Neolithic Immigration: How Middle Eastern Milk Drinkers Conquered Europe

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Part 3: Migration and Mass Murder

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

An excavation of a Linear Pottery village in Bavaria

The settlers, wielding their sickles, kept moving farther and farther north, right into the territory of backward peoples. The newcomers were industrious and used to working hard in the fields. Clay statues show that the men were already wearing trousers and shaving. The women dyed their hair red and decorated it with snail shells. Both sexes wore caps, and the men also wore triangular hats.

By comparison, the more primitive existing inhabitants of the continent wore animal hides and lived in spartan huts. They looked on in bewilderment as the newcomers deforested their hunting grounds, tilled the soil and planted seeds. This apparently upset them and motivated them to resist the intruders.

In the Bible, Cain, the crop farmer, slays Abel the shepherd. In the Europe of the Neolithic Age, conditions may have been just as violent. One of the most gruesome discoveries is a mass grave that has been dubbed the "Talheim Death Pit" in the German town of that name. The pit is filled with the remains of 34 bodies. The members of an entire clan were apparently surprised in their sleep and beaten to death with clubs and hatchets. So far, archeologists haven't been able to figure out whether the incomers killed the existing inhabitants, or vice versa.

Drinking Milk by the Bucketful

It is clear, however, that the dairy farmers won out in the end. During their migration, they encountered increasingly lush pastures, a paradise for their cows. An added benefit of migrating farther to the north was that raw milk lasted longer in the cooler climate.

This probably explains why people soon began drinking the abundant new beverage by the bucketful. Some had genetic mutations that enabled them to drink milk without getting sick. They were the true progenitors of the movement.

As a result of "accelerated evolution," says Burger, lactose tolerance was selected for on a large scale within the population in the space of about 100 generations. Europe became the land of the eternal infant as people began drinking milk their whole lives.

The new food was especially beneficial for children. In the Neolithic Age, many small children died after being weaned in their fourth year of life. "As a result of consuming healthy milk, this could be greatly reduced," Hamburg biologist Fritz Höffeler speculates. All of this led to population growth and, as a result, further geographical expansion.

'White Revolution'

Does this explain why the inventors of the sickle and the plow conquered Europe so quickly, leading to the demise of the old hunter-gatherers?

Imagine, if you will, a village of the Linear Pottery culture in the middle of winter. As smoke emerges from the top of a wooden hut, the table inside is surrounded by rosy-cheeked children drinking hot milk with honey, which their mother has just prepared for them. It's an image that could help explain why people adopted a sedentary way of life.

Burger, at any rate, is convinced that milk played a major part in shaping history, just as gunpowder did much later. "There was once a white revolution," he says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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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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