The Mesolithic Period

History of Denmark between 12500 BC - 5001 BC

The Inhabitation of Denmark

Although the Mesolithic Age was the longest period in Danish history, few traces of it remain. At that time, the area was thinly populated, and the people did not create permanent monuments. Tool making was under constant improvement, and humans regularly had to adjust their lifestyles to adapt to the changing climate, water levels, vegetation and animal life. It is likely that Neanderthals lived in the area that was to become Denmark around 125,000 years ago. Modern humans arrived around 12,000 BC after the Ice Age.

Hundreds of skeletons dating from the Mesolithic Age have been found in Denmark. They tell the story of a people that was much smaller than modern humans. Average heights were 150 centimetres for women and 170 centimetres for men. Average lifespan was much shorter – particularly for women.

Culture Archaeologists categorise their finds dating to the period after the retreat of Ice Age glaciers as belonging to either the Hamburg, Federmesser, Bromme or Ahrensburg Cultures. The finds are primarily objects made of flint, and sporadic finds of bone indicate that reindeer hunting was an important activity. Remains of settlements paint a portrait of small familial groups that moved frequently and carried few possessions.

Much more is known about the cultural practices of the millennia that followed – the Maglemose Culture. Well-preserved finds from bogs have revealed a rich collection of food remains, as well as tools and weapons made of wood, bone and antler. The finds from settlements near bogs and swamps all appear to stem from summer settlements. Where they settled in the winter is uncertain.

During the period of the Kongemose and Ertebølle Cultures, Denmark was covered by thick deciduous forests. People lived along the coast and frequently ventured inland to hunt. The remains of their settlements offer a revealing look into the material and spiritual cultures of the age. Graves dating from the period show that the dead were treated with respect. The presence of grave goods would seem to suggest a belief in life after death. Skeletons also show that arguments could be more than just verbal. Wounds from axes have been seen on the skulls of adult males.

Sunken world

Much of the land once inhabited during the Mesolithic Age is now under water. Retreating Ice Age glaciers caused sea levels to rise by more than 100 metres. During the periods of the Reindeer Hunter and the Maglemose Cultures, Denmark was connected by land to what is now Britain and Sweden. Around 7000 BC, the sea broke through the Great Belt, flooding the Baltic Sea with salt water. Rising seas claimed the land bridge connecting Zealand and Scania around 6500 BC. Rising sea levels continued to alter the landscape all the way up to the early Neolithic.

Modern technology

Mesolithic artefacts are primarily made of flint, which was the most important material available for making knives, arrowheads, awls and axes. Many other items were made of plant material, wood, bone and antler, but only in rare instances have they been preserved.

Bows, spears, boats and dogs were the most important hunting gear. Flint arrowheads were under constant development to make sure they were suited to the changing natural environs. Because of this steady development, archaeologists use changes in the shape of arrowheads to define historical periods.

Boats were also indispensible when fishing. Hooks, spears and fixed traps made of woven branches were also used. Baskets, nets and staffs were all used to help gather shellfish, nuts and edible roots.

Fish for dinner

Bones from wild land animals are normally the most obvious remains archaeologists discover when excavating well-preserved settlements from the Mesolithic Age. In some cases large amounts of hazelnut shells are also found. But, with the help of a microscope, it is possible to see the remains of other types of edible plants and spices, such as raspberries, sea beets and ramson. Coastal settlements are full of oyster shells, mussels or other types of shellfish. But while shellfish only made up a small portion of people's diets, fish, on the other hand, was a staple. Fish bones by the tens of thousands have been uncovered at some of the most well-preserved settlements.

Studies of human bones from the period show that some people ate a varied diet. Seafood – particularly fish – was the most important source of protein for people living in Denmark in the latter millennia of the Mesolithic Age. Mother's milk was the primary source of nutrition for children until about the age of four.

Introduction to agriculture

During the last millennium of the Mesolithic Age, the fisher-hunter-gatherer cultures living in Denmark began to come into contact with agrarian societies that that had grown up along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. The two groups engaged in trade, and their dealings resulted in the introduction of strange new styles of axes. Cattle domestication and farming took longer to establish, but their impact wound up being far more wide-ranging.

Reference: 1001 stories about Denmark

Popular sites founded between 12500 BC and 5001 BC in Denmark

B√łgebakken

Bøgebakken is a Mesolithic cemetery of the Ertebølle culture, one of the oldest known in Denmark. It dates to ca. 6000 BC and contains graves of 22 persons. The cemetery comprises one empty grave, sixteen single burials, two double and one triple burial. Both double burials consist of a female and an infant, perhaps women who died in childbirth. The richest burial of Vedbæk is that of one of the juveni ...
Founded: 6000-4500 BC | Location: Vedbaek, Denmark

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

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Broch of Gurness

The Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age broch village. Settlement here began sometime between 500 and 200 BC. At the centre of the settlement is a stone tower or broch, which once probably reached a height of around 10 metres. Its interior is divided into sections by upright slabs. The tower features two skins of drystone walls, with stone-floored galleries in between. These are accessed by steps. Stone ledges suggest that there was once an upper storey with a timber floor. The roof would have been thatched, surrounded by a wall walk linked by stairs to the ground floor. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it. It is thought to have some religious significance, relating to an Iron Age cult of the underground.

The remains of the central tower are up to 3.6 metres high, and the stone walls are up to 4.1 metres thick. The tower was likely inhabited by the principal family or clan of the area but also served as a last resort for the village in case of an attack.

The broch continued to be inhabited while it began to collapse and the original structures were altered. The cistern was filled in and the interior was repartitioned. The ruin visible today reflects this secondary phase of the broch's use.

The site is surrounded by three ditches cut out of the rock with stone ramparts, encircling an area of around 45 metres diameter. The remains of numerous small stone dwellings with small yards and sheds can be found between the inner ditch and the tower. These were built after the tower, but were a part of the settlement's initial conception. A 'main street' connects the outer entrance to the broch. The settlement is the best-preserved of all broch villages.

Pieces of a Roman amphora dating to before 60 AD were found here, lending weight to the record that a 'King of Orkney' submitted to Emperor Claudius at Colchester in 43 AD.

At some point after 100 AD the broch was abandoned and the ditches filled in. It is thought that settlement at the broch continued into the 5th century AD, the period known as Pictish times. By that time the broch was not used anymore and some of its stones were reused to build smaller dwellings on top of the earlier buildings. Until about the 8th century, the site was just a single farmstead.

In the 9th century, a Norse woman was buried at the site in a stone-lined grave with two bronze brooches and a sickle and knife made from iron. Other finds suggest that Norse men were buried here too.