The word "Mesolithic" is derived from the Greek words mesos, meaning "middle", and lithos, meaning "stone".
The term "Mesolithic" was introduced by John Lubbock in his work Pre-historic Times, published in 1865. The term was, however, not much used until V. Gordon Childe popularized it in his book The Dawn of Europe (1947).
Recently, Ray Mears and paleoethnobotanist Gordon Hillman have brought the term 'Mesolithic' back into the public arena, prompting individuals to learn more about it and the diets of Mesolithic people through the popular BBC 2 broadcast 'Ray Mears' Wild Food'.
The term "Mesolithic" is in competition with another term, "Epipaleolithic", which means the "final Upper Palaeolithic industries occurring at the end of the final glaciation which appear to merge technologically into the Mesolithic".
In the archaeology of northern Europe — for example for archaeological sites in Great Britain, Scandinavia, Ukraine, and Russia — the term "Mesolithic" is almost always used.
In the archaeology of other areas, the term "Epipaleolithic" may be preferred by most authors, or there may be divergences between authors over which term to use or what meaning to assign to each.
A Spanish scholar, Alfonso Moure, says in this regard:
Some authors prefer the opposite convention, using the term "Epipaleolithic" for cultures that are in transition toward agriculture and "Mesolithic" for those that are not. This is not really as confusing as it seems. The important thing is to take note of how each author uses the term.
It began at the end of the Pleistocene epoch around 11,500 BP and ended with the introduction of farming, the date of which varied in each geographical region. In some areas, such as the Near East, farming was already in use by the end of the Pleistocene, and there the Mesolithic is short and poorly defined. In areas with limited glacial impact, the term "Epipaleolithic" is sometimes preferred. Regions that experienced greater environmental effects as the last glacial period ended have a much more apparent Mesolithic era, lasting millennia. In northern Europe, for example, societies were able to live well on rich food supplies from the marshlands created by the warmer climate. Such conditions produced distinctive human behaviors that are preserved in the material record, such as the Maglemosian and Azilian cultures. Such conditions also delayed the coming of the Neolithic until as late as 5000 BC in northern Europe.
As what Mithen terms the "Neolithic package" (including farming, herding, polished stone axes, timber longhouses and pottery) spread into Europe by routes that remain controversial among scholars, the Mesolithic way of life was marginalized and eventually disappeared. Mesolithic adaptations are cited as of relevance of the question of the transition to agriculture, including sedentism, population size and plant foods. In Europe, a "ceramic Mesolithic" can be distinguished between 5200-3850 cal BC that ranging from southern to northern Europe. Other labels are Subneolithicum or "Mesolithic, Last Hunters, First Farmers"(Price). This stage of Mesolithic culture can be found periferic to the sedentary communities and Neolithic cultures (Linear Pottery -with Rössen culture and Lengyel culture being the most important derivate cultures- and Cardium Pottery) that by then had already passed their "aceramic Neolithic stage". By then most Mesolithic people employed a distinct type of pottery manufactured by methods not known to the Neolithic farmers. Though each area developed an individual style, yet some common features such as the point or knob base and the superimposed circular rolls of clay, suggests enduring contact and even "ethnic" relationships between the groups. The special shape of this pottery has been related to transport by logboat in wetland areas.. Jeunesse et al (1991, fig.22) related similar point base pottery from Spain, southern Scandinavia and the Dnieper-Donets region in the Ukraine. Another area featuring neolithic point base pottery is Northern Africa. Denmark's Ertebølle culture is one example of a Mesolithic culture that made some pottery and engaged in significant trade with Neolithic groups directly to their south.
Mithen notes that Mesolithic cultures were a historical dead end, unlike the somewhat earlier cultures of the late Paleolithic period in West Asia, which were evolving steadily toward the Neolithic. At the same time, genetic studies strongly suggest that modern Europeans' ancestry, especially their matrilineal mitochondrial DNA, is descended directly from these Mesolithic peoples, who must have eventually adopted the Neolithic way of life that had come to them from West Asia.
There are two designated periods:
Mesolithic 1 (Kebara culture; 20–18,000 BC to 12,150 BC) followed the Aurignacian or Levantine Upper Paleolithic throughout the Levant. By the end of the Aurignacian, gradual changes took place in stone industries. Microliths and retouched bladelets can be found for the first time. The microliths of this culture period differ greatly from the Aurignacian artifacts. This period is more properly called Epipaleolithic.
By 20,000 to 18,000 BC the climate and environment had changed, starting a period of transition. The Levant became more arid and the forest vegetation retreated, to be replaced by steppe. The cool and dry period ended at the beginning of Mesolithic 1. The hunter-gatherers of the Aurignacian would have had to modify their way of living and their pattern of settlement to adapt to the changing conditions. The crystallization of these new patterns resulted in Mesolithic 1. New types of settlements and new stone industries developed.
The inhabitants of a small Mesolithic 1 site in the Levant left little more than their chipped stone tools behind. The industry was of small tools made of bladelets struck off single-platform cores. Besides bladelets, burins and end-scrapers were found. A few bone tools and some ground stone have also been found.
These so-called Mesolithic sites of Asia are far less numerous than those of the Neolithic and the archeological remains are very poor.
Mesolithic 1 started somewhere around 18,000 BC in Israel. The change from Mesolithic 1 to Natufian culture can be dated more closely. The latest date from a Mesolithic 1 site in the Levant is 12,150 BC. The earliest date from a Natufian site is 11,140 BC. The 10th millennium BC seems to correspond with three other sites at Kebara (9200 BC), Mugharet el Wad (9970 and 9525 BC), and Jericho (9216 BC). However, other sites suggest an even later start via dates of 8930 and 8540 BC. It would thus appear that Natufian culture emerges around 11,000–9000 BC in Israel and Lebanon.
Natufian culture is commonly split into two subperiods: Early Natufian (14,500–12,800 BP) (Christopher Delage gives a. 13000 - 11500 bp uncalibrated) and Late Natufian (12,800–11,500 BP). The Late Natufian most likely occurred in tandem with the Younger Dryas. Radiocarbon dates of 14,500–11,500 BP place this culture just before the end of the Pleistocene. This period is characterised by the beginning of agriculture.
The earliest known battle occurred during the Mesolithic period at a site in Egypt known as Cemetery 117.
Some notable Mesolithic sites: