In this lesson, you will explore the history of the Mesolithic era, one of the greatest transitional periods in human history. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Middle Stone Age

When I was growing up in the early ’90s, our family got its first computer. I was about 8. The computer was huge and bulky, it took forever to turn on, had less than a gigabyte of data, and featured dial-up Internet. Does anybody remember dial-up and that terrible sound it made? It still makes me shudder.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was growing up in a period of great social transition. Computers were already invented, but we hadn’t yet truly entered the digital age. The ’90s were that time when society was preparing to make a great shift into a new way of communicating. That’s sort of what happened thousands of years ago. At the end of the Ice Age, a period also called the Pleistocene when most of the Earth was covered by glaciers, early human society began to change. The transition period was called the Mesolithic.

World in Transition

To fully understand the Mesolithic, we need to first understand the eras surrounding it. Before was the Paleolithic, roughly meaning the Old Stone Age. In this time, the ancestors of humans developed stone tools, then humans evolved as a species and made better stone tools. These early humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers, relying completely on the natural availability of resources and continually moving around. They developed the earliest forms of art and seem to have begun developing more complex social structures with rituals and specialized labor.

After the Mesolithic was the Neolithic era, or New Stone Age. The Neolithic was characterized by a shift to sedentary life, or the building of permanent homes and settling down in one place. This was made possible by the development of agriculture and domestication of animals, and people developed more complex societies with governments and professions.

The period of transition between the Paleolithic and Neolithic was the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age. During this time, early humans began to figure out how to farm and domesticate animals, and they experimented with building small, permanent communities, but they still relied on hunting and foraging as well. Since the transition period is marked by a change in behavior rather than a single event, the Mesolithic began at different times around the world. Generally, however, it coincided with the end of the Ice Age in each area, ranging from roughly 20,000-10,000 BC. The Mesolithic era only lasted a few thousand years before the transition to the Neolithic was complete.

Mesolithic Culture

The first examples of Mesolithic culture came from the Levant, an area roughly corresponding to the Middle East along the Mediterranean Sea. Here, the Ice Age was ending by 20,000 BC, which meant that the climate was changing. It was warmer, there was more available water, and the once-arid region became full of vegetation, forests, and reliable seasonal rain. The people who lived here had to change their lifestyles and realized they could stay here year-round. They began constructing basic wooden huts and started controlling what plants could grow. They planted seeds from wild wheat and removed the weeds, starting early agriculture.

This was the basic pattern for the rise of Mesolithic culture around the world. It occurred in Europe around 12,000 BC and in China and Mexico around 10,000 BC. One of the key changes in technology as cultures adapted to warmer climates was a new type of stone tool, called a microlith.

A microlith is defined as a stone tool that is around one cm in length. They are tiny, hence the name micro, and are generally shaped like a long triangle or trapezoid. Microliths are one of the most definitive characteristics of Mesolithic culture. Since they are so small, they are very hard to produce and required a new level of skill to manufacture. Rather than just small flakes that chipped off of larger stones, microliths are carefully, intentionally carved into the desired shape and size.

The purpose of the microlith is generally assumed to be for hunting. The sharp, tiny tip made them efficient projectile points, or tools attached to an item that was thrown. A spear may have held as many as 18 microliths on the end, held together with resin or sinew. An arrow probably only had one or two microliths on its tip. The microlith helped the weapon penetrate its target because the force is concentrated into a single point.

Microliths have been found on Mesolithic spears, arrows, and harpoons. They indicate a more advanced system of hunting and a continued evolution of stone tool technologies that reflect both the greater abundance of the era and the innovation that came with the new lifestyles. Microliths are a transitional tool and are only found during the Mesolithic, fading away as people turned more fervently to agriculture.

Lesson Summary

First, there was the Paleolithic age of early stone tools and hunter-gatherers who had to continually move to find food. Later, there was the Neolithic age, when people settled into sedentary lives, living in non-mobile communities with agriculture and more advanced societies. In between, there was a period of transition called the Mesolithic era.

During the Mesolithic, early humans began the process of developing agriculture and moving away from a reliance on hunting, but it took time. The first Mesolithic cultures emerged around the Levant, an area in the Middle East along the Mediterranean Sea. The warmer temperatures at the end of the Ice Age led to more abundant resources and reliable weather patterns, encouraging people of this area to start controlling what plants grew where. In other words, they started farming.

Mesolithic culture is defined by microliths, stone tools around a centimeter long that are unique to this time period. Microliths were used as projectile points on spears, harpoons, and arrows for hunting. They indicate that Mesolithic people still relied on hunting, but were developing more advanced technologies as they grew and settled. The people of the Mesolithic may not have realized it, but they were living in an important era of transition that would change the world forever, just like the 1990s.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are done with this lesson you should be able to:

  • Understand aspects of human society during the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Mesolithic ages
  • Interpret the importance of the Levant in the Mesolithic society
  • Discuss the microliths, including their purpose and significance