Hunting Prey and collecting Hazelnuts in the European Mesolithic

Waterlogged peat prevents organic finds from oxidizing and has led to some of the best preservation conditions for organic material possible. Many “bog findings” were made during and between the wars in Denmark. The Danes just needed turf for fuel and they really had a lot of bogs! Many organic artifacts, like this antler point from the early Mesolithic were found during this process.

There is ample archaeozoological and biochemical evidence for the importance of hunting and increasing carnivory during hominin evolution, emphasizing animal products as a dominant staple food in past and present hunter gatherer societies. Throughout the greater part of human evolution the use of plant foods is invisible, and might have played a secondary role in nutrition. This view may be biased.  The Acheulian site of Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov, Israel revealed the association of edible nuts with pitted hammers and anvils as early as 800 k.a. BP (OIS19?). By the way: Cracking nuts has already been identified as a common cultural behavior in chimps.

During the Middle Paleolithic at Kebara Cave (60-48 k.a. BP), Mount Carmel, Israel, 3,956 charred seeds representing 52 taxa were found, mainly from the immediate environment of the hearths. It is assumed that these seeds represent the vegetal part of the Neanderthal diet. Among others, pistachio (Pistacia atlantica) nuts could be documented as part of this diet. Earliest evidence for a regular plant economy also derives from the Levantine and is evidenced by the findings at the Ohalo II site in Israel during the early Epipaleolithic at ca 20 k.a. BP.

In Northern/Western-Europe, ecological changes at the beginning of the early Holocene provoked innovations in early Mesolithic subsistence, focusing on meat of aurochs, red deer, roe deer, elk and wild boar, but also on the rich plant resources of the increasingly forested environment. Various lines of evidence point to an increased plant utilization during the European Mesolithic foreshadowing the Neolithic way of life to some extend.

The importance of hazelnuts is indicated by the frequent presence of hazelnut shells at Mesolithic sites, as well as by constructions associated with their processing. Hazelnuts have a very high energetic value, containing more than 60% fat, 15% proteins and 20% carbohydrate, in addition to high amounts of unsaturated fatty acids, minerals and B-vitamins. 100 g nuts equal 660–720 kcal. Following the definitions of Zvelebil (1994), the exploitation of hazelnuts during the Mesolithic in temperate Europe was by no means opportunistic and incidental but systematic and intensive. Based on the abundance of hazelnut shells found at Mesolithic sites in southern Scandinavia and Northern Germany it was proposed that these remains may testify to an important food supply rather than just the use as a supplement to animal protein.

It has been suggested that the rapid expansion of hazel in Europe during early Post-glacial times can be mainly explained by natural causes, but may also have  been at least partly an effect of intentional spreading by humans. The benefits from induced growth in hazel stands did not only come as increased harvests of nuts but also with the production of long, slender branches sprouting from coppiced stands. Hazel branches were indeed used at the Mesolithic site of Tagerup, for example in several of the fish traps.

In contrast to the Levantine Epipaleolithic plant exploitation, Mesolithic harvesting of hazelnuts was not connected with an increase in population density, sedentism or social differentiation. Among other factors,  the hazelnut abundance during the early Holocene probably made a change in lifestyle after the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary unnecessary.

Suggested Reading:

http://www.eva.mpg.de/primat/staff/boesch/pdf/behav_optim_nut-cracking.pdf

http://lessonsforhope.org/pdf/chimp_cultures.pdf

http://www.academia.edu/803910/Hazelnut_economy_of_early_Holocene_hunter-gatherers_a_case_study_from_Mesolithic_Duvensee_northern_Germany

 

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