In terms of terrestrial food resources, these changes meant a shift from the open, reindeer-inhabited landscape of the Late Glacial and Early Postglacial to boreal areas with fauna dominated by moose, beaver, bear, and fur-bearing game. During the Atlantic period, temperate fauna of the broad-leaved woodlands included wild pig, red and roe deer, wild cattle, wild horse, and moose and fur-bearing game. In northern parts of the Baltic Sea basin (Norrland, Finland, Karelia, and northeast Russia), boreal woodland prevailed throughout and boreal fauna remained dominant. For aquatic resources, there were two main trends. First came the gradual colonization of developing aquatic environments by an increasingly broader range of marine and anadromous fish and various species of seal. Second, there were fluctuations in such resources as shellfish or anadromous fish in response to the changing salinity levels and temperatures of the water at different stages in the development of the Baltic Sea basin. In aggregate, these transformations indicated an increasingly rich and varied resource environment that peaked in the Atlantic and Early Subboreal periods (c. 7000-2500 b.c.).

The distribution of food resources also varied from region to region. The presence of the Gulf Stream substantially increased the productivity of the coastal regions along the North Atlantic seaboard, while inland resources concentrated in lacustrine, riverine, or estuarine habitats created by the process of deglaciation and changes in the hydrology of rivers, lakes, and seas. In contrast, the interior regions without many shoreline habitats—mostly moraine uplands, glacial outwash plains, and river basins covered by gravel, sand, and clay—were relatively poor in natural resources.


Colonization and settlement of eastern and northern Europe is a key event in the history of hunter-gatherer communities of the area. During the Glacial Maximum (c. 22,000 to 18,000 years ago), the region was partly covered by the Scandinavian glacier. By 18,000 to 16,000 years ago, improved climatic conditions were causing ice sheets to melt and expose new land for colonization by plants, animals, and humans. It took some four thousand years for the retreating ice to reach the southern margin of peninsular Scandinavia, where it lingered for some two thousand years. It was at this time that human groups from surrounding regions began to penetrate the ice-free margins of Fennoscandia, their routes much dependent on water and ice barriers in their path. This process of colonization was gradual, laying foundations for major patterns in the cultural diversity of eastern Europe during the Mesolithic.

Recolonization of eastern Europe took place with progressive settlement from the south. Although archaeological evidence usually is a poor indicator of human migration patterns, the spread of cultural traits (evident in the lithic industry and other artifacts) from the Ukraine and southern Ural region into virgin lands to the north supports the idea of such a dispersal into northern parts of eastern Europe and northern Asia. Many linguists and archaeologists regard the Ukrainian center as the original homeland of people ancestral to Finno-Ugric speakers.

Communities of this eastern tradition (Swideri-an culture and the eastern tanged-point cultures) occupied southern flanks of the ice margin in eastern Poland, Belorussia, and northwest Russia at the end of the last glaciation. From these areas people first penetrated the eastern Baltic and the Karelian Isthmus, by about 9000 b.c., and then went on to colonize Finland, reaching the coast of the Bothian gulf between 7500 and 6400 b.c. The end of the Swiderian culture, c. 9000-8000 b.c., marked the transition from an open-country reindeer-hunting culture to more broad-based communities exploiting resources of the forest, lakes, and the sea. One of the earliest fishnets, produced by people of this tradition, was found at Antrea on the Karelian Isthmus and dated to c. 8500 b.c.

Regional variants of this Early Mesolithic cultural tradition include the Komornica culture in northeastern Poland, Kudlaevka in Belorussia, Narva in Latvia, Kunda in Estonia, Veretye in northwestern Russia, and Suomusjarvi in Finland. The Swiderian cultural repertoire included double-platformed cores, tanged points, perforated antler axes, and single-barbed harpoons. In post-Swiderian times there was a trend toward microlith-ization, the development of the ground and polished axe element and of the antler-point industry, the appearance of bone pin-shaped points and of slotted bone points, an increase in backed pieces and micro-retouched bladelets, and the gradual disappearance of tanged points.

From these initial colonization episodes, we can trace the growth and florescence of Mesolithic communities over the following eight thousand years. It generally is agreed that these communities were characterized by technological, economic, and social complexity; effective use of resources; greater sedentation; and relatively high population densities, more so than in other parts of Europe. The evidence for such forms of complexity, for the logistic, operational structure of these residentially more permanent hunter-gatherers, as well as for the chronology of these developments comes mostly from coastal, lacustrine, and riparian zones.

The chronology of the Mesolithic can be divided broadly into early and late periods. The transformation of the Early Mesolithic Maglemose culture to the Late Mesolithic Kongemose culture marked the division in the southern Baltic region, at c. 7000 b.c. Cultural groups cognate with the Maglemose inhabited the eastern parts of the Baltic (Komornice in northwestern Poland; Neman in northeastern Poland; Neman, Narva, and Kunda in the eastern Baltic; Sandarna in southern Sweden; and Suomus-jarvi in Finland). Salient features of their technological equipment included an evolved bone and antler industry, core and flake axes, and microblade/ microlith technology that declined in use from the west to east, where the older tanged-point industry prevailed within such traditions as the Kunda in Estonia.

The beginning of the Late Mesolithic, at about 7000 b.c., was marked by the introduction of broader rhombic and trapezoidal microliths, a shift from microblade to core-and-blade technology, and numerous regionally specific new items. Regional groupings include the Kongemose and, subsequently, the Ertebolle in Scania, the late Suomusjarvi (Litorina Suomusjarvi) in Finland, the Chojnice-Pienki in northwestern Poland, the Janislawice in northeastern Poland, and the late Neman, Narva, and Kunda in the eastern Baltic and similar cultural units in Russia and the Ukraine.

The introduction of ceramics into this cultural context marked the beginning of another phase in the prehistory of hunter-gatherers in eastern Europe. It is becoming increasingly clear that ceramics were first introduced into the area from southern Siberia at an earlier time than previously thought, possibly originating in China, where ceramics date to the Late Palaeolithic. The Volga-Ural interfluve (where ceramics are dated to 8000 b.c.) and the Volga River corridor (first dated wares from 6000 b.c.) may have served as source areas for the distribution of ceramic technology among hunter-gatherers of eastern Europe. Pottery came into general use by 5400 b.c.

In southern Scandinavia, ceramic-using hunter-gatherers are regarded as still being of the Mesolith-ic Ertebolle culture, since little else changed in their cultural repertoire. In Finland, the Suomusjarvi culture ended at this time, and the Neolithic Combed Ware took over. In the eastern Baltic and Russia, the addition of ceramics to the existing cultural assemblages ushered in the Forest Neolithic. In keeping with the long-established tradition in Russian and Soviet research terminology, the term "Neolithic" is used here solely in its technological sense (to signal the introduction of ceramics) rather than in an economic one (to denote introduction of agro-pastoral farming). The pottery-using communities of northern Europe continued to manage their indigenous undomesticated resources through hunting, fishing, and gathering, with the addition of locally developed practices of resource management that may have led to taming but not to full domestication of some resources. In this sense, the Combed Ware Neolithic and Forest Neolithic cultures of eastern and northeast Europe are comparable to the better-known Ertebolle and related culture units of southern Scandinavia, northern Germany, and the Netherlands. The introduction of imported domestic plants and animals—cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, pulses, and cereals—occurred very gradually from the south to the north of the region, mostly during the last five thousand years.


As in other parts of Europe in the Mesolithic, in eastern Europe the varying spatial and seasonal distribution of natural resources elicited a dual technological and economic response, which can be grouped under strategies of diversification and specialization. Economic diversification consisted of "encounter foraging" practiced by foraging groups with respect to a wide range of resources. This practice is reflected in the faunal evidence by the broad spectrum of food remains, made up of such land mammals as deer, pigs, cattle, horses, beaver, hare, and fish and game birds, and was characteristic of inland habitats. Economic specialization depended on the interception of seasonally aggregated migratory resources, especially sea mammals (seal, in particular), anadromous fish, waterfowl, fur-bearing animals, and reindeer in the north. Hunting often was carried out from seasonal aggregation sites or specialized camps, where the majority of faunal remains belong to a single species, as, for example, waterfowl at Narva-Riigikula and seals at Konnu, Kopu, Loona, and Naakamae, all in Estonia, and elsewhere in eastern Europe.

Recovery of plant remains depends on the season of a site’s occupation, the preservation conditions, the method of retrieval and sampling, and the processing technique. Despite the biases against finding evidence for plant use introduced by these factors, the body of information on the use of wild plants in Mesolithic Europe is growing steadily. Nuts, such as hazelnuts, as well as water chestnuts, berries, roots, tubers, and leafy plants formed an important element in the diet and were the focus of food-procurement strategies of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Moreover, in some areas, such as western Russia, southern Finland, Poland, Lithuania, and eastern Latvia, pollen evidence for burning and clearance is so extensive as to indicate deliberate woodland clearance and the maintenance of more open landscapes by Late Mesolithic groups as a part of a promotional strategy to increase the productivity of nut and fruit trees, shrubs, wetland plants, and, possibly, native grasses.

Artifactual evidence points to a widespread distribution of soil-working tools (hoes and antler mattocks), especially in lowland zones, which, together with the presence of reaping and grinding equipment, supports the argument for the existence of a plant-processing toolkit. There is little doubt that fishing, fowling, and hunting of sea mammals in coastal areas was an important part of the economy among the Late Mesolithic and Neolithic communities of eastern Europe. The distribution of fish weirs, fish traps, and nets shows that delayed capture was a common practice, at least in the Late Meso-lithic, although fishnets had been in use since the Early Mesolithic.

The fishing and sea hunting toolkits also included equipment for individual hunting by fishhook, fish spear (leister), and harpoon. Remains of boats and paddles are common on sites with good preservation of organic materials. The development of specialized methods of fishing, sealing, and fowling finds confirmation in faunal remains from many coastal areas, pointing to the existence of a logistic system of resource procurement. This sort of exploitation of seal and other coastal resources grew in the Late Mesolithic (after 7000 b.c.) and among ceramic-using hunter-gatherers, which is evident from studies of fauna, site locations, and the human diet. Indeed, some researchers have suggested, for example, that the adoption of ceramics significantly facilitated the processing and storage of seal oil and so encouraged specialization and trade.

Within such a system of economic organization, defined by the practice of hunting, fishing, and gathering, subsistence strategies may have evolved to include elements of resource management or husbandry and together produced an alternative to the agropastoral farming characteristic of the Neolithic. In northern and eastern Europe, there are indications that such an integrated system operated to varying degrees in some regions and that it was based to a large extent on the intensive use of plant foods, aquatic resources, and wild pigs. These practices may have included rudimentary forms of farming, using slash-and-burn clearance of woodland and the sowing of crops into the ash-enriched, but otherwise impoverished brown soils and podzols predominant in the area.

Let us look more closely at one typical settlement. Abora is a settlement along the shores of Lake Lubana in eastern Latvia, dated between 4100 and 2200 b.c. Similar hunting-and-gathering villages have been found along lakeshores elsewhere in Latvia and in northeastern Poland, Lithuania, northern Belorussia, Estonia, and northwestern Russia. As a rule, the cultural layers are associated with the most productive phase in the development of these lake-shore environments, marked by eutrophic fen or grass-peat deposits. Like Abora, the other settlements have substantial, elaborated wooden dwellings, often built on posts or wooden piles, with ridged roofs with overhanging eaves. Internally, the dwellings are subdivided into rooms or have only one room with add-on sheds, bark floors, and stone-lined or boxed-in hearths. This design is typical of the substantial wooden architecture at Abora and other sites.

The sizes of dwellings range from 30 to 50 square meters. Large concentrations of material have been found within the buildings, pointing to fishing, hunting, and plant gathering, possibly even some form of cultivation. There is a difference of opinion concerning the extent of agropastoral farming. Nonetheless, large quantities of water chestnuts, hazelnuts, seeds of hemp, and hemp pollen, as well as pollen indicators of clearance and ruderals suggestive of open landscape, are signs of possible plant husbandry focused on native plants rather than cereals. Other evidence suggests the processing of hemp and nettle fibers in making clothes and cordage.

In contrast to coastal and lacustrine regions, the upland interior did not present early opportunities for residential permanence. The inland pattern was marked by greater residential mobility, firmer reliance on terrestrial resources, and more direct procurement strategies. Seasonally occupied base camps were located on the shores of smaller lakes and watercourses. From there, people moved in periodically during the year to temporary habitation sites and specialized camps within larger territories. Seasonal aggregation sites, which were a part of both the more sedentary coastal and the more mobile settlement patterns, played an important role within the inland organization of landscape. These were the main locations for the coming together of different communities for trade, exchange, social activities, and courting, as well as for the performance of rituals. To support large gatherings, such places often were placed in good fishing locations by rapids or at river narrows connecting larger lakes.

Long-distance contacts, circulation of exotic prestige items and sought-after raw materials, as well as channels for the dispersal of innovations were all maintained through trade and exchange. In eastern Europe the use of skis and sledges in winter and of boats in the summer months facilitated such contacts. The ritual dimension of such means of transport is shown by moose-headed carvings tipping the ski runners in northwest Russia and elsewhere and by carvings of moose placed on the sterns of boats; moose were perceived as a messenger animal linking the worlds of water, earth, and especially sky. Examples of regional and interregional trade linking vast distances are too numerous to describe in detail. They include the circulation of flint and ochre in Poland; green Olonets slate and flint from Karelia across Finland, northwestern Russia, and the eastern Baltic; and amber from the eastern Baltic coast and flint from the Valdai Mountains within the eastern Baltic and Finland to northern Poland and other parts of northern Europe, the Black Sea, and Caspian regions. More evidence derives from the importation of metal artifacts, polished stone axes, and other items from outside the area.


Our understanding of social structure and ideology in the Mesolithic—the Late Mesolithic in particular—is based principally on the evidence from burials, rock carvings, and sculpted, "ritual" artifacts found alone or among domestic debris. The distribution of major burials reflects not only the intensity of research but also the favorable ecological conditions of these areas for hunter-gatherer settlement: all burial grounds occur in coastal areas or in major lacustrine or riverine zones, marked by the concentration of aquatic resources. Burial grounds as such may have acted as territorial markers, indicating increased sedentation, territoriality, and claims to ownership of land and resources.

The burial grounds cover the entire Mesolithic period, from c. 10,000 b.c. to the end of the third millennium b.c. Some are considered cemeteries, in that the interments are grouped in burial grounds marked exclusively for ritual and burial; others are isolated interments within or underneath houses or within settlements. Some long-used locations, such as Zvejnieki in Latvia, saw burial customs change from cemetery burial in the Mesolithic to individual burial within the settlement among the ceramic-using hunter-gatherers of the so-called Forest Neolithic (c. 4000-2000 b.c.).

With 315 excavated burials, the cemetery at Zvejnieki, Latvia, ranks with Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik as among the largest in eastern Europe. The cemetery was used for more than four thousand years, between 7300 and 2800 b.c. Mortuary practice changed from the early (7300-6100 b.c.) to the later period (6100-2800 b.c.), when amber objects replaced tooth pendants as the most common grave goods and principal symbols of value. In the later period, too, burials were strongly associated with settlements, which is shown at Zvejnieki by the black soil transported from an adjacent settlement and deposited as grave fill. Despite these and other changes reflected in burials, we find throughout this period the same use of wild-animal symbolism as at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik, as well as differences in social status similar to those at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik. As at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik, there are both individual and collective burials, indicating, perhaps, the presence of corporate groups. Gravestones, small cairns, or stone linings marked some interments—features that notably are present in other parts of eastern and northern Europe.

The ending phase of the Zvejnieki cemetery is contemporary with burials at Abora, Latvia, where sixty-one interments were placed in the central part of a residential hunter-gatherer settlement. Single, dual, and collective burials as well as perforated tooth pendants, and sculptures of waterbirds, moose, beaver, bear, and snake attest to the same range of burial practices and symbolism seen at Zvejnieki and Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik. The absence of pottery is striking, since the Abora community belonged among ceramic-using hunter-gatherers. The same social and ideological arrangements appear to have lasted in this region until the middle of the second millennium b.c.


Hunter-gatherer communities of long duration in the temperate and boreal zones of Eurasia organized their lives according to basic elements of a framework that promoted cultural and ideological continuity. Such structures included environmental variables, seasonal food-procurement regimes, and cosmological systems and were interpreted and reinterpreted by individuals, communities, and outside groups linked by contact and exchange. Social practices called for deliberate decisions and the manipulation and replication of tasks, during the course of which people introduced various changes. The new knowledge and skills then were incorporated into the existing tradition in relationship to existing rules. As an overarching system of beliefs, mediated through ritual practice, this ideology provided the supervisory context within which social practices played out.

The key components of this overarching belief system, abstracted from Siberian and northeast European ethnohistorical data, focused on key structures. The first is that the universe is divided into three worlds defined by earth, water, and sky. A second structure was the notion of reciprocity between human beings, animal beings, and a supernatural, spirit world. A third was the role of the shaman as a religious leader of the community whose principal role was to act as a mediator between the three worlds in a three-level universe by practicing techniques of ecstasy (shaman), aided by his or her ritual equipment and spirit helpers. Ritual equipment almost always included a drum or other musical instruments, dress, bag, horned mask, and models of main spirit helpers. These models included water-birds (as swimmers and flyers they can lead the shaman to all three worlds), the bear (as the master of other animals beings, and a celestial being), and the moose or deer (celestial beings too as guides to and in the heavens).

In the hunter-gatherer prehistory of eastern and northern Europe, the symbolism of rock-carving sites, of carved utilitarian objects, and of the ritual context of burials clearly related to the culture’s system of beliefs. Material representations are to be found on sculpted terminals of wooden household utensils, such as spoon-bowls and ladles; zoomor-phic axes and mace-heads; rock carvings, and zoo-morphic ornamentation on pottery. Moose, bear, and waterbirds are the most common designs.

Rock-carving and rock-painting sites of northeastern Europe give perhaps the best record of the cosmology and ideology of the resident hunter-gatherers. Painted or engraved at several hundred such locations are thousands of images representing principally anthropomorphic figures, cervids, boats, sea mammals, bears, waterbirds, fishes, reptiles (snakes and lizards), tracks or footprints, weapons and hunting and fishing gear, and abstract designs. The youngest of such rock carvings can be dated through geological methods to c. a.d. 500.

In addition to such ritual locations, we find items of material culture in burials and on domestic sites. They also occur in what might be called "lost" locations, often deposited in bogs and wet places, perhaps as votive artifacts that were carved, sculpted, or otherwise altered to instill ritual meaning in them. Such artifacts were widespread in the Stone Age and among later hunter-gatherer societies of the circumpolar regions. They refer to "messenger animals," capable of communicating with nonter-restrial worlds. Among these items are bear- and moose-headed effigies (also known as terminals, because they sometimes are depicted in rock art mounted on poles) and diverse objects carved with the representation of these and other animals, for example, waterfowl, swans, ducks, snakes, beavers, and even human beings.

For the traditional societies of the boreal zone, birds, specifically waterbirds, played a role in guiding the dead to the underworld and in myths of world creation and regeneration. Given the multidimensional symbolism of the migratory life cycle of waterbirds, which is marked by regeneration (in spring) and death (in autumn), it is hardly surprising that zoomorphic artifacts, such as duck-headed ladles, are found commonly in archaeological contexts. These items are present among cultures ranging from the Narva in the eastern Baltic (40002500 b.c.) to the Ust-Poluy on the lower Ob River in western Siberia (500-300 b.c.).

Moose- and bear-headed terminals, which are depicted on poles at Namforsen, Sweden, and in rock carvings on the shores of Lake Onega (where Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik is located), find a direct parallel in the shaman’s turu, a ritual rod used to mediate between the natural and supernatural worlds. Carvings of moose also may have had a broader significance; after killing and consumption, appropriate treatment of the carcass was thought to ensure the revival of the moose and continued success for the hunter.

The bear was as an animal of veneration, honored with special treatment; it was to be addressed with circumspection and only on ritual occasions. In Lapland as well as in western Siberia, communities engaged in a ritual of sending back the bear to bear country. Hunters would walk and sing together with bear soup, part of which was poured into a river as a votive offering; in this way, the essence of this messenger animal was returned to the "cosmic river." In Lapland, we find ritually buried bear skulls and other bear graves that were accorded elaborate treatment. Sculpted bear axes, bear-headed terminals, and images of bears in rock art are recurrent features of the symbolic repertoire of northern hunter-gatherers. It is important to note that the presence of such artifacts also served to ritualize habitual spaces where routine tasks occurred (such as cooking food) and which archaeologists often interpret as only practical, functional spots.

Finally, we can distinguish the existence of shamans in the prehistoric record of eastern and cir-cum-Baltic Europe. Both rock art and burial evidence contains a range of symbols that, in ethnographic contexts, would be identified with the roles of a shaman. In rock art we find petroglyphs of anthropomorphic figures with horns and masks, from the shores of Lake Onega in Karelia, for example. There also are numerous petroglyphs of persons wielding moose-headed terminals, from Namforsen and other places, which correspond to the numerous finds of the artifacts themselves. In both instances, we can interpret the figures as shamans dressed in the guise of animals and carrying the turu, or tree of life, symbolizing the ability to undertake a journey between different worlds, aided by reptiles and horned animals.

We also find interments that differ significantly from standard practice. Grave architecture, treatment of the body, and grave goods all clearly signify shamanistic roles and symbols. For example, four shaft graves at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik containing four individuals (two males, one female, and one juvenile) in seated or reclining positions (while standard practice was to bury the dead as flat inhumations), can be comprehended as shamans’ graves. There are other exceptional burials that can be attributed to shamans. Among them are the rich burial of a thirty-year-old man from Jasnislawice, Poland, dated to 5600-5400 b.c.; a double burial from Duonkalnis, Lithuania, dated to about 5900 b.c.; and a triple burial from Vedbxk-Bogebakken, Denmark, apparently of a male with a female range of goods, a female, and a child. As at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik, female grave goods interred with a male might indicate the office of a shaman.

At Zvejnieki, both earlier (6200-3300 b.c.) and later (3300-2200 b.c.) phases contained extraordinary burials attributed to ritual specialists or shamans. In the earlier period, some 2,400 animal tooth pendants were arranged into headdresses and buried with the deceased at one location. These burials belonged to nine males, eight adolescents, two females, and two other adults of undetermined age and sex, representing about 7 percent of all the burials, or about 25 percent of those with pendants. Ornamental headgear decoration has been found at only two other places, Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik in Karelia and Duonkalnis in Lithuania.

Amber pendants, rings, beads, and sculptures replaced tooth pendants in the later, Pit-Comb Ware ceramic phase. In four cases mortuary masks of red or blue clay covered the faces of the dead (three adult males and one adolescent), with amber rings pressed into the eye sockets. Similar finds were made at Hartikka and Pispa, southern Finland, and at Tudozero, northern Russia. Both headgear and masks form an essential part of the shaman’s ritual equipment, and we know of shamans being buried with their gear. These artifacts complement the more specific symbolism of finds representing messenger animals, such as bear, beaver, moose, snakes, and waterbirds.


More than in any other part of Europe, hunter-gatherers in the east and north confronted the challenges of a changing natural environment and of historical development in the surrounding regions. They successfully utilized the opportunities made available to them by deglaciation and the rapid development of postglacial habitats. They were selective in their choice of cultural innovations associated with agropastoralism, Neolithic technologies, and, later, metallurgy. Equally, they managed effectively the introduction of agropastoral farming and exploited the opportunities offered by contacts and trade with the more complex cultures to the south and west, as they gradually became part of a world trading system.

These "pick and choose" strategies resulted in original cultural transformations and in effective systems of management, which, in turn, led to remarkably long-term cultural stability and a social life of complexity unknown elsewhere among hunter-gatherers of Europe. This society was characterized by a hunting-gathering lifestyle into times more recent—in some cases, the early historical period— than in any other part of Europe, except northern Scandinavia. These peoples contributed in no small measure to the genetic and cultural heritage that forms the basis of contemporary modern society of eastern Europe today.

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