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”

Europe before Rome


Herodotus’s world (You don’t want to travel to the land of the Androphagi, that’s for sure.)

The civilization of Greece and Rome make such an impact upon the pages of history that everything before and after is cast in shadow. Despite this, history since the fall of the Roman Empire has been fairly well documented–but European history before Herodotus laid quill to parchment is known almost solely through archaeology (and, increasingly, genetics.)

What was Europe like before the Romans conquered it? Was it rather like Europe after the Fall of Rome, but with less Christianity and fewer scribes? Had Europe already started down the path to technological development and innovation, or was it still a barbarian backwater that only became significant later–perhaps because of the Romans, Christianity, or trade routes to other, more developed parts of the world?

Oddly, some of the world’s oldest still-standing houses are found on a tiny island off the far northern tip of Scotland, at a site named Skara Brae, (occupied between 3180 and 2500 BC):








Or perhaps this isn’t so odd–not because people on windswept islands in the middle of the North Atlantic developed house-building skills before anyone else, but because they had to work in stone because they had so few trees. Most people–especially folks living in hot places–build houses out of materials like wood and reeds, which biodegrade over the course of a few thousand years. Skara Brae, built in a nearly treeless, cold, windy island, looks an igloo made of stone instead of ice and surrounded for insulation with turf instead of snow.

Skara Brae’s isolation has probably also helped preserve it–there haven’t been a bunch of people wandering around the Orkneys, plowing up the land, building hotels, and generally obliterating ancient sites.

Likewise, those footprints on the moon are likely to be there for a very long time.

The Orkney islands boast some even older houses, at the Knap of Howar (occupied between 3,700 and 2,800 BC):








Most of the other structures we have from this time period appear to be tombs or stone circles. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, is a giant tomb (and since it was built in 2,560 BC, it’s younger than Skara Brae.) Stonehenge was built sometime between 3,000 and 2,000 BC and serves no obvious purpose, but given the 100+ people interred there, it probably also began as a fancy graveyard.

The preservation of houses and other structures on the Orkney islands may be an accident of geography, but it is a lucky one, for it allows us a rare glimpse into how these people lived.

Orkney boasts not just houses, of course, but also chambered tombs and stone circles, more houses at the Links of Noltland, and a possibly ceremonial complex–or just regular complex of buildings–now known as Ness Brodgar (photos and map belong to the Ness of Brodgar excavation site):

ness2015plan Site-overview






(Sorry these pictures are oriented in different directions, and the map shows a different stage in the excavation than the photos.)

Structure-10-note-more-of-the-paving-around-it-revealed-at-the-bottom-of-the-photoFor orientation, Structure 10 is in the lower right on the map, the lower left in the overview photo, and oriented toward the top of the second, close-up photo. For comparison, there is a modern house in the lower-left hand corner of the overview photo, which does not appear much bigger than the excavated structures.


Wikipedia gives us some more detailed descriptions of the site:

There are the remains of a large stone wall (the “Great Wall of Brodgar”) that may have been 100 metres (330 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) or more wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on …

The temple-like structure, which was discovered in 2008, has walls 4 metres (13 ft) thick and the shape and size of the building are visible, with the walls still standing to a height of more 1 metre (3.3 ft). The structure is 25 metres (82 ft) long and 20 metres (66 ft) wide … The archaeological team believe it is the largest structure of its kind anywhere in the north of Britain…

In July 2010, a remarkable rock coloured red, orange, and yellow was unearthed. This is the first discovery in Britain of evidence that Neolithic peoples used paint to decorate their buildings … Only a week later a stone with a zigzag chevron pattern painted with a red pigment was discovered nearby.[14]

A baked clay artefact known as the “Brodgar Boy”, and thought to be a figurine with a head, body, and two eyes, was also unearthed in the rubble of one structure in 2011… archaeologists discovered a carved stone ball, a very rare find of such an object in situ in “a modern archaeological context”.[17]

Prehistoric roof tiles were used in Ness of Brodgar. The archaeologists at the ongoing Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) excavations have found Orkney’s first real evidence of a Neolithic roof. In most reconstructions of prehistoric buildings, one will often see the roof made of turf, animal skins or thatch. But on the Ness, the builders used stone slates for at least one of their buildings the remains of which have been uncovered within the side recesses along the interior walls of Structure Eight.[18]

The Wikipedia page on Prehistoric Scotland gives a quick description of the Knap of Howar and Skara Brae :

At the wonderfully well preserved stone house at Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray (occupied from 3500 BC to 3100 BC) the walls stand to a low eaves height, and the stone furniture is intact. Evidence from middens shows that the inhabitants were keeping cattle, sheep and pigs, farming barley and wheat and gathering shellfish as well as fishing for species which have to be line caught using boats. …

The houses at Skara Brae on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands are very similar, but grouped into a village linked by low passageways. This settlement was occupied from about 3000 BC to 2500 BC. Pottery found here is of the grooved ware style which is found across Britain as far away as Wessex.

Old map of the Orkney Islands
Old map of the Orkney Islands

The page on Skara Brae further notes:

On average, the houses measure 40 square metres (430 sq ft) in size with a large square room containing a stone hearth used for heating and cooking. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.[5] …

The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door that could be closed “by a bar that slid in bar-holes cut in the stone door jambs”.[9] A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the village’s design. It included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling.

Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door… Each of these houses had the larger bed on the right side of the doorway and the smaller on the left. Lloyd Laing noted that this pattern accorded with Hebridean custom up to the early 20th century suggesting that the husband’s bed was the larger and the wife’s was the smaller.[10] The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation. …

One house, called House 8, has no storage boxes or dresser. It has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a house to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes.


Continuing on:

Other artefacts excavated on site made of animal, fish, bird, and whalebone, whale and walrus ivory, and killer whale teeth included awls, needles, knives, beads, adzes, shovels, small bowls and, most remarkably, ivory pins up to 10 inches (25 cm) long.[32] These pins are very similar to examples found in passage graves in the Boyne Valley, another piece of evidence suggesting a linkage between the two cultures.[33] So-called Skaill knives were commonly used tools in Skara Brae; these consist of large flakes knocked off sandstone cobbles.[34] Skaill knives have been found throughout Orkney and Shetland.

Not bad for such a small, isolated place!

In the spirit of speculation, BBC Travel asks, Were these remote, wild islands the center of everything?

“…the Ness of Brodgar, an elaborate ceremonial complex the size of four US football fields, is reshaping our understanding of the people who lived more than 5,000 years ago. …

To appreciate the Ness, though, you also have to visit the Ring of Brodgar: … Each of the stones, measuring up to 4.5m tall, was dragged from quarries as far as 10 miles away. (The earliest example of a wheel in Britain dates to about 1100 BC, some 600 years later.) The surrounding ditch was cut 9m wide and 3m deep through bedrock – all without the use of metal. Including the ditch and bank … the Ring of Brodgar’s diameter is 130m… Among Neolithic structures in Britain, its size is exceeded only by Avebury and Stanton Drew; it edges out Stonehenge, whose ditch and bank measure 100m. In all, the Ring of Brodgar is estimated to have taken as many as 80,000 man hours to complete.

The Ness of Brodgar underscores that even further. Both the size and intricacy of the complex are unlike anything that’s been found in Europe before. The main building, nicknamed the “cathedral”, had an area of some 465sqm, including a forecourt; the entire Ness was surrounded by a wall more than 365m long…

All of that opulence was for something likely never meant to be a permanent settlement. Instead, the Ness was used periodically for more than 1,300 years. Around 2300 BC, near the end of its life, shinbones from some 400 cattle were deposited on the site – likely the remains of a very large feast, when you consider that a single cow could feed about 200 people.

… that final ceremony – along with the rest of the finds, and the size and design of the buildings themselves – has led archaeologists to believe that its purpose was largely ritual, with people gathering here from many miles away. … It’s also adding evidence to what might be the most surprising takeaway of all: that this corner of Scotland wasn’t just a centre of Neolithic civilisation in Britain. It may have been the centre.

Today, the remote location of the archipelago’s 70 islands means that it is widely ignored by all but the savviest of history- (or prehistory-) loving travellers. But once, it was this very location made them a centre of civilisation. The islands were along the North Sea route that prehistoric people would have taken from northern Europe to Britain and back. Archaeologists have already found, for example, that Orkney invented grooved-ware pottery some 5,100 to 5,300 years ago – a development that later made its way across the rest of Britain, probably accompanied by other types of technology, art and ideas.

The grooved ware pottery point is interesting. According to Wikipedia:

Unlike the later Beaker ware, Grooved culture was not an import from the continent but seems to have developed in Orkney, early in the 3rd millennium BC, and was soon adopted in Britain and Ireland.[1]…

Since many Grooved ware pots have been found at henge sites and in burials, it is possible that they may have had a ritual purpose as well as a functional one. …

The earliest examples have been found in Orkney and may have evolved from earlier Unstan ware bowls. … The style soon spread and it was used by the builders of the first phase of Stonehenge. Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance in recent excavations at Durrington Walls and Marden Henge in Wiltshire. …

One way the tradition may have spread is through trade routes up the west coast of Britain. … Evidence at some early Henges (Mayburgh Henge, Ring of Brodgar, Arbor Low) suggests that there were staging and trading points on a national ‘motorway’ during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. This evidence perhaps explains how Cumbrian stone axes found their way to Orkney.

Was Orkney some sort of important trade point?

Since the invention of the wheel, the road, and the internal combustion engine, I suspect that we moderns have begun defaulting to thinking about trade routes in terms of places you can get to by car (or train.) But these sites were constructed before the wheel reached Britain–in the days when burdens taken overland had to be carried on one’s back or loaded onto an animal.

It was likely far easier to trade by water than by land–simply load all of your goods into a boat, shove off, and row. The close association between “Greek” cities and “Turkish” cities in Hellenic times exemplifies this–it makes more sense to think of ancient Greek civilization as an island-hopping Aegean-based people than to think of them as a land-based people. Even today, human settlements cluster around ports–the easiest places to load and unload shipped goods.

Just as the Aegean was to Greece, the Mediterranean to Rome, the Nile to Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates to Babylon, and the monsoon trade routes to the Indian ocean, so may the Baltic have been to northern Europe:


This map doesn’t show Scotland, but it is rather to the West of the southern tip of Norway. It is not a coastal-hugging route, but if you just aim your boat due West, you’ll probably hit it.

But due to the big chunk of hard-to traverse European land in between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, none of these potential trade routes connect with Herodotus’s world.



The Indigenous People of Europe

Do you know how long I've been waiting to use this?

The settlement in Cambridgeshire, which had been buried for 3,000 years, was discovered when the tops of crude protest signs were spotted above layers of mud.

Archaeologist Helen Archer said: “The signs, which include ‘Any old iron? NO THANKS,’ and ‘IRON? IR NO,’ a primitive attempt at wordplay, show that the residents were up in arms about climate-based migration patterns.

Note: The Daily Mash is a humor/satire site, similar to The Onion.

Anyway, on to the genetics!

From Haak et al, rearranged by me
From Haak et al, rearranged by me

Click for full size

Haak et al. made this graph, but I rearranged it so that the oldest samples are on the left and the newest ones are on the right. When multiple samples were about the same age, I ordered them from west to east (that is, from left to right as you look at a standard map. Unless you are in Australia.) I’ve added the dates (shown as ranges) that were in Haak’s paper. Note the asterisk under Karsdorf–those dates are still uncertain.

The first three genomes are from super old skeletons found out in, like, Russia. I don’t know why they look so crazy–maybe because the DNA is really old and so not very good, or maybe because they actually had a bunch of different DNA in them, or maybe because they’re ancestral to a bunch of different groups. I don’t know! Luckily, it doesn’t really matter for today’s post, so I’ll investigate them later.

Approximately 28,000 years later, we have the Blue People, also known as “Western European Hunter Gatherers,” or WHG. There were people in Europe in intervening 28,000 years; they just aren’t on the table, and I don’t know if anyone has successfully sequenced their genomes yet. (More research required.)

As you might guess, the WHG people hunted and gathered. They had stone tools, and were quite widespread, ranging from Spain (the La Brana1 site,) to Sweden to Samara, Russia (and probably beyond.)

And then some new guys showed up: Farmers.

Known as the Early Eurasian Farmers (EEF,) they first appear on our graph in Starcevo, Serbia, their DNA in orange. They came from the Middle East (the birthplace of agriculture,) bringing their wheat, permanent settlements, and livestock.

Why isn't it in English? Oh, well. We'll manage.
Neolithic cultures of Europe–Starcevo is i the lower right-hand corner.

These farmers quickly overran the hunter-gatherers throughout western Europe (though the northern extremes held out longer, most likely due to crops that originated in the Middle East taking a while to adapt to the harsh Scandinavian climate.)

300px-Neolithic_expansion.svg (source: Wikipedia)

The hunter gatherers disappeared (most likely slaughtered by the farmers, but perhaps merely overwhelmed numerically) but their DNA lives on in the descendants of those first farmers. Some groups may have combined willingly–others, as the spoils of war. Within the Farmers’ range, the only place the hunter-gatherers managed to live on appears to be a small island off the coast of Sweden (the second “Skoglund” sample.)

But to the east, out on the Eurasian steppes, the hunter-gatherers lived on. The steppes are known more for their rampaging hordes than their farmers, and this is exactly what they became.

The Yamnaya, as we now call them, are about half WHG and half some new population (I call them the Teal People.) As far as I know, no “pure” teal people have yet been found, but teal DNA is all over the place, from India to Spain.

Teal and blue DNA in India central Asia, and Siberia:


The Yamnaya are also known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans–the guys who spoke the language ancestral to all of today’s Indo-European languages. And like all conquering barbarian hordes, they expanded out of their homeland in present-day southern Russia (north of the Caucuses,) and conquered everything in their path.

Just eyeballing the graph, it looks like the resulting peoples are about half Yamnaya, and about half EEF. This tri-part inheritance is still seen in every European population (and some of their neighbors) today:


If we didn’t have the ancient DNA–or if we had less of it–it would be easy to think that the Blue component in modern Europeans had come directly from the ancient WHG population that lived in their particular area. Instead, much (if not most) of the modern “blue” component hails from the steppes of Russia–a remarkable comeback for the WHGs.

Oh, and the “indigenous” people of Europe? They’re all indigenous to the continent.

Some more helpful graphs, maps, and information:

From Haak et al.
From Haak et al.
From Haak et al.
From Haak et al.
From Haak et al.
From Haak et al.

On the Iceman, aka Otzi: found in the Alps on the Italian-Austrian border; Same age as Sweden, between 3359 and 3105 BCE. (Hailed from the vicinity of Feldthurns, Italy.)

Analysis of the mtDNA of Ötzi the Iceman, the frozen mummy from 3,300 BC found on the AustrianItalian border, has shown that Ötzi belongs to the K1 subclade. It cannot be categorized into any of the three modern branches of that subclade (K1a, K1b or K1c). The new subclade has provisionally been named K1ö for Ötzi.[14] Multiplex assay study was able to confirm that the Iceman’s mtDNA belongs to a new European mtDNA clade with a very limited distribution amongst modern data sets.[15]” (source)

Otzi ate grain but was lactose intolerant.

His Y DNA is haplogroup G, which is now rare in Europe:


Various estimated dates and locations have been proposed for the origin of Haplogroup G. The National Geographic Society places haplogroup G origins in the Middle East 30,000 years ago and presumes that people carrying the haplogroup took part in the spread of the Neolithic.[2] Two scholarly papers have also suggested an origin in the Middle East, while differing on the date. …

Haplogroup G2a(SNP P15+) has been identified in neolithic human remains in Europe dating between 5000-3000BC. Furthermore, the majority of all the male skeletons from the European Neolithic period have so far yielded Y-DNA belonging to this haplogroup. The oldest skeletons confirmed by ancient DNA testing as carrying haplogroup G2a were five found in the Avellaner cave burial site for farmers in northeastern Spain and were dated by radiocarbon dating to about 7000 years ago.[5] At the Neolithic cemetery of Derenburg Meerenstieg II, north central Germany, with burial artifacts belonging to the Linear Pottery culture, known in German as Linearbandkeramik (LBK). This skeleton could not be dated by radiocarbon dating, but other skeletons there were dated to between 5,100 and 6,100 years old. The most detailed SNP mutation identified was S126 (L30), which defines G2a3.[6] G2a was found also in 20 out of 22 samples of ancient Y-DNA from Treilles, the type-site of a Late Neolithic group of farmers in the South of France, dated to about 5000 years ago.[7] The fourth site also from the same period is the Ötztal of the Italian Alps where the mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman were discovered. Preliminary word is that the Iceman belongs to haplogroup G2a2b [8] (earlier called G2a4).

Haplogroup G2a2b is a rare group today in Europe. (source)

Back on the Otzi page:

By autosomal DNA he is most closely related to southern Europeans, especially to the geographically isolated populations of the two Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica.[41][42]

… In October 2013, it was reported that 19 modern Tyrolean men were related to Ötzi. Scientists from the Institute of Legal Medicine at Innsbruck Medical University had analysed the DNA of over 3,700 Tyrolean male blood donors and found 19 who shared a particular genetic mutation with the 5,300-year-old man, which led them to identify the link.[46]

Hungary Gamba CA= Copper age, 3,300 BC-2,700 AD

From an analysis of the Gamba site:

The Great Hungarian Plain was a crossroads of cultural transformations that have shaped European prehistory. Here we analyse a 5,000-year transect of human genomes, sampled from petrous bones giving consistently excellent endogenous DNA yields, from 13 Hungarian Neolithic, Copper, Bronze and Iron Age burials including two to high (~22 × ) and seven to ~1 × coverage, to investigate the impact of these on Europe’s genetic landscape. These data suggest genomic shifts with the advent of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, with interleaved periods of genome stability. The earliest Neolithic context genome shows a European hunter-gatherer genetic signature and a restricted ancestral population size, suggesting direct contact between cultures after the arrival of the first farmers into Europe. The latest, Iron Age, sample reveals an eastern genomic influence concordant with introduced Steppe burial rites. We observe transition towards lighter pigmentation and surprisingly, no Neolithic presence of lactase persistence.

Stuttgart EN:

To investigate European population history around the time of the agricultural transition, we sequenced complete genomes from a ~7,500 year old early farmer from the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture from Stuttgart in Germany and an ~8,000 year old hunter-gatherer from the Loschbour rock shelter in Luxembourg. We also generated data from seven ~8,000 year old hunter-gatherers from Motala in Sweden. We compared these genomes and published ancient DNA to new data from 2,196 samples from 185 diverse populations to show that at least three ancestral groups contributed to present-day Europeans. The first are Ancient North Eurasians (ANE), who are more closely related to Upper Paleolithic Siberians than to any present-day population. The second are West European Hunter-Gatherers (WHG), related to the Loschbour individual, who contributed to all Europeans but not to Near Easterners. The third are Early European Farmers (EEF), related to the Stuttgart individual, who were mainly of Near Eastern origin but also harbored WHG-related ancestry. We model the deep relationships of these populations and show that about ~44% of the ancestry of EEF derived from a basal Eurasian lineage that split prior to the separation of other non-Africans.(bold mine.)

Ancient_North_Eurasian_admixture European_hunter-gatherer_admixture Neolithic_farmer_admixture

Source for the maps.

Iosif Lazaridis et al's model of modern European genetic origins.
Iosif Lazaridis et al’s model of modern European genetic origins.
Also from Iosif Lazaridis et al.'s paper, " Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans"
Also from Iosif Lazaridis et al.’s paper, “Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans” h/t Dienekes:

 Analysis of ancient DNA can reveal historical events that are difficult to discern through study of present-day individuals. To investigate European population history around the time of the agricultural transition, we sequenced complete genomes from a ~7,500 year old early farmer from the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture from Stuttgart in Germany and an ~8,000 year old hunter-gatherer from the Loschbour rock shelter in Luxembourg. We also generated data from seven ~8,000 year old hunter-gatherers from Motala in Sweden. We compared these genomes and published ancient DNA to new data from 2,196 samples from 185 diverse populations to show that at least three ancestral groups contributed to present-day Europeans. The first are Ancient North Eurasians (ANE), who are more closely related to Upper Paleolithic Siberians than to any present-day population. The second are West European Hunter-Gatherers (WHG), related to the Loschbour individual, who contributed to all Europeans but not to Near Easterners. The third are Early European Farmers (EEF), related to the Stuttgart individual, who were mainly of Near Eastern origin but also harbored WHG-related ancestry. We model the deep relationships of these populations and show that about ~44% of the ancestry of EEF derived from a basal Eurasian lineage that split prior to the separation of other non-Africans.

I'm sorry, I forgot where this came from
I’m sorry, I forgot where this came from.

See also:

Significant genetic differentiation between Poland and Germany follows present-day political borders, as revealed by Y-chromosome analysis, by Kayser M. et al:

To test for human population substructure and to investigate human population history we have analysed Y-chromosome diversity using seven microsatellites (Y-STRs) and ten binary markers (Y-SNPs) in samples from eight regionally distributed populations from Poland (n = 913) and 11 from Germany (n = 1,215). Based on data from both Y-chromosome marker systems, which we found to be highly correlated (r = 0.96), and using spatial analysis of the molecular variance (SAMOVA), we revealed statistically significant support for two groups of populations: (1) all Polish populations and (2) all German populations. … The same population differentiation was detected using Monmonier’s algorithm, with a resulting genetic border between Poland and Germany that closely resembles the course of the political border between both countries. The observed genetic differentiation was mainly, but not exclusively, due to the frequency distribution of two Y-SNP haplogroups and their associated Y-STR haplotypes: R1a1*, most frequent in Poland, and R1*(xR1a1), most frequent in Germany. We suggest here that the pronounced population differentiation between the two geographically neighbouring countries, Poland and Germany, is the consequence of very recent events in human population history, namely the forced human resettlement of many millions of Germans and Poles during and, especially, shortly after World War II.

And Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon genomes from East England reveal British migration history by Schiffels et al., h/t Steve Sailer

British population history has been shaped by a series of immigrations, including the early Anglo-Saxon migrations after 400 CE. … Here, we present whole-genome sequences from 10 individuals excavated close to Cambridge in the East of England, ranging from the late Iron Age to the middle Anglo-Saxon period. … we estimate that on average the contemporary East English population derives 38% of its ancestry from Anglo-Saxon migrations. … Using rarecoal we find that the Anglo-Saxon samples are closely related to modern Dutch and Danish populations, while the Iron Age samples share ancestors with multiple Northern European populations including Britain.