Chapter 2 - The Transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic

The year 2,700 BCE may be regarded as a turning point in the social history of our ancestors in the territory now known as continental Portugal. Prior to this date, the successors to the Neanderthals had progressed in a fragmented way to increase their populations by consolidating families into groups which would lead to the formation of tribes . In the north and central districts the Lusitanians , Turduli and Oestriminis held sway while to the south in the Alentejo and Algarve the Cynetes dominated. None of these made written records so our only information has been obtained by the archaeological excavations of their settlements which were located usually in hill-top positions near to streams and flat land suitable for the grazing and cultivation which had gradually replaced a nomadic hunter/gatherer existence.

Analysis of the radiocarbon and stable isotypes taken from skeletons of that period suggested a marked change from the Mesolithic diet of largely marine components such as several species of fish and molluscs (supplemented by hunted animals and wild plants) to a more terrestrial subsistence of vegetable sources and semi-domesticated fauna.

This Chalcolithic period can best be illustrated by looking at the remarkable history of Castro Vila Nova de São Pedro , Azambuja which occupies a small hilltop site near the confluence of the Alcoentre, Carrascal and Massuca rivers . Here a settlement can be dated from early in the third millennium when the early inhabitants began the construction of earthwork fortifications using an ancient dolmen as their focal point. To the basic plan were added walls of limestone rock and possibly a wooden stockade within which round single-room dwellings with conical roofs and rectangular store-houses were built. This settlement was occupied sporadically for around five hundred years until the arrival of the “Beaker people” brought innovations such as the construction of a kiln with adjoining paved courtyard and cistern ; an armoury replete with arrow-heads, axes and daggers ; a granary and complex additions to the fortifications which were heightened and clad with baked clay and possibly surmounted by wooden platforms or towers. Without the walls a patchwork of fields was worked to cultivate wheat , maize and vegetables’ while palisades enclosed land for the grazing of newly domesticated animals. In a necropolis the practise of communal burial was abandoned in favour of single or family graves sometimes containing utensils or weapons and there is some indication of cremation also being employed.

The habitation of Castro V.N. de S. Pedro continued for around one thousand years with reconstruction taking place at least five times to increase its size and importance until the arrival of Bronze Age technology at around 1800 BCE which caused its gradual decline.

Ceramics found at this site range from the early indigenous styles of orange and grey pottery including cups and plates decorated with what appear to be astronomic symbols to the Bell shaped containers of the beaker people which were used for many purposes including the primitive smelting of ore to produce copper and other soft metals such as tin, silver and gold.

The term “people” in relation to the Beaker Culture is perhaps misleading due to the lack of any real evidence of their origin. Earlier 20th century theory was that the innovations resulted from the immigration by sea of tribes from North Africa who established enclaves at various points along the Iberian coast . This advanced technology then spread northwards along the Atlantic coasts of France (Bordeaux and Brittany) and the British Isles (Cornwall, Wales and southern Ireland). It then travelled eastwards using the great European waterways such as the Rhône and Danube to reach as far inland as Poland from where a reciprocal trade brought goods to the west. But more recently the “pots before people” theory posits that the Beaker culture resulted from a diffusion of knowledge among an elite which emerged from the indigenous tribal structure in a similar way to that of the Samurai warriors of Japan and the Levi priests of ancient Israel.

What can be accepted is that this Chalcolithic period saw the first steps towards the formation of a social-economic system which would serve the dynamic state which was to be formed by the inward movement of people during the first millennium BCE. This we will examine in Chapter 3 – Traders, Raiders and Invaders.