The term ‘Mesolithic-Neolithic transition’ is usually employed to refer to this period of change (and is indeed used in Section 5 of this research framework, dealing mainly with Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Argyll and Bute), but in fact it is necessary to deconstruct this concept into two chronologically separate phenomena, namely:
- The appearance (or rather appearances – since this appears to be a multi-strand phenomenon) of the novel practices, things and beliefs; and
- The process whereby most or all people ceased to subsist solely on exploiting wild resources, choosing instead to adopt the farming lifestyle.
The ‘how?’, ‘why’ and ‘when’ questions relating to these phenomena as they occurred within Britain and Ireland have been the subject of intense debate for the last quarter century (eg Whittle et al. 2011; Thomas 2013; Sheridan 2010a; 2012a; 2015), with a key point of contention being whether the prime movers for the appearance of this new lifestyle were the indigenous forager-fisher-hunters or immigrant farmers from the Continent. The arguments for the various positions have been discussed exhaustively elsewhere, but for the benefit of those readers who have not been following the debate, the key arguments can be summarised as follows:
The ‘indigenist’ model (as articulated most fully by Julian Thomas in his 2013 book, The Birth of Neolithic Britain, and see also Cummings’ in this publication): this posits that there had been regular contact between indigenous hunter-gatherer-fisher communities in Britain (including Argyll) with farming communities on the Continent through the fifth millennium BC – farming having reached the north-west corner of the Continent a millennium before it appeared in Britain and Ireland. Evidence proposed to support this view includes the presence of Alpine axeheads of jadeitite and other rocks, which are known to have been manufactured during the fifth millennium. Thomas argues that, as a result of this putatively regular seaborne contact over several centuries during the fifth millennium BC, indigenous groups became familiar with the different lifestyles, beliefs, and practices of their Continental farming neighbours. This contact engendered an interest, among some of the indigenous people, in ‘the accumulation of collective property’ (Thomas 2013,p. 423) and these people selectively adopted specific elements of the novel lifestyle and practices from different parts of the Continent ‘from Armorica to Jutland and Scania’, indulging in a kind of cultural bricolage and recombining the elements to make a variegated and distinctively British Neolithic (ibid., 424). At a certain point-not simultaneously, but over the course of three centuries between the forty-first and thirty-eighth centuries BC-‘there must have been an active decision [among different communities] to “become Neolithic” (whatever that entailed)…What this probably involved was an identity process, in which a social group resolved to immerse itself in one network of contacts and relationships, while relinquishing another: ceasing to “be Mesolithic”‘ (ibid., 425) and becoming ‘property-owning corporate groups’ in ‘house societies’ (ibid., 296). As for how the indigenous groups acquired the alien skills such as potting, flint mining [in southern England], cereal cultivation, and herding domesticated animals, this was achieved by visiting the Continent and serving a kind of apprenticeship: ‘[cattle-herding] “apprentices” who might have been attached to communities in northern France for a decade or more’ (ibid., 406), and by having small numbers of foreigners coming over, perhaps as marriage partners, as he speculates in the case of his putatively female potters (ibid., 373). Thus, according to Thomas, although some Continental people from farming communities came over to settle, he rejects the idea that there had been a process of immigration- however small in scale-of entire groups or communities from the Continent.
In support of this ‘indigenist’ model, Thomas and others have pointed to the fact that Neolithic material has been found in areas of Mesolithic activity, arguing from that that there had been a continuing interest in – and therefore, according to the ‘indigenist’ model, continuity in the people using the same places. Some have even claimed that the Mesolithic shell middens on Oronsay and elsewhere served as a kind of monument, pre-figuring the cairns of the Neolithic monuments.
The ‘immigration followed by acculturation’ model (as espoused by the author of this section – see, for example, Sheridan 2010): this posits several small-scale episodes of immigration from different parts of northern France to different parts of Britain and Ireland (including Argyll), for different reasons, at different times (and with different reactions from indigenous communities) between c 4300 BC and 3800 BC. The two ‘strands’ of this immigration to have affected Argyll are one from the Morbihan region of Brittany, arriving at some point between 4300 BC and 3900 BC, and another from the Nord-Pas de Calais region of northern France (via the east coast of Scotland), around 3800 BC, as outlined below. These movements can be understood in the context of socio-economic changes in each of these regions of France: in Brittany, there were profound social and ideological changes following the collapse of a highly stratified, theocratic society dominated by a small number of men, while the emigrants from the Nord-Pas de Calais region were part of the consequence of over-population of the Paris Basin following a millennium-long growth in the farming population there, resulting in northwards and eastwards expansion from this area.
In this model, the French immigrants might have co-existed beside the indigenous hunter-gatherer-fisher groups – possibly not coming in contact with each other – for several generations. It then appears that the indigenous groups chose to adopt the novel lifestyle, practices and beliefs; whether this was because they perceived farming as a more reliable source of food, we cannot be sure. However, the switch seems to have occurred relatively rapidly, as far as can be discerned.
Evidence in support of the ‘immigration then acculturation’ model includes: 1) the wholly novel and alien nature of the Neolithic way of life – featuring domesticated plants and animals that can only have been imported from the Continent – which can be matched closely in the regions of France from which the putative immigrants came; 2) the appearance of a wholly new technology – pottery, expertly made from the beginning – and a different approach to the procurement, exploitation and working of lithic resources, all of which can be matched in northern France; 3) the appearance of a wholly novel and alien way of dealing with the dead, and of Continental beliefs and practices (eg those relating to the use of Alpine axeheads); 4) the evidence for a radically different diet, with farmers avoiding marine resources whereas a predominantly marine diet is seen in most of the Oronsay Mesolithic individuals; 5) the clear evidence for a long tradition of deep-water navigation by the inhabitants of Brittany, which includes crossing the Bay of Biscay to Iberia (where a monument similar to the Achnacreebeag (CANMORE ID 23252) tomb, and with Breton-like pottery, has been found); and 6) the aforementioned social and economic context on the Continent, which provides a convincing rationale for why some people should have sought to relocate elsewhere.
As argued by the author in detail elsewhere (eg Sheridan 2015), the many problems with the ‘indigenist’ model include the following:
For these and other reasons, the author of this section is strongly in favour of the ‘immigration and acculturation’ model. The results of ancient DNA analysis of a Mesolithic individual from Cnoc Coig (CANMORE ID 37818) on Oronsay, and of several Early Neolithic individuals from Raschoille (CANMORE ID 22924) and MacArthur (CANMORE ID 23066) Caves, shortly to be published, will provide powerful new evidence to add to the debate. The initiation of the Neolithic in Argyll and Bute therefore stands at the cutting edge of one of the biggest questions in archaeological research and future research works needs to should focus on investigating whether there is any evidence for the veracity of the various proposed acculturation process theories.
- There is no evidence of 5th millennium regular contact from Britain and Ireland to the Continent (or vice versa), as implied in Garrow and Sturt’s phrase ‘already busy seaway’ (2011). The domesticated cattle from Ferriter’s Cove in Ireland that is sometimes cited as such evidence is arguably more likely to have related to an episode of very small-scale immigration (Sheridan 2010; 2015), while the ‘Continental’-style lithics found by Garrow and Sturt at St Martin’s in the Scilly Isles (Anderson-Whymark et al. 2015) – if they do genuinely attest to Late Mesolithic contact along the Channel, since the typo-technological match is not an exact one – remain a one-off candidate for interaction at this time. (There is one other claim for contact, namely aDNA evidence from sediment suggesting the presence of wheat at Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight as early as c 6000 BC (Gaffney et al. 2015). The nearest place from which wheat could have come at this early date is the Mediterranean. The claim has however been met with justifiable scepticism, not least because it leaves many key questions unanswered.) There is nothing on the Continent that can be pointed to as evidence for contact with Britain and Ireland – no Scottish Mesolithic-style lithics in Brittany or Nord-Pas de Calais, for instance. And the claims that Alpine axeheads had arrived prior to 4000 BC (as repeated, for example, by Anderson-Whymark and Garrow in 2015 albeit more cautiously than Thomas (2013, 273-283)) are not backed up by any evidence: no Alpine axehead has ever been found in a Mesolithic context, and all the available dating evidence points to their having been old when brought to Britain and Ireland by migrant farmers. Moreover, the depositional practices associated with these axeheads (including the use of watery areas) are those seen on the Continent, and stand in contrast to the depositional practices of indigenous, Mesolithic communities.
- The oft-repeated argument for spatial correlation (and implied continuity) between Mesolithic and Neolithic activity is seriously weakened by the fact that, where the material in question has been radiocarbon dated, there is a very considerable time gap between the two. This is the case, for example, with the Neolithic chamber tomb at Glecknabae (CANMORE ID 40371) on Bute, which was built partly on top of a Mesolithic midden. Radiocarbon dating of animal bone from the midden and of human bone from the chamber tomb revealed that the former, at 4460-4270 cal BC, is some 2000 years older than the latter. Even allowing for the probability that the human bone post-dates the construction of the chamber tomb by a long time, we are still dealing with a difference of several centuries between the Mesolithic and Neolithic activities (Sheridan et al. 2012). The same can be argued for the evidence from Islay, reviewed in Section 5: at Bolsay there is a considerable interval between the ‘Mesolithic’ and the ‘Neolithic’ dates, suggesting a punctuated palimpsest of activity, rather than continuity.
- The documented movements of Late Mesolithic communities in Britain and Ireland are relatively local, as the evidence from Oronsay (Mellars 2004) and Islay, and from the regionally-variable lithic assemblages, indicates (Anderson-Whymark et al. 2015). Given this relatively local focus, it seems impossible to conceive of Mesolithic communities in Argyll sending representatives on long sea journeys to the Continent to be ‘apprentices’ to learn the ways and techniques of farmers, as Thomas has claimed.
- Claims that the Neolithic way of life was not so very different from that of the hunter-fisher-gatherers, especially in terms of mobility, are simply not supported by the evidence. The fact that some members of the farming community moved to higher pastures during the summer months as part of a transhumant style of herding is not in any way comparable to the whole-community movements that were part of the hunter-gatherer-fisher communities’ annual round of subsistence activities.
- Evidence that farmers also hunted and gathered wild resources – something that is held up by some as evidence that they were hunter-gatherer-fisher communities who simply adopted elements of the Neolithic lifestyle – is not proof that farmers had been indigenous hunter-gatherer-fishers. The farming communities on the Continent undertook hunting and gathering as well as cereal growing and managing domesticated animals.
- Elsewhere, archaeological evidence for hunter-gatherer-fisher communities adopting elements of a Neolithic lifestyle is abundant (eg in Denmark), and it usually takes the form of the presence of a few Neolithic-style artefacts, or selected domesticates, in Mesolithic sites, and perhaps some Mesolithic artefacts in Neolithic sites. So far, the record for Argyll shows no such patterning.
- The ‘indigenist’ model fails to accept the possibility that the transition to a Neolithic way of life (as far as the indigenous communities are concerned) occurred after that new way of life had appeared in the area.
- The newly-obtained results of ancient DNA analysis of Early Neolithic individuals from Raschoille (CANMORE ID 22924) and MacArthur (CANMORE ID 23066) Caves, and from elsewhere in Britain (Olalde et al. 2017) provide irrefutable evidence that farming was introduced by immigrants from the Continent.
Moreover, the criticisms levelled at the author’s multi-strand ‘immigration and acculturation’ model, including attempts to downplay the Breton design origin of the Late Castellic pottery from Achnacreebeag, have been consistently addressed and thoroughly dealt with in publications including Sheridan 2012c, 2015 and 2016. See also ‘The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Argyll – an alternative view‘.
For these and other reasons, the author of this section is strongly in favour of the ‘immigration and acculturation’ model. Future research now needs to focus on investigating whether there is any evidence for the acculturation process, and on assessing for how long the purely Mesolithic lifestyle persisted.