Beads suggest culture blocked farming in Northern Europe

Baltic hunter-gatherers, unlike counterparts to the south, resisted farming’s spread

Forager jewelry

CHANGING STYLES  Necklaces and other ornaments used by members of some of the last Central and Southern European hunter-gatherer societies date to between 8,000 and 7,500 years ago. These foragers' jewelry style changed in step with the spread of farming, new research finds.

S. Rigaud, U. of Cantabria, Ulmer Museum, Danish National Museum

Ancient Europe’s agricultural revolution got no love in the north. European hunter-gatherers living near the Baltic Sea clung to their traditional way of life as farming societies sprouted across Central and Southern Europe, a new study suggests.

Clues to ancient Europeans’ openness to or rejection of agricultural life come from the beads they left behind. From roughly 11,000 to 5,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers in central and southern regions increasingly adopted types of ornamental beads favored by incoming farmers, say archaeologist Solange Rigaud of New York University in New York City and her colleagues. A transition to these personal decorations, which presumably had social and symbolic meanings, signals broad acceptance of farmers’ cultural practices by foraging groups that covered a large swath of Europe, Rigaud’s group concludes April 8 in PLoS ONE.

Baltic region hunter-gatherers, however, continued to make their own brand of beaded ornaments rather than adopt the styles of jewelry favored by agricultural groups, the researchers say. Belief systems and community practices of northern hunter-gatherers must have clashed with those of agricultural newcomers, they propose. “Northern European resistance [to farming] was a purely cultural reaction and not the result of environmental conditions in that part of the continent,” Rigaud says.

The new findings fit an emerging view, based on ancient DNA and fossil studies, that Europeans adopted cultivation, herding and related cultural traits of migrating Middle Eastern farmers in different ways across different regions — and sometimes in fits and starts (SN: 11/16/13, p. 13). Previous studies of fossil human skulls indicate, for instance, that a mix of foraging and farming populations lived in Southeast and Central Europe as agricultural societies expanded, says archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Dublin. Skull characteristics identify only one biological population that inhabited much of Northern Europe at that time, adds Pinhasi, who did not participate in the new study.

GROWING CULTURE Perforated beads and shells used by early Central and Southern European farming societies, shown here and dating to between 7,500 and 7,300 years ago, influenced ornaments made by hunter-gatherers living in the same regions, researchers say. S. Rigaud, Toulouse Univ., Archäologische Staatssammlung München

Rigaud’s bead data demonstrate that Europe’s transition to farming “was not just a biological process, but first and foremost a process of cultural transformations, of encounters between local and foreign groups,” Pinhasi says.

By analyzing the spread of beaded ornaments associated with farming’s rise in Europe, Rigaud’s team begins to illuminate “a more human dimension to that transition, elegantly documented by a wide range of choices of personal adornment,” remarks archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in England.

Rigaud and her colleagues examined several thousand beads recovered from 212 hunter-gatherer camps and 222 early farming settlements across Europe. The researchers identified 224 bead types that have previously been linked to either foraging or farming populations. Bead types were defined based on raw materials such as shell or bone, general shapes such as oval or square, and the ways in which beads were suspended, say as pendants or as part of necklaces or bracelets.

A statistical analysis showed that over several thousand years farmers’ distinctive beads and signature bracelets made their way from Southeastern Europe to Mediterranean regions and then into Western Europe. Novel bead types also appeared in Western Europe, indicating that farming groups developed new forms of artistic expression as they migrated further from the Middle East, Rigaud says.

During this same time period, ornaments typical of Northern European hunter-gatherer groups, such as perforated animal teeth, remained dominant in the Baltic region and showed no stylistic influences of incoming farmers.

Rigaud’s findings fit with ancient DNA evidence suggesting that there was a delay of perhaps several thousand years before farming moved from Southern Europe to Northern Europe, says paleogeneticist Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide in Australia. Along with cultural differences, cold temperatures and sandy soils in the Baltic region further encouraged a reliance on seafood and game hunting rather than farming, Haak suggests.Baltic hunter-gatherers blocked farming’s spread from south.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 21, 2015, to note that ornaments typical of Northern European hunter-gatherers included perforated animal teeth, not shells.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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