Microliths are seemingly the diagnostic feature of the British Mesolithic and in fact without the presence of these artefacts it is difficult to date a stone assemblage to the Mesolithic. The microlith had been set up as the motif of the Mesolithic and was used to signify arrows and the hunting of red deer herds. In recent years this image has been de-constructed and no longer is the microlith and hunting the symbol of the Mesolithic. However it is still an important aspect of the Mesolithic in Britain and therefore in this post I would like to tell a short history of the microlith in a more global setting and speculate on the end of the use of this artefact within Britain.
The microlith is not uniquely British or even European but is a truly global phenomenon in regions disconnected in time and space. the broken up segments of blades are not called Microliths in some of these places but they all share their tiny proportions and their part in making up larger composite tools.
The earliest microlithic technology may be found in the late Middle Stone Age of South Africa emerging at about 60,000 years ago, these are part of the Howiesons Poort industry.The use of microlithic technology has been linked to the emergence of modern human behaviour and the technology itself begins at the same time as groups start to travel long distance to gather exotic raw materials to make these artefacts. The microlithic technology used by the early peoples of South Africa however disappears and is replaced by the use of a bi-face technology similar to that of the preceding period.
We can then move the microlithic story to the Near East where the Natufians were making tiny geometric microliths probably for inserts into sickles for the harvesting of wild cereals. These people were on the very cusp of the advent of the farming age about 15,500 – 10,000 years ago.
In the far northern reaches of our species range a microlithic technology was used by Palaeo-Inuits in one of the most extreme environments, the Arctic circle during the early Holocene. Here they are known as micro blades and were inserted into smooth bone and used as lateral or side inserts for bone projectile points.
If we travel to the other side of the world and move further into the Holocene to about 3500-1500 years ago there is an intensification in the use of backed blades on the Australian continent.
These examples illustrate that the microlithic technology was used globally by peoples distant and distinct in time and space, there was no gradual evolution or adoption of the technology but a patchwork of use across numerous environments The flexibility of such a technology must have been able to solve a number of different problems and was developed for different reasons by each society and the result of different historical trajectories.
The end of Microlith use in Britain
The last microliths in Britain were made by people at the end of the Mesolithic period with the coming of Neolithic stone technology whether adopted by the indigenous people or brought in by migrants from Europe by about 4000 BC. The polished stone axe and arrow heads of the Neolithic were to replace the microliths as the major technology.
An enigmatic note to the end of the microlith in Britain is suggested in the Pennine upland region of Northern England, that a distinctive form of microlith known as rods may have been in use at the end of the Mesolithic and beginning of the Neolithic. If so was this the swan song of the microlith on the British shores? and were microliths adopted by farmers for use in the uplands or perhaps Mesolithic populations who survived trading resources from the uplands with lowland farmers continued their old tradition. The possible survival of microlithic technology into the Neolithic in this region is fascinating – we could speculate that activities in the uplands required the use of these tools even into the Neolithic or was there an ideological holding onto ancestral traditions of stone tool manufacture.