Stone Age

The oldest known traces of human settlement in the Estonian territory date back to 9000 BC. This era, which started about five hundred years after the Ice Age, when ancestral hunters-fishers-gatherers inhabited the area, is called the Mesolithic Era (9000–4200 BC). About fifty Mesolithic settlement sites and four burial sites have been found in Estonia. Most of the settlements were located near bodies of water; by rivers and lakes in the first half of the Mesolithic era, and by the seaside during the later period. Numerous sites have been discovered on the shores of Võrtsjärv, Kahala, Peipsi and other lakes, and by the banks of the Navesti, Pärnu, Reiu, Suur Emajõgi, Õhne and other rivers, as well as in various places on the coast and on the islands of Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and Ruhnu.

Food was secured by hunting, fishing and gathering, and the only domestic animal was the dog. According to the animal bones found at the settlement sites, a wide range of wild animals were hunted at that time, mainly elk and in some places beavers as well. The reason why coastal areas and islands were colonised during the second period was the development of seal hunting. The oldest seal hunters’ settlements on the coast date back to 7100 BC, and on the islands to 5800 BC.

People probably lived in small communities of no more than a few dozen members, hunting and gathering in areas big enough to provide food for everybody. At the beginning of the era, whole communities probably changed their places of habitation after the hunting, fishing and gathering seasons. In the Late Mesolithic, however, villages were established where people lived all year round, and only part of the community left for seasonal work elsewhere. Tools were made of stone, horn, bone and wood. The first earthenware was made in the Estonian territory in ca 5500 BC.

At the beginning of the Mesolithic Era, the local inhabitants established a contact network mostly with peoples living in the eastern and northern European forest zone. Large amounts of valuable quality material for making tools – flint – was brought to Estonia from the central parts of western Russia, about 500 km away, and from Lithuania and Belarus. With the growing population, these contacts probably disappeared and new, smaller social and economic networks developed instead.

Around 4200 BC, people in the Estonian territory acquired the skills of grain farming. The Stone Age, when besides hunting and fishing, people were also involved in farming, is treated as a separate sub-period – the Neolithic Era (42001800 BC). So far, about one hundred Neolithic settlement sites and over twenty burial sites have been found in Estonia. Among the sites, there are short-term stopover places, the remains of hunting camps and villages. Some are located in the previous settlement sites, but there are also new locations where no ancient settlement traces had been found. Tools were still made of stone, horn, bone and wood, and people used earthenware.

At the beginning of the Neolithic Era, people mainly continued to live by the rivers, lakes and seaside. It is estimated that the year-round villages each contained a few dozen to fifty inhabitants. The main sources of subsistence were hunting, fishing and gathering. The most hunted animals were aurochs, elk and wild boar, and on the coast naturally seals, although beavers, wild horses and other beasts were hunted as well. Besides internal bodies of water and coastal waters, fishermen worked on the open sea. The oldest pollen grains of various crops found in the sediments of Estonian bogs and lakes indicate the growing of grains – barley and wheat. Compared with hunting, fishing and gathering, cultivating the land still remained a marginal activity, and did not cause any changes in settlement habits or material culture, as cultivating land did not offer a sufficient alternative to the main source of subsistence – hunting. Considering the development of the farming economy in neighbouring countries, grain and agricultural knowledge might have been obtained from the southern regions.

During the Neolithic Era, wide networks were again developed, through which Estonia received amber from the coasts of Latvia and Lithuania, flint from western Russia, Lithuania-Belarus and metatuff from Karelia; some items, e.g. specific axes and wedge-axes, arrow- and spearheads and jewellery, were brought here as finished goods.

In the second half of the Neolithic Era, beginning in 2900 BC, people inhabiting the Estonian territory began breeding livestock – oxen, goats, sheep and pigs. Barley and wheat continued to be the most popular grains, and the share of the hunting economy was still large.

The role of the farming economy increased so much that it altered the settlement pattern of many local communities. In choosing their habitats, people now relied on different principles. It was no longer essential to live near bodies of water. Several old settlement sites in coastal areas and on the islands were again inhabited; at that time they were already over a kilometre away from the sea. Settlement units became smaller as well, mostly low-density farms.

Only a few antiquities have been found from the end of the Stone Age, primarily stone axes with an eye. We can assume that settlement in the Estonian territory was getting denser, and people were also moving to upland locations. The pollen found in bog peat and lake sediments indicates intensifying land cultivation. In the late Neolithic Era, the existing eastern and southern contacts were supplemented by relations with southern Scandinavia.

Author: Aivar Kriiska

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