Ertebølle and Lepenski Vir at the Neolithic frontier

by Edward Pegler on 11 March, 2010

What Mesolithic Europe’s settlement sites like Ertebølle and Lepenski Vir say about the way we wrongly divide up prehistory into ages of foragers and farmers.

The Iron Gates, river Danube (by STML)

Wedged between the Palaeolithic (or Old Stone Age) and the Neolithic (New Stone Age) is the Mesolithic. It represents a period of time in human prehistory after the last glacial cycle but when people still foraged for food.

The Mesolithic started around 9500BC and continued until the foragers of the world took up farming (or, for the countries of the former USSR, started using pots). Because of this rather odd definition the Mesolithic represents different spans of time depending on where in the world you are. Arguably, the San Bushmen of the Kalahari are still living in it.

Evidence for forager societies is usually difficult to find in the archaeological record. This is because foragers normally move with the seasons, picking up food where they can. Most foragers’ camps are transient, flimsy affairs. Also, being on the move, most foragers don’t own much stuff.

Mesolithic Europe

I you care to look through Barry Cunliffe’s rather smart book “Europe between the Oceans”, you will find a whole chapter (number three) devoted to Mesolithic Europe. Various cultures are listed, including examples in Portugal, France and Britain. But to me there are two that stand out, those of Ertebølle and Lepenski Vir (I shall return to others in some future post, no doubt).

Two ages of Europe (areas of farming stippled)

The Ertebølle culture were seaside foragers from Denmark and the neighbouring islands of the Baltic. The Lepenski Vir foragers lived on the banks of the River Danube in Serbia and neighbouring Romania. The reason for the visibility of these two cultures in the archaeological record is because these foragers were, unusually, settled in one place. As far as can be told, they stayed in these settlements all year round.

Mesolithic settlements

Whilst unusual, it is not unique to find settled forager populations. There are examples of modern peoples on the Pacific north-west coast of North America and in Hokkaido, Japan doing something similar. All of these cultures have an abundant supply of fish and, except for Lepenski Vir, shellfish.

And, indeed, the Ertebølle culture is represented archaeologically by numerous piles of seashells, known as shell middens. On these middens the people lived, in them they buried their dead. Whilst fish are rich in protein it takes a lot of eating to get the same from shellfish, hence the middens. However, the people still had the time to develop skills both in boat-craft and in decorative artistry of amber and wood.

Lepenski Vir carving (from

The Lepenski Vir culture is represented archaeologically by clustered outlines of curiously shaped houses on the banks of the Danube. Like some government-designed scheme all houses were alike and all faced the river. Lepenski Vir and the surrounding settlements were highly organised. Here people again usually buried their dead underneath their houses.

They also carved disturbing, almost cartoon-like fish-people onto cobbles and boulders around their settlements. There is a sense when you look into the haunted eyes of one of carvings that it represents hunger personified. Maybe being settled had some serious downsides in terms of getting enough to eat.

After describing these high points of the European Mesolithic Professor Cunliffe, in his book, goes on in the next chapter to describe Europe’s subsequent farming phase which would make these Mesolithic lifestyles vanish.

Mesolithic confusion

But this is where I take issue with the book. Because Ertebølle and Lepenski Vir were not settlements in a Europe-with-nothing-but-foragers. By the time Lepenski Vir was established around 6500 BC it already had its first farming neighbours in Greece and Turkey 200 miles to the south and may have had neighbours even closer. And by the time that the Ertebølle Culture appeared (around 4500BC) much of Europe was already under the plough (or the ard, anyway).

Ertebølle and Lepenski Vir (and, for that matter, the Mesolithic cultures of Portugal, France and Britain) are not Mesolithic cultures in isolation. They are forager cultures on the edge of a Neolithic farming world. In fact there’s evidence that goods were moving between these two worlds. At Lepenski Vir there is a necklace made of palygorskite (perhaps from Anatolia or, more unlikely, the Urals) and mediterranean Spondylus shells.

Ertebolle, although less impressive, includes exchanged goods from the LBK farmers to the south as well as local carved amber that may well have been traded on to those same farmers. You could even say that farmers and foragers were part of the same world.

And it’s interesting to note that both the Ertebølle and Lepenski Vir cultures were located at what subsequently became highly strategic points for traders in later millennia. Ertebølle sites occupy various points in the Kattegat straight between mainland Denmark and Sweden, as Copenhagen did 5000 years later.

Lepenski Vir’s location was better still. It was on a bend in the Danube where the river cuts through the Transylvanian Alps, known now as the Iron Gates gorge. As such, it sat on a vital position in an important trade route of the future.

Lepenski Vir and copper

But perhaps more importantly the settlement itself, along with neighbouring related settlements, was within a few kilometres of the Rudna Glava copper mine, thought to be the location of one of the oldest copper mines in the Balkans. The mine is certainly later in date, but native copper and associated minerals could have been taken from the rivers and surface exposures here for a long time before mining commenced.

Interestingly, a short journey up the Danube, then up the Morava and down the Vardar rivers to the south, brings one right into the heart of the Neolithic farmlands of Thessalonia. I have my own suspicions that this may be important.

So perhaps the site of these Mesolithic settlements is not so fortuitous. Maybe it was worth losing some of your rights to roam, perhaps even going a bit hungry, for the greater prize of controlling the flow of resources through key locations in Europe’s burgeoning trade network.

Tell me what you think?


Boric, D. 2002 The Lepenski Vir conundrum: reinterpretation of the Neolithic and Mesolithic sequences in the Danube Gorges, Antiquity.

Cunliffe B, 2008 Europe between the oceans, 9000 BC – AD 1000, Yale, pp518.

Jovanovic, B., 2009 Beginning of the metal age in the central Balkans according to the results of archaeometallurgy. Journal of Mining & Metallurgy 45.

Introduction to Lepenski Vir (based on the work of Dragoslav Srejović)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Carter March 15, 2010 at 1:26 am

You make some very good points, specialist forms of food production/ lifestyles will appear where they can be sustained, if that is all year around, then there is no incentive to move. Trade/exchange is clearly an important factor, and boats on rivers and seas is a specialist technology that facilitates this activity.
NB. I am dead against a ‘Neolithic package’ as a rule,I think it more likely LBK farmers enslaved / killed off the local Mesolithic populations, although the German LBK may have eaten them!
[if you saw that story recently about LBK canibalism]


Edward Pegler March 15, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Dear Geoff

I would certainly argue for seaworthy boats around Denmark in Neolithic/Mesolithic times. Whilst the North Sea can be a challenge, so can the Mediterranean and people were clearly boating on that by 5500 BC and earlier.

As for the “Neolithic package” it’s something which is practical for farming and settlement. Ertebølle people adopted the parts that were useful to them, such as pottery. But I suspect that you’re right. The LBK farmers may well have been hard-headed, go getting incomers, living a rough and ready existence to achieve the neolithic equivalent of “get rich quick”. It would be an interesting scenario if the settlements survived but the people kept changing. Who knows.



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