Europe’s first farmers


I could have probably named the post: “Why the horse was domesticated earlier than 3500 BC,” but “Europe’s first farmers” conveys the overall theme of the post better.

War has always been an integral part of evolution of humanity. Until today, it has constituted the foremost expression of inter-group selection between humans, especially, as humans started aggregating into groups that consisted of more than a handful of clans. Azar Gat’s “War in human civilization” is a book that delves into this dynamics.

Obviously, the topic is extremely broad and deep, beyond the scope of a single post. But just how brutal the reality of war can be does not need to be ascertained from exploring deep history. Regions where modern conflict occurs — conflict that, if it were not strongly modulated by Western powers, exercising their “enlightened values,” would have been an example how such events could truly unfold in the ancient world. To illustrate: the still ongoing, internecine bloodbath between the Tutsi and other groups in Africa. In this case, the clearly militarily superior, but less populous pastoralist Tutsi, having lost about 800,000 of their kinsmen, pushed out of Rwanda, are able to extract toll on the less able but, actually, more barbaric and vicious, more numerous tribes of Eastern Congo. This is more impressive if one considers that they are faced by, albeit corrupt and disorganized, Congolese military supported by the West. It is only the involvement of the latter, via the UN, that prevents inter-group selection from taking hold and establishing a Tutsi dominion over Central Africa, a position they had held before Western colonial involvement.

How does this example relate to Europe and its farmer population? Simple: both involve killing on a mass-scale, killing based on tribal, ethnic affiliation.

Still, as an illustration of the possible worst-case magnitude that a genocide can take on, not much can parallel the extermination of European farmer population, especially that of the LBK culture. Per Greg Cochran, the annihilation of these people, including their entire way of life, was so utterly total, even local dog breeds were, essentially, gone.

To me, beyond the scale of the catastrophe, what makes this situation so fascinating are a few aspects. Firstly, unlike the case of Tutsi vs Hutu and the rest, the difference between the Cardium Pottery+LBK farmers and their enemies, a pastoralist, Samara culture people, was much more fundamental than just the pastoral/hunting vs farming/hunting economy: it also was the difference of mostly-nomadic vs sedentary lifestyle. Secondly, the LBK had thrived in some of their areas for many centuries before being wiped out. Thirdly, this was a case where the victims of extermination were, in actuality, far more sophisticated, more peaceful, more creative and, likely, individually more intelligent than their killers, whose advantage comprised of stronger cohesion, physical strength and superiority in a few key military skills and techniques, skills that were not easily accessible or learnable to people not adept at constantly practicing these since childhood, as way of life.

But let’s begin with understanding who were the LBK. As I don’t wish to re-state the information you can find in Wikipedia etc, I’ll just add here that it is most likely that the LBK were pushed out of Anatolia by changing climatic conditions of around 6000 BC. They are a Natuffian-culture descendant group, just like the later Sumerians, the Hurrites, the Hattites, and, possibly, many other peoples who were not agricultural but semi-nomadically pastoral, like the Kassites and Amorites (although for the latter ones, this is where I’m definitely speculating). There were also other groups that descended from the Natuffian culture, the settlers of Egypt (El-Badar/Fayum culture), the Harrappans, the Elamites. The difference between all the rest of them and LBK/Cardium is that the LBK/Cardium were the first to leave Anatolia and Levant. Also, not only were they the first to split off, they were unique in that they went West, into Europe, at first their journey hugging the Mediterranean north, and then (for LBK) ascending Northwest, up the Danube river.
As they were making their way into Europe they were founding sedentary settlements, successfully battling local hunter gatherers (and each other), practicing agriculture and advanced, for that time, house building. More fascinatingly, they were the first to invent metallurgy and, probably, also invented a primitive form of writing. Their metallurgy dates to approximately 5000 BC, which is considerably earlier than the approximately 4000 BC date that can be attributed to the metallurgy of Transcaucasia, attributable to the ancestors of the Hurrians and Yamnaya (I’ll post on the Hurrian-Yamnaya Transcaucasian connection sometime, too).
The Yamnaya (proto-Indo-European) warriors, who were descendant of the Samara culture people and came into Europe after circa 3500 BC, to “finish the conquest job,” additionally had metallurgical skills, though not as elaborate as LBK’s. Coincidentally, they obtained the metallurgic skills around 3800 BC, from their interaction with Transcaucasian farmers, via the Maykop farmer-kurgan (pastoralist) mixed culture. With the introduction of bronze-tipped weaponry, like javelins and battle axes, the Yamnaya warriors became even deadlier. But again it seems unlikely that the first wave of Yamnaya invasion into Europe happened before 3600 BC or so.

Even before metal weaponry, what made the Samara culture dangerous was their pioneering use of horses. It is unlikely that the Samara people (just like the Yamnaya after them) rode horses into battle, due to lack of stirrups. However, horses still offered a huge advantage in terms of pre-battle mobility (including surprise of offense) and logistics, including providing food “on the go. If we also account for dog use, riding horses could have made them into very efficient hunters. But it is possible that Samara people did not ride horses, unlike Yamnaya. In this case, domesticated horses could still provide immense advantage for mobile hunters, like the Samara pastoralists. Hence, militarily they could overwhelm the farmers, even without possessing metallurgic skills. It is also likely that their warrior spirit was higher than that of the LBK, considering that nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists have historically made for most cohesive and deadly fighting units, via selecting for military cohesion (per Turchin). Per Greg Cochran, another advantage was the Samara/Yamnaya ability to, demographically, quickly recover from defeats, due to high-mobility of their populations (efficient retreat) and ability to digest of milk. Likely, most of their diet consisted of milk and meat (at least, if we judge by Roman records of Germanic tribes). While it is highly debatable whether lactose tolerance first appeared in the proto-Indo-European pastoralists, it appears likely that there was a strong selection for it among them. We can see even today that genes for lactose tolerance are more prevalent among the Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic people than people populating the Mediterranean, including the Eastern parts thereof.

LBK were married to agriculture. Any destruction of related infrastructure (such as by burning) or a change in ecological conditions would be ruinous for sedentary farmers like them. Hence, in times of trouble, it was much more hard, if not prohibitive for them, to just “pack up and leave” — something that the Samara or even Yamnaya could do with ease.

The destruction of the Central-European/North-European Plain residing LBK (though not their Balkan-LBK/Cardium Pottery/Butmir-culture relatives… yet!) took several centuries, past 4900 BC till 4100 BC, and was probably commenced by the Samara (likely, the western wing thereof) culture’s warriors. From the ancient skeletons and related DNA analysis, we know that the pastoralists were a merciless, brutal bunch. According to mtDNA analysis, it looks like they were not even keen on leaving women or children as concubines or slaves (which, tangentially, points to the fact that the institution of slavery is really an evolved, sedentary agriculture-based institution, not a pastoralist-based one, despite a much later adoption of it, with some caveats, by the more evolved pastoralists, like Genghis Khan’s Mongols).

It’s unlikely that any northerly LBK farmers were left after circa 4200, certainly by 4100 BC, all the way to what is today’s Belgium — all were killed by Samara culture pastoralists, who replaced the LBK in toto throughout the North-European Plain. The Samara-derived culture in those areas came to be known as Rossen and, a couple centuries later, Funnelbeaker culture. It is certain that, after conquest of the plains, it was no longer a pure hunter-pastoral economy, but whatever farming and animal husbandry there was (being taken from the massacred former inhabitants), was at a considerably more primitive level than LBK farmers’. It does not seem like the Rossen/Funnelbeaker pastoralists originally desired the land for anything more than grazing space for their horses and for hunting.

From what I’ve researched, it seems that first evidence of more evolved husbandry reappears around 3600 BC, via the Globular Amphora and Baden cultures. It looks like these, too, are of early (proto-) Indo-European origin, although of a much more developed character (at least, the Baden culture is), and Baden incorporates farming at good level. Based on material finds, I think, Baden/Lengyel, due to its more sedentary farming nature, is kind of like the earlier (3800 BC) Maykop culture — complete domination of proto-IE, but genetic preservation of a farmer strata (which was lucky to survive south of the Carpathian range) — while Globular Amphora, which became Corded Ware, seems to be more like a set of steppe-based cultural transmissions on top of the existing semi-nomadic Rossen/Funnelbeaker culture. We also see a spread of earliest Indo-Europeans into Anatolia itself, via Maykop culture — they emerge in history as Luwians and Palaics, with their forefathers establishing Anatolian presence possibly as early as 3000 BC.

Curiously, the Funnelbeaker culture transformed into the Bell Beaker culture when it reached the Iberian peninsula, due to influence from seafaring and trading Cardium Pottery farming culture. The Bell Beaker, being a “reflux culture” then spread northward and back, eastward, where it eventually collided and was subsumed into the oncoming Corded Ware wave.

After introduction of metallurgy via the Maykop, along with carrying a farming deme strata, the proto-Indo-European invasion took on a more sedentary focus, as the Yamnaya, via the Corded Ware culture, were now a mixed pastoralist-farmer people. Eventually, they proceeded to eradicate or, otherwise, take over and mix with almost all the other remaining Anatolian-derived European settlers — we are now talking about an invasion eventually going as far as Italy and Spain (previously represented by Cardium Pottery culture), taking the entire land into their ownership, and mostly finishing the job started by their Samara ancestors, by killing off/elite-replacing most of the Cardium Pottery culture groups, as well as seriously subsuming whatever remained of the LBK in the Balkans, effectively ending the more southerly, Mediterranean branches of the Anatolian-derived farmers. By the time they break through to Mycenae it was 2100 BC, the Early Helladic III period. Luckily for the farming and sea-faring people residing there, the Yamnaya descended conquerors had already become fairly farming-friendly, seeking mostly power and wealth, which was what allowed a considerable chunk of the Minoan cultural and genetic strata, minus their religion and ruling elite, to survive. The pre-Italic Etruscans fared relatively OK, too.

However, the only more-or-less pure descendants we have now of these original European farmers from 6000 BC are the Basques and Sardinians, who survived in the hard-to-access, mountainous regions in Southern Europe.

(By the way, having had the opportunity to visit Bilbao, Spain, I am still impressed that the Basques have been able to survive and prosper in that region.)

Ironically, the sedentary-agricultural way of life is still more advantageous for supporting larger sizes of populations. Hence, although more warlike, the agricultural society, slowly but surely, eventually re-emerged and even spread father than ever, in Europe, including its more extreme northerly lands, e.g. Scandinavia, as the Yamnaya people were settling up the territory.

The post-Yamnaya steppe people expansion into Europe was actually a two part expansion: the first one took place after 3600 BC or so, known as Globular Amphora and Baden, these became Corded Ware, which merged with Bell Beaker by 2300 BC. I don’t know how much of it was cultural vs deme replacement, but it could have been both. Either way, all groups involved were Pontic steppe-derived. It seems that many of these groups developed in situ, forming their distinct identities. Hence, the other expansion consists of two pulses, of tribe groups that we can attach a name to. First pulse, “centum,” of what consisted of Celts, Italics, and Germanics, commenced after 1200 BC, around Bronze Age collapse (possibly, the Dorians were pushed into Peloponnese because of that). The last, “satem” sub-wave consisted of Balts and Slavs, who became established in their European territories many centuries later (with Slavs all the way in the AD). And, of course, I am not even delving into Yamnaya and parallel-to-Yamnaya branches that ended up in Asia.

Concluding note: in this post I make a bold speculation. I speculate that domestication of horses did not, as some suppose, happen during the Botai culture (3500 BC), but that instead it happened much earlier, by as early as 4900, and 4500 BC the latest. I am forced to make this speculation, and it is based on three items: 1) Gimbutas’s archaeology-based speculation; 2), the fact that it’s extremely hard to reconcile the disappearance of the LBK with anything other than an invasion around 4900/4500 BC, at least a full millennium earlier than Yamnaya’s intrusion; and 3), without horse domestication the invading tribes would have been nothing more than just another set of hunter gatherers, just much more nomadic and focused more on hunting horses.

Some of the readers could question my theory by asserting that no kurgan burials have been discovered to date in Eastern/Central/Western Europe that can be attributed to around 4500 BC. Interestingly, it is easy to refute. Kurgan burials appear closer to Yamnaya time (after 4000 BC), when social stratification emerges, especially when intensified by the emergence of Maykop-derived farming strata. However, Samara culture did not feature kurgan burials. Samara’s graves, at most, feature a non-tall set of stones on top of buried body, making finding and distinguishing such graves from European hunter-gatherers’ a challenge. I hope that eventually we will be able to ascertain this, however.


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