The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods are concerned with the fundamental developments in physical and cultural evolution which brought humanity from its very earliest hominin ancestry to a stage (the Neolithic) at which agricultural food production became the economic norm. These developments took place over an enormous extent of time – several million years – and against a backdrop of major climatic, geophysical, and ecological changes during the Pleistocene and early Holocene (Bell & Walker 2005).
There is still uncertainty about when people were first present on the land mass now known as Scotland. It is probable that inhabitation took place during the Lower Palaeolithic, of the same character as that for which there is accumulating evidence in southern Britain in the time range of as early as 700,000 to 500,000 years ago (Ashton et al. 2011; Pettitt and White 2012; Stringer 2006). Yet it is equally probable that evidence for such inhabitation will continue to elude archaeology, in particular because of the effects of major climatic events and geomorphological processes which have affected Scotland between then and now. Most significant in terms of the masking, disruption, and erosion of all earlier land-surfaces has been the last major glacial cycle, the Weichselian (Devensian), during which Scotland was completely submerged beneath ice at the Last Glacial Maximum.
In a sense, it is the Last Glacial Maximum which sets the archaeological clock ticking for Scotland, because it is only with the ameliorated conditions following this event that the survival of any archaeological residues in their contemporary or near contemporary, contexts can be expected. The date by which conditions favourable to human habitation in Scotland were in place is currently taken to be c.14.7 ka cal BP (12,700 cal BC), and there are now positive indications that people were here during the earlier stages of the Lateglacial Interstadial, probably by 14 ka cal BP (12,000 cal BC) if not sooner.
Human presence during the Lateglacial may well not have been continuous, and it must be remembered that at this period Scotland was merely the outermost component of the north-west European peninsula, since much of what is now the southern North Sea was dry land (Doggerland). Humans, and the herds of animals on which they were primarily dependent for their livelihood, are likely to have roamed widely across this massive expanse of land and probably subsisted at quite low-level densities. Subsequently, during the rapid and extreme (but relatively brief) climatic downturn of the initial Younger Dryas (Loch Lomond Stadial) around 12.65 ka cal BP (10,700 cal BC), a possible complete depopulation episode for Scotland can be anticipated.
Thereafter, however, a continuous human presence in Scotland can be envisaged, perhaps regularly reinforced with incomings as, with the progressive rises in sea-levels, the extent of Doggerland shrank and the available hunting grounds were reduced. Long before Britain was finally separated from the Continent around 6000 cal BC Scotland’s only land connection was with England, but by then Scotland had itself almost been split in two by the marine incursions in the Central Belt. In adaptive terms it is clear that ‘island-hopping’ was already well-developed in Scotland by the early Holocene, reflecting the increased importance of water-transport and an economic shift from reliance on large game to exploitation of seafood of all kinds.
A distinguishing feature of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of Scotland in contrast to that of all later periods is its low visibility – there are very few sites known by anything other than surface scatters of lithic artefacts. Palaeolithic and Mesolithic habitation evidence, apart from being relatively ephemeral in the first place, is far more vulnerable than that of any subsequent period to the vicissitudes of time and chance; such factors as glaciation, permafrost, changing sea levels and consequent inundation, coastal erosion, alluviation, peat growth, colluviation, and talus formation have all contributed to its destruction or concealment. This presents a massive challenge for researchers, but very significant advances in knowledge of these periods have occurred over the past decade or so. Hopefully, the formulation of the present research framework will lead to and underpin further increases in understanding over the coming decades.
Time-chart: the Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods in Scotland occupy the time slot on the right-hand side between c.14,000 and c.4000 cal BC, © Caroline Wickham-Jones.