The Stone Age, The general picture

Prehistoric cultural stage, or level of human development, characterized by the creation and use of stone tools.

Robert A. Guisepi


Though there are vast gaps in our knowledge of the Recent period in many parts of the Old World, enough is known to see the general cultural level of this range of time. Outside of the regions where food production was establishing itself, the period was one of a gradual settling-in and of an increasingly intensive utilization of all the resources of restricted regional niches. At first, the level seems nowhere to have achieved a climax of artistic expression, such as that for example, of Upper Périgordian-Magdalenian times. But, as time went on, certain climaxes within the matrix of an intensified level of food collection did occur. An often-cited example might be the complex art and social organization of the cultures of the northwest coast of British Columbia.

More often, however, as the culture history of the Recent period proceeded, cultures at the level of intensified food collecting were "captured" by being absorbed within an expanding matrix of the new elements, procedures, and traditions of food production or--subsequent to its appearance--by the expansion of civilized societies.


The origins and history of European Neolithic culture are closely connected with the postglacial climate and forest development. The increasing temperature after the late Dryas period during the Pre-Boreal and the Boreal (c. 8000-5500 BC, determined by radiocarbon dating) caused a remarkable change in late glacial flora and fauna. Thus, the Mediterranean zone became the center of the first cultural modifications leading from the last hunters and food gatherers to the earliest farmers. This was established by some important excavations in the mid-20th century in the Middle East, which unearthed the first stages of early agriculture and stock breeding (7th and 6th millennia BC) with wheat, barley, dogs, sheep, and goats. Early prepottery Neolithic finds (probably 6th millennium BC) have been made in the Argissa Magula near Larissa (Thessaly, Greece), while excavations in Lepenski Vir (Balkan Peninsula) have brought to light some sculptures of the same period. The independent origin of European Neolithic was established, and it was thought highly probable that the cradle of farming in the Middle East had not been the only one: there were others in Europe, too.

The zones

Neolithic farming in Europe developed on its own lines in the four different ecological zones. These are: the Mediterranean zone of evergreen forest and winter rains; north of the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Balkans, the temperate zone of deciduous forest and evenly distributed annual rainfall; still farther north the circumpolar taiga, or coniferous forest (the only zone to remain free of agriculture and stock breeding); and to the southeast the western end of the Eurasian Steppe. Each zone itself is subdivided into natural regions by physiographic boundaries and peculiarities of climate or soil. Only the three major divisions of the temperate zone are not obvious from every map. We may distinguish: western Europe, from the Atlantic to the Vosges and Alps and including the British Isles; the loesslands of central Europe, including the Ukraine and limited by the Balkans and the Harz; and the northern province, that portion of the Eurasiatic plain lying between the Rhine and the Vistula and including Denmark and southern Sweden. The substantial Neolithic communities that arose by 6000 BC must have been largely recruited from indigenous Mesolithic hunters and fishers, attested to so abundantly in western and northern Europe by various remains. (Some communities indeed seem to be composed entirely of such Mesolithic stocks, though they had adopted Neolithic equipment from immigrant farmers; such are sometimes termed Secondary Neolithic. From these Mesolithic survivors, too, must be derived much of the science and equipment applied in Neolithic times to adapting societies to European environments. Upon the resultant distinctively European technology and economy was reared a no less original ideological superstructure expressed in distinctive sepulchral monuments, styles of ceramic decoration, and fashions in personal ornaments.

Cultural elements

Rural economy

In each of the above-mentioned provinces, the archaeological record begins with the early stages of farming, as in Thessaly. In the Mediterranean zone, this early farming is connected with the cardium pottery (decorated by shell impressions of Cardium edule), cultivation of the land having been proved by pollen-analytical methods in France, as elsewhere in temperate Europe, while northern Germany and southern Scandinavia revealed grain prints in potsherds (Ertebřlle-Ellerbek). The process of cultural formation and modification during the Neolithic may be studied with the help of the different kinds of pottery and stone artifacts.

Save in the taiga, where a Mesolithic economy persisted until the end of the Bronze Age, the basis of life everywhere was subsistence farming, supplemented by some measure of hunting and fishing--fish being a source of food curiously neglected in western and central Europe during the earlier phases of the Neolithic. Everywhere the same cereals were cultivated, together with beans, peas, and lentils. In the Mediterranean zone, orchard husbandry may already have begun, while around the Alps, apples were eventually cultivated and utilized for the preparation of a sort of cider. The balance between cultivation and stockbreeding varied. Throughout the temperate zone, sheep, though bred even in Britain and Denmark, were at first rare. The damp temperate forests were uncongenial to these animals, and only toward the end of the Neolithic Period, when the greater dryness of the subboreal climatic phase and incipient clearing for plow cultivation were leaving their mark on the landscape, did flocks begin to multiply. On the loesslands, in early Neolithic times, animal husbandry may have played a subordinate role as compared with agriculture. But in the sequel, cattle raising combined with hunting proved to be the most productive pursuit among the deciduous forests with a Neolithic equipment; cultivation was relegated to an increasingly secondary place, until in the late Bronze Age more efficient tools for clearing land became generally available. The rural economy permitted the continuous occupation of permanent villages around the Aegean and in the Balkan Peninsula, perhaps also in southern Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. In the temperate zone, shifting cultivation may have been based on slash-and-burn clearance. Under this extravagant system, plots were presumably tilled with hoes, as in parts of Africa today. But by the beginning of the Bronze Age, the ox-drawn plow was beginning to replace the hoe.


Dwelling houses in Greece, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula were built, as in the Middle East, of pisé, or mud brick, on stone foundations. But in the Balkans and throughout the temperate zone, wood was used for the construction of gabled houses, stout posts serving to support the ridgepole and the walls of split saplings or wattle and daub. The earliest houses on the loessland of central Europe were very large, up to 42 meters (135 feet) in length and large enough to accommodate a whole lineage or small clan together with stalled cattle and grain stores. In the sequel these communal houses gave place to smaller two-roomed dwellings, 7.5 to 10 meters (24 1/2 to 33 feet) long but still entered through one end. Finally in late Neolithic times clusters of one-roomed huts became the most widespread fashion. Around the Alps such two-roomed houses and, less often, one-roomed huts were raised on piles above the shores of lakes or on platforms laid on peat mosses. These are the world-famous Swiss "lake-dwellings" (Uferrandsiedlungen) that have yielded such precious collections of the organic substances from wood to bread that are otherwise missing from the archaeological record. In northern Europe, too, the earliest villages consisted of two parallel, long communal houses, but these were subdivided by cross walls into 20 or more apartments, each with a separate door. But here again the communal houses eventually broke up into free-standing one-roomed huts. Finally, Skara Brae on the treeless island of Orkney illustrates an ingenious adaptation of the one-roomed wooden hut to an inhospitable environment but shows how commodiously such huts must always have been furnished.

Stone tools

Carpenters used celts (ax or adz heads) edged by grinding and polishing of fine-grained rock or of flint where that material was available in large nodules. In Greece and the Balkans, all over central Europe and the Ukraine, and throughout the taiga, adzes were used exclusively, as in the earlier Baltic Mesolithic; in northern and Western Europe axes were preferred. In the Iberian Peninsula axes and adzes occur in equal numbers in early Neolithic graves, but the proportion of axes increased later. Often in Western Europe, and occasionally in Greece and Cyprus, celts were mounted with the aid of antler sleeves inserted between the stone head and the wooden handle--a device that was already employed in the northern European Mesolithic. In Spain, the British Isles, and northern Europe ax heads were simply stuck into or through straight wooden shafts, but adz heads must always have been mounted on a knee shaft (a crooked stick), a method regularly used for ax heads, too, by the Bronze Age. Ax heads like those in modern use, with a hole for the shaft, were rarely used for tools, but the Danubian peasants on the loesslands may sometimes have mounted adzes in this manner. They certainly knew how to perforate stone, using a tubular borer (a reed or bone with sand as an abrasive). From them the technique was adopted by various secondary Neolithic tribes in northern Europe for the manufacture of so-called battle-axes. The latter seem to derive their form from Mesolithic weapons of antler, but their splayed blades disclose the influence of metal forms

Ax factories and flint mines

Celts, or axes, were manufactured in factories where specially suitable rock outcrops occurred, and they were traded over great distances. Products of the factories at Graig Lwyd, Penmaenmawr, North Wales, were transported to Wiltshire and Anglesey, those of Tievebulliagh on the Antrim coast to Limerick, Kent, Aberdeen, and the Hebrides. Similarly, large nodules of good flint were secured by mining in Poland, Denmark, The Netherlands, England, Belgium, France, Portugal, and Sicily.

The mine shafts, which were cut through solid chalk sometimes to a depth of six meters (20 feet) with the aid only of antler picks and bone shovels, may be simple pits, but often regular galleries branching from them follow the seams of big nodules. Although the ancient miners appreciated the necessity of leaving pillars to support the roof, skeletons of workers killed by falls have been discovered at Cissbury, Spiennes, and elsewhere. In the British Isles and Denmark, at least, there is evidence that the ax factories and flint mines were exploited and the products distributed by trade, for example, to the northern parts of Sweden. Still, the operators and distributors need nowhere be regarded as full-time specialists.


Neolithic art, except among the hunter-fishers of the taiga, was geometric and not representational. It is best illustrated by the decoration of pottery. Pots, which were always handmade, were painted in southeastern Europe, southern Italy, and Sicily; elsewhere they were adorned with incised, impressed, or stamped patterns. Many designs are skeuomorphic--i.e., they enhance the pot's similarity to vessels of basketry, skin, or other material. But on the loesslands of central Europe and the Ukraine and in the Balkans, spirals and meanders were favourite motifs.


While Neolithic societies could be completely self-sufficient, growing their own food and making all essential equipment from local materials, luxury objects were transmitted quite long distances by some sort of trade. So ornaments made of the shells of the Mediterranean mussel, Spondylus gaederopus, are found all across the Balkans, up the Danube Valley, and even on the Saale and the Main. Products of factories and flint mines were, as stated, traded widely throughout a single province, such as the British Isles, and some especially valued raw materials--the yellow flint of Grand-Pressigny (France), the obsidian of Melos and the Lipari Islands--became objects of "international trade" as much as shells. But the most prized object of such commerce was the amber of Jutland and Poland, whose electrical properties seemed evidence of potent mana.


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