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

Bøgebakken

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

Historic Site of the week

Eketorp Fort

Eketorp is an Iron Age fort in southeastern Öland, which was extensively reconstructed and enlarged in the Middle Ages. Throughout the ages the fortification has served a variety of somewhat differing uses: from defensive ringfort, to medieval safe haven and thence a cavalry garrison. In the 20th century it was further reconstructed to become a heavily visited tourist site and a location for re-enactment of medieval battles. Eketorp is the only one of the 19 known prehistoric fortifications on Öland that has been completely excavated, yielding a total of over 24,000 individual artifacts. The entirety of southern Öland has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Eketorp fortification is often referred to as Eketorp Castle.

The indigenous peoples of the Iron Age constructed the original fortification about 400 AD, a period known to have engendered contact between Öland natives with Romans and other Europeans. The ringfort in that era is thought to have been a gathering place for religious ceremonies and also a place of refuge for the local agricultural community when an outside enemy appeared. The circular design was believed to be chosen because the terrain is so level that attack from any side was equally likely. The original diameter of this circular stone fortification was about 57 metres. In the next century the stone was moved outward to construct a new circular structure of about 80 metres in diameter. At this juncture there were known to be about fifty individual cells or small structures within the fort as a whole. Some of these cells were in the center of the fortified ring, and some were actually built into the wall itself.

In the late 600s AD the ringfort was mysteriously abandoned, and it remained unused until the early 11th century. This 11th century work generally built upon the earlier fort, except that stone interior cells were replaced with timber structures, and a second outer defensive wall was erected.

Presently the fort is used as a tourist site for visitors to Öland to experience a medieval fortification for this region. A museum within the castle walls displays a few of the large number of artefacts retrieved by the National Heritage Board during the major decade long excavation ending in 1974. Inside the fort visitors are greeted by actors in medieval costumes who assume the roles of period artisans and merchants who might have lived there nine centuries earlier. There are also re-enactment scenes of skirmishes and other dramatic events of daily life from the Middle Ages.

Eketorp lies a few kilometers west of Route 136. There is an ample unpaved parking area situated approximately two kilometers west of the paved Öland perimeter highway. There is also a gift shop on site. During peak summer visitation, there are guided tours available. Visitors are assessed an admission charge.