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”

Recent Exciting Developments: 130kya American Hominins?

There has been SO MUCH EXCITING NEWS out of paleoanthropology/genetics lately, it’s been a little tricky keeping up with it all. I’ve been holding off on commenting on some of the recent developments to give myself time to think them over, but here goes:

  1. Ancient hominins in the US?
  2. Homo naledi
  3. Homo flores
  4. Humans evolved in Europe?
  5. In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  6. then to 300,000 years!
  7. Bell beaker paper

1. Back in May (2017,) Holen et al published an article discussing A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA, in Nature:

Here we describe the Cerutti Mastodon (CM) site, an archaeological site from the early late Pleistocene epoch, where in situ hammerstones and stone anvils occur in spatio-temporal association with fragmentary remains of a single mastodon (Mammut americanum). The CM site contains spiral-fractured bone and molar fragments, indicating that breakage occured while fresh. Several of these fragments also preserve evidence of percussion. The occurrence and distribution of bone, molar and stone refits suggest that breakage occurred at the site of burial. Five large cobbles (hammerstones and anvils) in the CM bone bed display use-wear and impact marks, and are hydraulically anomalous relative to the low-energy context of the enclosing sandy silt stratum. 230Th/U radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7 ± 9.4 thousand years ago. These findings confirm the presence of an unidentified species of Homo at the CM site during the last interglacial period (MIS 5e; early late Pleistocene), indicating that humans with manual dexterity and the experiential knowledge to use hammerstones and anvils processed mastodon limb bones for marrow extraction and/or raw material for tool production.

Reconstruction of a Homo erectus woman, Smithsonian

Note that “Homo” here is probably not H. sapiens, but a related or ancestral species, like Denisovans or Homo erectus, because as far as we know, H. sapiens was still living in Africa at the time.

This is obviously a highly controversial claim. Heck, “earliest human presence in the Americas” was already controversial, with some folks firmly camped at 15,000 years ago and others camped around 40,000 yeas ago. 130,000 years ago wasn’t even on the table.

Unfortunately, the article is paywalled, so I can’t read the whole thing and answer simple questions like, “Did they test the thickness of mineral accumulation on the bones to see if the breaks/scratches are the same age as the bones themselves?” That is, minerals build up on the surfaces of old bones over time. If the breaks and scratches were made before the bones were buried, they’ll have the same amount of buildup as the rest of the bone surfaces. If the breaks are more recent–say, the result of a bulldozer accidentally backing over the bones–they won’t.

They did get an actual elephant skeleton and smacked it with rocks to see if it would break in the same ways as the mammoth skeleton. A truck rolling over a rib and a rock striking it at an angle are bound to produce different kinds and patterns of breakage (the truck is likely to do more crushing, the rock to leave percussive impacts.) I’d also like to know if they compared the overall butchering pattern to known stone-tool-butchered elephants or mammoths, although I don’t know how easy it would be to find one.

Oldowan tool, about 2 million years old

They also looked at the pattern of impacts and shapes of the “hammerstones.” A rock which has been modified by humans hitting it with another rock will typically have certain shapes and patterns on its surface that can tell you things like which angle the rock was struck from during crafting. I’ve found a few arrowheads, and they are pretty distinct from other rocks.

Here’s a picture of an Oldowan stone chopper, about 2 million years old, which is therefore far older than these potential 130,000 year old tools. Homo sapiens didn’t exist 2 million years ago; this pointy rock was probably wielded by species such as Australopithecus garhi, H. habilis, or H. ergaster. Note that one side of this chopper is rounded, intended for holding comfortably in your hand, while the other side has had several chunks of rock smacked off, resulting in convex surfaces. Often you can tel exactly where the stone tool was struck to remove a flake, based on the shape and angle of the surface and the pattern of concentric, circular lines radiating out from the impact spot.

Homo erectus, who lived after the Oldowan tool makers and had a fancier, more complicated lithic technology, did make it out of Africa and spread across southeast Asia, up into China. This is, as far as I know, the first case of a hominin species using tools to significantly expand its range, but we have no evidence of erectus ever expanding into places that get significantly cold in the winter, and boat-building is a pretty advanced skill. We don’t even think erectus made it to Madagascar, which makes it sailing to the Americans rather doubtful.

I dislike passing judgment on the paper without reading it, but my basic instinct is skepticism. While I think the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to be a longer, more complex, and interesting process than the 15,000 years camp, 130,000 years is just too interesting a claim to believe without further evidence (like the bones of said hominins.)

Still, I keep an open mind and await new findings.

(We’ll continue with part 2 next week.)

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.