Who Built Stonehenge? Bell Beakers and Neolithic Burials

Seventeenth century depiction of Stonehenge from the Atlas van Loon

Stonehenge remains one of the world’s enduring mysteries. Who carved these enormous stones, moved them hundreds of miles, and erected them upon Salisbury plain–and why?

Archaeologists estimate that the first major construction began at Stonehenge around 3,100 BC, when workers dug a large, circular ditch around the site and piled up the resulting dirt in a round bank. But the interesting part of this phase of construction is the third circle inside the first two, consisting of 56 graves, atop which bluestones may have once stood. The bones of deer and oxen were also placed in the surrounding ditch.

Were these sacrifices, or was Stonehenge originally just a cemetery, perhaps for the community’s most important members?

The second stage in Stonehenge’s development, from about 3,000 BC to 2,600 BC, involved the building of wooden structures and further burials. Interestingly, Neolithic grooved ware pottery is associated with this stage.

Grooved ware pottery appears to have been developed way off in the remote, cold, wind-swept Orkney Islands at the tip of Scotland. I’ve written about the Orkneys before, because they also have significant Neolithic sites, including–most relevant to our conversation–the Ring of Brodgar:

The Ring of Brodgar… is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in Orkney, Scotland. Most henges do not contain stone circles; Brodgar is a striking exception, ranking with Avebury (and to a lesser extent Stonehenge) among the greatest of such sites.[1] … These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain.[2] Unlike similar structures such as Avebury, there are no obvious stones inside the circle,[3] but since the interior of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists, the possibility remains that wooden structures, for example, may have been present. The site has resisted attempts at scientific dating and the monument’s age remains uncertain. It is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.[4]

The idea that anyone built anything major way off in the Orkneys, which definitely did not support the kind of comfortable, sedentary population that the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus, is remarkable enough. That they built something comparable to Stonehenge and Avebury is incredible, and that a pottery style which appears to have begun in Orkney spread to Britain and Ireland almost defies belief. Surely Orkney lacked the population to man the kind of migrations necessary to impose their pots on others, but perhaps Orkney was some kind of Neolithic cultural leader, perhaps a sacred place people journeyed to from across the seas–or perhaps the people of Orkney traded their pots for products not found locally, their style became popular, and folks in different areas began making their own versions.

But Avebury, Stonehenge, and Brogdar weren’t the only Stone Circles:

The stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany were constructed as a part of a megalithic tradition that lasted from 3300 to 900 BCE, during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages.[2] It has been estimated that around 4,000 of these monuments were originally constructed in this part of north-western Europe during this period,[2] although only around 1,300 of them are recorded, the others having been destroyed.[3]

Around 2,600 BC, Stonehenge entered its 3rd building phase, involving the erection of some 80 large stones in two concentric circles (“Q” and “R”) near the center of the enclosure. These 2-ton stones were transported 150 miles from a quarry in the Preseli Hills, (modern-day Pembrokeshire in Wales.) According to Wikipedia:

This phase tentatively began as early as 2600 BC, although recent radiocarbon dates from samples retrieved from one of the sockets in 2008 during excavations by Darvill and Wainwright suggest a date of around 2400 to 2300 BC. The final report is yet to be published, but some interesting results follow from the partial excavation of Q Hole 13 where ‘associations with Beaker pottery’ were noted.[1]

The Q and R Holes not only represent the foundation cuts for the first central stone construction, but they also were to include several additional stone settings on the northeast. This modified group face the midsummer sunrise with a possible reciprocal stone aligned on the midwinter sunset. This is the first evidence for any unambiguous alignment at Stonehenge (the solstice axis). … the dates suggested from the 2008 excavation (above) implies the Q & R arrays were perhaps no earlier than 2,400 BC, presenting a challenge to the recently accepted Late Neolithic date for the construction of the iconic sarsen monument. …

Now this is really interesting. The original proliferation of these circles is associated with the neolithic Groved Ware Pottery people. They tended to build chambered tombs and to dig large circular ditches and banks accompanied by human burials. They may have marked these graves with large stones.

Reconstruction of a Beaker burial, (National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid)

Then a new kind of pottery shows up, the Beakers. The Bell Beaker pottery arrived in Britain around 2,500 BC, and around that time a new, significant phase in the construction of these sites begins. Large numbers of extremely heavy stones were brought in and the original north-eastern entrance was widened so that it matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. Additionally, a road appears to have been built Stonehenge and the River Avon between 2600 and 1700 BCE, perhaps a delivery route for supplies that had been floated down the river. The road is partially aligned with the summer solstice, and ends at another stone circle.

So where the Grooved Ware People perhaps had some kind of cult of the dead, or at least put a lot of effort into constructing fancy burial monuments for their dead, the Bell Beaker people appear to have been really interested in solar alignments.

According to BellBeakerBlogger, even Bell Beaker burials reflect this solar interest:

All burials exhibit similarities that are central to Beaker culture or Beaker-ized people. They are usually flexed, individual burials within a plot, cemetery or larger complex. Men and women face the rising Sun, which along with other information, indicates a religious belief with emphasis on a solar deity.

The sequence of events that occurred at Stonehenge also appears to have happened at Avebury:

The chronology of Avebury’s construction is unclear. It was not designed as a single monument, but is the result of various projects that were undertaken at different times during late prehistory.[19]Aubrey Burl suggests dates of 3000 BC for the central cove, 2900 BC for the inner stone circle, 2600 BC for the outer circle and henge, and around 2400 BC for the avenues.[1]

Avebury was one of a group of monumental sites that were established in this region during the Neolithic. Its monuments comprise the henge and associated long barrows, stone circles, avenues, and a causewayed enclosure. These monument types are not exclusive to the Avebury area. For example, Stonehenge features the same kinds of monuments, and in Dorset there is a henge on the edge of Dorchester and a causewayed enclosure at nearby Maiden Castle.[20]

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson noted that the addition of the stones to the henge occurred at a similar date to the construction of Silbury Hill and the major building projects at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. For this reason, he speculated that there may have been a “religious revival” at the time, which led to huge amounts of resources being expended on the construction of ceremonial monuments.[21]

Religious revival, or triumphant victory celebration?

Work continued at Stonehenge over the next two hundred years, from about 2,600 BC through 2,400 BC, during which the monument’s enormous, central stones were erected. These rocks weigh between 25 and 50 tons each. This was an enormous undertaking that must have required hundreds of people just to move each stone and lift it into place.

Bell beaker pots

“Pots, not people,” is one of archaeology’s most famous maxims, an exhortion to regard a change in material artifacts–say, new pots–as simply a result of local cultural change, trade, or diffusion, rather than the arrival of an entirely new people. The Pots not People reading of the transition from Neolithic Grooved Ware to Copper Age Bell Beakers is simply that people invented new pots (and the technology to work metals.)

In the case of the Corded Ware people, this turned out to be wrong–the Corded Ware People turned out to be the Yamnaya, AKA the Indo-Europeans, who boiled out of the Ukrainian steppe around 4,000 BC, and by 500 BC had conquered almost all of Europe, Iran, Turkey, India, etc. They contributed significantly to the modern European gene pool, especially in eastern Europe.

Arout 3,000 BC, the Bell Beaker culture, named for its distinctively bell-shaped pots, began appearing in Western Europe. The pots didn’t spread smoothly across the continent, but were concentrated along Atlantic and Mediterranean river valleys:

Radiocarbon dating seems to support that the earliest “Maritime” Bell Beaker design style is encountered in Iberia, specifically in the vibrant copper-using communities of the Tagus estuary in Portugal around 2800-2700 BC and spread from there to many parts of western Europe.[2][12]

The initial moves from the Tagus estuary were maritime. A southern move led to the Mediterranean where ‘enclaves’ were established in south-western Spain and southern France around the Golfe du Lion and into the Po valley in Italy, probably via ancient western Alpine trade routes used to distribute jadeite axes. A northern move incorporated the southern coast of Armorica. The enclave established in southern Brittany was linked closely to the riverine and landward route, via the Loire, and across the Gâtinais valley to the Seine valley, and thence to the lower Rhine. This was a long-established route reflected in early stone axe distributions and it was via this network that Maritime Bell Beakers first reached the Lower Rhine in about 2600 BC.[2][19]

Another pulse had brought Bell Beaker to Csepel Island in Hungary by about 2500 BC. … From the Carpathian Basin Bell Beaker spread down the Rhine and eastwards into what is now Germany and Poland. By this time the Rhine was on the western edge of the vast Corded Ware zone. … A review in 2014 revealed that single burial, communal burial and reuse of Neolithic burial sites are found throughout the Bell Beaker zone.[23]

… The earliest copper production in Ireland, identified at Ross Island in the period 2400-2200 BC, was associated with early Beaker pottery.[2][27] …The same technologies were used in the Tagus region and in the west and south of France.[2][28] The evidence is sufficient to support the suggestion that the initial spread of Maritime Bell Beakers along the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, using sea routes that had long been in operation, was directly associated with the quest for copper and other rare raw materials.[2]

spread of bell beaker pottery

The Bell Beakers reached Britain around 2,500 BC.

Unfortunately, the Bell Beaker people didn’t leave any written records, so we don’t know what language they spoke. Were they Indo-Europeans? Moroccans? Did they conquer river valleys across Western Europe, or just tried exchange their pots for local goods along long-established trade routs?

And are they responsible for the menhirs found across western Europe?:

A menhir … is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found solely as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Their size can vary considerably, but their shape is generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top. … they are most numerous in Western Europe; in particular in Ireland, Great Britain and Brittany. There are about 50,000 megaliths in these areas,[2] while there are 1,200 menhirs in northwest France alone.[3] Standing stones are usually difficult to date, but pottery, and/or pottery shards found underneath some in Atlantic Europe connects them with the Beaker people. They were constructed during many different periods across pre-history as part of a larger megalithic culture that flourished in Europe and beyond.

Almost nothing is known of the social organization or religious beliefs of the people who erected the menhirs. There is not even any trace of these people’s language; however we do know that they buried their dead and had the skills to grow cereal, farm and make pottery, stone tools and jewelry. Identifying their uses remains speculative. Until recently, menhirs were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age — later third millennium BC, ca. 2800 – 1800 BC. However, recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany strongly suggests a far older origin, perhaps back to six to seven thousand years ago.[6]

(Sound familiar?)

Of the Beaker Culture of Ireland, Wikipedia states, in classic archaeologist style:

The ‘bronze halberd’ (not to be confused with the medieval halberd) was a weapon in use in Ireland from around 2400-2000 BC[71] They are essentially broad blades that were mounted horizontally on a meter long handle, giving greater reach and impact than any known contemporary weapon (O’Flaherty 2007). They were subsequently widely adopted in other parts of Europe (Schuhmacher 2002), possibly showing a change in the technology of warfare.

Just a change in technology, definitely not evidence of people getting conquered.

On May 9, 2017, The Beaker Phenomenon And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe was published on BioRxiv, finally providing some of the answers to our many questions:

We present new genome-wide ancient DNA data from 170 Neolithic, Copper Age and Bronze Age Europeans, including 100 Beaker-associated individuals. In contrast to the Corded Ware Complex, which has previously been identified as arriving in central Europe following migration from the east, we observe limited genetic affinity between Iberian and central European Beaker Complex-associated individuals, and thus exclude migration as a significant mechanism of spread between these two regions.

In other words, the initial spread of Bell Beakers from Iberia to central Europe was primarily cultural–the people involved are not closely related.

However, human migration did have an important role in the further dissemination of the Beaker Complex, which we document most clearly in Britain using data from 80 newly reported individuals dating to 3900-1200 BCE. British Neolithic farmers were genetically similar to contemporary populations in continental Europe and in particular to Neolithic Iberians, suggesting that a portion of the farmer ancestry in Britain came from the Mediterranean rather than the Danubian route of farming expansion.

Stone-age Britons were genetically similar to stone-age Iberians.

Beginning with the Beaker period, and continuing through the Bronze Age, all British individuals harboured high proportions of Steppe ancestry and were genetically closely related to Beaker-associated individuals from the Lower Rhine area. We use these observations to show that the spread of the Beaker Complex to Britain was mediated by migration from the continent that replaced >90% of Britain’s Neolithic gene pool within a few hundred years, continuing the process that brought Steppe ancestry into central and northern Europe 400 years earlier.

In other words: Bell Beaker pots s originally diffused culturally to the Rhine, where they were adopted by people with Indo-European steppe ancestry. These steppe people then conquered Britain, killing 90% of the stone-age inhabitants.

The victors appear to have gone on a building spree, repurposing neolithic monuments and dedicating them to their own deities, much as the Christian Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque following the Islamic conquest of Constantinople.

On a probably related note:

Durrington Walls is the site of a large Neolithic settlement and later henge enclosure located in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. It lies 2 miles (3.2 km) north-east of Stonehenge in the parish of Durrington, just north of Amesbury.

Between 2004 and 2006, excavations on the site by a team led by the University of Sheffield revealed seven houses. It has been suggested that the settlement may have originally had up to 1000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, if the entire enclosed area was used. The period of settlement was probably short, between 15 and 45 years starting sometime between 2525 and 2470 BC.[3]

It may have been the largest village in northern Europe for a brief period.[4][5][6] At 500 metres (1,600 ft) in diameter, the henge is the largest in Britain and recent evidence suggests that it was a complementary monument to Stonehenge.[7]

Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance at Durrington Walls. Why this sudden concentration of Neolithic pottery around the time of the Beaker invasion and rebuilding of Stonehenge? Were they captives brought to the area to work on the henge? Or a fortified refuge holding out against the invaders?

By the Iron Age, circa 1,600 BC, Stonehenge had largely fallen out of use, or at least new construction had halted. This was long before the arrival of the Celts in Britain, around 500 BC, so whether the Druids ever made use of Stonehenge as a sacred site or not, they certainly didn’t build it.


Additional sources:

Nature: Ancient-genome study finds Bronze Age ‘Beaker culture’ invaded Britain

Sarkboros: Bell Beakers and the North African Late Neolithic, on potential Bell Beaker origins in Morocco

Razib Khan: The coming of the Milesians: abstract of “The Bell Beaker Paper”

The Bronze Age Collapse (pt 3/3)

Go back to Part 1, Part 2

Fall of Troy
Fall of Troy

So what caused the Bronze Age Collapse?

  1. Greek gods threw a party and forgot to invite the goddess of Discord.
  2. Volcanic eruption => famines => migration.
  3. Chariots, iron, and swords that hack.
  4. Famine/Deforestation
  5. Systemic collapse.

I. Love and War

Earliest known depiction of the Trojan Horse (I think)
Earliest known depiction of the Trojan Horse (I think)

We are all familiar, of course, with the Homeric (and Vergilian) version of the Greek assault on Troy. Though Homer does not actually detail the war’s initial causes, nor its end, these parts of the tale are famous enough in their own right.

[Oh goodness, I just realized that I am assuming that everyone knows the story of the Trojan War. Let me know in the comments how much of the story you’re familiar with. :)]

By the time Homer composed his epics, the assault on Troy had fallen into the realm of legend; for the next 3,000 years, myths of the “golden age” of the late Greek Bronze Age dominated European art and culture.


By the 1800s, scholars assumed the war had never happened–and then Heinrich Schliemann managed to actually find Troy. Wikipedia further notes:

In the twentieth century scholars have attempted to draw conclusions based on Hittite and Egyptian texts that date to the time of the Trojan War. … Hittite archives, like the Tawagalawa letter mention of a kingdom of Ahhiyawa (Achaea, or Greece) that lies beyond the sea (that would be the Aegean) and controls Milliwanda, which is identified with Miletus. Also mentioned in this and other letters is the Assuwa confederation made of 22 cities and countries which included the city of Wilusa (Ilios or Ilium). The Milawata letter implies this city lies on the north of the Assuwa confederation, beyond the Seha river. While the identification of Wilusa with Ilium (that is, Troy) is always controversial, in the 1990s it gained majority acceptance. In the Alaksandu treaty (ca. 1280 BC) the king of the city is named Alaksandu, and Paris’s name in the Iliad (among other works) is Alexander. The Tawagalawa letter (dated ca. 1250 BC) which is addressed to the king of Ahhiyawa actually says:

Now as we have come to an agreement on Wilusa over which we went to war…

Formerly under the Hittites, the Assuwa confederation defected after the battle of Kadesh between Egypt and the Hittites (ca. 1274 BC). In 1230 BC Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (ca. 1240–1210 BC) campaigned against this federation. Under Arnuwanda III (ca. 1210–1205 BC) the Hittites were forced to abandon the lands they controlled in the coast of the Aegean. It is possible that the Trojan War was a conflict between the king of Ahhiyawa and the Assuwa confederation. This view has been supported in that the entire war includes the landing in Mysia (and Telephus’ wounding), Achilles’s campaigns in the North Aegean and Telamonian Ajax’s campaigns in Thrace and Phrygia. Most of these regions were part of Assuwa.[69][217] It has also been noted that there is great similarity between the names of the Sea Peoples, which at that time were raiding Egypt, as they are listed by Ramesses III and Merneptah, and of the allies of the Trojans.[218]

800px-Homeric_Greece-en.svgNow someone needs to find a reference to Helen.

That said, the historical sack of Troy was a much smaller even than Homer recounts, and is certainly inadequate to explain the large-scale collapse that consumed the entire region (and possibly a good chunk of northern Europe, as well.

For that matter, the Greeks themselves were invaded and their own cities were sacked. Historians attribute this to the Dorians, a Greek-speaking tribe that invaded from somewhere up north. As Carl Blegen wrote:[25]

“the telltale track of the Dorians must be recognized in the fire-scarred ruins of all the great palaces and the more important towns which … were blotted out at the end of Mycenaean IIIB.”

But archaeology isn’t always easy, and it isn’t totally clear that the Dorians actually existed:

“It has of late become an acknowledged scandal that the Dorians, archaeologically speaking, do not exist. That is, there is no cultural trait surviving in the material record for the two centuries or so after 1200 which can be regarded as a peculiarly Dorian hallmark. Robbed of their patents for Geometric pottery, cremation burial, iron-working and, the unkindest prick of all, the humble straight pin, the hapless Dorians stand naked before their creator – or, some would say, inventor.” — Cartledge

Somebody burned a bunch of Greek cities. We’re just not exactly sure who (or why.)

II. Farewell, Atlantis

Santorini /
Santorini / Thera

One of the largest volcanic explosions in the past few thousand years happened round about 1500 BC on the island of Thera (aka Santorini) in the Mediterranean (potentially ejecting 4 times more material than Krakatoa.)

Unfortunately, we’re not sure exactly when Thera blew its top:

Archaeologists have traditionally placed it at approximately 1500 BCE.[14][21] Radiocarbon dates, including analysis of an olive branch buried beneath a lava flow from the volcano which gave a date between 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE (95% confidence interval), suggest an eruption date more than a century earlier than suggested by archaeologists.[22][23][24]

In 2012 one of the proponents of an archaeological date, Felix Höflmayer, argued that archaeological evidence could be consistent with a date as early as 1590 BCE, reducing the discrepancy to around fifty years.[26] …

At Tell el Dab’a in Egypt, pumice found at this location has been dated to 1540 BCE… . Tree-ring data has shown that a large event interfering with normal tree growth in North America occurred during 1629–1628 (+-65 years) BCE.[37] Evidence of a climatic event around 1628 BCE has been found in studies of growth depression of European oaks in Ireland and of Scotch pines in Sweden.[38]

A volcanic winter from an eruption in the late 17th century BCE has been claimed by some researchers to correlate with entries in Chinese records documenting the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China. According to the Bamboo Annals, the collapse of the dynasty and the rise of the Shang dynasty, approximately dated to 1618 BCE, were accompanied by “yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals”.[8]

The downside to the Thera Theory is that even if we use the latest dates, it’s still too early–by 2 or 300 years–to explain the Bronze Age Collapse. Widespread famines in some far-off place certainly could have triggered migrations that, three hundred years later, ended in the Mediterranean, but it seems more likely that widespread famines would have caused immediate collapse in the area right around the volcano.

Thera might have inspired Atlantis and certainly caused some destruction on Crete, but I think it’s a stretch to blame it for events some 2-400 years later. Unless someone comes up with a bunch of evidence for a more recent eruption, I think it’s an unlikely cause.

III. Faster, Cheaper, Better: a revolution in military technology

Three new military technologies “diffuse” through Europe right around the time of the Battle of Tollense and the Dorian Invasion: spoked-wheeled chariots, true swords, and cheap iron.

spread of spoke-wheeled chariots
spread of spoke-wheeled chariots

Chariots were invented out on the vast Eurasian plain around 2,000 BC, which sounds like a recipe for invasion if I ever heard one. They arrived in Anatolia and Egypt around 1500 BC, but didn’t make it to Greece and Germany until 1300 BC–just in time for an invading army to sweep through the Tollense valley or into Greece, driving a wave of displaced folks into the sea and across to Egypt.

According to Wikipedia, the Battle of Kadesh, fought by the Egyptian Empire under Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II in 1274 BC, was “was probably the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving perhaps 5,000–6,000 chariots.[12]” (Warfare on that scale between two of the biggest political entities in the region may have contributed on its own to general collapse.)

1280px-Ramses_IIs_seger_över_Chetafolket_och_stormningen_av_Dapur,_Nordisk_familjebok 1280px-Parade_charriots_Louvre_CA2503

Were any chariots found in conjunction with the Tollense battlefield, or in local burials of the time?

Naue II Sword
Naue II Sword, found in association with the Nebra Sky Disk

Swords, I was amazed to discover, were invented around 1600 BC in the Aegean. Before the Bronze Age, people just didn’t have materials suitable for making long blades and had to content themselves with daggers or clubs. (Sometimes clubs studded with daggers.) A new variety of sword, the Naue II, appears around 1200 BC and quickly spreads around the Mediterranean–just in time for the collapse.

Early iron was, ironically, inferior to bronze. Steel will hold an excellent age, but primitive iron working did not, and early iron swords were inferior to bronze ones. But iron had several advantages over bronze: it was cheaper, required less fuel to work, and didn’t have to be mixed with tin imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

As a result of these technological developments:

Robert Drews argues[26] that the appearance of massed infantry, using newly developed weapons and armor, such as cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionizing cut-and-thrust weapon,[27] and javelins. The appearance of bronze foundries suggests “that mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean”. For example, Homer uses “spears” as a virtual synonym for “warriors”.

Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of “running skirmishers” who could swarm and cut down a chariot army and would destabilize states based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot and burn cities.[28][29][30]

I’m putting my money on this theory.

IV. Lean times

According to Herodotus:

In the days of Atys, the son of Manes, there was a great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia … So the king determined to divide the nation in half … the one to stay, the other to leave the land. … the emigrants should have his son Tyrrhenus for their leader … they went down to Smyrna, and built themselves ships … after sailing past many countries they came to Umbria … and called themselves … Tyrrhenians.

Wikipedia continues:

Connections to the Teresh of the Merneptah Stele, which also mentions shipments of grain to the Hittite Empire to relieve famine, are logically unavoidable. Many have made them, generally proposing a coalition of seagoing migrants from Anatolia and the islands seeking relief from scarcity. Tablet RS 18.38 from Ugarit also mentions grain to the Hittites, suggesting a long period of famine, connected further, in the full theory, to drought.[68] Barry Weiss,[69] using the Palmer Drought Index for 35 Greek, Turkish, and Middle Eastern weather stations, showed that a drought of the kinds that persisted from January 1972 would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse.

Anatolia appears to have been fairly hard-hit by the collapse, with many cities completely abandoned and  some regions not regaining their former levels of complexity for a thousand years.

Alternatively, (or relatedly,) I’ve seen it suggested (though I don’t remember where) that deforestation caused by burning trees to make charcoal in order to forge bronze weapons had advanced to a point where the locals just ran out of trees. (See: Easter Island.) No trees=no cooking, no building, no ships, no chariots, no forging, pretty much nothing. (This, in turn, could have spurred the adoption of inferior but easier to make iron weapons.)

Famine in Anatolia or deforestation in parts of the Middle East would be unlikely, however, to have much effect on Tollense. (Of course, the Tollense battle may be no more than a coincidence.)

V. Diamondian Theory: General Systems Collapse

Systems collapse is what it sounds like: the theory that the systems just got too big, too unwieldy, and could no longer respond adequately to stresses like broken trade routes, famines, invasions, massive military spending, social unrest, deforestation, migration, etc., and so the system crumbled. I admit that this is a kind of “all of the above” (except for maybe the volcano.)


At any rate, whatever caused the collapse, it happened. The Dark Ages reigned, then the world recovered. The Greeks and then the Romans ruled; then Rome collapsed and the Dark Ages returned.

The Dark Ages will come again.

Go back to Part 1, Part 2


New Frontiers of the Bronze Age Collapse (Pt. 2/3)

1024px-Metallurgical_diffusionYesterday we were discussing Bronze Age European/Mediterranean trade networks and civilizations. 

(Go to Part 3)

My suspicion is that these societies were more advanced and complex than we generally give them credit for, (especially the northern European ones) simply because we don’t have any written records from them and the archaeological trail is scanty.

We have amber, traded from the Baltic Sea down to Italy, north Africa, the Levant, and beyond; tin, mined in Cornwall, Spain, Brittany, and southern Germany, then traded all across Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East; and of course copper, which was mined all over.

In Egypt the bronze age was clearly glorious, but Greece and Spain also saw the rise of cities, palaces, art, and even aqueducts and sewers. Greece and Egypt had writing and were beginning to develop math (I don’t know much about the Spanish cities.)

1024px-Bronsealderens_sammenbruddAnd then, around 1200 BC, it all collapsed.

Within 50 years, almost every major city in the eastern Mediterranean was sacked, destroyed, conquered, or abandoned. The kingdoms of Mycenaen Greece, the Hittites of Syria and Anatolia,  and the New Kingdom of Egypt (and Canaan) all collapsed. The written language of Greece (“Linear B”) was completely forgotten and disappeared. The Hittite capital was burned, abandoned, and never rebuilt; Anatolia didn’t return to its former level of complexity for a thousand years. Babylon and Troy were sacked; Egypt was invaded by the Libyans.

Bronze_Age_CollapseAnd no one knows why.

The most proximate cause is the “Sea Peoples,” a motley assortment of sea-faring folks who suddenly show up in the local records (especially Egyptian) and conquer everything in sight. As Ramesses III recorded:

The [sea Peoples] made a conspiracy in their islands, All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off [ie. destroyed] at one time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”[34]

Who were the Sea People? Where did they come from? According to Wikipedia, they were:

TofG 191The most famous Sea People were the Philistines, who appear to have hailed originally from the Aegean before being defeated by the Egyptians and settled in the southern Levant, where they came into conflict with the Israelites. There’s fairly decent evidence for the Philistine connection, because we have written accounts about them from the Egyptians and the Hebrews, plus the archaeological remains of their cities, which are full of Greek pottery.

Most of the other potential identifications are based on little more than linguistic similarity–in other words, we don’t really have any idea where a lot of them came from.

In Greece, the invaders appear to have come by land, migrating from the north, not the sea.

One of the things I’ve noticed about migrations is that once they start, (for whatever reason,) they keep going. Suppose a famine hits Group A, so they flee the area and displace Group B. Group B pushes out Group C, who take to the seas and end up destroying towns hundreds or thousands of miles away. Events in Mongolia can reverberate into Poland; a sudden abundance of food and medical care in Africa ends with migrants in Sweden.

And in exciting, potentially related news, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a massive battle that took place in 1250 BC in, of all places, northern Germany:

Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists … have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived.

“If our hypothesis is correct that all of the finds belong to the same event, we’re dealing with a conflict of a scale hitherto completely unknown north of the Alps,” says dig co-director Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hannover. “There’s nothing to compare it to.” It may even be the earliest direct evidence—with weapons and warriors together—of a battle this size anywhere in the ancient world. …

In one spot, 1478 bones, among them 20 skulls, were packed into an area of just 12 square meters. Archaeologists think the bodies landed or were dumped in shallow ponds, where the motion of the water mixed up bones from different individuals. By counting specific, singular bones—skulls and femurs, for example—UG forensic anthropologists Ute Brinker and Annemarie Schramm identified a minimum of 130 individuals, almost all of them men, most between the ages of 20 and 30.

Tollense battlefield
Tollense battlefield

The number suggests the scale of the battle. “We have 130 people, minimum, and five horses. And we’ve only opened 450 square meters. That’s 10% of the find layer, at most, maybe just 3% or 4%,” says Detlef Jantzen, chief archaeologist at MVDHP. “If we excavated the whole area, we might have 750 people. That’s incredible for the Bronze Age.” In what they admit are back-of-the-envelope estimates, he and Terberger argue that if one in five of the battle’s participants was killed and left on the battlefield, that could mean almost 4000 warriors took part in the fighting.

The article has some entertaining illustrations, so I urge you to take a look.

PeeneThe Tollense is a small river in north east Germany, near the Baltic Sea and fairly close to Poland. We have yet to find the remains of any bronze age cities, towns, or fortresses nearby, (the closest known settlement was 350 km away,) but somebody built a 120 meter wooden causeway across the valley.

Was the Tollense part of a major trade network the armies were fighting over? Or was this just the only road in the area? (Serbian Irish has a great post that lays out their position that the battle was actually an attack on a very large, heavily fortified trade caravan. Lots of interesting material in Serbian Irish’s post. [Their argument hinges on claims that there were women, children, and old people among the dead, which I have not seen reported elsewhere, but I also have not read the original papers the archaeologists published, so maybe Serbian Irish knows something I don’t.])

The Science article notes, hilariously, that prior to uncovering a bunch of skulls with arrowheads lodged in them and big, bashed-in holes, many archaeologists genuinely believed that real battles hadn’t occurred in the Bronze Age:

Before the 1990s, “for a long time we didn’t really believe in war in prehistory,” DAI’s Hansen says. The grave goods were explained as prestige objects or symbols of power rather than actual weapons. “Most people thought ancient society was peaceful, and that Bronze Age males were concerned with trading and so on,” says Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Very few talked about warfare.”

Peaceful arrow inside of somebody's skull, Tollense
Peaceful arrow inside of somebody’s skull, Tollense

You know, those Bronze Age chieftains just collected swords for show, kind of like people who watch too much anime.

This line of thought got started, (as far as I can tell) after WWII, when archaeologists and anthropologists began promoting the idea that war and violence were modern, Western aberrations, and that primitive peoples were all peaceful, nature-loving paragons of gender equality. Much of the accumulated evidence for prehistoric human migrations was dismissed under the slogan, “pots, not people,” an exhortation to interpret the sudden diffusion of new pots and other cultural artifacts as just evidence of trade, not the movement of people. But as I noted before, it’s looking a lot more like “People, not pots.”

This was a pretty stupid line of thought, given that we can actually count the number of homicides committed by modern hunter-gatherers, and have abundant written records of extreme violence committed within the past few centuries by one tribe against the next, from cannibalism to attempted genocide. (Heck, within the last few decades.)

totally peaceful, non-violently bashed in with a hammer skull from Tollense battlefield
Skull non-violently bashed in with a hammer or bat

At any rate, the article discusses in some detail evidence that the soldiers who died in Tollense weren’t just some local brawlers, but were trained professionals, most likely part of a large army drawn from across Europe:

And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. … archaeologist Doug Price analyzed strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotopes in 20 teeth from Tollense. Just a few showed values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland. The other teeth came from farther afield, although Price can’t yet pin down exactly where.

Further clues come from isotopes of another element, nitrogen, which reflect diet. Nitrogen isotopes in teeth from some of the men suggest they ate a diet heavy in millet, a crop more common at the time in southern than northern Europe. … DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. …

(Now if only someone could test some Philistine DNA, so we can resolve this “Were they Greek or did they merely have Greek pots?” debate once and for all.)

Twenty-seven percent of the skeletons show signs of healed traumas from earlier fights, including three skulls with healed fractures. …

Standardized metal weaponry and the remains of the horses, which were found intermingled with the human bones at one spot, suggest that at least some of the combatants were well-equipped and well-trained. … Body armor and shields emerged in northern Europe in the centuries just before the Tollense conflict … At Tollense, these bronze-wielding, mounted warriors might have been a sort of officer class, presiding over grunts bearing simpler weapons. …

And not long after Tollense, the scattered farmsteads of northern Europe gave way to concentrated, heavily fortified settlements, once seen only to the south.

This is basically a complete revolution in our understanding of the Bronze Age in northern Europe.

Late Bronze Age cultures of Europe: Lusatian (green), German Urnfield (Orange), and Nordic (Yellow.)
Late Bronze Age cultures of Europe: Lusatian (green), German Urnfield (Orange), and Nordic (Yellow.)

Tollense is located near the apex of three different cultures: the Lusatian (centered mainly on modern Poland;) the Urnfield Cultures throughout most of Germany, (these two were related, but Wikipedia says, “The central European Lusatian culture forms part of the Urnfield tradition, but continues into the Iron Age without a notable break;”) and the Nordic cultures of the northern coast.

Interestingly, the Lusatian culture (and the Urnfield Cultures in general) arose around 1300 BC, or about 50 years before the battle. They replaced the earlier Tumulus Culture, which had interred its dead in big burial mounds (tumuli,) and disappeared right around 1200 BC. The Lusatian and Urnfield Cultures cremated their dead. (In this case, the pots are literally full of people.)

Wikipedia says of the Lusatians:

Recreation of the Biskupin fort, Lusatian Culture
Recreation of the Biskupin fort, Lusatian Culture

Metal grave gifts are sparse, but there are numerous hoards (e.g., Kopaniewo, Pomerania) that contain rich metalwork, both bronze and gold (hoard of Eberswalde, Brandenburg). Graves containing moulds, like at Bataune, Saxony or tuyeres attest to the production of bronze tools and weapons at the village level. The ‘royal’ tomb of Seddin, Brandenburg, Germany, covered by a large earthen barrow, contained Mediterranean imports like bronze-vessels and glass beads. Cemeteries can be quite large and contain thousands of graves.

Well known settlements include Biskupin in Poland, and Buch near Berlin. There are both open villages and fortified settlements (burgwall or grod) on hilltops or in swampy areas. The ramparts were constructed of wooden boxes filled with soil or stones.

Of the Urnfield:

Fortified hilltop settlements become common in the Urnfield period. Often a steep spur was used, where only part of the circumference had to be fortified. Depending on the locally available materials, dry-stone walls, gridded timbers filled with stones or soil or plank and palisade type pfostenschlitzmauer fortifications were used. Other fortified settlements used rivers-bends and swampy areas.

At the hill fort of Hořovice near Beroun (CR), 50 ha were surrounded by a stone wall. Most settlements are much smaller. Metal working is concentrated in the fortified settlements. On the Runder Berg near Urach, Germany, 25 stone moulds have been found.

Hillforts are interpreted as central places. Some scholars see the emergence of hill forts as a sign of increased warfare. Most hillforts were abandoned at the end of the Bronze Age.

And of the Bronze Age Nordic Culture:

Even though Scandinavians joined the European Bronze Age cultures fairly late through trade, Scandinavian sites presents a rich and well-preserved legacy of bronze and gold objects. These valuable metals were all imported, primarily from Central Europe, but they were often crafted locally and the craftsmanship and metallurgy of the Nordic Bronze Age was of a high standard. The archaeological legacy also comprise locally crafted wool and wooden objects and there are many tumuli and rock carving sites from this period, but no written language existed in the Nordic countries during the Bronze Age. The rock carvings have been dated through comparison with depicted artifacts, for example bronze axes and swords. There are also numerous Nordic Stone Age rock carvings, those of northern Scandinavia mostly portray elk.

Thousands of rock carvings from this period depict ships, and the large stone burial monuments known as stone ships, suggest that ships and seafaring played an important role in the culture at large. The depicted ships, most likely represents sewn plank built canoes used for warfare, fishing and trade. These ship types may have their origin as far back as the neolithic period and they continue into the Pre-Roman Iron Age, as exemplified by the Hjortspring boat.[2]

Of course, it is quite likely that the tumulus-urnfield transition had nothing to do with the Libyans invading Egypt and the fall of Troy. But the evidence so far points to the possibility of a much wider, more generalized catastrophe, that either began in one area and then prompted a cascade of peoples to invade and conquer their neighbors in multiple directions, or that affected several areas all at once.

On Thursday we’ll discuss possible reasons behind the collapse. (Go back to Part 1)

New Frontiers of the Bronze Age Collapse (Pt. 1/3)

Bronze Age Greek palace of Knossos

(Go to Part 2, Part 3)

The Bronze Age is difficult to study because written language was a lot less widespread back then, and all of the artifacts have had a lot longer to be destroyed than more recent ones. We tend to think, therefore, about the “start” of European history as the rise of the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta with their flowering of philosophy, mathematics, and literature. (In short, the Iron Age.) If we think back before Homer’s day, our focus shifts, from the edge of Europe to the edges of Asia and Africa–Egypt, Anatolia, and Judea. (Indeed, our notion that “continents” are important units by which people are defined is probably faulty in this context, where bodies of water are probably equally important.)

Sewers of Knossos (source)
Sewers of Knossos

But there were fortified towns of +5,000 people in Greece a good 6,000 years before Homer composed his epics, way back in the neolithic. By the Bronze Age, Greece had cities and palaces with aqueducts, sewers, tons of art, writing, and international trade. (The Greek Bronze Age began around 3,200 BC.)

Chalcolithic town of Los Millares, Spain
Model of the Chalcolithic town of Los Millares

Egypt in the Bronze Age built its famous pyramids; across the Mediterranean, in Spain, we find the pre-bronze fortified town of Los Millares (population +1,000), the many towns of El Agar, and the impressive city of La Bastida.

A few locations excepted (for reasons that will become clear in a moment,) the Bronze Age required long-term navigation, trade, and techno-social complexity.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Copper is abundant and relatively easy to find, but too soft to make good tools. Mixing it with tin makes it harder and more functional, but tin is much rarer and harder to find–and tends not to be located anywhere near the copper ores. Bronze Age peoples, therefore, had to engage in long-distance trade to make their bronze.

1024px-Metallurgical_diffusionSpain was one of the Mediterranean’s major sources of tin; Cornwall (southern Britain) and the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge,) in southern Germany were the others.

The Nebra Sky Disk, c. 1600 BC Germany, contains Cornish tin, Austrian copper, and Cornish or Carpathian gold. Trade in Cornish tin was long believed to be controlled by the the Phoenician Empire of North Africa. While it may be that the Phoenicians only controlled the Mediterranean end of the tin trade, a great many Phoenician coins have been found in southern Britain.

The Amber Road
The Amber Road

Another major trade item was amber, probably used primarily for jewelry but also sometimes burned as incense. Amber hails from northern Europe/Scandinavia, whose trade routes I wrote about back in Elsewhere in the Baltic: Gotland; the “Amber Road” stretches from the southern shores of the Baltic to northern Italy. From there it was traded to Carthage, Egypt, and Syria. (King Tut was interred with ornaments made of Baltic amber.) If amber made it to the Silk Road, it could have traveled even further afield.

So I wonder: How advanced were things circa 1,000 BC? Certainly most people were subsistence farmers, but then again, most people today are still farmers. Did the Europe of 1,000 or 6,000 BC look much like the Europe of 1,000 AD, but with fewer cathedrals? Did the Roman and Greek eras introduce major changes in the level of organization and the general shape of European daily life (even allowing for the massive collapse that followed in the western half of the Roman Empire,) or was this more or less the road Europe was already on? Would the culture of bronze age Europe be remotely familiar to us, or was it totally different? And how much of an effect (if any) did all of this trade have on the lives of ordinary people?

To be continued… (Go to Part 2, Part 3)


Elsewhere in the Baltic: Gotland

190px-Sweden_Gotland_location_map_modified.svgToday we move out of the more speculative parts of the Baltic trade routes and onto the Swedish island of Gotland, which was possibly one of the wealthiest islands of the Middle Ages.

Hunter gatherers arrived in Gotland around 9,500 years ago, (when the Baltic was apparently more of a lake than a sea,) and stuck around for about 5,000 years–persisting on the island for nearly a millennium (or longer) after farmers had invaded mainland Sweden and displaced the hunter-gatherers there. (Of course, you may note that farmers still haven’t made it to northern Sweden.)

I have not found a whole lot in English about stone-age sites in Gotland, but GotlandsResor–yes, a tourist info page–states that:

Several Stone age settlements are known and many of them has been excavated. Stora Karlsö, Visby, Västergarn and Ajvide south of Klintehamn, also in Ihre and Bjers in the north and finally Suderkvie in the south, which was surrounded by open sea. In the centre of Gotland the oldest settlement, Mölner Gullarve, is located, over 7 000 years old.

According to Wikipedia, Ajvide,

covers an area of 200,000 square metres and was occupied from the Late Mesolithic through to the mid Bronze Age. The majority of the activity on the site took place during the Middle Neolithic period (3100 – 2700 BC). This phase of activity belongs to the Pitted Ware culture. …

The principal feature of the site is a burial ground containing some 80 graves. …

A significant faunal assemblage has been recovered from the site. This suggests that in the late Mesolithic the economy was based upon the hunting of grey, ringed and harp seals, porpoise and fishing. Cattle, sheep, and pigs were introduced at the start of the Neolithic. However, there was a resurgence in seal hunting and fishing by the Middle Neolithic. Cattle and sheep returned during the late Neolithic and Bronze Age.[1] It has been argued[5] that the pigs which remain on Gotland during the Pitted Ware phase are in fact wild or feral animals, implying a general return to hunting and gathering during this period and not just a reversion to marine resources.

While northern Sweden has remained agriculture-free due to its harsh, cold climate, the perhaps the apparent abandonment of agriculture and resumption of hunting during the Middle Neolithic was driven by a mild climate creating an abundance of easily-hunted animals–or perhaps we are just dealing with two (or more) separate populations who had their own lifestyles.

Wallin, Wallin and Apel’s Prehistoric lifestyles on Gotland – diachronic and synchronic perspectives adds to our picture of the late neolithic and early Bronze Age:

The settlement pattern from the late Neolithic is unclear, and no settlements with house foundations and distinct cultural layers have been found. … In the Early Bronze age around 1800 BC … the cairns became clearly visible monuments in the landscape. The cairns became the new statement indicating more complex social formations and distinctions that already started in the late Neolithic. The Neolithization with control over land resources and extensive use of domesticated animals was a long struggle during a time period of c. 2000 years that finally around 1800 BC could be put in practice and developed further during the Bronze Age. …

One obvious change which probably indicates the establishment of far reaching contacts is the introduction of metal. Copper started to appear in graves during the late Neolithic … Recent studies of copper in bronze artefacts indicate that southern west Europe is a likely source of origin, and it is almost certain that this alloy found its way to Gotland through bartering/trade.

Wallin, Wallin, and Apel also provide us with some maps:

Picture 7 Picture 5 Picture 6

The Bronze Age appears to have been a good time for Gotland:

The material culture that constitutes the Bronze Age on Gotland is the alloy bronze, large cairns, stone ship settings, rock carvings, cup mark-sites, fire cracked stone mounds and pits.  There are according to the Swedish National Site Survey over thousand cairns on Gotland belonging to the Bronze Age.

"Tjelvar's grave," ship cairn, Gotland
Tjelvar’s grave,ship cairn, Gotland

It has been difficult to locate distinct settlement areas from the Bronze Age, but … field systems have been found, which have indicated Bronze Age dates. Lindquist suggests that evidences point to the fact that Gotland during the end of the Bronze Age was organised in units that were larger than the extended family level with a possible division of labor into farmers, herdsmen, and craftsmen. During this time was an extensive farming and herding method used. … the land-use changed into intensification of agriculture with arable meadows and grazing in smaller “privatised” established areas with a fencing system, during the pre-Roman Iron Age. These types of smaller irregular farming units are also found in Estonia. Lang calls these “Baltic fields” and according to him they reflect the boundaries of clearing of the arable soil and centered on clearing cairns. Thus they diverge from the larger regular Celtic fields, which reflect a conscious land-division and land ownership. (I have removed the in-line citations for readability; see the original if you want them.)

The local Iron Age began around 500 BC, and is divided into “Pre-Roman,” “Roman,” and “Germanic:”

During the decline of the Roman Empire, an abundance of gold flowed into Scandinavia; there are excellent works in gold from this period. Gold was used to make scabbard mountings and bracteates. After the Western Roman Empire fell, gold became scarce and Scandinavians began to make objects of gilded bronze…

This was, as you know, a time of much Nordo-Germanic movement, and was followed by the Viking Age, which was also a time of much Nordic movement.

In the midst of all this trade (or plunder,) Gotland became one of the most important harbors in the Baltic:

The number of Arab dirhams discovered on the island of Gotland alone is astoundingly high. In the various hoards located around the island, there are more of these silver coins than at any other site in Western Eurasia. The total sum is almost as great as the number that has been unearthed in the entire Muslim world.[24]

And from GotlandsResor:

Gotland is often referred to as “The World´s Treasury”. Over 145 000 coins have been found in Gotland, a fact that makes the island to one of the worlds most important places in prehistoric finds. … The world´s largest ever found silver treasure dating Viking Age was found on northern Gotland at Spillings in 1999. It weight over 80 kilos!

The Spillings Hoard is truly remarkable:

The silver hoard consisted of two parts with a total weight of 67 kg (148 lb) before conservation and consisted of, among other things, 14,295 coins most of which were Islamic from other countries. A third deposition containing over 20 kg (44 lb) of bronze scrap-metal was also found. … As of 2015, more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lb) silver from over 700 caches deposited between the 9th and 12th centuries have been found on Gotland. This includes 168,000 silver coins from the Arab world, North Africa and Central Asia.[16]

Khazar coin, c. 800
Map of the Hanseatic League
Map of the Hanseatic League

Gotland went on to become an important trade point in the Hanseatic League, (1400-1800):

Visby [Gotland] functioned as the leading centre in the Baltic before the Hansa. Sailing east, Visby merchants established a trading post at Novgorod called Gutagard (also known as Gotenhof) in 1080.[2] Merchants from northern Germany also stayed in the early period of the Gotlander settlement.

Gotland’s Visby was, for a time, the second-most important city in the Hanseatic league, until the Danes decided to conquer and loot it, prompting a war between the Hanseatic League and Denmark. Denmark lost, but kept Visby (and all of Gotland.) From there, it degenerated into a pirates’ nest, and in 1470 was soon stripped of its Hanseatic membership.

Still, not a bad run–from back-water hunter-gatherer hold-outs to one of the wealthiest islands in the world in just a few thousand years.

Does the Bronze Age Herald a Major Transformation in Human Dispersal Patterns?

Humans–Homo Sapiens or Anatomically Modern Humans–have been around for about 200,000 years. We have only recently–for the past few thousand years or so–begun making a serious effort at recording human history and figuring out what happened before our own times.

Most of what we know about major migrations and changes among human populations come from three major sources: written records, archaeology, and genetics.

Written records are (usually) the easiest to work with. We know when the Spaniards discovered Cuba because we have written records of the event, for example. Unfortunately, written records go back only a few thousand years–covering a teeny portion of human history–and can be highly unreliable. After all, we thought the entire world was only 6 thousand years old for a while because a book that seemed to say so.

Archaeology lets us peer much further back than written records, but with much less detail. We don’t know a lot, for example, about the folks who made Aurignacian tools–what they called themselves, what sort of rituals they had, what they hoped or dreamed of. Without those details, it’s hard to care much about one culture or another. After a while, pots blend into pots, stone tools into stone tools.

Can you tell which one is Aurignacian, and which is Gravettian?

Gravettian tool Aurignacian tool Mousterian tool

(Oh, I threw in a Mousterian tool, as well. Those were made by Neanderthals, not H. sapiens.)

I can’t, either.

It is difficult to tell whether a change in artifacts between one layer and the next reflects a change in people or a change in technology. The proliferation of steel artifacts in the archaeological record in Mexico circa 1500 reflects an influx of new people, but the proliferation of television sets in the future-archaeological record of my area merely reflects a technological development. Finding a lot of mass graves in an area is, of course, a tip-off that invasion and replacement happened, but invasions aren’t always accompanied by easily identified mass-internments.

This is where genetics comes in. If we can find some skeletons and sequence their DNA, and then find some later or earlier skeletons in the same area and sequence their DNA, then we can get a pretty good idea of whether or not the later people are descended from the earlier people. This probably doesn’t always work (if the people in question are under some kind of selective pressure–which we all are–then their descendants might look genetically different from their ancestors simply due to evolution rather than replacement,) but it is a pretty darn good tool.

As I discussed back in “Oops, Looks Like it was People, not Pots,” archaeologists have fiercely debated over the decades whether the replacement of Narva Pots with Corded Ware Pots circa 3750 ago represented a population replacement or just a change in pot-making preferences:

Corded Ware Pots      Narva Pot

Corded Ware on the left, Narva on the right.

Luckily for us, genetics has now figured out that the Corded Ware people are actually the Yamnaya, aka the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and that they expanded out of the Eurasian Steppe about 4,000 years ago, replacing much of the native population as they went.

So it’s starting to look like there were quite a few conquering events of this sort.

From, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture
From, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture
from A Handful of Bronze Age Men Could have fathered two-thirds of Europeans
from A Handful of Bronze Age Men Could have fathered two-thirds of Europeans

In general, if you see a lot of mtDNA and only a little Y-DNA, that means there were a lot of women around and only a few men. And that generally means those men just killed all of the other men and raped their wives and children.

Which appears to have happened on a massive scale throughout much of the world around 10,000-4,000 years ago.

Just off the top of my head, recent large-scale migrations and at least partial replacements include the arrival of Indians in Australia around 4,230 years ago; replacement of the Thule people by the Inuit (aka Dorset aka Eskimo) around 1,000 ago; successive waves of steppe peoples like the Turks and Mongols invading their neighbors; the Great Bantu Migration that began about 3,500 years ago; the spread of Polynesians through areas formerly controlled by Melanesians starting around 3,000 BC; displacement of the Ainu by the Japanese over the past couple thousand years; etc.

The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic
Replacement of the Thule by the Dorset, from The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic
Paths of the great Bantu Migration
Paths of the great Bantu Migration
Map is in French. Negative numbers are years BC; positive numbers are years CE.
Map is in French. Negative numbers are years BC; positive numbers are years CE.

And of course, we know of many more recent migrations, like the one kicked off by Columbus.

So it looks like people have moved around a lot over the past 10,000 years.

Terms like “bronze age” are a little problematic because people adopted different technologies at different times. So the “bronze age” began around 5,300 years ago in the Middle East, 4,000 years ago in Ireland, and skipped the Inuit entirely (they basically went straight from stone and bone tools to guns.)

Agriculture emerged in the Middle East circa 11,500 years ago; followed by the wheel, 8,500 years ago; carts, 6,500 years ago; and domesticated horses about 6,000 years ago. These technologies made the world ripe for warfare–riders on horseback or in chariots were great at conquering, and agricultural settlements, with their large population centers and piles of food, were great for conquering.

Our conventional views of prehistory are tainted, I suspect, by a mis-perception of time. This is probably basically a quirk of perception–since we remember yesterday better than the day before yesterday, and that day better than last week, and last week better than last year, we tend to think of more recent time periods as longer than they really are, and older time periods as relatively shorter. Children are most prone to this; ask a child to make a numberline showing events like “Last week, my last birthday, the year I was born, and the year mommy was born,” and you’ll tend to get a very distorted number line. Grown ups are much better at this task (we can count the time-distance between these events,) but we’re not perfect.

We show this same tendency when thinking about human history. Our written documents barely go back past 3,000 years, and as far as most people are concerned, this is the beginning of “history”. Nevermind that humans have been around for 200,000 years–that’s 197,000 years of human history that we tend to condense down to: humans evolved, left Africa, and invented agriculture–then came us. We tend to mentally assign approximately equal chunks of time to each phase, which leads to things like people thinking that the Basques–who speak a language isolate–are an ancient, archaic people who hail directly from the first humans, or Neanderthals, or somesuch. Neanderthals disappeared around 40,000 years, and the Indo-European language expansion probably cut the Basques off from their fellow-language speakers about 3,000 years ago. Of course, the Basques could have been cut off since the Neanderthal age, but that’s a jump of 37,000 years (or more) on very little evidence. Likewise, we tend to assume that people just spread out from their original African homeland, got to where they were going, sat down, and never moved again. With the exception of Columbus and his European co-ethnics, everyone is sort of assumed to have gotten where they are now about 100,000-40,000 years ago. (Or the equivalent time period for people who think humanity is much younger or older than it is.)

But the emerging picture is one of conquering–lots of conquering, at least in the time periods we’ve been able to get details on. But go back more than 10,000 years or so, and the records start petering out. We’ve got no writing, far fewer artifacts, and even the DNA breaks down. The technology we’ve developed for extracting and sequencing ancient DNA is amazing, but I suspect we’ll have a devil of a time trying to find any well-preserved 40,000 year old DNA in the rainforest.

So what did the human story look like between 200,000 and 10,000 years ago? Have humans been conquering and re-conquering each other from the beginning? Is it ethnic group after ethnic group, all the way down? Or did lower population density in the pre-agricultural era make it easier to spread out and avoid one’s neighbors than to bother fighting with them? Certainly armies would have spread much less slowly before the domestication of the horse and invention of the chariot. (Not to mention that they require quite a bit of food, which is a tough sort of thing to get in large, easily-transportable form if you’re a hunter-gatherer.)

Certainly prehistoric peoples slaughtered (or slaughter) each other with great frequency–we can tell that:


It doesn’t take a lot of technology to go put a spear into your neighbor’s chest. Even bands of chimps go smash other bands of chimps to bits with rocks.

We also have genetic evidence emerging from further back, ie, An Older Layer of Eurasian Admixture in Africa. As Dienekes summarises:

The authors propose that a genetic component found in Horn of Africa populations back-migrated to Africa from Eurasia ~23 thousand years ago. … For a time, there was a taboo against imagining back-migration into Africa; in a sense this was reasonable on parsimony grounds: Africans have most autosomal genetic diversity and the basal clades of mtDNA and Y-chromosomes; a model with Out-of-Africa is simpler than one with both Out-of and Into-Africa. However, we now know that pretty much all Africans have Eurasian ancestry, ranging from at least traces in theYoruba and Pygmies (to account for the Neandertal admixture) to intermediate values in East Africans, to quite  a lot in North Africans.

Eurasian admixture in Africa seems to be general, variable, and to have occurred at different time scales. It’s still the best hypothesis that modern humans originated in Africa initially and migrated into Eurasia. However, it is no longer clear that Africa was always the pump and never the destination of human migrations.

Whether this was “conquering” or just wandering remains to be discovered.

As for me, my money’s on horses and agriculture making warfare and dispersal faster and more efficient, not fundamentally changing our human proclivities toward our neighbors.