3. Cultural Landscapes at the Mesolithic-Neolithic Interface

3.1. Palaeoecology of the Scheldt Basin

The Scheldt basin encompasses a region of remarkable physical diversity in climate, topography, and vegetation. With a catchment area of 19,500 km² (Kiden 1991), it traverses through the (north) westernmost point of transition between the Central European loess belt and the North European Plain. The Scheldt basin flows north from the loess soils of middle Belgium to the sandy soils of Flanders into its drainage in the North Sea. Regional topographies are highly variable, ranging from the undulating valley and plateau landscapes of the loess region to the sandy lowlands, where late glacial dunes established a less pronounced landscape cut with numerous river valleys, streams, and marshy wetland areas.

The period of focus for the current study (7000-4000 BC) falls within the transition from Boreal (8000-6900 BC) to Atlantic (6900-4000 BC) climatic periods. This transition introduced an increasing annual temperature as well as dramatic vegetational changes. Boreal period vegetation was dominated by rather open pine (Pinus) forests with interspersed birch (Betula) and hazel (Corylus), but as this period progressed, so did the increased appearance of oak (Quercus), elm (Ulmus), and lime (Tilia) in the higher elevations, as well as alder (Alnus) and ash (Fraxinus) in the lower, wetter regions (Price 1981; Verbruggen et al. 1996). The transition to the Atlantic period witnessed an increase in temperature and humidity, and the development of a dense canopy of deciduous mixed-oak forest comprising oak, elm, hazel, lime and ash (Verbruggen et al. 1996). Vegetational changes were controlled by local conditions, and consequently the relative density of the forest canopy varied between dry and wet soils within the dominant pedological sectors. For instance, the abundance of lime is thought to have varied between the sand and loess regions (ibid.).

The paleoecological differences between the middle and lower Scheldt basin increased during the course of the Atlantic period. This is a result of rising sea levels on the lower Scheldt basin after 5000 BC (Kiden 1991). Researchers have indicated the significance of sea level rise on the developments of fen areas along river valleys (Kiden 1991; Verbruggen et al. 1996). Verbruggen et al. (1996, 572) point out how the gradually rising groundwater level and growth of fen areas created the overall expansion of alluvial plains. The development of wetland areas in the lower Scheldt through the course of the 5th millennium BC established a natural environment of increased resource predictability - and relatively concentrated resource abundance - that would have affected the annual mobility strategies of hunting-fishing-gathering populations living among them (cf. Nicholas 1998).

The changing hydrological and vegetational conditions of the Scheldt basin during the course of the Atlantic period established a more mosaic landscape. In both the loess and sandy regions the differences between river valley and hilltop/plateau areas would have been more exaggerated than in the Boreal period. These localised contrasts most likely created a more dispersed yet predictable distribution of the key resources for both hunting-fishing-gathering and early agricultural populations. For instance, Crombé et al. (in press) argue that these contrasts most likely altered the distribution of important game species throughout the landscape. Numerous scholars have highlighted the effect of the increasingly dense mixed-oak forest on the distribution of larger game such as red deer and aurochs (ibid. also Jochim 1976; Gautier 1999). Larger species were probably displaced from the interior forest regions towards the forest edges where plant species would also have been concentrated (Crombé et al. in press). These changes would have, however, affected the entire range of species, including the possibly significant effect on local fishing and gathering practices. Throughout the Atlantic period, changing palaeoecological conditions of the middle and lower Scheldt basin altered drastically the cultural landscapes of hunter-fisher-gatherer populations and established the ecological and social contexts for their transitions to agriculture.


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