Chapter V: Mesolithic in Eurasia

[Lecture 5 delivered on 8 July 1991]


Overview by Geraldine Reinhardt

This fifth lecture in the series introduces the Mesolithic period in the archaeology of Eurasia (not to include western Europe). To examine the Mesolithic is to examine the time period between the traditional Paleolithic and Neolithic, an era that Professor Alexeev thinks should be given great historical importance. A brief introduction to the geomorphology of Eurasia is presented stressing the extinction of large Paleolithic game and replacement by smaller Mesolithic game necessitating the invention of a new tool kit. This new technology is produced in three geographical provinces which Alexeev identifies as the Eastern European Province, the Central Asia and Caucasus Province, and the Siberian Province. Alexeev then discusses agriculture and the domestication of animals, and questions whether this adaptation actually originates in the Near East; he uses information from Oberkassel in Germany and Alimov Cave in the Crimea to support his query.

Alexeev correlates cemeteries with the Mesolithic and sees this period as the first archaeological confirmation of self consciousness i.e. man's awareness of his difference from other groups of living things. He again references the site of Kostenki and introduces Afontova Gora II in Siberia in conjunction with Mongoloid morphological features discovered at both sites. A brief discussion of the paleodemography of Eurasia in the Mesolithic is presented with the accompaniment of numbers. The lecture concludes with a comparison between Paleolithic and Mesolithic art, the latter form called monotonous. Professor Alexeev concludes class with "another famous dog story".


Geomorphology of Eurasia (not to include western Europe)

Alexeev continues: the Mesolithic period begins 11/10,000 BC and is a time of changing environmental conditions and cultural traditions. Among scholars, this is a period of great discussion i.e. some scholars perceive the Mesolithic as a time of great importance in the development of technology and adaptive processes and view it as a special historical period vs those scholars who see no significance to the Mesolithic as a special period.

The Mesolithic is a time of great biosphere changes. 18,000- 11,000 BC (pre Mesolithic) is a strong period of glaciation with an ice sheet extending from Scandinavia to the Baltic down to the parallel at which Moscow is geographically located. In 10,000 BC, glaciation begins to recede and to recede fast. Following the reduction of glaciation is a time of great climatic change. The warmer, drier climate produces many lakes and swamps while the number of large mammals decrease. In 9-8,000 BC the climate is similar to that of today although more humid. While the Paleolithic people lived in cold conditions, the Mesolithic people exist in a favorable climate. The Mesolithic environment is similar to the modern. Large mammals decrease in number and new smaller animals begin to appear requiring new technologies for hunting.

The northern zone of Eurasia is composed of tundra and taiga (leafy and conifer forests), swamps, and lakes. The southern zone consists of drier areas in the Black Sea area and Ural Steppe zone; these areas are semi desert. Paleolithic hunters pursued mammoth, wild horse, bison, wild cattle, and rhinoceros. As these forms become extinct the only food for Mesolithic hunters to pursue is deer, elk, wild pig, rodents, birds, and fish. Thus, new game now requires new tools and a new technology needs to be developed to hunt the new species.


New Technologies

A new tool kit made from flint is developed by the Mesolithic hunters. These tools are small and dainty and usually made from flint but also made from bone. This contrasts to the large tools of the Paleolithic period. Also, a bow begins to be used and many bows have been found in Mesolithic sites.

Fishing hooks have been found made of bone. These are thin and dainty. Many archaeologists believe the Mesolithic people used nets for fishing; however, nets are not preserved in the archaeological record. For larger sized fish, harpoons are used. Many harpoons have been found in swamps and lakes and are well preserved. Their length ranges from 5-6 cm and larger.

A definite geographical distribution of areas for hunting and areas for fishing can be established. Hunting in the Mesolithic period occurs in the Dnieper, Don, and Volga River Valleys. These valleys then had the same geomorphology as now. Hunting also occurs in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. Whereas hunting takes place in northern areas, fishing occurs in areas to the south.

Hunting in the Mesolithic is similar to hunting in the Paleolithic although microlithization is greater in the Mesolithic as is the use of flint. Microlithic blades are used as the first knives and microlithic pieces are placed in bone.

Little is known about the Mesolithic period in Siberia but from the sites known, the material is different from material found in Europe. In Siberia microlithic usage is great; however, large tools resembling the Upper Paleolithic, even Mousterian, have also been preserved. Thus in Siberia, tools from the Upper Paleolithic exist alongside Mesolithic microliths.

More Upper Paleolithic sites have been discovered in Soviet Eurasia than Mesolithic sites. Scholars think the Mesolithic population was either reduced or that the Upper Paleolithic traditions lasted longer. Local differentiations of stone and bone tools is great, but Professor Alexeev prefers not to speak of these cultures because specifics are not needed now. All areas of Soviet Eurasia can be determined by the degree of microlithization with the greatest microlithization in the Caucasus. The presence of bone is more common in Eastern Europe than in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

In review we have the presence of bone in Eastern Europe, the presence of microliths and the sporadic usage of bone in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the presence of microliths plus the preservation of large tool assemblages resembling Upper Paleolithic, even Mousterian, in Siberia. Possibly more large animals were present in Siberia such as the mammoth, wolf, rhinoceros, and reindeer. These animals became extinct in Europe by the end of the Paleolithic.

These new technologies are produced in three great mesolithic provinces: 1) Eastern European Province with microlithic tools and extensive usage of bone; 2) Central Asia and Caucasus Province with the greatest presence of microlithic tools and small usage of bone; and 3) Siberian Province with the presence of microlithic tools as well as the preservation of large Paleolithic tools; however, there is no evidence of complex tools during the Mesolithic. Complex tools are found in the Neolithic period (Mesolithic in Siberia is not well known).


Agriculture and Domestication

The Mesolithic is a period of agriculture and domestication of animals. From the Iranian Plateau there have been found bones of domesticated sheep and seeds of cultivated plants; however, there is no existence of a productive economy.

There have been many hypotheses regarding the domestication in Eurasia but the only study that can be confirmed is the domestication of a Paleolithic dog from a site in western Germany in the Rhine Valley (Oberkassel).

Oberkassel, located in the Rhine Valley of western Germany, was excavated many years ago but the remains were studied only five years ago. The site produces the burials of two adults with Paleolithic implements, but the important find is half a jaw, the mandible, of a dog. Two molar teeth are in tact; the second molar larger than the first. This is a true sign of domestication typical for all breeds. The mandible dates to 12,000 BC.

Alimov Cave is located in the Crimea and excavated 18-20 years ago by the Russian archaeologist, Demetri Alexandrovich Krainov (1). This site produces a sequence of layers from the Mesolithic period containing the bones of goat and pig. Krainov argues that the bones belong to domesticated forms and that pig and goat are first domesticated in the Crimea. Repeated studies by other scholars do not confirm Krainov's conclusion; the evidence isn't considered objective. Therefore, the only evidence of domestication in Eurasia is that of the dog from Oberkassel.


Cemeteries and the Study of Race

In the Upper Paleolithic, burials are usually single in number and found in caves and open air sites; the only cemetery found is that at Sungir (2). The presence of cemeteries usually is attributed only to the Mesolithic period. Also, during the Mesolithic, cemeteries are found in northern Africa, France, one in Germany, and in the Dnieper Valley in Russia.

The skeletal remains from these Mesolithic cemeteries are flexed, not straight. This is the first archaeological confirmation of self consciousness; of man's awareness of his difference from other groups of living things.

In the Mesolithic period, populations in European Russia exhibit the same physical traits as did the Paleolithic populations i.e. tall, thick bones, broad face, long hair, well developed nasal bones. Cromagnon (3), named after a cave in France, is a famous burial with the preserved skeleton of Upper Paleolithic man. The term "Cromagnon" refers to Upper Paleolithic people, but there are local variations. The Mesolithic people of eastern Europe are definitely descendants of Upper Paleolithic populations i.e. massive bones, tall, broad face, and well developed nasal bones. However, from Kostenki (4) the skeletal remains depict Mongoloid features similar to remains from Choukoutien and Eastern Asia.

Afontova Gora II is located in Siberia and is the only site in Siberia to produce Upper Paleolithic remains. The find is a small piece of a child's skull, the central face and forehead, revealing a less developed nasal bone as contrasted to a strongly developed nasal bone for Europoids. This weak nasal bone is typical for Mongoloids.

Thus the Mesolithic populations in European Russia are tall, thick boned, broad face, long hair, and well developed nasal bones.



Attempts have been made to determine the longevity of early man. Henri Vallois (5), a Frenchman, upon examining twelve Zinjanthropus and Neandertal remains has determined the average lifespan to be 21.2 years. This low longevity rate could account for a slow rate of population increase. Valois projects the Upper Paleolithic population in France at 60,000, in Europe at 400-500,000, and in Siberia at 300,000. The people in Siberia had a more complicated social and economic system.

Professor Alexeev disagrees with these figures and thinks that there were no more than 50,000 people for the whole territory of Europe with population figures for eastern Europe at 20-25,000. He thinks that one generation in the Mesolithic was not greater than 25-30,000.

The Upper Paleolithic extends from 38/40,000-12,000 BC for a duration of 26/28,000 years with a longevity of appromixately 21 years equals 1,350 generations in Upper Paleolithic. The Mesolithic period ends 5/4,000 BC and lasted for 7/8,000 years with a longevity rate at 26/28 years equals 260/270 generations of Mesolithic people. This longer longevity rate means that the Mesolithic people could produce more offspring (however, the death rate, especially the child death rate is great). The projections are 50/60,000 population for eastern Europe and a little higher for Siberia. At the end of the Mesolithic, this figure increases twice.

For the Mesolithic period fewer sites have been found in comparison to the large number of sites for the Paleolithic. Many sites have been lost by changes in river courses.


Mesolithic Art

The rich art of the Paleolithic is replaced by a Mesolithic art that is quite different. Upper Paleolithic cave art depicts colored drawings and expressive features of animals which appear to come alive upon the cave walls. A full range of color is used. Mesolithic art in contrast is monotonous, is schematic; no realistic figures are present and only the color red is used. This form is also found in north Africa and the northern Mediterranean. Neolithic art is also schematic.


Another "Famous Dog Story"

With a hint of glee in his eyes, Alexeev relates the following story: whenever his American friends visit him in his flat in Moscow, they sometimes like to speak in English. His dog, who is always at his side, remains in the room when the conversation is in Russian. But when his friends speak in English ... the dog leaves the room.


Notes for Chapter V

1. For Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Krainov I find six listings from HOLLIS on-line but none appear to address Alimov Cave; however, a publication on the Volga River Valley and Oka River Valley might be a promising source:

1972.   "Drevneishaia istoriia Volgo-Okskogo mezhdurech'ia. Fat'ianovskaia kul'tura" published in Moskva: Nauka.

2. Sungir was described above in Lecture 3. References for Sungir are:

1978.   "Sungir': verkhnepaleoliticheskaia stoianka" by O.N. Bader; pugliched in Moskva: Nauka.

1984.   "Sungir': antropologischeskoe issledovanie" edited by A.A. Zubov; published in Moskva: Nauka.

3. For the kw Cromagnon search in HOLLIS, I found only one publication:

1994.   "Homo erectus, Neandertaler und Cromagnon: kulturgeschichtliche Untersuchungun zu Theorien der Entwicklung des modernen Menschen" by Sebastian J. Heiss. Published in Frankfurt; New York: P. Lang.

According to Arutiunov, current opinion regarding Homo erectus, Nendertaler, and Cromagnon is as follows: Erectus is still very much ape like; Neandertaler is Sapiens but with some beast like features; and Cromagnon is quite like us.

I agree that if we search for differences among the three groups, the above divisions apply. However, if instead of differences, we examine similarities, we shall see a strong resemblance among the groups. When I visited the Nairobi Museum in Kenya, I saw a cast of what was labelled Kenyapithacus. This creature had a skull which measured no longer than 3 cm.; yet I had no doubt that it looked like me - an uncanny feeling!

4. Kostenki was discussed in lecture 3. Reconstruction of the skeletal remains produces a strong adult with a combination of morphological features. Most informing is a strong development around the nose that is not typical for Europoid but similar to east African populations; however, Negroid nasal bones are flat while these from Kostenki IV are strong.

In this reference to Kostenki, Alexeev claims the skeletal remains have Mongoloid features. Therefore, the remains from Kostenki must have a combination of morphological features. Of importance is that Alexeev mentions Mongoloid features similar to remains from Choukoutien. Weidenreich's 1935 preliminary report is on the Sinanthropus population of Choukoutien. Thus at Kostenki is found a Europoid with some Negroid and some Mongoloid features. Arutiunov comments that the Upper Cave at Kostenki contains remains quite like modern humans.

5. The following publication by Henri Vallois and Hallam Movius is listed in HOLLIS:

1952.   "Catalogue des hommes fossiles, edite au nom de la "Commission pour l'Homme fossile de l'Union paleontologique internationale" by Henri V. Vallois and Hallam L. Movius; published in Alger.