Nine Millennia Ago, Northern Europe May Have Resisted Farming

As farmers came to Europe from the Near East, they usually brought their culture with them—just not in the Baltics and other parts of northern Europe.
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(Photo: Parker Knight/Flickr)

(Photo: Parker Knight/Flickr)

Our ancestors' shift from foraging for food to growing their own was one of most significant progressions in the history of the planet. It led to major cultural changes and marked a transition to more sedentary lifestyles. That doesn't mean our predecessors all welcomed the change; a new study suggests that Northern European cultures may have resisted farming, or at least its material accoutrements, for centuries after agriculture first came to Europe.

Farming, animal herding, and the generally sedentary lifestyle first arrived in the Fertile Crescent—the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates river valleys, plus portions of the Mediterranean Coast, including modern-day Israel—about 12,000 years ago. From there, it took about 3,000 years to spread into Europe, and another 3,000 to fully replace foraging.

Archeologists, of course, have no written record of how or when agriculture spread. Instead, they use preserved plant and animal remains, and other artifacts to trace how groups and ideas spread. What's called material culture—idiosyncratic jars, clothing, or jewelry, for example—can be especially valuable, because it serves as a durable marker of where a group and, in turn, its ideas have been.

It's possible that Baltic and other Northern European societies simply resisted the switch to agriculture, forcing newly arrived farmers to adapt to their culture.

Combining that logic with biological evidence, it's fairly clear that Near East people arrived in Europe and brought farming and other such practices with them about 8,800 years ago. Yet it remains controversial exactly when, where, and how the new arrivals spread farming and other such practices on the continent.

Now, a team led by Solange Rigaud, of the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, suggests that ornamental beads might shed some light on the matter. Rigaud and her colleagues examined 224 different kinds of beads from 212 pre-agricultural and 222 early agricultural sites across Europe, looking for signs material culture had—or had not—changed.  Their analysis revealed a substantial, relatively sudden shift in Europe's material culture, coinciding with the introduction of agriculture—except not in the Baltic region. There, bead designs and materials remained unaffected, even while foraging societies transformed to agricultural ones.

Rigaud and her team note that the sharp boundary between regions that did and did not undergo cultural change—and the existence of far-reaching trade networks—make it unlikely that geographic isolation or raw material availability explain the findings.

Instead, they posit, it's possible that Baltic and other Northern European societies simply resisted the switch to agriculture, forcing newly arrived farmers to adapt to their culture rather than the other way around. In that scenario, the immigrants would have taken on the locals' material culture—and not merged with or supplanted it, as they seem have done elsewhere in Europe.

"Our results show that the spread of [agriculture] resulted in two remarkably different cultural histories between Central and South Europe on the one hand, and the North of Europe on the other hand," the researchers write in PLoS One. "The transition to farming emerges as a complex process in which techniques, know-how, symbols and systems of belief are not transferred as a package."

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