Bell beakers – or, the birth of Britain

The Beaker culture is an archaeological culture that existed in the late Copper Age and early Bronze age in western Europe, characterized by a particular style of pottery drinking vessels, but also by developments in copper metallurgy, archery, etc.

It looks as if the culture – a set of ideas and techniques – originated in Spain and spread widely – but then, some of its spread happened by groups that had adopted that culture expanding.

It looks as if people in western Germany picked up these ideas – of course we have a radically imperfect idea of what those ideas were – and then settled Britain. Before all this Britain was populated by a kindof-Sardinian population (with some hunter-gatherer mixed in) that had probably came from Spain. Afterwards they were almost indistinguishable from people of that era living in the Netherlands, who had a lot of steppe ancestry. 93% replacement, minimum. Some Anglo-Saxon ancestry was added about 1400 years ago but A. they’re not very different from the Brits B. most British ancestry today still goes back to the Bell Beaker conquest.

This probably happened through war and massacre. If you think otherwise, you reject the historical record – have a fundamentally false notion of human nature. Disease is not too plausible as a causal factor, since the proto-Brits were not a long-isolated population like the Amerindians or Polynesians, while for that matter some of the most potent crowd diseases, smallpox for example, weren’t even around yet.

Pastoralists are usually warlike and they have often supplanted farmers, even when greatly outnumbered.

I’m wondering if this population replacement was preceded by a long period of piracy and raids, something like Europe in 900 AD.

For a long time archaeologists, not least British ones, have for some reason been viscerally uncomfortable with explanations of prehistory leaning heavily on war & volkerwanderungs. They were wrong: and they were, are, the sort of people that want to be wrong, will be wrong unless someone holds a gun to their head. They need to be replaced, by hook or by crook.
Assuming that we want information.

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64 Responses to Bell beakers – or, the birth of Britain

  1. Yudi says:

    Ah, I was wondering when we’d hear your opinion on this. Any thoughts about ancillary issues raised by these papers–changes in lactose tolerance levels, hair color, and the spread of the Anatolian languages? You’ve speculated publicly about all three. How do you think you’re doing?

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      i’d always assumed LP was their big advantage but apparently it was still very low frequency at the beginning – however (apparently) both lighter skin and LP have been (or were) under continuous selection for 3000+ years which makes me wonder why – currently thinking maybe vitamin A?

      • Crosbie says:

        Not vitamin D? Neolithic grain-eaters had less sunlight that Mediterranean farmers and less meat that British hunters. If sufficient vitamin D from cattle made it into the milk, milk gave the farmers a more efficient source of the vitamin than killing and eating the cattle. Light skin obviously helps too. An absence of these adaptions potentially kept population density low until the wheat + milk peoples arrived.

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          maybe both – i was reading about vitamin A deficiency recently and it mentioned stunted growth and i was thinking wouldn’t rickets from vitamin D deficiency be obvious in the skeletons? so made me wonder about vitamin A.

          • Crosbie says:

            Drat! I like the vitamin D idea but as you say, deficiency would be highly obvious. I guess there are lots of other nutritional benefits from milk.

            In fact I may have got it backwards. It seems there was a dramatic transition from fish to dairy in the British neolithic diet. I’m pretty sure fish is vitamin D rich, so perhaps milk drinking was associated with a reduction is dietary vitamin D.

  2. Beakerblog says:

    In many ways the entirety of European history can be divided between “before Beaker” and “after Beaker”. I can only think of the prehistoric Uruk World System as having such a pervasive and lasting effect.
    Of all its innovations and adventurism, the most lasting effect of Bell Beaker may have been its worldview. Fierce individualism, idealism and materialism.

  3. epoch2013 says:

    “This probably happened through war and massacre.”

    I’m skeptical.

    “If you think otherwise, you reject the historical record – have a fundamentally false notion of human nature.”

    There we agree, and since BB most likely were Indo-Europeans we can assume that the IE war mythology applied to them as well. But the historical record also show that these kind of war bands took the wives and daughters. Now, since most likely weren’t taken because of their fine cooking skills one can assume that this would mean that British BB’s would not look like Tuithoorn samples but look like a mixture.

    “Disease is not too plausible as a causal factor, since the proto-Brits were not a long-isolated population like the Amerindians or Polynesians, while for that matter some of the most potent crowd diseases, smallpox for example, weren’t even around yet. ”

    There is a paper out that states that plague was involved. Do take note that Europe got a firm hit by that in 1348 even as it wasn’t isolated.

    • whyteablog says:

      Plague probably doesn’t work, unless they’ve dug up something real interesting on Beaker immune genes. Any plague that nearly extinguished the locals should’ve had a similar impact on the invader.

      If they took so many war brides, then why do the British have so few genes of the locals? Do the math on that one.

      • Crosbie says:

        It depends on population densities. If Bell-Beaker technology supported much higher population density than the previously possible they could multiply quickly, take all available pre-Bell farmer women as wives, and still not significantly alter the genetic make-up of the expanding population.

      • epoch2013 says:

        “If they took so many war brides, then why do the British have so few genes of the locals? Do the math on that one.”

        That is my point. This is not how these things tend to go. You see, take Europe as a whole and you see R1b go up and steppe ancestry go down from NE to SW. You can imagine that. Once an area is conquered more local wives are taken, sons born with daddy’s R1b but less steppe ancestry. They go out and harass further on.

        I find the lack of such thing in Britain and Ireland suspect, especially there is evidence that Neolithic societies were seeing population declines before the onset of BB. See below.

      • Mike says:

        Too many mass movement theories. Genes can pass from population to population. The Kostenki find showed how connected people were across Eurasia. Tocharians showed features found in northern Europeans, they were clearly nomadic. How nomadic were Brits compared to northern and Central Europeans? Did agriculture and language pass from northern European to Britain? How much do people who share culture and language share genes? Why if Eurasian Steppes genes enter Britain do most modern Brits have brown hair yet Steppe people had light hair, eyes and skin especially in areas like Ireland and Wales when 90% of ancient genes disappeared yet R1b is found amongst many Italians and Spanish along with Britain and Ireland yet Spanish Beaker folk was distinct to central Europe? Connecting language/culture and genes is always dangerous. If northern Europeans more nomadic and southern Europeans less so that comes into play

        • gcochran9 says:

          A few genes highly favored by selection can pass from one pop to another, but if you see general resemblance in autosomal DNA, it’s admixture.

          Tocharians are, probably, an early split off the Indo-Europeans. They looked European because northern Europe had lots of Indo-European ancestry.

          The Yamnaya, at least one he alleles we understand, had some light hair but mostly probably not. Not light eyes. Intermediate skinL lighter than western hunter-gatherers, probably not as light as the early Anatolian-origin farmers. Nortehrn Europe got lighter with time: selection.

          R1b is in some places , like he Basque, elite dominance.

          Not connecting language and genes is even more dangerous.

    • Jalfrezi says:

      They probably focused on the massacring only spared the prettiest girls to keep as wives.

  4. Frau Katze says:

    Replacement by war: Wouldn’t that require the Beaker people to have some sort of radically better weapon and/or have some genetic advantage that allowed them to survive better in general?

    Were the Beakers the ones who had lactose tolerance?

    Did they come on horseback while the original population had never seen horses? Maybe they better metallurgy.

    You can get a faint idea of such clashes from reading about more recent, documented ones. We know that disease gave the Europeans the huge edge in the New World.

    But even reading about Cortes and his early contact pre-smallpox is interesting. The steel weapons and horses were real advantages in some early skirmishes. Enough to gain him some native allies and a gift of women, one of who became Cortes’ interpreter.

    Still, Cortes eventually ended up in retreat and was looking to be a loser when smallpox conveniently broke out on the coast.

  5. P says:

    Good call on ANE being the source of European hair color variation.

  6. Are British archeologists’ women and herds really worth taking?

  7. “They need to be replaced.” 93% replacement should be good enough.

      • epoch2013 says:

        Frankly, a number of the “pots-not-people” archaeologists – Harry Fokkens e.g. – appear on the author list of this paper. There is the Volker Heydt – Also a co-author – had an article on DNA and archaeology called “Kossinas smile”. That in itself is a sign that archaeology is not like social sciences.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Anyone that managed to diss war and violent population movements as a major factor in prehistory for most of his professional career is a silly person. Can we do better than that?

          Yes we can!

          • epoch2013 says:

            Greg, we all were silly persons somewhere in our lives. These people are adapting. The Heydt article was splendid.

          • epoch2013 says:

            Furthermore, what might really hit some of the more leftist among the academics is the fact that we are finding that there indeed was an Aryan invasion of blue eyed blonde people. That touches a nerve and is hard to swallow. To these people you might as well have said Hitler was right.

            • Frau Katze says:

              Was there ever entire populations homozygous for blue eyes and blonde hair? I know Scandinavians are pretty fair.

              But the people especially in the Celtic fringe of Great Britain and even England are more of a hodge podge. It’s very mixed.

              To go by language (not definitive by any means) the Scandinavians came from Germany, which is also currently rather mixed.

              • epoch2013 says:

                I believe one of the first runes from Denmark is what is considered a name “Swarta” on a shield. I bet that name had something to do with hair colour.

              • Mike says:

                Then La Brana was a hodge podge. Darker skin but blue eyes but related to mesothic scandinavians who were fair skinned and eyed etc but also related to a southern Siberian? Depends what form of agriculture happened in Britain and north Europe were they mixed hunters and farmers like Central Asia? Did they move greater distances compared to south Europe?

              • Steven C. says:

                Or the Germans came from Scandinavia; most of the area in and around modern Germany was Celtic before it became Germanic.

  8. dearieme says:

    The genetic evidence is fascinating. I dismiss with mocking laughter the notion that our ancestors didn’t perpetrate the odd bit of ethnic cleansing.

    There is, however, archaeological evidence suggestive of a widespread decline in agriculture in the British Isles before the Beaker People arrived. (Or so my memory says.) if so, maybe the invaders were pushing on an open door. I’ve not seen an explanation for that prior decline in agriculture.

    • pyrrhus says:

      The “odd bit of ethnic cleansing” is looking more like the rule than the exception. The tides of history grind exceeding small, and are not the stuff of nursery rhymes….

    • gcochran9 says:

      It looks as if agriculture had entirely ceased somewhat before the Beakers showed up, in both Ireland and Britain – except for spots in the Orkney Islands. Why? I suggest raiding & piracy. The archaeologists keep talking about exhausted soil, which only shows that they’ve never as much as grown a carrot. I fully expect elite opinion to suddenly mandate irrigation with Brawndo.

      • TWS says:

        Yup you cannot farm if you can’t work the land. You’re tied to it and raiders will destroy wells, burn houses, barns, and granaries, and drive off or kill milch cows, sheep, and goats all animals you cannot really flee with.

        So stay and fight and get killed by better armed more aggressive raiders, run and hide then starve or go back to raising a few goats, gleaning from the wild, and watching for enemies. Or become a bandit yourself.

        Pretty much sucks all around for settled farming types.

      • epoch2013 says:

        The MN farmers took a hit from something and then the remains were fair game for raiders.

      • dearieme says:

        “I suggest raiding & piracy.” But why none before, why little afterwards? Did the pirates have a tech advantage that shows up in the archaeology?

        • Frau Katze says:

          The pirates might have migrated into an area that allowed them to raid. Still it’s hard to raid islands. You definitely need reasonable ships plus the skills to use them.

          Does anyone know why the Vikings started raiding? Population pressure? Greener fields elsewhere?

      • Doug says:

        Could it be possible that the pre Beaker folk had worked out how to exploit the land in Britain better than by using the primitive agriculture (‘agriculture’ to mean arable) that was initially bought over. Even wheat is not really a good northern European crop.

        Cattle, swine, better use of woodland etc. Britain is very marshy and is better for animal husbandry if not well drained.

        Maybe the Beakers bought over some tech that made arable work better – a better plough (though I appreciate this is not in the record)? Better kinds of seeds might be more interesting. Even drainage techniques. Then they could make arable work well and clear out the locals by out-breeding and a some ethnic cleansing.

      • dearieme says:

        Orkney would be terribly exposed to piracy: everyone lives within a mile or two of the shore. You’d be safer in the Central Highlands, or the Midlands of England.

      • Beaker says:

        Is it possible disease struck not the native brits but the staple crops? Similar to the potato blight.

  9. Jim says:

    It seems clear that most of the elite in our culture including academics do not want information. We live in an age of ideological dogma impervious to any rational evidence.

    The content of most historical works as well as the daily news heavily involves violent human conflict. But many intellectuals and academics cannot free themselves from the childish myth of a lost Eden of humanity living in peaceful harmony even though there is zero evidence that any such state of affairs ever existed. They are like an adult who still believes in Santa Claus.

  10. JRM says:

    The english have longer faces than the germans. Can this difference be traced to the 7% ancestry that survived the bell beaker conquest?

    • epoch2013 says:

      Than which Germans? Lower Saxony? Bavarians? East-Germans? These are very different peoples.

      • dearieme says:

        It had never occurred to me that Germans were ugly until I visited Berlin. Why do Berliners look so different from people from say, the Rhineland, or Hanover?

        Part Slav? Part Balt? But does anyone think of Slavs or Balts as particularly ugly? Ditto Huguenots. What on earth is it?

      • Skullgazer says:

        Pretty much longer than in any group of Germans. I’m not messing with the genetic evidence for now, but I will just mention some facts: a) neolithic British skeletons are relatively “similar”, all of them very long-headed and narrow-faced. b) in the Bronze Age the bell-beakers appear and their graves show an intermediate type of a) and the skeletons from Bell Beaker Germany (there a very specific type, short-headed, prominent noses…) c) in the Iron Age the population is back to being long-headed, but not as much as before. So I’m not sure about mass replacement, doesn’t show morphologically. Bell-beakers were sometimes linked to the Hittites BTW, doesn’t seem like a promising theory but at least they were Indo-Europeans. Bell-beakers from Spain have also very different skeletons from those in Central Europe, so either there is a lot of “plasticity” or lots of selection/mutation or perhaps one group ended up in Spain and established the Bell-Beaker culture there without that much genetic input, while another one, more numerous ended up in Central Europe. Sometimes it is pots, not (many) people. But I’m excited for more studies that shed more light on this whole stuff.

        • epoch2013 says:

          “Bell-beakers from Spain have also very different skeletons from those in Central Europe”

          Well that is verified in this paper. Early Iberian BB was a non-Steppe development. Somehow Central- and West-European steppe related people picked it up – not by migration though, the paper goes to certain lengths to prove that – and there BB formed. Central European BB’s however were a hybrid group as there are high brow BB burials of people which were clearly not steppe related.

  11. Nivzed says:

    We should hear more about the Copper age. Bronze and Iron have all the fun. I like to imagine the desperate last stand of the pre-copper people:
    “I’m not comin’ out. Come in and get me, Copper!”

  12. Bob Sykes says:

    A few years ago, the BBC had a special on the history of Stone Henge and the surrounding area. They noted all the cultural changes that occurred during the occupation of the region, but they did not once mention migration other than the original HG input after the Ice Age.

  13. carol2000 says:

    “Before all this Britain was populated by a kindof-Sardinian population (with some hunter-gatherer mixed in) that had probably came from Spain. Afterwards they were almost indistinguishable from people of that era living in the Netherlands, who had a lot of steppe ancestry. 93% replacement, minimum.”

    According to Family Tree DNA’s “Ancient Origins” analysis, I am 10% Metal Age Invader, 42% Farmer, and 48% Hunter-Gatherer. One parent is from SW England, the other line is from Norway and Scotland/N. Ireland. There are probably many people similar to me.

    • Mike says:

      Depends where farming dna comes from some say Anatolia others now say Yamnaya picked up dna from Caucasus HG who are said to be the source of farming dna so could people related to Yamnaya (mixed Caucasus and East European HG) also pass on dna across North Europe?

  14. "Some Hunter Gatherer" says:

    Cochran: Before all this Britain was populated by a kindof-Sardinian population (with some hunter-gatherer mixed in)

    “some hunter-gatherer” is a funny old way to talk about 28-26% of ancestry in Iberia (Iberia Middle Neolithic to Chalcolithic) and 25% of ancestry in Norther Europe (Globular Amphora Culture).

    I also kind of expected you to have a post here about the Middle Neolithic “sobbin’ women” to fit with Mathieson’s finding of sex bias towards male WHG into the Middle Neolithic cultures. What gives?

    “Under a single pulse model of admixture, the autosomal/X chromosome ancestry proportions imply that in the central European Middle Neolithic population that shows the strongest evidence of sex bias, 35-50% of the male ancestors were hunter gatherers, compared to 0-5% of the female ancestors (Extended Data Figure 4).” Similar log likelihood male and female proportions for Iberia.

    Of course, the estimates may scale back, but I would’ve thought this was firm Cochran territory to begin fulminating about the violence of history and the Rape of the Sabine Women and such.

  15. RJW says:


    What do you make of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis?

  16. Sean Fielding says:

    “This PROBABLY . . .
    . . . if you think OTHERWISE”
    These are not logically consistent. There may well have been the war and massacre, but your choice of words betrays your own lack of certainty. Then you insist others be certain.

  17. Halvorson says:

    Like some of the readers of this blog, my ancestors came from northwest Europe, so I find this discussion very interesting. People from Ireland to Sweden today form a very tight genetic cluster, evidence of a mass Bronze Age expansion from a common source population. I find the details confusing, though.

    Corded Ware arrives in Germany just after 3000 B.C. Genetically, they are not a perfect match for any modern group of Europeans, but most closely resemble groups with very low levels of Sardinian ancestry like Finns and Balts. Their Y haplogroups are almost exclusively R1a, the same as you see in Baltic and Scandinavian Corded Ware. I suspect they spoke a language ancestral to Balto-Slavic. Yet today maybe 15 percent of West Germans are R1a ( much of it recent Slavic) and they have much more Sardinian DNA than the Corded Ware pioneers. At some point in the 3rd millienium BC the Yamnaya supermen came to be dominated by ancestral Protestants who emerged from some mysterious central European homeland. In Scandinavia you see the same sequence of replacement.

    I’d like to know exactly where that homeland is. Despite all these recent samples, geneticists have yet to find the place where Corded Ware gradually morphs into Bell Beaker. It’s possible that a great majority of the ancestry of today’s NW Euros can be traced to a very small region of Germany or the Netherlands, one untouched by Mathieson,et al. This would be a big deal, because we’d finally have a proper name to call ourselves.

  18. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/05/21) - Social Matter

  19. Anonymous says:

    The unspoken element of the ‘Beaker package’ is a superior sea-going vessel, made using copper tools. Google ‘BSc Dissertation Clodgy Moor Boat Slate Graham Hill’ and excusing the delivery, this is what I bet my student loan on. It appears that the ideas therin are supported by Beaker displacement of local Neolithic population in UK, a solar based religion and genetic diversity; perhaps supporting a partially maritime culture.
    Graham Hill

  20. Dora Smith says:

    Actually, it is very likely that the plague and the bell beaker people travelled separately. In the 5th century, the plague did far more to account for the Saxon replacement of the population of England, than the Saxons themselves did. Here is how it worked. The Saxons held eastern England, and the romano-British population held the southwest. The Romano-British population remained tightly linked to the Mediterranean world in trade and ideas and all forms of interchange. The Saxons had little to do with the Mediterranean; they traded with Germany and Scandinavia. The plague arrived in southwestern Britain via the Romano-British seaports, and felled the population. All versions of the legends of King Arthur contain stories of people dying like flies, even as they stood in the fields, and hte land lying waste. The Saxons got the plague later and less severely. Then the Saxons moved into the depopulated areas.

    In the 15th century the plague also spread out of the Mediterranean. It specifically got there from eastern trade connections. It does markedly well in the climate there, as compared to northern Europe. It didn’t matter where it originally came from; in the 5th century it spread from eastern Africa with the ivory trade.

    My guess is that if plague had anything to do with it, it disproportionately affected the Neolithic people of Britain because their cultural, historical and trade ties were with teh Mediterranean. The fact that the island was settled almost exclusively by Neolithic people from Spain who had come from the eastern Mediterranean, speaks hugely to the seagoing capabilities of these people.

    I’ve not seen specific evidence that plague was involved, beyond studies of the age and genetic behavior of the plague. It does make sense however, that disease, or weather conditions and famine, or something else had far more to do with the Bell Beaker people taking over the population than they themselves did, especially as there is evidently no evidence of violent conquest.

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