The Neolithic Mosaic on the North European Plain
School of Engineering and Applied Science
For references, click here.
The introduction of agriculture and the successful establishment of
farming communities on the lowlands of north-central Europe
between 5000 and 3500 B.C. (recalibrated dating) marked one of the
most significant transformations of prehistoric society in this
Many difficulties in the discussion of the establishment of
agriculture in north-central Europe stem from an overemphasis on
the distinction between "Mesolithic" and "Neolithic" as adaptive
Such a distinction brings
about the notion of a boundary between communities practicing these
It is clear that there
was a "frontier" of sorts between these Neolithic groups and the local
foraging peoples. Yet it was a permeable frontier, and once
domesticated plants and animals became available on the lowlands of
north-central Europe, a well-defined boundary between
distinct social entities effectively ceased to exist.
Moore (1985: 94) has characterized frontiers between sedentary farmers and
mobile foragers as "a cultural mosaic of interspersed communities with
varying subsistence and settlement requirements." The North European Plain
between 5000 and 3500 b.c. (perhaps a bit earlier and perhaps a bit
later) can be described in such terms, as a mosaic cultural landscape.
Postglacial Foraging Groups
By the early fourth millennium bc, some foraging communities in
north-central Europe appear to have
approached "low mobility", to use the term
proposed by Bocek (1985).
Examples of "low mobility" adaptations are known from many parts of
the world, primarily in lacustrine, estuarine, and riverine
environments, and there are many such habitats on the North European
Plain with their attendant productivity and diversity.
such as the Satruper Moor, the Dümmer basin, the
Rhine/Maas delta, and perhaps the lake belts of north-central Poland,
probably supported growing low-mobility
hunter-gatherer populations by the middle of the sixth millennium B.C., although
this hypothesis still needs further testing against the archaeological
First Stockherders and Farmers -- 5400-4800 B.C.
The earliest food-producing communities to appear on the North
European Plain were those of the Linear Pottery
which had also colonized the loess belt across central Europe
between 5400 and 5000 B.C. (recalibrated dating). There are three main
clusters of Linear Pottery settlement on the North European Plain:
the Kujavy region west of Poznan
and south of Torun, the area along the lower Vistula north of
Torun, and along the lower Oder river south and west of Szczecin.
There are vast areas in which Linear Pottery settlements have not (yet?)
been found, including the Pomeranian moraine belt, the Baltic
coastal plain, and the glacial outwash areas west of the Elbe,
but there is the potential for considerable change in this picture. For
instance, prior to 1980, only a handful of Linear Pottery sites were
known from the area along the lower Vistula north of Torun. Today,
close to 200 have been discovered, thanks to the interest taken in them
by a local university.
The ceramics, flint tools, and ground stone tools
found on the Linear Pottery
sites of the North European Plain are essentially similar to those
in east-central Europe.
Unlike the large Linear Pottery sites of the loess
belt, substantial longhouses have hitherto not been found in the lowlands.
of the lowland Linear Pottery sites are relatively
small collections of shallow pits. The pits often have
dense concentrations of refuse, however, with relatively large
sherds and many reconstructable vessels. All the same, they do not
appear to represent the same level of commitment to particular
settlement locations as do the longhouse settlements of the loess
The Neolithic Mosaic -- 4500-3900 B.C.
During the period between 4500 and 3900 B.C., it is very difficult to
speak of general developments that happened uniformly across the area
between Holland and Poland. Rather, a number of specific local
adaptations are found which defy categorization. The most
archaeologically "visible" of these are the ones with
economies that involve food-production to some degree, found in areas
like the Rhine-Maas delta, the Dümmer basin
in NW Germany, the lakes and moors of northern Germany, and the lowlands
of north-central Poland.
Lengyel Farming Communities
Settlements of the Brzesc Kujawski Group of the Lengyel culture appeared
in north-central Poland around 4500 b.c.
The most characteristic aspect of these
settlements is their trapezoidal-plan longhouses with bedding
trenches. At Brzesc Kujawski, nearly 50 houses
have been identified, many of which are associated with storage
pits, workshop features, and graves (Grygiel 1986). At Oslonki, over 20 houses have
been excavated between 1989 and 1994. Other
sites have fewer houses but also represent permanent settlements of
The Lengyel subsistence strategy in the
Polish lowlands was based primarily on the cultivation of grain and
the keeping of domestic livestock. A broad spectrum
of wild resources was utilized by the inhabitants of Brzesc
Kujawski, including waterfowl, fish, turtles, small mammals, and
deer. The domestic pig, well-suited to the forest environment,
increased markedly in its economic importance, although cattle were
still predominant. The Lengyel settlement system was more complex
than the Linear Pottery pattern, and again the best data are from
Brzesc Kujawski and environs. In addition to the large residential
base, there are a number of outlying satellite sites.
Foragers Adopt Farming in the Polish Lowlands
The Lengyel communities in the Polish lowlands disappeared about 3900
B.C., succeeded by sites of the Funnel Beaker
Funnel Beaker sites are spread across much of northern
Poland, with a much broader distribution than the
Lengyel settlements and a significantly different
character. Unlike the Lengyel residential bases, which display
unbroken intensive occupations of particular locations for very
long periods of time, the Funnel Beaker sites are often smaller and
shallower. Funnel Beaker
sites in northern Poland are found in a wide range of habitats.
They can be clustered or dispersed, stratified or
single-occupation. It is difficult to reconstruct
systems of regional exploitation, such as has been done for Brzesc
Kujawski, since the identification of central residential bases and
functionally differentiated outlying sites is elusive.
The Funnel Beaker occupations have a distinctly
"Mesolithic" character to them in that they are often on sandy
soils and have relatively few sub-surface features. A major
depositional characteristic of a site like Brzesc Kujawski is the
large, deep borrow pits, from which clay was extracted for wall
Features of this size are very rare
on the Funnel Beaker sites of the Polish lowlands.
Instead, there are often small pits, postholes, and sheets of
midden containing numerous fragmented potsherds. Rather than the
concentrated rubbish deposits that occur in the Lengyel borrow
pits, the Funnel Beaker sites often have expansive, low-density
distributions of refuse.
The evidence suggests that Funnel
Beaker communities developed out of the local Mesolithic foraging
the Lengyel inhabitants of sites like Brzesc Kujawski played a crucial,
but indirect, role.
The earliest Funnel Beaker
sites of northern Poland appear to reflect communities with one foot
in the Mesolithic past and the other in the Neolithic future.
Hüde I on the Dümmersee
The glacial lakes on the northwest German outwas plain may have crucial
significance for the transition from foraging to farming in this
area. One lake basin, the Dümmer, appears to have been of
particular importance. Here,
the Hüde I site has three occupation phases between 4900 and 3600
The first phase provides no evidence of cultivation or stockherding, while
the second, with ceramics similar to those of the Rössen culture,
and the third, with Funnel Beaker ceramics, provide traces of an agrarian
Despite the presence of domestic taxa in the faunal assemblage, it is
clear that their representation is much less than that of wild species.
Domesticated plants are known from both carbonized grain and imprints on
vessels. Kampffmeyer (1983:
127) has interpreted Hüde I as a site devoted to the acquisition of
a broad spectrum of wild animal resources to supplement an otherwise
agricultural economy. The sites around the Dümersee are perhaps the
tip of an iceberg, and the prehistoric settlement system in this area between
5000 and 3500 B.C. may shed considerable light on the transition from
foraging to farming in northwest Germany if it is fully investigated.
Early Funnel Beaker Sites in Northern Germany
Around 3900 B.C. (recalibrated), Funnel Beaker communities
represent the earliest populations with
domesticated livestock and plants in northern Germany.
These communities are tagged with
the abbreviation "EN", for "Early Neolithic", although they have little
in common with the Early Neolithic settlements of the loess belt.
One group of EN settlements is found along the
Baltic coast of East Germany (Nilius 1973, 1975; Nilius and Warnke 1984)
and inland in the lake belts of Mecklenburg (Schuldt 1974, Nagel 1980).
These sites appear to be very similar in structure to the earlest Funnel
Beaker sites of
the Polish lowlands. At Ralswiek, an irregularly-shaped depression 2.5
meters in each direction contained hearths and suggested a habitation
location. Gristow had similar dark discolorations which contained
intrusive stones and a large amount of highly-fragmented sherds.
At Basedow, on a sandy island,
a Neolithic settlement layer with burnt wall daub was found over
an area about 20 by 20 meters. There is apparently evidence for a
Mesolithic component at this site as well, although the stratification
is not well defined.
The Rhine-Maas delta
The Rhine-Maas delta presents a special type of estuarine environment
on the North European Plain, in which there were
extensive marshes, tidal flats, and
peat bogs. Sites of the Initial Delta Neolithic, located primarily in the
peat zone, have been the focus of considerable research in the last 15 years
(Louwe Kooijmans 1987). Of particular importance are settlements at
Hazendonk and Bergschenhoek, and the complex of sites at Swifterbant.
These sites have yielded an extraordinary range of subsistence data.
The faunal remains include both wild and domestic mammals,
estuarine and anadromous fish, and numerous birds. At Hazendonk, large
amounts of carbonized grain, chaff, and internodes have been
found, while Bergschenhoek has yielded only wild fruits and nuts. The
best botanical data come from Swifterbant S3, with many wild plants, barley,
and emmer wheat. A discussion is taking place as to whether
the cereals were grown locally or brought to the sites on the ear.
The interpretation of these sites, according to Louwe Kooijmans,
suggests that Hazendonk and
Bergschenhoek are short-term camps for fishing and fowling, while the
Swifterbant sites appear to reflect longer-term occupations. There is
about calling these settlements fully agricultural, but evidence for
continuity from the local Mesolithic has led many to conclude that
the Initial Delta Neolithic reflects the adoption of pottery, cultivation,
and animal husbandry by indigenous foraging communities without, at first,
major changes in other aspects of the settlement system.
Motivations for Farming
Why should the Mesolithic inhabitants of north-central Europe have
adopted farming at all?
One impetus to adopt certain agricultural practices and domestic
on the part of the native foragers of the North European Plain may
have come from the imbalance between growing populations
on one hand and the patchily distributed resources of the lowland
forests on the other.
Agriculture has the net effect of creating an additional patch in the
environment, one which is predictable in space and time.
The ability to create such high-yield patches could have been
attractive to growing local Mesolithic populations.
There was also the storability of grain, which would have addressed
the need for resources to sustain populations through the winter months
on the North European Plain.
Given what might have been a widespread pattern of local subsistence
intensification among the Mesolithic populations of the North European Plain,
agriculture may have presented itself at an opportune moment.
Yet, if we think in terms of a rigid Mesolithic/Neolithic frontier, it is
difficult to see how food production would have taken hold among the
Instead, we need to envision ways in which the techniques, technology, and
attractiveness of food production could have passed from farmers to
Models for Interaction
points out that "intersocietal subsistence exchange can become a
viable strategy for low density hunter-gatherer societies given two
conditions: (1) the presence of horticultural societies supplying
regularly available carbohydrate resources, and (2) the
availability of (a) small but regularly harvestable supplies of
protein ... or (b) predictable, periodic large concentrations of
protein resources..." (1986: 297). The complementarity between the
two subsistence systems enables two separate populations to exist
within a fairly small area and gives each group the best of both
worlds. Hunter-gatherers have access to storable carbohydrates
whose production requires a sedentary existence, while farmers have
access to wild resources whose pursuit requires mobility.
It is possible that a major limitation of the subsistence
hunter-gatherer populations on the North European Plain was the
lack of storable wild carbohydrate resources. With the arrival of
agriculturalists on the southern fringe of this zone, including the
Lengyel settlements at Brzesc Kujawski and environs, this problem
was alleviated. The foragers near these settlements would have had
sources of carbohydrate which did not result from the expenditure
of energy in the pursuit of low-volume wild plant foods. Moreover,
the opening of the forest for agriculture would have had the effect
of improving hunting, the implications of which are discussed
further below. Agriculturalists would have had sources of protein
which would not be derived from their herds of livestock, thus
reducing the amount of energy expended on hunting and providing
them with needed resources in crucial times of the year. There is
thus good reason to hypothesize the existence of such mutualistic
relationships in the vicinity of the Lengyel sites in
north-central Poland and elsewhere on the North European Plain.
Future archaeological research must test for such patterns of
interaction in subsistence remains and artifact inventories.
Garden Hunting and Feral Stock
The incorporation of domestic plants into the intensively exploited
habitats of the North European Plain may have had the ancillary
effect of concentrating animal resources.
In the faunal assemblages from some sites,
the number of bones of red deer and wild pigs is quite
Red deer in particular would have flourished on the forest edges and in
cultivated fields, and it is possible that an exploitation pattern on
the model of the "garden hunting" proposed by Linares (1976) for the
American tropics was practiced.
In garden hunting, animals are hunted in cultivated fields and gardens
as they are attracted to the growing crops.
Some degree of crop loss to animal pests is considered acceptable, since
the net effect is to concentrate the animals in the gardens and fields
and thus reduce the expenditure in time and energy in hunting them.
Moreover, the biomass of certain species increases when permitted access
to cultivated crops.
In garden hunting, protein from wild
animals becomes a by-product of farming.
One way of testing the possibility that a similar strategy was
followed by some Neolithic communities would be to examine the seasonal
indicators such as tooth eruption and dental annuli in the pig and deer
bones to see if the animals were in fact
killed during the growing season.
Davidson (1988), in writing about the introduction of food
production to Spain, has drawn on the example of the colonization
of Australia and the contact between foragers and fishers on one
hand and farmers and herders on the other. The first things to
penetrate the frontier between these two populations were animals,
which had either escaped from the protection of food producing
populations or had been stolen. It seems quite possible that
there was some escape of domestic stock from the loose herding
arrangements that probably prevailed in Neolithic communities in
north-central Europe as well. We must
recognize the possibility, at least, of the Mesolithic hunting of feral
An important consideration is the type of ecosystem into which the
feral stock would have escaped. In the Australian case, the
environment was characterized by grasslands and savannahs, which
had been further modified by fires set by the aboriginal population,
and feral livestock found an inviting habitat. It is possible,
however, that escaped domestic stock in Neolithic Europe found the
browse in the
forests to be perfectly adequate, for temperate woodlands can support
grazing and browsing at low stocking rates (Adams 1975). Moreover,
if some Mesolithic groups of northern Europe had already
glade habitats along lakes and streams, then some
escaped domestic stock may have found a quite favorable environment in
which they could multiply.
Sliding Along the Continuum
Ingold (1984: 5) has noted that anthropologists have the tendency
to remove people from the category of foragers if they have any
attributes of agriculture or pastoralism. There are really,
however, four basic categories of human groups:
1. those who subsist on uncultivated plants and wild fauna
2. those who have a mixed subsistence economy, based partly on
domestic and partly on wild resources. These can be subdivided
further into two sub-categories: a.) foragers who farm (yet still
closer to category 1), and b.) farmers who hunt (yet still
closer to category 3 below);
3. those who gain no significant
subsistence from uncultivated plants or wild fauna
(agriculturalists and pastoralists).
In general, anthropologists
have tended to limit the universe of human subsistence economies to
those in category 1 and those in category 3. The root
of the problem may be that colonization of Africa, the Americas,
Australia, and the Pacific in the 18th and 19th centuries
essentially "froze" many societies as either foragers or food
producers depending on their circumstances at the time of contact.
The point of this frozen moment was then assumed to be fixed on the
unilinear scale of progress from hunting and gathering to farming
and stockherding. Early anthropological studies that were based on
short-term contact tended to reinforce this viewpoint. Yet all
does not seem to be so simple. Long-term studies of a number of
groups reveal fluctuations between foraging and farming with an
annual or even longer periodicity.
There is also a prevailing belief among anthropologists that once a
society heads down the road to agriculture it cannot return. In
general, it is widely believed that once population growth occurs as a
result of the "improved" food supply brought about by food
production, the society comes to depend more and more on its crops
(e.g. Cassiday 1980). Actually, there is little evidence to suggest
that population growth is an automatic effect of the adoption of
agriculture, and it appears that even among agricultural societies
there are mechanisms that restrain population growth and fertility
(see, for example, Englebrecht 1987 for a discussion of this among
the Iroquois). It is entirely possible for societies at this
boundary between foraging and farming to slide back and forth from
one strategy to another, following one for a few years, then
reverting to the other, and back again.
For instance, the Agta in the Philippines, long
thought to be prototypical hunter-gatherers (e.g. Peterson 1978),
actually are opportunists who make use of the subsistence strategy
that best suits the conditions of the moment (Griffin 1984).
These conditions can
be determined by the natural environment but also by the sort of
interactions that a group is having with agricultural neighbors at
any given moment.
A similar pattern characterizes the Semang of Malaysia, described
by Rambo (1985: 43) as being "opportunistic foragers" who take up
agriculture "when the terms of trade are unfavorable for wild forest
products and drop it when other opportunities appear more rewarding."
I believe that it is possible to view the
period between about 4500 and about 3500 B.C. (recalibrated)
across the North European Plain in this
fashion. Different local groups of indigenous populations
did different things -- and did not necessarily progress along a
steady trajectory from foraging to farming. It was a patchwork, not
only in space but also in time. Some groups may have been quick to
try agriculture, others more resistant.
Although in the long run the
communities living on the North European Plain may have been caught
in the web of food production, this change did not occur overnight.
Rather, it is more probable that as more local populations embraced
agriculture the limitations on hunter-gatherer foraging areas and
information exchange modeled by Moore (1985) came into play, and
only then was the feedback loop triggered, resulting in the
widespread use of agriculture and animal husbandry by about 3500
For references, click here.
An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Society for
American Archaeology meetings in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1989. It has been
revised to take into account recent research.