Mesolithic 10000 BC to 4000 BC
The Mesolithic period was characterised by small groups of nomadic hunter gatherers, who moved through the landscape hunting, fishing and gathering wild foods. Britain was still linked to continental Europe until about 6000 BC. People started to return to Britain after the last Ice Age which came to a sudden end in about 9600 BC with a rapid rise in temperature exacerbated by the reestablishment of the Atlantic Ocean currents bringing the warm waters of the Gulf Stream once more to Atlantic-facing shores of Europe. Pollen sequences and ice core studies have allowed climate scientists to model, in some detail, progressive changes in vegetation throughout the Mesolithic period. The gradually improving climate brought with it changes to the vegetation, beginning with open scrub-land with occasional surviving trees and culminating in a closed canopy woodland – the wildwood that was to clothe the country by 5000 BC.
By about 9000 BC birch and pine woods were fast spreading across Britain. This created an environment that was uncongenial to reindeer and wild horses which had been the major source of food for the hunting communities that had come to Britain. Trees were at first sparse but gradually increased in density with hazel becoming the major component by 8000 BC. A thousand years later the diversity had increased, with oak, elm, and alder, alongside hazel, now forming a significant part of the woodland canopy.
With the spread of woodland came a new range of woodland animals: red deer, roe deer, elk, aurochs, horse, and wild pig, together with brown bear, wolf, badger, wild cat, lynx, otter and hare. The basis of subsistence was now much broader and much more reassuring than in past times when survival depended on unmitigated reindeer diet eked out by horse-meat. Communities had to adapt to this new environment which required significant changes in behaviour and organisation. The quantity of animal protein available was now diminished: forested habitats support only 20-30 per cent of the total biomass of animals compared with more open landscapes. Moreover, forest animals are much less migratory in their habitats and are more widely dispersed in smaller groups than the herds of reindeer and horse. Adapting to these new conditions would have lead to smaller hunting bands working more limited territories. It may also have encouraged communities to explore more varied food resources, including plant foods, water fowl and the rich haul of produce to be had from the shores and sea.
To adjust to these new conditions the hunter-gatherers developed new toolkits characterised by small tool components (microliths) snapped from larger flint blades, designed to be set into wooden hafts, and larger axes and adzes useful in carpentry for cutting down or ring-barking trees and for grubbing up roots and rhizomes. There are many small finds in the East Meon area of their distinctive stone tools. A major flint production site recently excavated on Petersfield Heath shows that there was a substantial Mesolithic presence in our area.
There is a general assumption that sectors of Mesolithic communities moved between winter base camps in the more wooded areas and summer hunting camps in upland areas or the coast, where particular resources available for limited periods were to be exploited. However, base camps may have been occupied year-around, at least by the aged and the very young, and were places that the active hunters and gatherers would return to when the season’s gleaning was over.
One environment much favoured by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers was the Greensand of the Weald. Many hundreds of sites are known with the closest to East Meon being at Oakhanger, where several discrete locations have been identified. Oakhanger is situated close to the edge of the Weald, where the varied geology would have given rise to a range of environments each with its own potential. A short 4 km walk would have taken a hunter across a band of very heavy and densely wooded clay, followed by the lighter calcareous Upper Greensand to the scarp of the chalk uplands. At different times of the year these landscapes would have yielded all the foods and other resources necessary to maintain the communities. The local acid soil has destroyed all trace of bone and antler, but pollen is well preserved giving insight into the local vegetation. One notable find was that the percentage of hazel was exceptionally high. This suggest that there may have been deliberate felling of other trees such as alder, lime and oak around the camp to allow hazel to flower more freely and thus to produce a greater yield of hazel nuts. There was also a high percentage of ivy pollen; it is suggested that ivy was collected and brought to the periphery of the camp as fodder to attract deer in winter months, when food was in short supply. Lulled by piles of feed, the deer would be easy prey.
The tool kit found at the camp was dominated by processing tools, adding support to the idea that the site was occupied during the autumn and the winter when there was time to make and repair equipment.
The practices of the Oakhanger site and the use of fire to clear vegetation which has been detected in other Mesolithic pollen sequences show that communities had started to manipulate their environment. The use of fire to clear dense woodland would have been a productive strategy. It would have encouraged new growth, attracting animals to graze on the new shoots. Moreover, by providing feed, beasts such as red deer could be made to become used to human presence – the first stage in the process of domestication.