Neolithic Immigration: How Middle Eastern Milk Drinkers Conquered Europe

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Part 2: Tension Between Locals and Incomers

An excavation of a Linear Pottery village in Bavaria Zoom
Peter Roggenthin

An excavation of a Linear Pottery village in Bavaria

This isn't exactly surprising. The old hunter-gatherers on the continent had long been accustomed to hunting and fishing. Their ancestors had entered Europe 46,000 years ago -- early enough to have encountered the Neanderthals.

The early farmers moving into Central Europe were sophisticated compared with these children of nature. The farmers wore different clothing, prayed to other idols and spoke a different language.

It was these differences that probably led to tensions. Researchers have discovered that arsonists set the villages of the Linear Pottery culture on fire. Soon the farmers built tall palisades to protect their villages. Their advance was blocked for a long time by the Rhine River, however.

There are signs that bartering and trade existed, but the two groups did not intermingle sexually. Burger suspects that there was probably a "strict ban on intermarriage."

The farmers even protected their livestock from outside influences, determined to prevent the wild oxen known as aurochs from breeding with their Middle Eastern cows. They feared that such hybrids would only introduce a new wild element into the domesticated breeds.

Their breeding precautions were completely understandable. The revolutionary idea that man could subjugate plants and animals went hand in hand with enormous efforts, patience and ingenuity. The process took thousands of years.

Getting Animals Under Control

The beginnings can now be delineated relatively well. About 12,000 years ago, the zone between the Zagros Mountains in present-day Iran, Palestine and Turkey was transformed into a giant field experiment.

The first farmers learned to cultivate wild emmer and einkorn wheat. Then they went on to domesticate animals. Goats had been successfully domesticated in Iran by about 9,000 BC. Sheep and pigs were domesticated in southern Anatolia.

Enormous settlements soon sprang up in the region known as the Fertile Crescent. Çatalhöyük, known as "man's first metropolis," had about 5,000 inhabitants, who lived in mud huts packed tightly together. They worshipped an obese mother goddess, depicted in statues as a figure sitting on a throne decorated with the heads of carnivores.

One of the most difficult challenges was the breeding and domestication of Middle Eastern wild cattle. The male specimens of the species weighed up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) and had curved horns. People eventually drummed up the courage to approach the beasts somewhere in the central Euphrates Valley.

They found different ways of getting the cattle under control. One Neolithic sculpture depicts a steer with a hole punched through its nasal septum. Removing the testicles was also quickly recognized as a way of improving the animals' temperament. Once the wild cattle had been castrated, they could finally be yoked.

The clever farmers realized that if they gave calves from other mothers to the cows, their udders would always be full of milk.

No Taste for Milk

Oddly enough, the Mesopotamian farmers didn't touch fresh milk. A few weeks ago, Joachim Burger returned from Turkey with a sack full of Neolithic bones from newly discovered cemeteries where the ancient farmers were buried.

When the bones were analyzed, there were no signs of lactose tolerance. "If these people had drunk milk, they would have felt sick," says Burger. This means that at first the farmers only consumed fermented milk products like kefir, yogurt and cheese, which contain very little lactose.

Even more astonishing, as recent excavations in Anatolia show, is the fact that the ancient farmers did not leave their core region for almost 2,000 years. They had put together the complete "Neolithic cultural package," from the rubbing stone to seeds, "without advancing into other areas," says archeologist Mehmet Özdogan.

The coastal zones were long avoided. The people who lived there were probably fishermen who defended themselves against the new way of life with harpoons.

Renegade Settlers

The crossing of the Bosporus did not occur until sometime between 7000 and 6500 BC. The farmers met with little resistance from the hunter-gatherer cultures, whose coastal settlements were being inundated by devastating floods at the time. Melting glaciers had triggered a rise in the sea level of over 100 meters (330 feet).

Nevertheless, the advance across the Balkans was not a triumph. The colonists' dwellings there seem small and shabby. At the 47th parallel north, near Lake Balaton in modern-day Hungary, the advance came to a standstill for 500 years.

The Linear Pottery culture, which was the first to shift to the northern shore of Lake Balaton, gave the movement new life. Lüning talks about "renegade" settlers who had created a "new way of life" and a "reform project" on the other side of the lake.

With military determination, the advancing pioneers constantly established new settlements. The villages often consisted of three to six windowless longhouses, strictly aligned to the northwest, next to livestock pens and masterfully constructed wells. Their tools, picks and bowls (which were basically hemispheric vessels) were almost identical throughout Central Europe, from Ukraine to the Rhine.

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Graphic: Expansion of crop cultivation and dairy farming during the Neolithic period Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Expansion of crop cultivation and dairy farming during the Neolithic period



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