Introduction: Europe after the Ice
By ten thousand years ago, the ice sheets of northern Europe had retreated to the highlands of Scandinavia and Scotland. Deglaciated areas and former periglacial zones were colonised by shrubs, then forests, and inhabited by foragers harvesting the resources of woodlands, rivers, lakes and seas. After several millennia, this world of hunters and fishers was disrupted by new ways of life based on domesticated plants and animals. Economic and ideological transformations that accompanied the transition to agriculture produced agrarian communities that formed the foundation for later prehistoric society.
This essay reviews the period between c. 9000 and 3000 bce in Europe north of the Alps, encompassing two major periods of European prehistory, the Mesolithic and the Neolithic. Chronologically, it begins at the start of the Holocene during the 9th millennium bce and continues until the beginning of the 3rd millennium bce. Geographically, it includes the riverine uplands of northern central Europe, the North European Plain, the Baltic and North Sea basins, the Atlantic facade of France and the British Isles, and the Sub-Arctic regions of northern Scandinavia and Russia.
Mesolithic foragers of northern Europe left one of the richest archaeological records of hunter-gatherer societies in the world. Wood, bone and antler artifacts are preserved in bogs and in coastal waters alongside stone tools and crude pottery, while cemeteries yield information about social practices. The Neolithic transition to agriculture in northern Europe saw the appearance not only of crops and livestock but also of new forms of domestic life and ideological expression. In some areas, early farmers left abundant traces of settlement with houses, rubbish-filled pits and cemeteries, but elsewhere habitation sites are scarce while mortuary architecture dominates the landscape.