Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The Missing Neolithic Farmers of Old Europe

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 In last month’s blog we discussed the dawn of the Neolithic Age. It is believed that the transition to  
Urfa Man Turkey 9,000 B.C.
Neolithic farming occurred in the Levant, most likely when a 1200 year drought brought a catastrophic end to the local Mesolithic Age. A few permanent settlements survived this catastrophe (like Tell Qaramel near modern day Aleppo) but the shortage of forage likely forced greater reliance on cultivation of 'wild' strains of plants and grains (and presumably primitive irrigation).
 At first ‘pre pottery Neolithic’ settlements (PPNA, 10,000–8,800 BC) were similar to the Natufian Mesolithic villages except for being larger and (much) more sophisticated (e.g. Jericho).
There were variations over time and distance but in the later ‘a-ceramic’ period (PPNB, 8,800–6,500 BC) Anatolia (Turkey) emerged as a Neolithic powerhouse, incorporating animal husbandry, 'domesticated' strains of grain and other crops and farming techniques some of which were discovered elsewhere (such as Mesopotamia and the Zagros region of western Iran).
It was Anatolian farmers that island hopped to reach Greece (around 7000 BC, before the official start of the pottery Neolithic Age in the Middle East, 6,400 BC). They established a large number of thriving maritime settlements  over the northern Mediterranean and eventually the Atlantic coast. They followed two land routes into Europe, eventually reaching Scandinavia and crossing the English Channel around 4,000 BC ( the map to the right and below is only to roughly show some of these routes).
This was not the spread of ideas, this was large scale movement of farmers, their crops and animals. They intermarried with the nomadic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of Europe but they dominated them with their superior numbers.They cleared virgin forests, tilled the soil and domesticated local plants and animals. 
It was perhaps in central and south eastern Europe that saw their greatest achievements supported by a vast trade network. There they lived in heavily fortified settlements, like Sesklo in Greece which in 5000 BC may have housed  an incredible 5,000 people, one and half millennia before the invention of the wheel and only a few hundred years after the first (Sumerian) city (Eridu) in Mesopotamia was said to be established.
Archaeologists have found the oldest gold treasure in the world in Bulgaria (4,600 BC to 4,200 BC)  
Varna necropolis, Bulgaria Wiki
the earliest evidence of copper smelting in Serbia (5500-5000 BC, 1.5-2 millennia before the Copper Age) and the world's oldest salt mine in Hallstatt Austria (about 5,000 BC).
The 'Old European culture' varied over time and distance but their numbers and sophistication continued to grow with the arrival of the potter’s wheel and ox-drawn carts. A few archaeologists have even suggested some of their pottery symbols were a form of proto-writing hundreds of years before the Sumerian pictograms.
It was they that built many of the first European megaliths, long barrows and passage tombs. Some of the ‘mega settlements’ in central and South Western Europe around Western Ukraine (4000–3500 BC) may have housed 20,000 to 46,000 people.
Almendres Cromlech from 6,000 BC Portugal, Wiki
The first Neolithic farmers of old Europe reached their peak around 4,000 BC.
Around 3,500 BC their population began to collapse relatively abruptly. In many regions the depopulation was catastrophic. Britain  lost 90 % of its Neolithic population in three hundred years. In a few areas it was almost 100%, in other areas it was less and a few areas were relatively spared.

The Pelasgians, Minoans and Leleges (Greece), the Iberians and Basques, the Nuragic people of Sardinia, the Sicans and the Elymians of Sicily and the Etruscans are all suggested (with different levels of certainty) to be related to these older Europeans. See my earlier discussion of the first people of Greece here.
The artwork of these ‘old Europeans’ lead the celebrated archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to suggest they were ‘matristic’ and peaceful, worshiping the mother goddess and that they were overwhelmed by the war-like ‘paternal’ (fairer) Indo-Europeans pastoralists from the great Steppe, with their horses, weapons and male Gods.
Hamangia culture Bulgaria, wiki
There is no positive evidence for such a whole sale conflict and besides, the Indo-Europeans didn’t begin arriving in any numbers till 500 years after the start of the catastrophe, moving in to fill a relative vacuum.The Indo-Europeans weren't to finish their settlement of Europe till about 1,000 BC (towards the end of the European Bronze Age).
What happened to the missing Neolithic Farmers of old Europe?
History is replete with examples of sudden inexplicable collapse and disappearance of Neolithic cultures and civilisations, leaving only sadness and mystery behind. The usual ‘suspects’ warfare, climate change and soil exhaustion are not satisfactory here.
The old Europeans were sophisticated farmers who knew all about organic fertiliser and pasture rotation. The depopulation seemed to have hit different areas at slightly different times but a population ‘bust’ seemed much more likely after exponential population growth, as if it was punishing success.
Perhaps the population growth made food security more precarious and unable to respond to an external shocks. In some cases there was an increase in population nearby suggesting people were fleeing from something.
It is now suspected that the population density and unhygienic conditions led to an outbreak of disease, which spread from village to village over the trading routes. 
We already know just how devastating an epidemic can be in a population that has no natural immunity and the shift to Neolithic lifestyle made people much more vulnerable to epidemics.
There was already a long tradition 6500 BC -2000 BC in central and south-eastern Europe of villagers burning their whole village and moving every eighty years or so. Sometimes they would return to an old site much later and rebuild on the rubble. Was it denying another tribe use of the village while allowing the land to lay fallow? Was there religious or social reasons? We don’t really know, but it could have been related to vermin or disease.
If it was to cope with disease, burning their homes and fleeing to other areas no longer worked for the Neolithic farmers.
The scale of devastation with some areas massively depopulated (some less affected and a few relatively spared) is reminiscent of a later catastrophe, the Black Death and it seems that they were dealing with something of similar virulence. In a previous article we discussed the evidence emerging that they were indeed dealing with first pandemic of the Plague, with an early primitive strain but at least equally as devastating.here
Where did the plague initially come from?  We know its ancestor Yersinia pseudotuberculosis came from the far east so this early form of Plague likely came via the Great Eurasian Steppe.
It is pure speculation but possibly a more peaceful contact with Indo-European traders still proved fatal to the old people of Europe, long before the Indo-Europeans moved into Europe in any numbers.

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