Did Northern Europeans resist the rise of agriculture?

Equipped with seemingly trivial cultural markers, researchers were able to trace the spread of agriculture through Europe.

Solange Rigaud
Examples of personal ornaments used by the first European farming societies (material from Le Taï―Toulouse University, Essenbach-Ammerbreite―Archäologische Staatssammlung München).
Solange Rigaud
Examples of personal ornaments used by the last European foraging societies (material from El Mazo and El Toral III—University of Cantabria, La Braña-Arintero―Servicio de Cultura de León, Hohlenstein-Stadel―Ulmer Museum, Groβe Ofnet―Archäologische Staatssammlung München, Vedbaek―Danish National Museum).
Solange Rigaud
A synthetic map shows the distribution of personal ornaments in Neolithic Europe.

Crops and livestock have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. But, for some of our Neolithic forebears, agriculture was at first a tough sell.

Farming began its spread across Europe over 10,000 years ago. But the transition wasn’t instantaneous: according to a new study, northern Europeans initially resisted the practice in favor of traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles. 

Researchers from the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) – a collaboration between France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and New York University – used bead ornaments to trace the cultural (and agricultural) attitudes of Neolithic Europe. Their findings were published today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The Neolithic era, which began around 10,200 B.C., refers to the last part of the Stone Age. In the previous era, the Mesolithic, human populations were almost exclusively hunter-gatherers. But as stone tools and other technologies improved, so began the spread of farming and the domestication of animals. Unfortunately for archaeologists, this transition was poorly documented. Nobody knows exactly how and where this agricultural lifestyle fanned out, particularly in Europe.

To find out, researchers looked to an inconspicuous source – ornamental beads and bracelets. CIRHUS researcher Solange Rigaud led an extensive analysis of 224 bead types found in over 400 European sites, both Mesolithic and Early Neolithic. They may only look like knickknacks, but Dr. Rigaud attests that they have profound cultural meaning. Body ornaments, she says, can express “symbolic codes,” ones that change as populations move, mix, and trade.

“We therefore consider personal ornaments as a reliable proxy for reconstructing cultural diversity and change in past societies,” Rigaud told the Monitor in an email interview.

In their study, Rigaud’s team noted that regions in southern and central Europe were quick to adopt human-shaped beads and shell bracelets, which were unique to migrant farming populations. The hunter-gatherer populations in the north resisted the influence of these new settlers, however, showing a clear preference for their traditional attire. This cultural boundary, Rigaud says, would have stopped the advancement of farming in the area.

If cultural artifacts are an accurate indicator, northern European populations remained foragers for centuries after the introduction of farming. Their apparent aversion to agrarianism has yet to be fully explained. Rigaud suggests that the choice had more to do with belief than practicality.

“As we underline in the paper, research shows that the transition to farming was not a linear process,” Rigaud said. “Its success was also concurrent with a complex succession of demographic booms and busts in the European populations, a decline in health, and a raise in labor cost for food supply in many areas. It appears that the adoption of domestication and sedentary lifestyle was likely ruled by system of beliefs rather than real technical needs.”

If northern European societies were already satisfied with their foraging lifestyles, they wouldn’t have seen much use introducing farming into their belief systems. They could remain hunter-gatherers for hundreds of years, until foraging no longer supported their populations. And as history shows, agriculture finally did have its day – and then some.

On its face, the study reads like a case study in the stubborn resilience of humankind, for better or for worse. But it also shows the value of personal objects to the study of humanity.

“Research on cultural evolution has demonstrated that cultural items fulfilling exclusively symbolic functions, such as personal ornaments, are generally more useful than functional artifacts for detecting cultural affinities between populations and patterns of cultural change through time,” Rigaud said.

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