6.2 The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Scotland: ways forward

The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition remains one of the most controversial issues in British prehistory and Scottish material is central to the debate. The precise timing of, and the processes involved in, the first appearance of agriculture in Scotland have been the subject of extensive research and a wide range of models has been proposed incorporating data from a very substantial array of disciplines.  Some of the most recent of these models are presented here, but the focus is on identifying areas with potential to help move debate forward. This is not to suggest that there is a magic bullet- a single piece of evidence that will resolve all problems – but is to argue that formulating clear models and searching for evidence that might confirm or refute them would be an effective way forward.

A recent review asked researchers to characterise key developments in understanding of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition over the last c. 20 years. Rather surprisingly, 33 per cent of respondents from the UK argued that one of the key changes had been the development of dichotomies in interpretation (Warren 2009). This included dichotomies that opposed hunter-gatherer and farmer, immigrant and native, Mesolithic and Neolithic, interpretative archaeology and archaeological science, but also the existence of very divergent models. This, perhaps, rather dispiriting response may seem surprising, given that a wide range of work on the transition has been carried out, often focusing on timing, subsistence base, ideology, etc., but reflects the quite polarising ways in which debate has sometimes been carried out, especially in terms of the overarching interpretations placed upon the data. Ultimately questions about the kinds of social processes involved in the transition often seem to devolve down to a deceptively simple question: did agriculture arrive in Britain through the movement of people, bringing new ideas and technologies with them, or through the transformation of indigenous hunter-gatherers who gained access to new materials and elected to change their way of life. (Behind both possibilities, and asked rather less frequently, are a further series of questions about why this should have taken place). Across Europe the transition appears to have involved both, and a mosaic of different interactions is recognised (see contributions to Whittle and Cummings 2007). Such mosaics have sometimes been claimed to include Scotland (Milner 2010).

The two dominant models by which the transition in Britain is understood have been developed by Julian Thomas and Alison Sheridan, and are often encountered as part of a long running and sometimes fierce debate in the archaeological literature. These models are explicitly about who was responsible for the transition and reviewing them provides a useful context for considering the nature of current debate.

Thomas (e.g. 2004; 2007; 2008) argues that the transition results from indigenous adoption of novel technologies and material forms obtained through networks of trade and exchange that linked the British Isles and Europe in the Late Mesolithic. He is sceptical that direct continental parallels can be found for all aspects of the new material forms characteristic of the early Neolithic and suggests that indigenous processes lie behind the decision to adopt new forms – transforming these forms and the indigenous hunting and gathering societies in the process. Unfortunately the definition of the nature of these indigenous processes is vague. Thomas notes the absence of non-lithic data for the British Later Mesolithic, and identifies several themes – forces that were at work- in Mesolithic societies: diversification, the importance of persistently significant places, the possibility of funerary practices that were ‘precursors for certain aspects of Neolithic mortuary activity’, and the possibility of monumentality (Thomas 2008: 65-67). Notwithstanding the problems of the data sets, there is some danger of teleology in Thomas’s identification of traits in the later Mesolithic that are argued to be continued in the Neolithic.

In contrast Alison Sheridan (e.g. 2003; 2007; 2010) argues that the transition results from direct colonisation from the continent. Sheridan finds specific origin points on the continent for aspects of Neolithic material culture and tomb architecture, and finds no pre-Neolithic evidence for contact between the Late Mesolithic cultures of Britain and Ireland and the continent. She therefore explains the appearance of the new material forms from specific locations as a sequence of ‘waves’ of colonisers, sometimes tying these episodes to particular social processes in their continental places of origin. Sheridan also finds little evidence for the role of the Mesolithic in this transition. Indigenous hunter-gatherers are accorded no causational role and they effectively disappear from the archaeological record; not even forming part of the development of any new forms of archaeological culture. Sheridan notes that this results from the rapid integration of the Mesolithic into the Neolithic and the resolution of distinctions within the archaeological data.

These models illustrate the extremes of interpretation -from wholly indigenous in origin to wholly foreign. Without trying to judge particular aspects of the detailed models at the moment, two points have broader relevance. The first is that the different theoretical frameworks lying behind these models mean that the same evidence is being used to argue for wholly different processes. Thus Sheridan argues that the absence of strong evidence for shared material forms in Britain, Ireland, and the Continent during the Late Mesolithic means that Mesolithic cultures in these areas were not in regular and routine contact and thus do not provide a precedent for the continental links provided by earliest Neolithic material culture. Thomas, in contrast, on the basis of ethnographic analogy, argues that differences in material culture cannot be interpreted as evidence for isolation and, on the basis of broader evidence for networks elsewhere in Late Mesolithic Europe, that these networks linked Britain, Ireland, and the Continent. This example clearly demonstrates that in understanding the transition, evidence and theory are inseparable and that the resolution of current impasses will only arise through developments in both fields.  More problematically, however, such debates arguably contribute to some scepticism in other disciplines about the ability of archaeology to identify the movement of people through material culture. The claims of genetic reconstructions both of past human populations and of animal populations such as woles, and, thereby, their movements, are often argued to plug this gap – speaking directly of the levels of migration at particular times in history, whereas archaeology has difficulty in so doing (see Oppenhemier 2006 for one statement amongst many).

Secondly, it is notable that in both examples the contribution of the archaeology of the Mesolithic to the transition is somewhat limited. As noted above, although Thomas places particular interpretative emphasis on ‘processes’ within the Mesolithic these are poorly developed archaeologically. For Sheridan, the nature of the Mesolithic is similarly limited as the initiatives are all continental. For both, the issue of Late Mesolithic isolation or otherwise is important, but the nature of Late Mesolithic society remains rather lost. From the perspective of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Panel it is important to note that in Britain most of the discussion of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition appears to be dominated by Neolithic scholars (Warren 2007). In a European context this is somewhat unusual. Alternative models exist, stressing ‘small scale’ colonisation, or the interaction of different processes and time scales, but from the perspective of understandings of the Mesolithic, many suffer from similar structural problems and the nature of interactions and social processes is vague.

It is important to stress that Scottish material remains central to debates on the nature of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Britain. The Oronsay middens are frequently cited as evidence for Late Mesolithic settlement systems in Britain; the precise calibration of the human bones from this island, and the significance of the marine influence of diet remain key questions (Milner and Craig 2009; Milner 2010). Similarly, the middens themselves are often cited as evidence for funerary and monumental practice in the Late Mesolithic of Scotland, and by extension, Britain (as in Thomas 2008; see also discussion in Warren 2007). The parallels in ceramic forms and tomb morphology between Achnacreebeag and Brittany have been central to Sheridan’s discussions of points of contact for the British and Irish Neolithic (Sheridan 2003). The sudden appearance of timber halls in eastern Scotland stands in some contrast to the often stated absence of such evidence elsewhere (e.g. Murray et al.2009). Finally, the model of climatic change facilitating the adoption of cereal cultivation draws heavily on Scottish data (Bonsall et al. 2002). Questions of regional variation within the British Isles have often been somewhat downplayed, but it is clear that Scotland has a significant contribution to the understanding of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from a variety of theoretical perspectives.

A way forward?

Moving debate on the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition forward from a Mesolithic perspective requires progress in a number of different fields. The data set for the latest Mesolithic remains sparse: further fieldwork and the generation of new data are necessary; and wetland environments may be especially important given their enhanced potential level of archaeological preservation. However, as noted above, new data alone will not resolve the questions about population movement. Wider theoretical frameworks are required against which the data can be set. The same is true regarding the urgent need for the development and utilisation of the latest analytical methodologies – including residue analysis and use wear – which have important roles in increasing the range of available data.

The following themes are suggested as key fields where further work would help to resolve dichotomous models and begin to make progress on the nature of the transition and the role of different population groups within it. In all of them the use of data from across disciplines is assumed, and in particular the active discussion of genetic research. A European context is vital for such research, and discussion of the Scottish data must be comparative whilst at the same time recognising that Scotland offered its own context within which these transitions took place..


If the transformations that indigenous hunter-gatherers faced in the late fifth and/or early fourth millennia BC are to be discussed, then chronology is vital. Advances in dating techniques, including the routine use of AMS dating, have made, and will continue to make, a significant contribution to understanding the temporal framework within which new materials arrived. Bayesian analyses offer significant potential for substantially increasing the resolution of chronologies and are claimed to enable new kinds of histories to be written of the transition (Bayliss et al. 2007; 2008; Whittle and Bayliss 2007; Whittle 2007). Issues surrounding the both the marine and freshwater reservoir effects, and the difficulty of modelling combined diets raise significant questions about the reliability of dates obtained on bone (see eg. Brinch Petersen and Meiklejohn 2009, 167-169). Progress in these fields is required. Precise dating may break down the Neolithic package, and allow an understanding of what arrives where and when. Our use of chronologies, of course, is not solely limited to radiocarbon dating and the use of typologies to make broader chronological statements will continue. The dating of palaeoenvironmental sequences carries its own challenges, and the levels of resolution obtained, and the errors associated, are sometimes forgotten in trying to march disparate data sets (Robinson et al. 2010, 62).

Discussions of chronologies tend to be crude in comparison with temporal resolution of the processes that are being described and explained. This is exacerbated by imprecision in the use of chronological labels. Researchers move between different ways of labelling: an artefact may be ‘Neolithic’ in type, but does its appearance on a site meant that the site is culturally, economically, or chronologically Neolithic? Boundaries between periods have a problematic tendency to become hard and fast time lines -whether it be at 4000 BC or 3800 BC, one side is Mesolithic and the other side is Neolithic. Archaeologists have an ‘either – or’ model, where change may be much more complicated than this. Models are discussed in more detail below, but it is impossible to imagine a transition that did not involve some kind of co-existence of Mesolithic and Neolithic – either two different groups of people interacting or the process by which Mesolithic cultures became those that are recognised archaeologically as Neolithic. This may have been very short, and effectively invisible at the kinds of resolution archaeology often works, but it may have had a duration that is analytically accessible.  At present, this is not known, and it would be very helpful if discussion was clear on precisely what interaction was implied and what archaeological visibility this might have.

The use of absolute dates, not labels, would be preferable though archaeologists will never fully escape the use of periodisations. One possibility would be to attempt to formally identify a time frame that is called ‘Mesolithic-Neolithic’ the period of time in which Scotland moved from the archaeologically defined Late Mesolithic to Early Neolithic, during which different things in different places would be expected to be seen. The final definition of this period would vary according to the models proposed, but forcing a definition would help focus analytical attention on the role of Mesolithic societies and downplay the significance of either/or models. Definitions of such a period would most likely fall between c.  4300-3700 cal BC.

The development of models

Although the language of models may seem anachronistic, and not suitably interpretative, the study of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition would be facilitated by the clear development of models of expected processes that can be compared to the archaeological data. Such models might focus on specific aspects of the transition, or provide overview, but should in all cases attempt to integrate a very wide range of possible data: archaeological, genetic, linguistic, and palaeonvironmental/ palaeoclimatic. This would help avoid the development of a situation comparable to that in Ireland where the contributions from different disciplines tend to work in parallel rather than truly integrating (Cooney 2007). Some contributors have offered relatively explicit models, but gaps are present in almost all examples. Some key areas where models are needed include:

  1. The nature of population movement/networks of exchange in the Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic of Britain.
  1. As noted above, the degree to which Britain was/was not isolated from continental Europe in the Late Mesolithic is of considerable importance to the mechanisms by which the Neolithic arrived in Scotland. It is likely that genetic and isotopic data will be very significant in the development of these models. Comparison with Europe will be very significant. Most models of contact between hunter-gatherers and farmers have assumed a terrestrial boundary between the two groups (e.g. Zvelebil 1998). The impact of a significant water barrier on the nature of interaction requires theorisation (see below).

The nature of seafaring technology and the possibility/constraints this provides for the transition.

Recent contributions have begun to model the timings of putative prehistoric boat journeys (Callaghan and Scarre 2009; Robinson et al. 1999) but the understanding of sea faring technology is very poor on the whole. Logboats are well known from contemporary contexts on the continent, but not in Scotland. Bark- or hide-covered vessels are often discussed, and are sometimes assumed to be more seaworthy than dugouts, but they are also archaeologically invisible. The potentials of sea crossings need to be explored, even if discussions remain abstract. Questions need to be asked of the data, including: what role do changing sea-levels and conditions have to play? What vessels are expected? What are the likely carrying capacities of such boats? How long could animals have been kept in boats without landfall? How many animals are required to establish a viable farming community? If the transition is a large scale movement of people that effectively swallows up Mesolithic cultures in Britain and Ireland, how many people does this imply? How many boats, or how many journeys does this necessitate?

Social processes in the Late Mesolithic

As noted above, the nature of social change in the Mesolithic of Britain is poorly understood and appears to play little substantive role in most models. General European models tend to presuppose trends to ‘complexity’ in Mesolithic societies, often with associated intensification. However these changes are not universal, and may not form such a strong trend over time as is often assumed (Warren forthcoming). Certainly their applicability to Britain is not clear. The data for Late Mesolithic society in Scotland is scant, but the development of models of the nature of Late Mesolithic society and the processes of change that these communities were undergoing is critical.

Interaction with colonisers (either small or large scale)

Many commentators now discuss ‘small scale’ colonisation, sometimes making reference to the detailed typologies of population movement offered by Zvelebil (1998). The nature of interactions between indigenous hunter-gatherers and colonisers is often unclear. If the process rapidly leads to the disappearance of Mesolithic communities then what caused this? Did they die out (disease? violence? marginalisation?) or were they assimilated (willingly?) and over what time scales? Anthropological analyses suggest all kinds of possible interrelationships between different groups and these need to be fully integrated into archaeological analysis.

Climate Change

Regardless whether one believes that the overall subsistence basis for societies was transformed to a major reliance on domesticates, it is undeniable that the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition in Scotland involved the appearance of new plants and animals. It is also undeniable that, in broad chronological terms, this happened at a time of very significant climate and environmental change, with related impacts on the behaviour of plants and animals. Bonsall et al. (2001) argue that a shift to a dry climate facilitated the growth of cereals and thus made the adoption of farming by indigenous hunter-gatherers a more attractive proposition, but why they should make the change at all remains unclear. Suggesting that climate may have played a causational role can lead to accusations of determinism (Thomas 2008, 67).

But this dismissal appears misguided. Subsistence must have been related to the productivity of the natural world, which in turn was influenced by changes in climate. There are therefore strong reasons for suspecting that significant climate change may have played a role in the decisions people made about whether to farm, to migrate, to persevere with an older way of life. Tipping (2010), for example, has suggested that climate change at this time destabilised the main subsistence basis for Late Mesolithic communities in Scotland and forced them to consider changing their subsistence strategies. This model provides a context for Late Mesolithic societies actively making decisions.

Setting aside the specifics of Tipping’s model, the point here is not that climate change necessarily caused social change, but that climate change may have been important and must be included in models; it influenced the world in which people lived. Discussions of climate change, however, need to ask how change was recognised by communities in the past and why particular decisions were made. It also needs to be embedded in broader discussions of social processes.

Subsistence Change

One of the key areas of debate in regard to the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition has been subsistence change. Scottish data play a key role here, with the isotope based dietary reconstructions from the Oronsay middens providing a powerful complement to the faunal assemblages from  Mesolithic middens elsewhere in Scotland and suggesting, to many, a profound reliance on marine resources that sees sudden and dramatic transformation in the early Neolithic (e.g. Schulting and Richards 2002). The extent to which the Oronsay middens are representative of the Mesolithic, the Mesolithic in Scotland, or the Mesolithic in Britain, is open to debate, and more variation is claimed by some (Milner 2006). Likewise, the overall use of isotopes to model such a dramatic dietary change in NW Europe has been sharply debated in the literature (Milner et al. 2004; 2006; Hedges 2004; Lidén et al. 2004; Barbarena and Borrero 2005; Richards and Schulting 2006). Development in these areas is important. Again a simple tendency to identify a ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet and a ‘farming’diet must be avoided in favour of looking for variation (Milner 2010).


The transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in Scotland has attracted, and will continue to attract, significant archaeological debate. The Scottish data are important in a national and European context, and are often cited in these contexts. However, understanding of the processes involved in the transition remains weak. The solution does not necessarily lie in more data-although the potential contribution of new sites and new analytical techniques should not be underestimated. Current models of the transition approach identical data with diametrically opposed interpretations- the data alone cannot resolve these problems. From a Mesolithic perspective, most of the dominant discussions are summary in their treatment of the historical processes of change within indigenous hunter-gatherer groups; even when these are supposed to have been the key drivers of change. There is a tendency for a fragmentation of analysis rather than the full integration of all available data. The suggestion here is that the development of increasingly explicit models of the processes involved will help identify key areas for research and enable the assessment of data against clearly defined parameters. This is not to suggest that archaeologies of this period should be strait-jacketed by models, or that archaeologists need not be interpretative and creative in reconstructions of the processes of the transition. It is, however, to suggest that clarity in discussions, and in the scales and mechanics of the processes being discussed, would a useful way of ensuring that future debate about the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Scotland avoids some of the pitfalls of the old.

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