Allow me to take you into the lives of the inhabitants of Britain and north west Europe from the time when ice sheets still covered land and sea, until the time when settled farming peoples were cultivating the land. Against the background of this changing world, people survived by hunting game and gathering food from the plants around them; on the move, following the herds and seeking out the fruits season by season. 

Until the scientific advances of the 19th century most people shared the view of the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes that the life of early man was ...solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short, and the idea that cave-dwellers were scarcely human, club-wielding savages has remained a popular stereotype. I hope to show that Stone Age Hunters of Northern Europe were skilled crafts people and efficient hunters who lived rich and complex lives and were far more like ourselves than Hobbes or contemporary cartoonists would have us believe. 

In the days before the development of modern dating techniques scholars had to rely on ideas of cultural evolution and ancient writings to provide a framework of dates within which to view human history. The bible provided one source of dates and in the 17th century Archbishop Usher calculated that, according to the Old Testament, the earth must have been created in 4004 BC. 

That this was a widely held belief is shown by Rosalind's remark in Shakespeare's As You Like It: "The poor world is almost six thousand years old". We now know that human history spans around five million years, that humans first came to Britain half a million years ago, and that the people whose lives are described lived here from 13,000 to 5,000 years ago.



The popular view of women in the Stone Age as victims of predatory males is also wrong. Archaeological evidence suggests that women played a full and equal role in daily life with their male counterparts and the remains of art and funerary rituals indicate that individual women may have had high status in the community. The cave dwellers of Northern Europe may not have been white. Only skeletons survive but as these people are thought to have migrated to Europe from more southerly regions, they may have had rather darker skins than modern Europeans.



By using remains from the past, evidence of vegetation and climate change, and the records of present day and recent hunter gatherer groups, we are able to explore the world of the hunter gatherers. 



The Stone Age hunters who came to Britain 12,500 years ago were faced with a rapidly changing environment. As the ice sheets of the Ice Age melted exposing land for colonisation by plants, animals and ultimately human, so also the sea levels rose flooding low-lying lands and cutting Britain off from the Continent. The fact that our early prehistoric forebears coped with these changes and developed a way of life that survived for 7,500 years is a lasting measure of their achievement.



Over 18,000 years ago over half of the British Isles was covered by an ice sheet, in places hundreds of metres thick, while low sea levels joined the area to the Continent. By 13,000 years ago the ice sheet had melted and an open landscape of grasslands and birch scrub extended from the south of England to Northern Scotland and Western Ireland. In sheltered valleys and in coastal lowland deciduous woodland was beginning to establish itself. Low sea levels still joined Britain to the Continent by a broad land bridge across which spread herds of mammoth and migratory reindeer and horse, followed by bands of human hunters. Submerged forests are visible at low tide in Cardigan Bay, and are a powerful reminder that sea level was formerly much lower. Boreal forest was widespread in Britain 10,000 years ago.



The mobility of the hunter-gatherer way of life meant that people did not build permanent homes but used temporary shelters. Stone Age hunters built lightweight huts and wind-breaks out of branches or used tents made from animal skins. In some parts of Britain caves and rock overhangs provided suitable temporary shelters but these were not widespread and were not used as much as is popularly imagined. Bears, hyenas and wolves also used caves so humans may often have found their desirable residences already occupied when they arrived.



Kirkhead Cave in Lancashire was first occupied by hunter-gatherers 11,000 years ago. Stone Age hunters camped in the mouths of these small caves 12,000 years ago. The remains of their meals have been found scattered around stone lined pits in which fire had been lit. Excavations at Mount Sandel in Northern Ireland revealed the outline of a lightweight temporary shelter built about 9,000 years ago. The Mount Sandel shelter was probably roofed with branches and animal skins and may have looked like the domed wigwams of the Ojibwa of Saulte Ste. Marie. At the site of Morton in the east of Scotland, dating from 6,400 years ago, lines of stake holes near to hearths suggest some shelters were more like windbreaks.



In order to obtain their food and a range of raw materials for tools, weapons, clothing and shelter, the prehistoric people who returned to Britain after the last Ice Age had to be efficient hunters and gatherers, capable of adjusting their techniques to the environmental circumstances in which they found themselves. In addition to hunting, many foods could be gathered in the woods as they spread across Britain in the wake of the retreating ice sheets and along the shores. Skill in knowing where and when to look for such foods played an important part in maintaining a balanced diet. Recent and modern hunter-gatherers can provide many insights into how they may have accomplished this.



A stampeding herd of deer, driven by beaters are confronted by a line of bowmen.

The bow was the most powerful hunting weapon available. Arrows were made of wood and sometimes had tiny flint blades set in their ends. Very occasionally archaeologists find the bones of animals with the broken tips of flint arrows embedded in them. Studies of injuries inflicted on deer graphically illustrate the manner in which these animals were attacked. Blades struck from a carefully prepared core were used to make the sharp tips of arrowheads. Antler frontlets in Yorkshire may have been used in the hunt either to help disguise the hunter or as a form of sympathetic magic.



Fishing was an important activity in rivers, lakes and along the coast. Some fish, such as migratory salmon, could be caught in large numbers by groups working together like the Copper Inuit in the Arctic spearing of salmon at a fish weir. Harpoons could have been made from red deer antlers.



One of the few natural sweeteners available, honey, had to be collected at some risk. Stone Age rock paintings at La Arana in Spain shows someone climbing with a collecting basket, surrounded by bees. Some foods, both plant and animal, had to be dug for with mattocks made from red deer antler. In some cases a simple pointed stick, perhaps with a weight on one end, was used to dig for food.



Kalahari Bushmen gather berries and dig for edible roots. North Americans visit "pick-your-own strawberries" farms in British Columbia.



Unlike settled farmers, hunter-gatherers had to move often as the resources in one area became exhausted or the seasons changed. Groups would move in a regular annual cycle, many spending winter in the lowlands or near the coast and then moving inland for the summer. The constant need to move limited the possessions anybody could accumulate.



The Stone Age hunters led a busy life. As well as hunting and gathering, equipment had to be made and repaired and food had to be processed and cooked. People worked in groups or individually, according to the nature of the task, and some were specialists. Most of this work took place at the camp around the hearth.



Most technology was based on the use of stone and this is why this period is called the Stone Age. Some stones, such as flint, when struck in a particular way, shatter and produce pieces with sharp edges.



This can be done in a controlled way and flakes or blades of standard sizes can be produced which can then be further modified to produce particular implements.



Little is known about Stone Age cooking, though most camp sites had simple fireplaces and butchered joints of meat were probably roasted on a spit or placed in a pit and packed around with hot stones. Other food needed to be processed: nuts and shellfish had to be removed from their shells and birds plucked of their feathers. 

Skinning an animal: Used a flint blade to carefully skin a small mammal.

Butchering the kill: Food had to be processed before it could be cooked by using a flint blade to butcher a small carcass.

Drying or smoking: Traces of what may be fish drying or smoking racks have been found at some sites and may have looked like modern Inuit or Coastal examples.



As well as meat, animals were a source of many other raw materials such as bone, grease, oil and skin. Animal hides had many uses but were particularly important for the manufacture of clothing and the covering of shelters. Clothing must have been made from animal skins as no other suitable materials were available; several carefully prepared hides would go into the manufacture of a single garment, each section being stitched together using an awl, bone needle and shredded and then softened (pounded) animal sinew.