Ten thousand years ago Europe was emerging from the last ice age and new lands were opening in areas which had once been covered by thick sheets of ice. The sea levels at this time were still relatively low and many places that are today islands were still connected to mainland Europe. An area which archaeologists today call Doggerland connected Britain with the Netherlands and Denmark.
The era from the end of the ice age to agriculture is called the Mesolithic. This is a time when the people subsisted by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. It should not, however, be assumed that this lifestyle centered on random migration: the people moved from resource area to resource area according to a schedule. They had to be able to move into an area at a time when the resources were available.
In order to survive the people had to have intimate knowledge of their ecology. They had to understand more than just what plants, animals, and fish could provide them with food, they also had to know when and where these resources would be available. If they went to an area to harvest berries, for example, and arrived a few days too early or a few days too late, they could miss the harvest and face starvation. It was important that they be able to keep track of the seasons by watching the skies.
While the people were pedestrian—they did not have horses or cattle—they did have another efficient method of transportation: watercraft. Using boats, perhaps similar to the curragh (a skin covered craft) and/or the dugout canoe, they used rivers, lakes, and seas as a type of highway.
The population of what is now Scotland during the Mesolithic was fairly low. The people lived in small groups of 25 to 50 people. This doesn’t, however, mean that they were isolated. The people would gather in larger groups at certain times of the year—some writers have suggested that these meetings would be timed to correspond with solstices and equinoxes—where they could exchange information, obtain spouses, trade material goods, and even change their band affiliation.
With regard to religion, the people were animistic rather than deistic and their ceremonies focused on hunting, fishing, and gathering rituals. The presence of deer antlers at a number of sites has suggested to archaeologists that these were used in ceremonies in which dancers imitated the actions of deer.
Described below are just a few of the Mesolithic sites which are a part of the heritage of Scotland.
present-day town of Alnwick, people established a site which they used from 7700 BCE to about 7600 BCE. They then abandoned the site and moved elsewhere.
While peoples whose subsistence activities are focused on hunting, gathering, and fishing usually live in temporary camps in which they use tent-like structures for shelter, Howick is a bit different. At Howick, the archaeologists found a large roundhouse which had been built out of tree trunks with a conical roof constructed with straight poles and thatched with wild grasses. In other words, this was not a temporary camp, but a permanent house large enough to accommodate a fairly large family. The house construction required a great deal of skill as well as long-term planning, and cooperation among many adults.
The people who lived at Howick hunted wild boar, fox, bear, and deer. Hazelnuts were abundant and there is evidence that hazelnuts were roasted at the site. Hazelnuts provided winter food at a time when other food was scarce. On the eastern, seaward site of Howick, there were fish, seals, seabirds, and shellfish.
The people of Howick, like other hunting and gathering people at this time, not only exploited forest resources, they also managed these resources. They deliberately burned the woodlands. Sometimes this was done to drive the animals to the hunters or to drive them over a precipice.
Firing the woodlands did a number of things. First of all, it created clearings which made hunting easier. Burning areas near water holes meant that the clearings would not only attract more animals, but the animals were easier to harvest when they had their heads down drinking water.
Firing the woodlands also increased the grasses upon which many herd animals, such as deer, grazed. Burning the land put nutrients into the soil, which provided for more nutritious feed for the animals. Not only did this attract more animals, it also helped sustain larger herds.
The people also engaged in fishing—not just from shore but from watercraft, perhaps similar to the curragh, which took them far enough into the ocean to be able to catch deep-sea fish.
On the coast of East Lothian, not far from present-day Dunbar, is another site with a permanent house built by hunting and fishing people. The East Barns site dates to about 8000 BCE.
At East Barns, the house was laid out in an oval shape. It had 30 posts which supported a conical roof. The sides of the house between the posts were filled in with turf and timber wall material. Like the house at Howick, the house at East Barns was built near the seashore. Two shallow bays would have provided a year-round source of fish and shellfish.
About 7700 BCE, a roundhouse was constructed at Cramond on the Firth of Forth near present-day Edinburgh. Some archaeologists have suggested that this site was colonized by people from the south, perhaps from Howick or East Barnes. They probably travelled up the coast in curraghs or in log boats (dugout canoes).
Archaeologists often get a great deal of information about ancient societies from burials. Aveline’s Hole is a cave site in Somerset’s Mendip Hills which dates to about 8000 BCE and which was used as a cemetery by a hunting and gathering people for about 200 years. During this time, 70-100 bodies were placed in the cave. Anthropologists have studied the remains of 21 people from the site. The bones indicate that the people had a slight build with an average height of around 5 feet (1.52 meters). They seem to have had a life expectancy of little more than the late twenties. At least one of them suffered from arthritis.