6. Mesolithic: Cultural Differentiation

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Previously Tao of China 1B (Part I: Cultural Ages (continued))

We just learned about some of the innate urges of the Genus Homo who lived during the Paleolithic. The Mesolithic, i.e. the Middle Stone Age, followed this Early Stone Age. For archaeologists, the Mesolithic refers to the time period that contained the ‘middle Stone Age’ technology. As such, they characterize the Mesolithic by lithic technologies that are transitional between those of the Paleolithic Hunter Gatherers and Neolithic Farming cultures.

Standard Agri-Centric Characterization of the Mesolithic

Time Frame 11,000 BC to 6500 BC

What is the time frame of the Mesolithic?

From their origination about 2.5 million years ago, humans were just like any other predatory animal, in that they hunted, fished or foraged for food. Then from about 11,000 to 8000 BCE some of these early people began gathering wild grains, which they stored in caves. Between 8300 and 6500 BCE the residents of the Near East began growing crops by throwing out seeds and waiting for them to grow. These were the proto-farmers of the Mesolithic Period.

End of Mesolithic is beginning of the Neolithic

The founding of the first farming cultures based upon tilling the soil signaled the end of the Mesolithic. About 6500 BCE in the Near East and Europe the land was tilled and harvested. Rice cultivation began separately in East and Southeast Asia between 6800-4000 BCE. While the end of the Mesolithic did not mean the end of the earlier cultural types, it did mean the establishment of a brand new type of culture that was more settled than any that had been in existence before.

 To answer the original question, the time frame of the Mesolithic Period is roughly from 11,000 BCE to 6,500 BCE, i.e. from the beginning of proto-agriculture to the beginning of settled agricultural techniques. As is evident, this time determination is based around the development of agriculture. This emphasis betrays an agri-centric bias.

Wisely, archaeologists only draw conclusions from empirical evidence, i.e. the stone tools that are found. These scientists are plagued by the fact that all their theories are based upon what is found tens of thousands of years after the people that created them are long gone. Unfortunately, only the most indestructible objects survive. The Paleolithic is characterized by flint. The settled agri-cultures of the Neolithic left many durable remains in their settled communities, painted pottery, early structures, and the like. However, the early pastoralists left no pottery or settlements. With no physical evidence, their culture is very hard to trace.

Impact of herding societies disproportionate to population or evidence

Although these pastoral cultures have had a huge impact on the development of civilization, their beginnings are only reflected by their impact on the more settled agri-cultures.

“It is very easy when depending on archaeological evidence to over-stress the role of settled and urban peoples and under-estimate that of peoples less productive of material debris and bric-à-brac. Yet it is vital to remember that, just as the Fertile Crescent was backed and on the east flanked by mountains, so it enclosed in its wide arc a vast zone of arid land passing on the south into desert. Although this was incapable of supporting settled communities it was well adapted to nomadic or semi-nomadic life with a strong bias to pastoral economy. Yet it remained marginal over large areas even for pastoralists. When pressure on grazing exerted by variations in rainfall weighed too heavily the nomads had an obvious way out of their difficulties in pillaging, infiltrating or even dominating their richer neighbors settled on productive ground. Since the nomads were fitted by selection to withstand hardship and adapted by their economy to be mobile, it is no surprise that they were able to play a role in history disproportionate to their numbers or wealth.  In the archaeological record they made themselves felt indirectly through dislocating the ordered progress of more settled societies, whether as hill-men from the Zagros or as nomads from the Syrian desert moving east into the Euphrates basin or west and south into the Nile Valley.” (Clark, p 113-4)

Traditional slanted towards farmers

The standard definitions of Stone Age culture also reveal the same agri-centric bias. Traditionally, Mesolithic culture refers to transitional societies that continue to employ hunting and gathering techniques along with proto-agriculture techniques to provide sustenance. Under this definition, hunter/fisher cultures with pottery and limited agriculture are considered Mesolithic. The early American pioneer farmer culture would be considered Mesolithic in the sense that hunting provided a significant portion of their diet.

This traditional definition of Mesolithic addresses the ‘evolution’ of the proto-farming cultures. Under this perspective, the ‘permanent’ food sources of the agricultural lifestyle ultimately replaced the uncertain sustenance of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In support of the standard interpretation of cultural development, most hunter/gatherer/herder cultures will convert to an agricultural society, if given the choice. However, some cultures didn’t have the choice; their geographies just didn’t work for agriculture.

The concept of cultural evolution belongs to the underlying mindset of this perspective. From this viewpoint, humans ‘evolve’ from ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer societies to become ‘sophisticated’ agriculture-based societies. This attitude regarding the supposed ‘evolution’ of culture certainly has limited validity.

Advanced Hunter-Fisher cultures

However, the notion that agrarian culture ‘evolved’ from the hunting and gathering societies leads to some ambiguities. For instance, sometimes hunting and fishing cultures were more sophisticated than nearby farming cultures. The stable and highly developed Scandinavian and Japanese societies practiced a limited agriculture based upon the potentials of their geography. However, hunting and fishing supplied a majority of their sustenance. While pottery tends to be associated with agri-cultures, both hunter-fisher cultures produced some fairly sophisticated pottery.

Due to the abundance and stability of game and fish in their environment combined with the difficulties of farming in the northern climates, these societies didn’t ‘evolve’ into an agrarian society. Despite their sophistication, they ‘chose’ to continue hunting and fishing. These societies provide significant counter-examples to the standard sequence of the ages of cultural ‘evolution’. Although Mesolithic cultures by definition, the Japanese and Viking societies were just as advanced as the Neolithic cultures of the period.

Age of Geographical Differentiation

To avoid both the ambiguity and the agri-centric bias, we prefer to view the Mesolithic as the age of cultural differentiation based upon geography.

The Mesolithic saw the retreating Ice Age. The environment was going through huge changes. These changes stimulated new types of adaptive growth dependent upon geography. As such, the Mesolithic saw the development of different cultural styles based upon geographical differentiation.

The Middle Stone Age saw the beginning differentiation of the 3 fundamental cultural types. The age was characterized by the beginning of pastoral cultures, the advancement of hunter-gatherer cultures, and the emergence of proto-agri-cultures. Each cultural style was based upon the limitations of the local geography.

Hunters, Shepherds, and Farmers

For ease of reference we will refer to these cultures based upon the hunting of fish and game, and gathering food, as Hunters-Gatherers. We will refer to the pastoralists as Shepherds and the agriculturists as Farmers. These categories are just rough approximations and do not reflect the incredible diversity of cultures lumped under each of these categories, especially that of Hunter-Gatherer.

The Hunter-gatherers retreated into the forest, but continued to evolve. The nomadic Herding cultures began to emerge in the arid grasslands. The Farming cultures were just beginning to settle down, but still needed to supplement their diets with hunting, fishing and gathering.

The forest dwellers developed yet more sophisticated methods of procuring sustenance. The inhabitants of the grassy plains began domesticating animals for herding in order to have a more consistent food source in the face of shrinking forests. A third group of people, the proto-farmer, began rudimentary farming on arable land that was eventually going to lead to the development of farming culture.

The Paleolithic is traditionally associated with Hunter-gatherer societies and the Neolithic with settled Farming societies. In this paper, we will associate the Mesolithic with Herding cultures, mainly because it was the only major cultural type without a Stone Age. In this context, the association of the 3 cultural types with the 3 Stone Ages is used more as a mnemonic device than as a descriptive term.

Age of Animal Domestication

Humans first tame Materials of Nature

In setting a context for the Mesolithic, let us look back again to a difference between man and the other predators. While the other predators succeeded through speed, strength, and size, Early Stone Age humans succeeded in part by modifying the elements of their environment, for instance stone and wood, to serve their purposes. As such, humans first tamed the materials of nature.

They then tame Animals of Nature

A second step was to tame animals. This ability was beyond the mental capabilities of the earlier Homo species, but seems to be a universal of the modern human. All over the world, in many varied cultures, homo sapiens sapiens has tamed and bred animals in many different ways for a variety of purposes.

Each culture tames animals in their own way

The Mesolithic represents the age when animals were first domesticated. Because of the universality of domestication and the lack of traceable evidence, we can only suggest that different cultures domesticated animals in their own unique way. Some worked with wandering herds, while others raised wild animals from birth. Some animals were raised as a food source, while others were domesticated to help with the work.

The dog was probably the first animal to be domesticated. Most likely they assisted in the hunt. About 9000 BCE, there is evidence that humans domesticated sheep, goats and cattle in the Near East. Although there is no evidence, the nomadic cultures probably domesticated the wild herds of the steppes. Their efforts may have preceded the domestication of animals by the farming communities and certainly was going on during the Mesolithic.

One Possible Way Herds Domesticated

The taming of dogs extended the existing technology of Hunter-gatherer cultures. Proto-agricultural societies tamed animals before those animals were actually used in the settled farming process of the Neolithic.  However for the shepherds, the taming of herds created pastoral culture. As such, the domestication of animals during the Mesolithic marked the beginnings of the culture associated with nomadic herders.

It is likely that the early inhabitants of the grassland steppes of Central Asia first domesticated the wandering herds of sheep that had evolved there. It is a fact that Hunter cultures would follow herds of animals around in order to have constant supply of food. It is a natural progression with great advantages to lead these animals rather than following them.

It is suspected that the most aggressive males would be culled from the flock; they would not be allowed to breed. Thus, over the generations, the flock would become less and less aggressive. This step towards domestication is undocumented because there are no pens to contain them or barns to hold their food. This is just one way in which these herding communities might have domesticated animals.

(Note: The traditional agri-centric explanation is that farmers domesticated animals and then the herder cultures split off for some reason. While acknowledging the possibility, we prefer the theory of separate geographical differentiation.)

How Animals Became Domesticated

The humans that inhabited the grasslands of the Central Asian Steppes were instrumental in the domestication of many animals.

“The early peoples of central and southwestern Asia were the most successful in domesticating animals. They domesticated the cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, camels, horses, and donkeys that people use today.” (Compton's New Media, Inc., 1995)

The herding animals, all hoofed grass eaters, probably evolved in the grasslands of the Central Asian Steppes, as it was ideally suited to their needs.

“Cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and horses—the most important and widespread of the domestic animals—are all hoofed grass eaters and can be kept in herds. All of them were first mastered by the early peoples of southwestern Asia. It has been suggested that the grassy plains of that region began slowly eroding some 10,000 years ago. Humans were forced to share smaller and smaller oases of fertile land with wild animals. People gradually learned how to control the animals. Some animals were bred in captivity, and from them the domestic strains developed.” (Compton's New Media, Inc., 1995)

 As competition increased for the oases of the shrinking grasslands, the peoples of the area were drawn into closer contact with the herd animals. This close proximity could have led these early humans to domesticate the hoofed grass eaters. They fed this permanent food source by herding them from place to place. While their food source was stabilized, their home had just become destabilized. This transition marked the beginning of the nomadic Herders.

Why didn’t these early humans adopt a settled agricultural lifestyle instead? Herding is the only solution to survival in certain climates.

 “A large proportion of the world's land area is unsuitable for crop production because of topography, climate, and deficiencies in soil fertility or rainfall. In many such areas the use of grazing animals is the only feasible way economically to convert the natural materials of plant growth into products of use to people.” (Grolier’s Multimedia 1997 Animal husbandry)

These herding societies were based in the Great Arid Zone of Eurasia-Africa, which included Central Asia and Northern Africa. By necessity they were nomadic, always searching for new pastures for their herds. Indeed the word nomad is derived from the Greek ‘to pasture’. These pastoralists who began in Mesolithic times have controlled the Great Arid Band between Africa and Siberia for thousands of years. Their land is unsuitable for farming. Pastoralism was a cultural adaptation specific to the grassland steppes of Central Asia.

Cultural Ramifications of Animal Domestication

Each of the 3 basic cultural types, i.e. Farmers, Hunter-Gatherers, & Herders, employed domesticated animals in their own unique way. What are the cultural ramifications? We will see that the three distinctly different types of domesticated animals, i.e. the herded animals of the shepherds, the penned animals of the farmers, and free running animals of the hunters, led to three distinctly different cultural outlooks.

Herded Animals of the Shepherds

Let us begin our discussion with the Herders, the pastoral cultures. Herded animals, i.e. goats, sheep and cattle, graze the open land. The owner does not feed the herded animals; he merely moves them from place to place, wherever the grazing is good. The cultures that herd animals are necessarily nomadic, always looking for ‘greener pastures’, hence the name ‘pastoral’. While these pastoral cultures domesticated animals, they did not clear and/or cultivate the land. They just used the land and then abused it by overgrazing – taking without giving. Due to this innate process, the herding lifestyle can easily lead to a general disrespect for the earth and its environment.

Penned Animal of the Farmers

On the other hand, farmers must provide food for his penned animals, which he would normally grow. Penned animals are intimately linked to settled agriculture associated with tilling of the soil. In contrast to the pastoral lifestyle, the soil and livestock must live in balance. The livestock fertilizes the soil, which provides the livestock with food. This leads to a sense of cultivation of both animal and earth. This aspect of the farming culture led to an attitude of cooperation between plant and animal life.

Wolf-dogs – the free animals of the Hunter-Gatherer

The domestication of animals is not usually associated with the Hunter-gatherer cultures, but they were the first to domesticate an animal. It was not the herding animals of the nomads, nor was it the sedentary livestock, including flocks of chickens, of the farmers. Instead the Hunter/Gatherers domesticated a pack animal, presently called a dog.

Hunting and Protection

All dogs evolved from wolves. Maybe these early hunter-gatherers threw some bones out which were picked up by some wolves. The wolves began hanging out around the campsite, maybe even following the tribe for scraps. Eventually, the Tribe was able to raise a wolf cub from infancy. As a pack animal, the wolf developed an incredible loyalty to the human ‘pack’. Soon these domesticated wolves served as a source of protection and with proper training were also able to assist with the Hunt.

Wolf revered by Hunters

As opposed to the farming cultures, many hunting cultures, including the Plains Indians of North America, revere the wolf for its skill as a hunter, for its selfless loyalty to the Pack, i.e. the Tribe, for their sense of hierarchy, and even for their family values.

Herders and Farmers hate the Wolf

Both the herder and farmer vilify wolves and seek their destruction because of attacks upon their precious herds and flocks. As wolves have been around for some 40 million years, the human species, with only a few million years of existence, are a relative newcomer to the ecosystem. The Hunter-Gatherer societies were the prevalent form of human culture for the first two million years. The Herding and Farming cultures have only been around for the last 10,000 years or so. This is less than 1/2 of a percent of our time upon the planet. The wolf has been around even longer – more than 4,000 times longer than these ‘modern’ human cultures. It would be nice if they could show some respect for their elders. The Hunter-gatherer cultures certainly did.

Tribe emulates Pack

While herders and farmers tend to feel superior to the animals they have domesticated, the Hunters have always looked to nature and animals for examples of adaptive techniques. Hence the Hunter might have learned how to hunt from watching wolves. This involved prolonged stalking over substantial distances.

There has even been the suggestion that early humans looked to the wolf pack as an example for their early tribes. The similarities are striking. The Pack has a home base where the female wolves raise the cubs while the males hunt for food. Remember that the Primates were not great hunters and so humans didn’t really have that instinctive gene pool to draw upon. There is yet another feature that links humans with the wolf pack. Status and food are positively correlated, i.e. those at the top of the hierarchy are first to receive the best food.

The Hunter-Gatherers neither penned nor herded their wolf-dogs. Instead the wolf-dogs remained through choice, through loyalty alone. Add perseverance and loyalty to the list of traits that tribal humans may have emulated from the wolves.

Wolves eco-hunters

Wolf packs are also eco-hunters, in the sense that they only kill enough game to feed the Pack. They hunt hoofed animals such as elk and deer. Rather than killing indiscriminately, they would choose the old, sick, and weak, culling the Herd ultimately to make it stronger. This strategy preserved their eco-system, enabling the wolf to survive for millions of years. Perhaps this example inspired certain Hunter-Gatherers to cease killing wantonly and in excess.

Public Gratitude and Apology

Thank you brother and sister Wolves for protecting our early ancestors from harm and for providing us with a role model that allowed our species to survive. Further we apologize for the shabby treatment that you’ve had since then.

Wolves control population growth

The wolf pack has an alpha couple who determines who can breed. Frequently they are the only breeding pair. This process assures that the population will not grow beyond the capacity of the Pack to support itself. In this way, the wolf has survived some 40 million years through many Ice Ages. Modern humans have only been around for a few hundred thousand years and have always had problems with overpopulation. If we could have only learned a sense of population control from the Wolf Pack, maybe we could also survive for 40 million years.

Ruled by alpha-couple

There is one last feature of the Wolf’s social organization that we would be wise to emulate. They were not sexist. An alpha-couple led or ruled the Pack. It wasn’t male dominated or female dominated. Interestingly some of the most popular and effective U.S. presidents in recent times have had strong wives, in the sense that that they seemed to play a significant role in running the country, for example Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton, to name a few. Could it be that the American public wants a couple to run the country in order to provide a more balanced perspective?

Nature, Wild or Tamed

The Hunter-gatherers looked to Nature for examples. Nature was their teacher and guide, their ally. Conversely, Herders and Farmers tamed Nature. Untamed Nature, i.e. wild animals, threatened their food source. Wolves ate their livestock and deer ate their plants. Farmers and Herders have constantly waged war on Nature, attempting to tame and domesticate her, feeling above her. This mentality has had unfortunate consequences in modern times. The destruction of the natural environment   threatens our very existence as a species.


In the Paleolithic, humans tamed the materials of the earth. In the Mesolithic, humans tamed animals. We can now move on to the Neolithic where humans tamed the land itself. In this age, agriculture developed full-blown, realizing its potentials for transforming the planet.


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