesolithic Age ended in Western Europe (5,800 BC), hunter-gatherer bands in Turkey built a series of monumental structures at Göbekli Tepe (founded 9,500 BC; abandoned 8,000 BC); Nevalı Çori (founded 8,400 BC; abandoned 8,100 BC); and Çatalhöyük (founded 7,100 BC; abandoned 5,700 BC).

These sites are famous for having some of the world's oldest known temples, monumental sculpture and other cultural items.

However, because Turkey's Mesolithic Age ended before these sites were built, they are classified as Neolithic, and thus fall outside the scope of this article.

References

(1) The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe (1994) Ed. Barry Cunliffe. ISBN 0-19-285441-0
(2) Beltrán Martínez, Antonio, "Rock Art of the Spanish Levant" 1982, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-24568-0
(3) Gronenborn, Detlef (2007). "Beyond the models: Neolithisation in Central Europe". Proceedings of the British Academy. 144: 73–98
(4) "The Diversity of Hunter Gatherer Pasts" Bill Finlayson (Editor) Oxbow Books. ISBN: 9781785705885

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