What is Mesolithic
For the 100 most ancient works, see: Oldest Stone Age Art.
The term "Mesolithic art" refers to all arts and crafts created between the end of the Paleolithic Ice Age (10,000 BCE) and the beginning of farming, with its cultivation and animal husbandry. The length of this interim "Mesolithic" period varied region by region, according to how long it took for agriculture to become established now that the Ice Age was over. The Mesolithic is the first era of the Holocene epoch, which succeeded the Pleistocene, and it ushered in a new approach to Stone Age art: for example, with the arrival of a warmer climate, cave art starts to disappear as rock art takes to the open air. [Note in passing the Coa Valley Engravings (22,000 BCE), the one major exception to the rule that Paleolithic engravings were only done in caves.] Also, the need for mobiliary art is gradually reduced and domestic crafts become more important.
To put the Mesolithic into context, the two defining periods of the Stone Age were the Paleolithic and the Neolithic era (meaning "Old Stone Age" and "new Stone Age", respectively). Paleolithic man was a hunter-gatherer who followed the herds of reindeer and other game animals in a continuous quest for food. During the Upper Paleolithic his existence was far more cloistered in Europe due to the Ice Age. As a result, he practiced portable forms of prehistoric art, such as ivory carving, or (in certain areas) cave painting and other forms of parietal art. In contrast, Neolithic man generally lived in settlements, cultivated crops, domesticated animals and practiced agriculture. As a result, he developed ancient pottery and other forms of ceramic art (but see the astonishing Xianrendong Cave Pottery which pushes back the invention of pottery to 18,000 BCE) as well as early forms of megalithic art, associated with burials and other religious rituals peculiar to more settled, organized communities.
But hunter-gatherers don't transform themselves into settled farmers overnight. So in-between these two defining eras we find an elastic third period which acts as a bridge between them. This third period is called the Mesolithic ("Middle Stone Age"). It begins at the end of the Ice Age - roughly 10,000 BCE - and ends with the arrival of agriculture. It is elastic because different areas of the world developed agriculture at different times: Northern and Western Europe, for example, were greatly affected by the Ice Age and consequently became an agricultural society some 4,000 years after the Middle East. The northern European Mesolithic is therefore much longer than its Middle Eastern cousin.
In North/Western Europe, the Mesolithic
lasted from 10,000 to 4,000 BCE
First, due to the warmer climate, Mesolithic rock art moves from caves to outdoor sites such as vertical cliffs or sheer faces of natural rock, often protected from the elements by outcroppings or overhangs. These Mesolithic rock paintings have been discovered in numerous locations across Spain, Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas. The largest grouping of this ancient art can be found in eastern Spain, while other famous examples are listed in chronological order below:
Pre-Estuarine X-Ray paintings (c.9,000
BCE) Ubirr, Arnhem Land, Australia.
Another characteristic of Mesolithic rock painting concerned subject matter. Whereas Paleolithic cave paintings and engravings mostly depicted animals, Mesolithic painters and engravers tended to focus on humans - usually groups of humans engaged in hunting, dancing and various other rituals, as well as everyday activities. The painting technique varied - both in the painting tools adopted (feathers, reeds, pads/brushes) and the colour pigments used: for more, see: Prehistoric colour palette - but generally representation was non-naturalistic and highly stylized. The humans looked more like stick-figures or matchstick men. In fact, many of the men and women in Mesolithic rock paintings look more like pictographs or petrograms than pictures. Other figures seen in Mesolithic tribal art include various anthropomorphic hybrid figures, as well as X-ray style figures characteristic of aboriginal rock art of the late Stone Age. For more, see the pictographs among Ubirr Rock Art (c.30,000 BCE but unconfirmed) and Kimberley Rock Art (c.30,000 BCE also unconfirmed).
Not all Mesolithic rock paintings and petroglyphs were executed at open air sites. Artists continued to decorate caves that provided essential shelter or were established places of residence. The Mesolithic rock engravings at Wonderwerk Cave (8,200 BCE), for example, were done in a cave that had been inhabited by humans for some 2 million years. The stencilled hand paintings (8,000 BCE) in the Kalimantan Caves and Gua Ham Masri II Cave (8,000 BCE) in Indonesia, were created in rock shelters in the middle of inhospitable jungle terrain. Note also the Fern Cave hand stencils (from 10,000 BCE) in North Queensland, Australia. See also: Oceanic Art.
The most famous example of Mesolithic cave painting is surely the Argentinian Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) in the valley of the Pinturas River, Patagonia, which contains a host of hand stencils and handprints, carbon-dated to 7,300 BCE. Other images include prehistoric abstract signs like geometric shapes and zigzag motifs.
The Mesolithic era also featured plastic art, although the Paleolithic liking for Venus figurines was not maintained. Mesolithic artists tended to produce mainly relief sculpture, such as the animal reliefs at Gobekli Tepe, although they also carved a small amount of free standing sculpture, like the anthropomorphic figurines discovered at Nevali Cori and Gobekli Tepe, dating to the eighth and ninth millennia BCE. In addition it seems likely that, with the regrowth of forests across Europe after the Ice Age, wood carving was also practiced widely - see, in particular, the delicate Shigir Idol (7,500 BCE, Yekaterinburg Museum, Middle Urals, Russia) - although few exemplars have survived.
As the number and size of Mesolithic settlements began to grow, so did the demand for personal and domestic decorative art, including adornments like bracelets and necklaces, as well as decorative engravings on functional objects like paddles and weapons. Ceramic art was also developed, notably by the Jomon culture - the first highpoint of Japanese Art - whose sophisticated pots have been dated to the 11th millennium BCE. Their clay vessels were decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay body with cord and sticks. Chinese pottery, fired on bonfires and decorated by stamping, was also a feature of the period at Xianrendong in Jiangxi province, and at other sites along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys. It is also fair to assume that both face painting and body painting continued to be practiced.
Perhaps the most important and defining archeological discovery of the Mesolithic age, is the monumental temple complex of Gobekli Tepe, situated on a ridge near the town of Sanliurfa in Southeastern Turkey. Carbon-dated to about 9,500 BCE, Gobekli Tepe is believed to have been a religious centre or sanctuary serving a prosperous, well-organized settlement (or series of settlements), as evidenced by its diverse range of megalithic art, as well as the large number of megaliths used in the construction of its shrines (c.9500-7500 BCE). Up until its excavation in the 1990s, experts believed that only properly settled farming communities were capable of building a monumental complex like Gobekli Tepe.
At any rate, Gobekli Tepe contains the oldest art involving stone structures, including numerous reliefs of animals such as wild boars, bulls, foxes, lions, gazelles, vultures and reptiles, as well as a quantity of pictographs and petrograms. Human imagery is scant, though it includes a striking relief sculpture of a nude female.
A similar Mesolithic sanctuary was discovered at Nevali Cori, also in Sanliurfa Province. Carbon-dated to 9,000 BCE, this stone temple and shrine complex also contained a large amount of stone sculpture, including numerous statues, a larger than life-size human head, and a carved statue of a bird. Several hundred 2-inch-high human figurines, made from fired clay were also unearthed, along with a number of anthropomorphic limestone figures which are believed to be the earliest known life-size sculptures.
Together with Nevali Cori, Gobekli Tepe has revolutionised archeological and anthropological understanding of the Middle Eastern Mesolithic. It demonstrates that the construction of a monumental complex was within the capability of a hunter-gatherer society, although scientists do not yet understand exactly how its builders managed to mobilize and feed a force large enough to complete the project. It's worth noting, for instance, that during the first two phases of construction, over two hundred large pillars, each weighing up to 20 tons, were erected and topped with huge limestone slabs. No other hunter-gatherer society has been able to match this feat.
For the final period of the Paleolithic, see: Magdenian Art.
For the most ancient painting and sculpture, see: Earliest Art.
For more information about Epipaleolithic Rock Painting, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE