The Stone Age

The Stone Age covers the long period from the evolution of the first makers of stone tools in Africa, until the development of metal tools.  Archaeologists divide the Stone Age into three main sections, the Paleolithic (old), the Mesolithic (middle) and the Neolithic (new), based on styles of tool making, and other cultural differences such as the burial of the dead.

The Paleolithic started around 2 million years ago (mya) with the first true humans of the genus Homo, defined by their making of tools from stone. Around 1.5 mya scattered sites of human habitation were established in Europe, along the Mediterranean fringe; however the spread of people was interrupted by climate change.  Around 1 mya the European temperatures fell in a series of Ice Ages, interspersed with warmer interglacial periods. Ice sheets advanced and retreated, until around 10 thousand years ago. The land that was to become the Hebrides was still part of mainland Europe, but for much of the time it was covered by ice sheets or desert tundra.

There is evidence for early humans living in Britain during the warmer periods; remains of Homo ergaster and Homo neanderthalensis have been found in caves in the south of England and of Wales, with the most northerly site, Cresswell Crags in Derbyshire.  Their stone tools were relatively crude, being the sharpened cores left after bits were chipped away.  No evidence for Paleolithic man has been found in Scotland to date (2014).

The last glacial period was at its coldest 22-18 thousand years ago, and ended 10 thousand years ago, with a thaw that raised sea levels by 91 m. This thaw separated the Hebridean Islands, cut off Britain from mainland Europe, and marked the transition between the Paleolithic and the Mesolithic.  Retreating ice sheets and glaciers left a landscape of rocks, boulders, gravel, sand, and lochs, but no soil.  Over hundreds of years soils developed by natural processes, such as water action, frost and chemical reactions.  Plants could then colonise the land; first herbs and shrubs, such as sedges, birch, dwarf willow and juniper, then denser woodland of birch, hazel and oak.  With the trees came animals and, finally, around 8,000 BCE, people.

The Mesolithic people were modern humans, Homo sapiens, hunter-gatherer-fishers.  They moved from camp to camp with the seasons, living off the land and sea, dwelling in tents and travelling by canoe or coracle. Their tools were distinct from the minimally and crudely chipped stones of the Paleolithic.  Mesolithic tools were constructed from microliths, the small chips removed from the cores of flint, bloodstone or quartz, and mounted using natural resins and beeswax into bone or wooden handles. Wood, bone, antler and hide are not preserved well in the archaeological record, so the microliths and refuse middens are the main clues to Mesolithic habitation.

Several Mesolithic sites have been identified in the north of Mull and on Ulva.  Two Mesolithic middens were excavated in Ulva cave (NM 431 384) in the early 1990s, dated at around 6,500 and 6,000 BCE. They contained over twenty different types of mollusc shells.  Professor Steven Mithen and his team from Reading University have excavated several sites on Mull; Mesolithic microliths have been found at Creat Dubh (near Dervaig), Croig Field (NW of Dervaig) and at Tenga (4 km west of Aros).

Several caves around Oban have been shown to have been occupied in the Mesolithic period and other Mesolithic sites are spread across the Inner and Middle Hebrides, including the Small Isles.  It is probable that more sites remain to be identified on Mull — check molehills as you pass for microliths.  In the Hebrides the Mesolithic ended around 4,000 years BCE, as society moved into the Neolithic.

For more information see:  Mithen, S., To the Islands, 2010, ISBN 978-1-906120-55-9.

In the Neolithic people began to settle permanently, to farm the land and to domesticate animals.  The landscape began to change with the clearing of woodland and building of enclosures.  Stone tools developed from chipped forms to shaped and polished forms.  Stone axes have been found as stray items on Mull, in the north at Cillchriosd, Killiemor, Loch Mingary, Loch Peallach, Quinish and Uisken, and on Iona, and a macehead was found at Ardow.  With permanent settlement came burial and ceremonial structures; chambered tombs and monumental earth and stone structures. One chambered cairn has been recorded on Mull, at Port Donian, 2 km south of Grasspoint (click here for more information).  Cup-and-ring rock-markings started, possibly marking ceremonial sites or boundaries, or just as an art form.  Simple cup-markings are found on rocks near Calgary.