Late Mesolithic and early Neolithic forest disturbance: a high resolution palaeoecological test of human impact hypotheses

James B. Innes (Lead / Corresponding author), Jeffrey J. Blackford, Peter A. Rowley-Conwy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Citations (Scopus)


The transition in north-west Europe from the hunter-gatherer societies of the Late Mesolithic to the pioneer farming societies of the early Neolithic is not well understood, either culturally or palaeoecologically. In Britain the final transition was rapid but it is unclear whether novel Neolithic attributes were introduced by immigrants who supplanted the native hunter-gatherers, or whether the latest Mesolithic foragers gradually adopted elements of the Neolithic economic package. In this study, relatively coarse- (10mm interval) and fine-resolution (2mm), multi-proxy palaeoecological data including pollen, charcoal and NPPs including fungi, have been used to investigate two phases of vegetation disturbance of (a) distinctly Late Mesolithic and (b) early Neolithic age, at an upland site in northern England in a region with both a Neolithic and a Late Mesolithic archaeological presence. We identify and define the palaeoecological characteristics of these two disturbance phases, about a millennium apart, in order to investigate whether differing land-use techniques can be identified and categorised as of either foraging or early farming cultures. The Late Mesolithic phase is defined by the repetitive application of fire to the woodland to encourage a mosaic of productive vegetation regeneration patches, consistent with the promotion of Corylus and to aid hunting. In this phase, weed species including Plantago lanceolata, Rumex and Chenopodiaceae are frequent, taxa which are normally associated with the first farmers. The early Neolithic phase, including an Ulmus decline, has characteristics consistent with 'forest farming', possibly mainly for domestic livestock, with an inferred succession of tree girdling, fire-prepared cultivation, and coppice-woodland management. Such fine-resolution, potentially diagnostic land-use signatures may in future be used to recognise the cultural complexion of otherwise enigmatic woodland disturbance phases during the centuries of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-100
Number of pages21
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Early online date9 Aug 2013
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2013


  • Fine resolution palynology
  • Fire disturbance
  • Forest farming
  • Mesolithic-Neolithic transition
  • Mid-Holocene
  • Palaeoecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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