Meat in the Mesolithic

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Last updated: April 11, 2019

The hunting of mammals remains central to the Mesolithic even if they were not the main food supplies some areas. Although they may have required more effort to hunt, animals provide range of nutrients that other food sources do not supply.

Meat in itself supplies a rich source of protein, vitamins, minerals and fats, and through its consumption provides a means for energy and strength (

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The range of mammals available to people during the Mesolithic in Europe varied significantly. Ireland due to its geographical location acted as a barrier to immigration of animals as well as other resources, and as a result of this Ireland had a restricted range of mammals. The number native species does not amount to more than 14 in total and of which four are now extinct, which include wild boar, wild cat, brown bear and wolf. The remainder of the animal types consisted of wild pig, badger, otter, fox, hare, stoat, red squirrel, shrew, wood mouse and pine marten. Also a number of bird types were also available and included wood pigeon, wood cock, grouse, mallard and wigeon (Waddle 2000, 12). The evidence for the exploitation of red deer in Ireland during this period is unclear. It has been suggested that he reasons for this is due to the species not appearing until very late in the Mesolithic or the early part of the Neolithic (Barry 2000, 6).Larger mammals in Europe ranged from red and roe deer, elk, brown bear, auroch, wild boar and pig, wolf, polecat and as well as reindeer.

These larger animals provided a greater amount of calories compared to shellfish or plants and also served as a source of materials such as hides and bones for tool making (Cunliffe 2001, 106).Looking at one example, that of red deer which can weigh between 90-190 kilograms, a person would have to consume 52,000 oysters or 156,000 cockles to match the calorie content of one red deer. Aurochs were most probably high on the menu due to their large size. These animals which roamed Europe and weighing in at around one ton were valued for their large meat content as well as their hides and horns (Conneller and Warren 2011, 71).The hunting of these larger type mammals would have been a dangerous task and would have involved an encounter strategy, with groups of hunter tracking and stalking their intended target. Once an animal was spotted an attempt to kill it, or wound it so it would bleed and be easily tracked until it collapsed.

Other methods for hunting large game involved pits and traps, with evidence of pit traps in Scandinavia been used for reindeer. The use of dogs, notably German Shepherds may also have been used in hunting, with finds of this breed of dog in some Mesolithic cemeteries, indicating they may have been held in high regard (Cunliffe 2001, 107).An example of the way in which an animal may have been procured comes from along the River Tjonger in the Netherlands. Researchers from the University of Gronningen suggest from the evidence, that an auroch after been trapped in a pit was killed by the use of a club round the head and arrows from a bow. The animal was then processed by the hunter, who consumed part of the kill on site; this action may have been performed as reward for the killing of the animal. Using a flint knife the hunter then precisely removed all the meat from the bones as well as the hide to transport back to camp (www. range of smaller mammals were also available in addition to the larger animals. These included beaver, hare, fox, pine marten, hedgehog and badger along with small rodents. These smaller examples would have been acquired by the use of snares rather than hunting and provided furs as well as a supply of meat (Conneller and Warren 2011, 72).The areas which were located around the coast and other waterways would also have provided a range of mammals for exploitation. Sea birds may have been seen as an important foodstuff.

The residents of the island of St Kilda in Scotland are suggested to have harvested some 22,000 gannets on an annual basis. Sites in Denmark are dominated by other species of bird fauna, Aggersund for example indicates a swan hunting site due to the large amount of whooper swan remains, while the site at Ogaarde was used for the purpose of white tailed eagle. Large scale processing of birds would seem to be the case at these sites, and may have been carried out by driving these birds into specially constructed nets (Cunliffe 2001, 74).Along with birds an array of sea mammals such as dolphins, whales and seals were also exploited. These mammals were procured by the use of boats and weapons consisting of bone harpoon pieces.

The remains of these mammals are found in many coastal shell middens in the late Mesolithic. Any beached mammals that were discovered such as sperm and blue whales were most probably taken advantage of and seen as an opportunity to good to miss. The hunting of these mammals not only provided a supply of meat but a range of resources including bones and fats as well as oil (Cunliffe 2001, 108-109). Fats for example have important role beyond their nutrient value.

They are important in the treatment of animal hides and waterproofing as well as a tool in lubrication such as that of bow strings (Mulville and Outram, 2005, 2).Once these resources had been obtained they then had to be transformed into food. Possible cooking methods included the use of stones and hearths. The fact that stones and hearths retain heat and make a good cooking platform may be the reason they are found on many sites. The variety of ways in which these can be used includes, heating up the stones and directly cooking meat on the surface or placing stones that have been heated in a fire directly into water or other liquids, creating a boiling effect. One application of the use of hearths may have been to cover them with vegetation and create a steaming process for the cooking of meat or simply placing it on a rack for cooking within the hearth. Other methods may simply have consisted of roasting an animal over an open fire (Conneller and Warren 2011, 77-78).

Animals as well as been a food source may have also served a role in ritual and social events. Feasting may have been practiced as means of social relations and hierarchy or just to consume large amounts of meat quickly. The placing of animal remains as grave goods and their use as possible ritual elements may represent the relationship Mesolithic people had with animals and the value they placed upon them (

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