What was it like?

I’ve been thinking about the colonization of Europe by Middle Eastern farmers – light-skinned, dark-eyed guys pushing aside dark-skinned, blue-eyed hunters.  The movement took two paths – one into the Balkans and up the Danube, another by sea, along the north coast of the Med. The populations in those two paths must have had a common origin: the earliest pottery in Albania and Italy is is related to that of the Starcevo culture in the southern Balkans.  Better yet, we know that the two populations were genetically close, similar to modern Sardinians. Likely, they spoke related languages.

The stone-age farmers in the northern path (which led to the LBK culture) grew emmer and einkorn wheat, barley, and lentils.  As they moved into the Balkans, they picked up broomcorn millet,  not in the original Southwest Asian toolkit. They raised cattle, pigs, goats, and old-fashioned sheep (not yet wooly).  The settlers in the southern path had a similar kind of agriculture – but with tetraploid wheats, and without broomcorn.

Both hunters and farmers had stone tools, no metals, no horses.

Archaeology can only tell us so much.  Genetics, especially ancient DNA, can tell us more: but there’s a reason that we call it prehistory.

I’m wondering what we can deduce about the advent of farming ( and farmers) in Europe from similar expansions that occurred ( at least in part) within the window of written history.






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35 Responses to What was it like?

  1. dearieme says:

    Or even in very late pre-History. I’m thinking of the Polynesians who colonised NZ: bringing tropical agriculture to a temperate climate proved a lousy idea. At least if the early European farmers had found that their crops and flocks didn’t succeed, it wasn’t far to go home. Hopping between remote oceanic islands is less forgiving of error.

    • dearieme says:

      Nobody knows what became of the last of the Viking Greenlanders: did they manage to “go home” when the end of the medieval warm period undermined their agriculture?

    • dearieme says:

      And if you potter slowly up the Danube your crops and flocks have time to evolve to suit the climate and geology – much more forgiving than long oceanic voyages.

  2. j3morecharacters says:

    One of the largest expansions in human history was of the Bantu-speaking peoples from Cameroon. Before the expansion of this farming and pastoralist people, Africa south of the equator was populated by hunter-gatherers. In the encounter, the African Western Hunters were absorbed (the Khoisan) and/or consumed (the Batwa).

    • gcochran9 says:

      And that expansion can be used as a model, but the problem is that it too is mostly off the historical record, except for some of the end stages of the expansion. I would say that it gives pretty good evidence that the expanding agriculturalists are more likely to incorporate local hunter-gatherer females than males.. although the degree of incorporation varies. Some Bantu groups in southern Africa appear to have very low Bushmen admixture, some have quite a bit.

      • j3morecharacters says:

        Sir, we have not yet seen the end stages of that expansion. Much of the Caribbean and the American SouthEast has been colonized by the Bantu. In those areas, also Hunter males have contributed to the admixture, making the expansion model more confusing.

  3. jb says:

    I’d be interested in knowing more about what life was like for them. I’m not talking about their material toolkit; I’m talking about how they lived their lives and thought about the world. I remember watching some TV show about about the natives of New Guinea, and thinking how utterly alien and weird some aspects of their lives were. I wonder if the lives of my own direct ancestors would seem comparably weird, or whether there is some degree of cultural or biological continuity between myself and them that would make their lives seem, if not familiar, at least a little less bizarre.

    • Sandgroper says:

      Oh boy.

      There’s a term in archaeology: “Bronze Age Weirdness”.

      If you can figure out why someone in what is modern day France would sacrifice 1,000 bronze axe heads – not horde, for later recovery, sacrifice – deposit without intention to recover, you’ll be on your way to understanding what was in those folks’ minds. (One theory is it was done to maintain rarity of elite weapons, but that does not explain many other sacrificial sites around Europe where much smaller quantities of swords, axes and other precious bronze implements were basically just thrown away – most likely as a means of communing with the Goddess or the Lady of the Lake or whoever.)

      Martin Rundkvist has a really good book on Scandinavian Bronze Age archaeology coming out on the landscape rules people used to decide where to sacrifice. When you understand their rules, you start to see into their minds – the landscape rules are actually strongly suggestive of the purpose of the sacrifices.

      This is pretty weird:


      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:
      • Sandgroper says:

        You obviously didn’t read it.

      • Fintan says:

        Modern man is far removed from the lifestyle of his ancestors in the 19th century even, let alone older practices. Many of the daily rhythms of life and taken-for-granted concepts that our ancestors lived with are now alien to modern sensibilities.

        Case in point, many modern people looking back have difficulty rationalizing some types of sacrifices outside of context. You see, an essential element of life for many of my ancestors up until well into the 20th century was the cold-weather slaughter of animals.

        When autumn rolled around and frosty nights made an appearance, then it was time slaughter many of your animals, preserve the meat, and choose which and how many animals you were going to keep through the winter — ample forage would have had to have been collected and stored for the winter months, and in many locations and eras animals that were not kept under lock-and-key had the habit of growing an extra pair of legs and trotting off into the night. As such in many locations and eras it was often simply not feasible for farmers to keep much more than essential breeding stock through the winter, hence the need to slaughter off the excess, leaving the best breeding-age females and a good breeding male or two. Late autumn is in many respects an ideal time for such business – the cooler weather gives one a bit more leeway in avoiding spoilage, making it easier to dress out a carcass and smoke, salt, dry or pickle it before it goes bad. Likewise most of your stock would have been fattening up during the summer months and finished off nicely on the harvest (feeding animals a bit of grain or fruit for a few days before slaughter is a great way to get rid of “off” tastes from whatever slop or strange forage the animal may have been on beforehand).

        As a general rule, like any harvest event, such late-season slaughtering could often take on a festival atmosphere: much food, much drink, some thanksgiving and a bit of prayer. Think of it like this, sometimes a good way to get all of your neighbors/relatives out to lend a hand with the heavy labor is to throw a nice party (at least after they’ve pitched in). Such harvest and slaughter practices could become whole community affairs and become annual holidays. Underneath the hard labor, the festivities, the community activities, and some of the spiritual goings-on, is the realization that hard decisions must be made as to which animals to keep and which to cull, so with an eye to constrained resources that must be spread out over the long, dark nights of winter and the need to ensure the continuation of strong bloodlines in your stock, you start slitting throats and praying that your decisions will pay off in coming years (and of course feed your family through the winter and spring).

        You see, it’s not wise to stiff your neighbors, or your kin – who knows when you may need a favor. Good neighbors are good allies to have in tough times, and part of having good neighbors is being a good neighbor yourself. At times being a good neighbor would mean throwing good parties and getting everyone stuffed and drunk. As mentioned a good way to get everyone’s help with the harvest and the slaughter is to offer up a little to anyone willing to lend a hand. Is it that much of a stretch of the imagination to symbolically include one’s long-dead ancestors in such proceedings? Or to invite your deities into your community and the daily rhythms of your life?

        We deal with a high degree of abstraction in our daily lives, as well as with our concepts of morality or spirituality. Many people fail to realize that for eons such things have tended to be a good deal more… organic, down to earth, relatable and understandable if you will.

        So back to the harvest and slaughter time – in between offering your kith and kin some food and drink to come lend a hand, thinking over your plans for the coming year, and paying your debts, taxes and respects to neighbors, community leaders and religious institutions, you offer up a little something extra symbolically to whatever higher forces may be watching over you. A sacrifice. Perhaps a libation to one’s ancestors or tribal heroes, perhaps part of the feast offered up to the spirits and the gods, perhaps you’ll run out a special animal from the herd and slaughter it specifically.

        Within context such things don’t seem quite as fantastic, and don’t require that much suspension of disbelief or centuries of cultural and institutional indoctrination to understand. So, from that perspective, let’s say the frosty nights are here, the animals are being slaughtered and the meat put up, the long-dark of winter is coming and the nights are, for the time being, filled with merriment and ceremony. What do you do with, for the sake of argument, your household slaves? You know, the ones you picked up raiding a while back. Just as with the livestock you’ve got to have adequate supplies put back for them to last through the coming winter (and spring), and you’re going to have to gauge carefully how much work you’re likely to get out of them in the future, and a miscalculation here might mean poverty or starvation for yourself and your family.

        Do you have a defeated warrior, or the son of a defeated chieftain, in your household that just isn’t doing enough work? Dealing with any surliness or backtalk from the household slaves? Is that big-breasted young woman you hauled back in chains just not putting out? Whippings just not motivating like they used to? If you can’t sell them off easily enough, and you don’t like the prospect of paying to feed, house, clothe and control them for another year… well you can conserve scarce resources, instill a bit of motivational uncertainty in the rest of your slaves, and perhaps gain a few brownie points in the spiritual world by making a real splash at the next vinterblot.

        The route to sacrifice is not so long or so strange as modern man would assume.

        As a parting shot, would votive offerings be that many logical steps removed from pouring billions or trillions of dollars into pre-pre-kindergarten education? People can make themselves feel all moral, righteous and holy by obviously wasting resources, so long as such wastage has a component of moral imperative about it, sort of a hopeful and heroic sprinkling of largesse into the devouring swamp.

      • Sandgroper says:

        Not horde, hoard. The horde’s hoard.

      • Sandgroper says:

        “would votive offerings be that many logical steps removed from pouring billions or trillions of dollars into pre-pre-kindergarten education?” – Yes, at least I can see some kind of logic in votive offerings.

      • Sandgroper says:

        Although I think 1,000 axes is getting more towards the end of trying to impress the neighbours – that’s more like some guy in Shanghai getting his Ferrari gold-plated.

  4. dearieme says:

    The British who settled in Australia found it advantageous to import sheep from Spain (Merino) rather than rely on, say, Cheviots. The Spaniards who settled in Argentina found it advantageous to import British cattle e.g.Herefords and Aberdeen Angus.

    • j3morecharacters says:

      The only reason to import British cattle to Argentina was the fact that Argentina produced for the British market and the Brits were used to that type of “marbled” meat.

      • dearieme says:

        You might as well say that the only reason to import Merino was because you wanted to concentrate on wool rather than meat. True but it misses the point.

    • j3morecharacters says:

      Yes. I am missing your point. Is there one? Where it may be?

  5. engleberg says:

    >’stone tools, no metals’

    I know Raymond Dart’s ‘bone age tools’ theory is out of fashion, and way earlier than this period, but did anyone really disprove it? I just like it.

  6. a very knowing American says:

    The archeology gets us somewhere:

    “It … appears that the Cardial [Mediterranean] farmers at least occasionally killed foragers and kept their heads as trophies. The colonization of Germany and the Low Countries by farmers of the Linear Pottery [LBK] culture was accompanied by fortified border villages and, in Belgium at least, a 20- to 30-kilometer … non-man’s-land between these defended sites and the settlements of … foragers.”

    Lawrence Keeley, War Before Civilization, p. 137

    In Southeast Asia, headhunting was ubiquitous and probably goes back to the earliest Austronesian farmers settling the area. Words for “war” and “taking heads” were often synonymous. You went out for heads not because you necessarily had a specific grudge against the victims, but just to add to your collection. Presumably preexisting foragers were among the targets.

    Robert Blust. “Austronesian culture history: some linguistic inferences …” World Archeology 1976

    • gcochran9 says:

      I knew the Keeley reference. It seems that there was a certain amount of mutual hostility between the local hunters and colonizing farmers. Although, maybe not everywhere, or all the time: it looks as if the two populations co-existed for as much as a thousand years in some places. If they were really working at being hostile, you’d think that one or the other group would have been wiped out before then.

    • Bones and Behaviours says:

      How, if at all, do the trophy skulls differ from those of the head hunters? And how is it known whether the heads came from Mesolithic or Neolithic economies?

      • a very knowing American says:

        According to Keeley, skull shapes are different enough between Mesolithic and Neolithic types that they can be told apart.

  7. Flinders Petrie says:

    It would also be really interesting to model the third component at play in Neolithic Europe: the Sibermen who crashed the party around around 5 kya, after the Levantine migration.

    It would have been something equivalent to Cahokia farmers migrating west into the territory of an H&G version of the Oneotas, and then the Comanches sweeping in and wreaking havoc (if no Europeans had arrived).

  8. mmolehill says:

    Natives usually have very little resistance to diseases common among farmers. Including actual germs evolved from animal sources and diabetes and alcoholism (both of which require large amounts of carbohydrate from grains). Early farmers had effective weapons against natives even without a clear technological edge.

  9. Greying Wanderer says:

    “it looks as if the two populations co-existed for as much as a thousand years in some places. If they were really working at being hostile, you’d think that one or the other group would have been wiped out before then.”

    different habitat

    if the farmers were only viable on specific terrain e.g. well drained loess soils adjacent to rivers, then they wouldn’t have either the incentive or the ability to wipe the foragers out. If at the same time the farmers had a much higher population density then the foragers couldn’t wipe them out either.

    So for example
    – islands of farmer settlements along the rivers with maybe 10% of the total land but 80% of the total population
    – 10% no man’s land surrounding the farmer settlements
    – forager tribes in the surrounding forests and swamps making up 20% of the total population in 80% of the total land

  10. Greying Wanderer says:


    “The gene MC1R doesn’t cause OCA2, but does affect its presentation”

    If OCA2 comes with eyesight problems does MC1R fix them?

  11. d says:

    are these the non-wooly sheep?

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