The People of the Mesolithic

Skeletal remains show that the people of the Mesolithic were anatomically modern humans, so they would have looked the same as us. They were on average shorter, women being about five feet tall and men only some four inches taller, but more muscular as the result of being intensely physically active since childhood.

Ascertaining finer details such as hair, eye and skin colour rely on the relatively recent science of ancient DNA testing, and findings based on this are sometimes highly controversial, as shown by the case of an individual from the Mesolithic known as Cheddar Man. His 10,000 year-old skull was found in a cave in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England in 1903 and sent to London’s Museum of Natural History. In 2018 scientists extracted DNA from it and claimed that it showed Cheddar Man to have had light blue eyes, wavy black hair and dark skin. 

However, almost immediately these findings, particularly as regards the skin colour, were challenged on the basis that the science is insufficiently well developed to be certain. We therefore still do not really know exactly what the people of the Mesolithic looked like, although it is at least possible that they were dark skinned and blue eyed.

We do know that much of their clothing was made from leather. The earliest known leather clothing is only about 5,000 years old, but there is indirect archaeological evidence that animal hides were being turned into wearable clothing almost 100,000 years ago, when humans encompassed now-extinct species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. The commonest such evidence is in the form of tiny stone blades called microliths with traces of animal fats on them, suggesting that they were used to scrape hides as part of the tanning process whereby animal skins are turned into leather. Bone implements made to puncture animal hide dated to about 80,000 years ago have been found, and the earliest known bone needle date to about 50,000 years ago. It has also been argued that the various species of human could not have survived outside tropical zones without tailored clothing which, as weaving would not be invented for tens of thousands of years, could only be made from stitching together carefully cut pieces of leather.

It is not known precisely which techniques were used in tanning, but brain tanning is likely to have been one of them: animal brain contains an oil called lecithin which when absorbed into the hide acts both as a lubricant preventing the hide from cracking open, and as a wind- and water-proofing agent.

It also seems that at least some Mesolithic people adorned themselves. Many seashells have been discovered at Mesolithic sites, often in burials, including brightly coloured ones and others with finely-bored holes apparently made to take a thread. Beads of jet, amber, shale and naturally occurring glass have also been found, often at sites many miles from where the finds originated, showing that they were carried over long distances. However, there is no direct evidence of the purpose of these items, so it is not certain that they were jewelry as we would understand the term. Certain modern hunter-gatherer cultures such as the Inuit and First Peoples in western Canada are known to have used shells from a marine mollusc called dentalium as jewelry, these shells often being traded over long distances for this purpose. Dentalium shells have also been found in various Mesolithic sites far from the coast.

However, the evidence remains inconclusive, despite some spectacular finds. In 2015 archaeologists working on the 11,000 year-old Mesolithic site at Star Carr in North Yorkshire in England found a roughly triangular piece of carved shale about 3.5 centimeters across with a drilled perforation at one corner and engraved sets of parallel lines crossing each other on one face. Termed “the Star Carr Pendant”, some archaeologists believe that a leather thong was once threaded through the perforation allowing the stone to be worn around the neck. Yet even if this is correct, it is not known whether it was made purely for personal adornment or whether the object was more akin to an amulet or a talisman, or even whether it was the process of creating the object that was more significant, rather than the production of the finished object itself.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close