The development of new hunting projectiles by European hunter-gatherers during the Mesolithic may have been related to territoriality in a rapidly changing climate, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE by Philippe Crombé from the University of Ghent, Belgium.

As a result of warming occurring at a rate of between 1.5 and 2°C per century, hunter-gatherers in Europe during the Mesolithic era (approximately 11,000-6,000 years ago) experienced significant environmental changes, very similar to those we face today: rising sea levels, increased drought, plant and animal migrations, and forest fires.

Crombé examined microliths, small stone arrowheads used in hunting, to see how their design and use by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers changed in conjunction with climate and environmental changes.

Based on archaeological research from the past two decades, Crombé used Bayesian modeling to reveal possible correlations between 228 specific radiocarbon dates from Mesolithic sites along the southern basin of the North Sea and the different types and forms of microliths (triangles, crescents, leaf-shaped and mistletoe-shaped microliths, trapezoids, etc.) found in those sites.

The model showed that the variation in microlith forms is much more complex than previously believed, with frequent coexistence between the forms.

In this study, Crombé hypothesizes that these different forms of stone microliths primarily developed as a means to distinguish between the different groups living along the North Sea basin (previous research has suggested the existence of two different and geographically distinct cultures in this region).

As sea levels rose and the ancient inhabitants of the North Sea basin were forced to move to new areas, increased competition and stress over resources could have heightened territoriality, including the use of these symbols of group membership.

Advancements in the shape of microliths and their increased cutting capacity also appear to be linked to short (1 to 2 centuries) but abrupt climatic events (which themselves would have been linked to growing environmental and demographic changes): triangular microliths were introduced after an abrupt cooling in the Early Mesolithic associated with erosion and forest fires; a similar climatic event 1,000 years later coincided with the appearance of small notches on the dorsal side and invasive microliths, and an even newer trapezoid-shaped arrowhead replaced these older microliths, at the same time as a third cooling event causing droughts occurred another 1,000 years later.

Further research is needed to determine if these climate and environmental changes also affected other aspects of Mesolithic behavior.


Philippe Crombé, Mesolithic projectile variability along the southern North Sea basin (NW Europe): Hunter-gatherer responses to repeated climate change at the beginning of the Holocene. PLoS ONE 14(7): e0219094,

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