Prehistoric Scandinavian Hunter-gatherer Culture Wasn't One. It Was Two

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Maglemosian fine-barbed spear point
Maglemosian fine-barbed spear point.Credit: Theo van Pinxteren / Museum Rott
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A study of ancient harpoons and bone points preserved in peat bogs has led researchers to the unexpected conclusion that late-Stone Age southern Scandinavia was home to not one but two cultures. Shortly after prehistoric hunter-gatherers colonized the low-lying land and began fishing its lakes, apparently the region experienced a 600-year bout of aridification. The lakes diminished or dried up and the people and animals moved on, researchers posit in a new paper published Wednesday in Scientific Reports.

Around 11,000 years ago, as the great ice sheets covering the northern hemisphere were in retreat, southern Sweden and Denmark became hospitable enough to support humans. Meltwater collected in depressions in the ground, studding the formerly frozen land with lakes and ponds. The vegetation also changed dramatically, and what had been a freezing waste turned into a woodland richly studded by meltwater lakes.

The land became a regular smorgasbord of venison and lakefish caught using barbed-pointed harpoons and spears. On a permanent basis, that is. Humans had crossed the ice-bound land before but hadn’t stayed in any appreciable numbers, the researchers suggest.

This early Holocene culture in Denmark and southern Sweden, from around 11,000 to about 8,000 years ago, is known as the Maglemose culture. One of the hallmarks of the Scandinavian Mesolithic period was the manufacture of barbed harpoon and spear points.

Now proteomic and morphological analysis of 126 bone points indicates that the “Maglemose” should be broken down into two phases with distinct cultures, says the international team led by Theis Jensen of the Globe Institute from the University of Copenhagen/York and Matthew Collins from the University of Cambridge/Copenhagen.

Danish bog, perfect for preserving ancient organic artifacts.Credit: Honymand

Going by radiocarbon dating of the barbed weapon points, the first was the Early Maglemose, which existed from just over 11,000 years ago to about 10,300 years ago. That was followed by a roughly 600-year hiatus in which people seem to have abandoned the land, and that in turn was followed by the Late Maglemose, which lasted to about 8,000 years ago.

The bone points the scientists analyzed survived the millennia because they were lost in the lakes, which turned into swampland over time, which turned into peat, which is anaerobic. The bacteria that eat us and our organic possessions when we pass on from this vale of tears need oxygen and can’t live without it. The ancient artifacts were found in the peat because modern people cut out massive amounts of peatland to burn for fuel.

Deer bones

The Early Maglemosian hunter-gatherers used fine-barbed bone points made mainly of deer bones, even though the region was thronged with tasty large-boned animals such as aurochs and reindeer too. Then evidence of human occupation rather vanishes for about 600 years. After that we find the Late Maglemosians were making large-barbed bone points made mainly of aurochs bones.

Bison had vanished from this area by the late Maglemosian – and it bears saying that the bone points made of aurochs bones are also the last known appearance of that bovine in the Danish island. So much for enormous bovines in Scandinavia.

Maglemosian fine-barbed spear point.Credit: Theo van Pinxteren / Museum Rott

Theoretically, it could be that the late Maglemosians decided the mechanical properties of aurochs thigh-bone were superior to those of the daintier deer, which could explain the switch. But the two Maglemosian epochs were also characterized by different stone-tool manufacture, explains co-author Mikkel Sørensen of the Saxo Institute.

By the way, the Late Complex of the Maglemosian span was followed by yet another culture: the Kongemose culture (8,500 years ago to 7,400 years ago), which eschewed the barb for a straight point on its weaponry, and special stone tools of its own – trapezoid in shape. Yes, the late Maglemosian and early Kongemosian did have some overlap.

We have ample samples of the barbed bone points because the Maglemosians evidently had a problem with losing them in the paleo-lakes, which turned into bogs, which turned into peat.

All this begs the question: what happened to the Early Maglemosian culture with its fine-barbed points? Why was the land abandoned for some 600 years, as seems to have been the case? The archaeologists are not sure, but suggest that the core problem was climate change.

The ending of the Ice Age (which is still in progress) was marked by climatic upheavals. The retreat of the great glaciers and rise of lush forests and lakes practically beckoned to wanderlust-prone humans. But it seems, a mere few centuries after these proto-Scandinavians moved in, the climate seems to have turned arid. The lakes dwindled and dried up. And the people left, as judged by the disappearance of bone points in the peat and the decrease in evidence of butchered animals, the team explains.

Hospitable conditions in Denmark.Credit: Honymand

The conditions could have created the perfect storm of prehistoric inhospitality: ecological stress caused by rising temperatures, drier weather exacerbating evaporation of the shallow lakes, wildfires and more – and not only humans but the big animals may have moved on, the team suggests.

Some 600 years later, the weather turned clement again, the lakes filled up and large-barbed bone points began to appear, starting about 9,650 years ago. The lithic (stone tool) technique involved in making the large-barbed points, called pressure flaking, differed markedly from the percussion knapping technique involved in making the little-barbed points. “These two complexes represent two radically different material cultures and technological traditions which challenges the notion of a period in relative stasis,” the team writes.

And thusly the team reached the conclusion that the “Maglemose culture” actually represents two different cultures. 

“My guess would be that the first are hunter-gatherers migrating into Denmark from southwest about 11,000 years ago,” Theis stated. The second migrated from the northeast about 1,700 years later. And the peoples of the Kongemose culture may have come from somewhere else.

Peoples at the time were on the move. Sadly for posterity, the low-lying coastlines of the Early Holocene have vanished beneath the waves because the melting ice sheets and glaciers caused sea level rise. The prehistoric sites along the Danish coasts, for example, are gone. We cannot say with any kind of certainty if the outgoing early Maglemosians abandoned the aridifying interior with its vanishing lakes for the pleasures of harpooning marine life.

Large-barbed bone point.Credit: Theo van Pinxteren / Museum Rott

But at least there is a whisper of a theory where the Late Maglemosians came from, or at least their technology. That special “pressure blade industry” used to make the large-barbed points is thought to have originated about 20,000 years ago in what is today Siberia and Northern China, from where it spread westward, through Russia and eventually reaching Scandinavia.

Genetic analyses support the theory of admixture between eastern and western hunter-gatherers as peoples migrated from Russia into the Scandinavian peninsula. But by what route they reached Denmark is anybody’s guess.

Engraved club, Maglemosian.Credit: Nationalmuseet

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