Neolithic Northwestern Europe 6,000 – 2,500 BCE

Agriculture Revolution moving west

Perhaps even already before in northwestern European the Mesolithic period started, some pro-agriculture activities started to occur in Anatolia. It is only during the northwestern Europeen Neolithic period  from 5,000 BCE that we slowly start seeing more people and ideas entering northwestern Europe.

Where ever the population increased and more people started to live together in close proximity of each other new innovations occur. During this interesting time of change – known as the Neotithic or  New Stone Age – these key developments include:

  • Agriculture started to migrate westwards in waves from Mesopotamia
  • Pastoralist developed in parallel
  • Pottery arrived via Japan and Siberia
  • Indo-European language was spread by warrior-pastoralist from the Pontic-Caspian region.
  • Improved tool techniques from flint flakes to polished stone (far more efficient axes).
  • Invention of wheel, sailing ships, bricks, writing.

At the start of the agriculture revolution, the world population was estimated to be somewhere between 5 and 10 million people. Within 8000 years this had increased to 300 million. Before the Industrial Revolution started the population had grown to 500 million.

Some of these innovations developed in parallel but  independently from each other  in different places on earth.

From agriculture to pastoral communities

At the start of the Neolithic there were distinct agriculture communities in the Middle East which moved north to Anatolia and  southeast Europe and the Balkans. These communities had profited from the early agriculture knowledge that had spread from Mesopotamia (where the weather was more favourable).  It looks like it were the Neftians moved to Mesopotamia when the Young Dryas cooled the climate by 15C within ten to 15 years. The Neftians were still hunter gathers however, they also gathered grasses and grained this, so a very first indication of agriculture activity. They were forced to use the available resources more efficient and we here see that agriculture becomes the way of life with little or no hunting continuing.  This new life style required irrigation and the complexity of the organisation of this forced the people here to establish complex structures and as such this ‘Fertile Crescent’ became as a “Garden of Eden’, the was the start of the urban revolution (see below) which is still continuing today.

This urban culture that started later is known as Sumerian and evolved around a dozen or so city states within the Fertile Crescent. Each city was centred around a temple and had their own city god. The Bible mentions that Abraham came from Ur and that he brought his city god with him while travelling towards the ‘Promised Land’. The city organisation in Sumer was most likely theocratic.

Old Testament an account of transition

The most interesting account – and perhaps the only account we have – of the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a pastoral lifestyle is provided in the Old Testament. This book based on oral traditions describes the struggles of a rather small tribe in an environment of very powerful empires trying to find a land where they can settle and become farmers. In an area wedged between the sea and the dessert, arable land comes at a premium and many others were interested in that same piece of land. Despite persecution, massacres and exiles this small tribe survived against all odds most likely because of their strong cohesion, sense of community, tradition and devotion to one God, very importantly this was their God. They outmanoeuvred many far more wealthy and powerful tribes and were able to  occupy the land of Canaanites – around 1500BCE – as was promised by their God to Abraham, who is seen as the founding father of the Hebrews (and the Muslims and the Christians). This promise was an endorsement to aggressively fight with other tribes in the area in order to claim this land theirs.

As already mentioned above, ever expanding agriculture lands and an increasing number of animals started the beginning of wealth creation, which in turn needed to be defended. Society therefore became more possessive and in protecting these new assets society became more aggressive. Famine, floods, draughts and other natural disasters became a fact of life in these more and more crowded settlements and cities and people effected by this started to put pressure on neighbouring communities.

As pastoral communities became wealthier and more powerful they started to dominate some of the agriculture communities around them and it could well be that they created a tributary system or even some sort of a serf system, forcing these agriculturists into subsistence. In such situations – which would spread in the Middle Ages through large parts of the world, the serf/peasant dilemma  became how to maintain the required caloric minimum needed to live and the requirements (rent) imposed by the lords. In general this lead to below subsistence living and widespread poverty. This in stark contrast to the hunter-gatherer societies which had a much healthier lifestyle both in relation to food and free time.

Also conflicts between Asia and Europe need to be viewed within the dynamics of these east-west contacts and conflicts;  the Greco Persian wars in the 5th century BCE, the conquest of Alexander the Great two centuries later, the invasions of the Huns and other Asian Steppe hordes heralding the end of the Roman Empire, the Muslim Conquest, the Crusades, the conflicts with the Mongolian and Ottoman Empires and even the current Middle East conflicts often have a strong ‘east vs. west’ element in it.

No revolution in rural areas

Even more significant than the agriculture revolution however, is the secondary revolution that followed it, urbanisation. However, only a relative small part of the population participated in the urban revolution. The majority of farmers stayed on their farms in the rural areas, and the seize of these self-contained and self-supporting  farming communities also didn’t change all that much (similar to the hunter gathers group between 20 and 40 people); this situation basically remained unchanged until the 20th century. Agriculture as such was for most of these people not such a ‘revolution’.

These communities stayed isolated and most people married within these communities and people lived with people who were more or less the same, the lived the same lives, had the same beliefs and largely continued to do the same things as the generations before them had done. There were no ‘specialist’,’ all farmers were generalists in the work that they did. People within these communities were known by name and recognised for their personal qualities and character, there were hardly ever any ‘strangers’ in these communities.  Technology, innovations and as such economic progress was at all times subordinate to this moral code.

Their drive to work was not based on economics – in the modern sense of the word -but more on duty, tradition, obligation, kinship, religious considerations,  in other words the drive was more moral based.

Critical to the survival of these small and vulnerable communities was the need for strong reinforcement to keep the unity together, this all within the context of human squabbles and tension. Notorious difficulties between father and sons, daughters and mothers-in-law, unmarried members of the unit and so on. It was important that appropriate behaviour patterns were taught to the young.  A range of social techniques led to the members being made dependent on the group. This was rather different from the hunter gathers were individual pursuit in the hunt was stimulated, self sufficiency was a critical element here. In those groups there was more room for individual freedom in their relationships with others.

Among the peasant communities aggression and sexuality was suppressed, the impulse was controlled for a better coordination of the group.

For the most part of 40,000 years, in both the hunter-gathers and the agriculture communities these ethical conceptions  linked to social control was largely what held these communities together, communities around the world be it hunter-gatherers, fishermen, cattle herders and early agriculturist  all depended  on the same principles of survival.

Another vulnerable element of the agriculture communities and a potential area of conflict was inheritance issues. In north western Europe  single-heir inheritance was the favored system. Perhaps as a result of hierarchical pressures upon the peasantry. We see some of these pressures under the serf system as described for Wietmarschen. This had far reaching social consequences, those who don’t inherit had a distinct economy disadvantage. This often led to unmarried brothers who stayed on the farm as farmhands and joined the daughters who could not find a landowning  partner.

It were often landless people that started to populate the emerging cities and later started to participate in the merging industries.

In order to keep these vulnerable communities together rites, ceremonies and traditions  played a key role.  In its origins they are action based and provide a moral code about the do’s and don’t’s, it celebrates the interdependence between its members and between its members and the natural environment surounding them and the rules that governce all of this, along predictable events and a common framework. Death and funeral played a key role in these ceremonies as we will see below. The pagan rites and ceremonies were both ulitarian and moralistic but not ethical or questioning. Only  later, in the more urbanised agriculture communities this became institutionalised in formal religions.

The lagacy of these traditional  societies is that they have provided civilisations with a moral basis. While in these traditional societies the moral code was rather unbendable, within civilisations we see a break down of old morals but most of the time new morals do form the basis to further advance these civilisations. Once the moral code totally collapses also the civilisation collapses.  [10. Man before history, Creighton Gabel, 1964, p166-179] and [11. Peasants, Eric Wolf, 1966]

Urban revolution in the east

The agriculture revolution also facilitated the growth of permanent settlements. This meant the start of the end of an era of homo sapiens living in clan-based societies. Agriculture allowed for surplus wealth and those who controlled this became the early elite.

Permanent settlements were initially started by a particular tribe – some cities perhaps even derive their names from these original tribes. However, fixed settlements required a fundamental change from  the age old communal tribal leadership structure. Kings, perhaps evolving from the function of temple priests, became the new ruling elite. Institutionalised religion now started to play a key role, those at the heart of religion, shamans, seers and priest were both part of and the driving force behind the early city elite, religion also kept the ruling elite in power. It is most likely that because of such a ruling elite that cities came into existence.

Initially these early rulers and priests appear to have been supported by the early farmers on a voluntary basis. However, when these settlements started to grow control shifted from the farmers to those who were holding political power. Soon the farmers also  grew more dependent on the town specialist for tools and luxury articles and increasingly their independence and importance – in a political sense – started to diminish.

The first city states started to appear in fertile areas such as Mesopotamia and Anatolia; these included Babylon, Ur, Uruk, Kish and Sippar. The first city in Egypt – and indeed north Africa – Fayum followed in 4,000BCE. Another millennium later and agriculture had also reached Baluchistan between the Indus River and Afghanistan, here some spectacular cities developed such as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. The area under agriculture here was twice the size of that in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Culturally there are many indications that there was communication between these regions, there are shared stories, myths and images.

It is also highly likely that the rulers used its subjects to build the palaces and public buildings (storage facilities, etc). This was for the first time that people became dependent, until that time they had always looked after themselves. This was the beginning of the ‘tax’ system; apart from labour the rulers would of course also require surplus food and other goods. The gathering of wealth and the protection of it also meant the beginning of humans and warfare. There is no evidence of any large scale inflicted death and warfare from before that time.

The impact of urbanisation becomes clear when compared with the effect that the agricultural revolution had on the farmers living in the rural area. They accounted for 95%+ of the population, most in communities and villages that would not house many more people that the early groups of hunter gathers. While they might have changed their bow and arrow for a plough and grinding stones their lifestyle didn’t change all that dramatic.  They still led a subsistence lifestyle, there was little specialisation and no hierarchies, they were highly led by social morals rather than commercial ambition. Pagan rites and traditions ruled their year.

As mentioned, it can even been argued that they were worse of than their hunter gatherer forebears. They lacked their mobility and flexibility and were far more susceptible to disease and famine. Their average age was often lower as was their height.

This ‘neolithic’ aspect of life was still very visible in many parts of Europe during the first half of the 20th century.

Cultural progress took place in the highly urbanised cities and the enormous global migration from rural areas to the cities that started after WWII has further accelerated technical and cultural advances of the urbanisation revolution. Which as in neolithic Mesopotamia and Egypt led to similar problems as the world is facing in the 21st century. At regular intervals over the last 10,000 years cultures have come and gone, some wiped out by natural disasters, others by war or invasion/suppression.

Video clip Pre-history Israel

 The Writing Revolution

As discussed seperately, it has been argued that truly conscious humans only emerged after writing was invented.

The very early origins of writing lay in the symbols that started to occur some 60,000 years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of counting dates back to 25,000-30,000 years ago when bones with marks on it were used as some sort of tabulating device. Accounting is also the direct ancestor of writing; triggered by the rapid increase of agriculture. This brought with it the storage of products. Storage required administration and it was most probably this ‘accounting’ that became the reason for the next development of writing (after cave art). Maths was there before writing. From here also the first ‘currency’ emerged in the 9th century BCE.

The first Sumerian texts on clay tablets are all in relation to such storage records. The specific cuneiform format evolved because it was ideal for clay tablets that favoured straight lines and wedges rather than rounded corners. At this stage writing was a craft and practised by craftsmen only. These people were employed by trades people or were hired in by them. This form of writing in the formatted dominated the world for 2,500  years or even more.

From oral to written history

Among the earliest surviving works of literature is the Mesopotamian  Epic of Gilgamesh. The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five independent Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Four of these were used as source material for a combined epic in Akkadian. This first, “Old Babylonian” version of the epic dates to the 18th century BC. Most likely the story goes back a long time before it was actually written down and evolved from story telling that had been passed on by poets  from generation to generation.  These hero stories were most probably memorised and performed singing at the courts of the rulers of those times. Also interesting is that there are lots of commonalities with other ancient epics such as for example the Ilias and the Odyssee, like the Gilgamesh Epic they are the end product of a long oral history, Homerus was one of those poets.  There are also indications that the Mesopotamian story forms the basis for other hero stories, or at least influenced those Greek as well as other stories, that ended up in the regions that followed the agriculture revolution into Europe and north Africa.

The poets in Iceland still held a key role in  maintaining the knowledge of the Viking population here in the 14th century, they could also recite the laws and played a key role in the justice and overal governance systems of the people and were  key advisers to the rulers; there is no reason to doubt that also the ancient poets held similar (prestigious) positions.

Literacy  evolved initially in a phonetic way rather than in a pictorial format. It than rapidly spread throughout an ever increasing more complex society. In the cities – by around 2000BCE – within a thousand years after its invention, many people could write – at least in a rudimentary way.

The above mentioned ‘accounting’ system was of course also greatly enhanced with the ability of written records…and the writing meant the start of the bureaucracy. Through writing the rulers could extend their power into larger areas by sending out their dispatches and this of course required officials throughout their territory.

The first recorded mathematics comes from Egypt and dates back to the 16th century BCE, however that text is said to be based on older knowledge it describes 87 formulas and their solutions and also puts a value on pi; 3.16049 which is very close that what we use now 3.14159

Institutionalised religion was also important in this development as temples became the first ‘public’ buildings. They were also used for a range of other activities such as banking, storage of information, courts, etc. The new type of (literacy) writer – the scribe – often resided in the temple and from here new students were educated. Some started to specialise in certain areas such as astronomy, religion, medicine – often simply writing down the local (tribal) knowledge as mentioned above –  and from here, in the temples, also  schools started to emerge.

The first European written records date back to the 15 century BCE. Here the Minoans used a script known as Linear A (not yet translated) and reflect similar storage records. This was followed by Linear B and also spread to Mycenae, a script based on ideas and concepts.

Miners in the Sanai simplified the Egyptian hieroglyphs into a proto alphabet, this was further developed by the Phoenicians. After the Greek Dark Ages (1200-800BCE) the Greek adopted this new script, this became the basis of the 24-symbol aplhabet that from here it spread to the Etruscans, Romans, Celts and finally the Germanic people in Scandinavia.

Socrates on writing

Socrates – in the name of Plato – predicted that writing would only play a tiny role in society. In comparison with speech, writing had a lot of negatives he thought. It forces the reader in a passive role, because you don’t need to train your memory. You can, what you have written, read again. Writing will therefore lead to forgetfulness.

He also objected to the lack of interaction. The written word could be spread uncontrolled to people for whom the message was not meant. The written word can’t protect itself. Whenever it gets taunted or unwarranted denigrated it will need the assistance of its father (speech).

The first farmers in the west

Further west agriculture had not spread yet and when the Indo Europeans moved into these regions there was not much to disrupt; from here it became more a mixing in with the native hunter-gatherers. Rather than this is seen as invasions it is more likely that waves of people and/or innovations swept through Europe – passing the messages on  –  slowly replacing and adding to the previous hunter gathering culture. This was the beginning of a process of hybridasation, which started between 4,500 and 4,000 BCE. Influenced by the Indo Europeans, these hybrid societies depended more on stockbreeding than on agriculture.

During their push west, the Indo-Europeans brought with them the so-called Linear Pottery Culture, which rather quickly spread throughout the hunter gathering communities in northwest Europe.

Following the Indo-European migration/invasion, significant changes started to take place throughout Europe. It is estimated that between 20 and 25% of the Europeans are descendent from migrating new settlers. While the majority of the population remained of the native stock, they overtime adopted the language, religion and culture of the Indo Europeans. It has also been argued that the mixing of these peoples have been very beneficiary for the health of the European population.

Initially there was very little difference between the farming communities which were spread all over Europe. However, slowly but steadily, the success of these pastoral communities led to a significant increase of settled land with an increasingly more sophisticated farming communities. This also led to an opportunity for more differentiation, a slow trend that eventually would lead to the different European cultures. We can see the start of this in the various beaker culture variants that started to emerge.

The evolution of the farming cultures

The spread of agriculture practices is closely linked to the spread of pottery. It arrived in our region most probably from Japan (10,000 BCE) via Siberia to arrive in what is now the Ukraine around 7,000BCE. However, pottery seems to have been developed independent from each other around the same time in different areas. Similar, according to historians,  to how writing developed a few thousand years later. There is also a theory that the ritual use of skulls could have provided the idea for pottery. [12. Inside The Neolithic Mind, Thames & Hudson, p77]

Another theory is that pottery in the beginning was made by and for women. As these were made for practical use there was a rather conservative approach to innovations. [13. Man before history, Creighton Gabel, 1964, p54]

The development of pottery has been a great indicator of cultural developments. It also allows us to start to see regional variation in a hunter gatherers society that, as we saw above, for millennia was rather homogeneous in its art, tools and lifestyle.

These developments were greatly facilitated by the natural feature of this Eurasian region, a vast expanse of steppe; extending from China into Europe. This provided an excellent corridor facilitating a rather easy movement of people, goods and ideas. This started to change at the end of the Neolithic.

Linear Bandkeramiek (LBK) 5,200 – 4,700BCE

The herding and farming practices started to spread throughout the Indo, Iranian and European regions, initially mainly along the Danube (Cucuteni culture). It has been estimated that agriculture spread at the rate of around a kilometre a year (or less). It took more than 3,000 years (100 generations) to spread via South East Europe to North West Europe. Innovations must have been hardly noticeable to the people living here at the time.

Cucuteni culture

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture flourished between ca. 5500 BC and 2750 BC, from the Carpathian Mountains to the Dniester and Dnieper regions in modern-day Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, encompassing an area of more than 35,000 km2. At its peak the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture built the largest settlements in Neolithic Europe, some of which had populations of up to 15,000 inhabitants. Likewise, their density was very high, with their farming settlements averagely spaced 3 to 4 kilometres apart.

At its height it would have been one of the most technologically advanced societies on earth, producing woven textiles, exquisitely fine and beautifully decorated ceramics, and a wide variety of tools and weapons, as well as developing large-scale salt production (perhaps the world oldest), new house construction methods, and agricultural and animal husbandry techniques.

They also used a proto-writing system, the Vinča script, which is a set of symbols depicted on clay artefacts. This includes of what appear to be barter tokens, which were used as an early form of currency. It was is not restricted to the Cucuteni but spread across most of south-eastern Europe. (Source Wikepedia)

Spread of the LBK with dates
Original LBK area and extended areas as in ca 5250 BC

Possibly following the river systems the first farmers in the Low Countries arrived perhaps from the Danube region. It might not have been more than a few hundred Indo Europeans who settled on the fertile löss grounds in what is now Limburg.

Löss is the fertile top soil that at the end of the Ice Age was scraped away by the arctic winds from the tundras and deposited here and elsewhere in the region.

These new settlers are closely linked to the Linear Pottery culture, their culture is known as “Linear Bandkeramiek” (LBK). Their settlement in modern day Elsoo is the first known agriculture village in the Netherlands. During the 400 to 500 years that these people lived here, they might have built some 250 large farms; each of these farms would have lasted for around 25 years. They ranged in size from about 6 to 45 meters in length, usually 6 to 7 meters wide, both people and stock lived in these farmhouses. It has been estimated that they took 1420 man hours to built (14 weeks of 25 hours for 4 men).

Other early settlements include: Sittard, Stein and Geleen all on the löss grounds in the valley of the Maas river, there are even suggestions of a central community house and perhaps even some shrines. An extensive burial ground with 125 separate burials has also been excavated. At the height of their economy there might have lived around 1000 people in these settlements.

Early crops that these people grew included: emmer and einkornwheat, peas and lentils, hemp, flax, poppies were also grown. However, their diet was also complemented with game such deer, elk and boar.

These early settlers occupied this area for close to half a millennium, but than they disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

This culture didn’t spread further north. Most likely did the original hunter gathers population make contact with these early  farmers and a few pottery shards and other artifacts that can be classified as coming from these farmers did end up north, however they are more likely the result of trading and exchange.

Rössen culture 4,600 – 4,300 BCE

This culture is seen as the transition between the wide spread LBK culture and the more complex cultures of the Michelsberg and Funnel Beaker Cultures. It covers a large area of modern Germany (except the north), France and southern Low Countries.

An ax from this farmers culture was found in Megen, near Oss. However, at that time agriculture had hardly reached this area and most likely this object was similar to ones mentioned above in the exchange with the LBK people.

Michelsberg culture 4,400- 3,500 BCE

A new group arrived in this region, known as the Rhine-Seine Farming Groups (Michelsberg), also these people practised agriculture and husbandry. Their tulip shaped beakers are of an exceptional Neolithic quality.

Old forms of small horticultural farming started to give way to earlier slash and burn techniques. Larger social and cultural units started to appear and settlements started to move out of the valleys to higher grounds. In general fertile grounds on higher sandy grounds are much easier to till than the clay rich grounds in the valleys.

In Limburg (near Heerlen) several hilltop sites with earthworks dating back from this period have been excavated.

With society changing from hunter gathering to farming, there was a need for better technologies to clear the forest for farmland. A major breakthrough occurred around 4000BCE, and spread throughout Europe, the polishing of flint stone. New, very labour intensive polished axes were many times more efficient than the old rough flint stone axes.

The increased demand for flint axes for forest clearing led to the opening up mines in areas of suitable Cretaceous or Jurassic deposits. One of Europe’s oldest mines are also dating back to this period, the flint stone mine of Rijckholt (near Eijsden in Limburg). The area was mined for four to five centuries and over that period around a thousand mine shafts were built; each mine was worked for two or three years. At any time between 5 to 10 mineworkers, belonging to the Michelsberg Group, would be active at the site. Flint stone from this mine was exported to settlements up to two hundred kilometres or more from the mine site; Rijckholt flint has been found in Groot Linden near Grave (Brabant), and Münster, Frankfurt and Mainz in Germany. The mine can still be visited.

While artifacts from the Michelsberg culture are recovered in Brabant, there is little indication that farming had become widespread in this area. It looks like that after the hunter gathers had left the area not much was happening here. At the same time north of the rivers the Swifterband culture had started to flourish. Brabant was some sort of a no-mans land in between.

River divide

From now on we enter a period where distinct cultures were divided by the river system that divides the Low Countries in north and south. The north was closer linked to the developments in what is now Germany, while the south had stronger links with cultures in France . This is evident in the many artifacts that are found; as there are not that many raw materials available these had to come from other places and this allows archeologists to trace those trading links.

In the north we see a higher prominance of the following cultures:

  • Swifterband
  • Funnelbeakers
  • Vlaardingen

In the south:

  • Steiner Group
  • Corded ware
  • Hilversum culture

Swifterbant Culture 5400 – 4300BCE

Further to the north, there is some evidence that the earlier hunter gathers from the Hanover and Ahrensburg groups (10000-9000BCE), via other Mesolithic hunter gathers are providing a continuing pattern of habitation in the habitable parts of the Low Countries.

After the massive changes that occurred after the last Ice Age the north-western part of what is now the Netherlands slowly started to become more hospitable. However, it is not until 4000BCE before the coast line is stable enough to see the developments of permanent settlements – in the relative few drier areas – in the north of the Netherlands.  By 5000 it were still hunter gathers (fishing) communities who were dominated most of the Low Countries.

Favorite areas for the early farming settlements were the above mentioned sand dunes which were formed during the end of the last ice age and the push moraine hills that were formed in previous ice age period.e. These include the hill crests in Drenthe, Twente, Veluwe, Nijmegen, Brabant and Utrecht. It is here that we will find early evidence of camps of hunter gathers and from a later period   of farming and burial grounds of the early farmers. There are many cultural similarities between these people in relation to their way of living, burial traditions and most likely also farming (Celtic fields).

Indications of the existence of pottery are present from before the arrival of the Linear Pottery culture. Artifacts of a  personal material culture reflects a local social that was undergoing a cultural evolution from the community based Mesolithic culture.

These people have become known as Swifterbant, named after the place in the Noordoostpolder, where significants finds were made. It is possibly a Celtic word meaning to the left. Later on in the Middle Ages we will come across the name Teisterbant, meaning to the right, applying to a region around the Betuwe.

During the Swifterbant period, the Netherlands had significantly more land than it currently has. During the environmental disasters in the Middle Ages large parts of the land in the north and the middle of the Netherlands was taken back by the sea and many of the Swifterbant sites ended up under water, after land reclamation in the 20thcentury several of these sites were recovered in a good state as the water had preserved many of the artefacts rather well.

The material culture of the Swifterbant is very similar to the Ertebølle culture that developed around the same time further to the north, mainly in what is now Denmark.

Between 4800 and 4300BCE we start to see the first pastoral activities in the northern parts of the Low Countries (Drenthe, South Holland). There are indications that agriculture and husbandry started here more or less independently from similar developments elsewhere. This could be an indication that the wave of Neolithic innovations here was caused by word of mouth which did spread faster than the spread of the people themselves who were the driving force behind the pastoral and agriculture revolution. The early Swifterbant developments remain a combination of farming settlements and fishing camps, utilised by semi nomadic communities.

This is where the Swifterbant started to differ from Ertebølle; pastoral activities didn’t start in Denmark until a thousand years later.

From 4300 onwards agriculture activity are taking place in our region. Settlements were concentrated near creeks, river dunes and bogs along post-glacial banks of rivers like the Overijsselse Vecht.

Bandkeramiek Pottery becomes more widespread in the Swifterbant area from 4,500 onwards.

Others settlements have been found on the former island of Urk, at Bergschenhoek (not far from Rotterdam), Betuwe and in Hardinxveld- Giessendam.

Funnelbeaker culture 4,000-2,700BCE

One of the largest of the regional beaker cultures in the Scandinavian – Northern Germanic region was the Funnelbeaker (Trechterbeker) culture. Another early agriculture based culture. Experts are still debating how much of this culture was native and how much was due to migration of the Indo Europeans. There are indications that at least part of the Swifterbant became influenced by the new trend.

The Funnelbeaker culture is also believed to be the origin of the gene allowing adults of Northern European descent to digest lactose (cow milk), which caused a revolution in survival and population growth.

The Funnelbeaker people were part of the new megalithic culture that swept over large parts of Europe at that time. The Funnelbeaker people  were also among the first known people in this part of the world that were using the wheel.

Stonehenge 1973
Megalithic culture

The building of these large stone monuments all over Europe  has been interpreted as significant changes in the believes and spiritual values of the population involving ancestor worship and astrology. It is estimated that these people erected over 20,000 monuments, such as Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (9th millennium BCE), the fertility temples on Malta – with the worship of the ‘mother godesses’ (3,500BCE), the stone circle at Carnac in Brittany also from the 4th millennium BCE (3,000 standing stones), the famous 3th millennium BCE Stonehenge in England and the earliest known sun observatory that of Goseck, Germany dating back the 5th millennium BCE. Carnac also has one of the largest burial mounds (125x60x10 meters). While these people share their megalithic culture, there are distinct differences between them. It has been suggested that these significant differences were the result of the mixing of the new people and in particular their new believes with the native population.

Archaeological evidence at Stonehenge as well as most other megalithic sites indicates that the underlying cult stretched over both the Mesolithic as well as the Neolithic periods.  The large stone monuments were often built at spots were there is also evidence of the use of these places in Mesolithic times. Stonehenge could be built on a natural formation linked to solstices and could there for  be an Axis-Mundi site – connecting heaven and earth. Professor Mike Parker-Pearson suggests that the buildings in stone (such as Stonehenge)  represented the ancestors (permanent), while buildings for the living (eg neighbouring Woodhenge) were in timber (temporary).

A ‘henge’ refers to a large enclosure with a ditch inside the wall, Stonehenge there for is not a ‘henge’.

Looking at the differences between megalithic people; interestingly those who settled in Wales around 4300BC and on the west coast of England a few hundreds year later became part of a unique neolithic development.  While on the continent the megalith monuments were mainly built by clans and tribes, in Britain significant larger groups became involved, perhaps as large as 1,000 people. This would indicate an early form of large scale political groups. Stones for Stonehenge came from Wales and indications are that food – in the form of cattle – for the large groups of builders and those attending the religious (?) events around the mid summer and mid winter solstices  came as far  from Scotland. Archaeological evidence indicates that large scale occupation of Stonehenge only occurred around the solstices. There was also significant similarities between the houses built during this period throughout Britain. The floor plans from the stone houses in Skara Brae, Orkney Islands, are exactly the same as those of the timber dwelling built in Wales and England.

The megalith culture ended rather abrupt soon after the famous inner circle of Stonehenge was built around 2500BCE. A new culture had arrived from the continent that of the corded ware beakers. The temples in Malta also were abandoned around 2500BCE. Suddenly the culture changed from large scale cooperative activities to individualistic culture around the clan or the tribe.

Hunebed Drenthe 1972

In continental north western Europe region the megalith people started to built their famous dolmen (hunebedden – the word “huyne” means giant in old German  see also video clip). These large and small stones were deposited here by the ice. They were used to build the massive burial chambers of which over 50 of them can still be found in the Dutch province of Drenthe. They were erected between 3500 and 2700BCE. The remnants of the most southerly hunebed were found near Ootmarsum. In the same area and dating from the same period a large number of tumuli have been found, an indication that people from different cultures – or at least with different burial cultures –  did live together peacefully here. One of the tumuli had a stone circle as its foundation.

However, these people also used battleaxes what could indicate a more violent element as well. In Denmark bodies of murdered people are found, however these also could be part of  offerings.

Skara Brae Orkney Islands 1972

Vlaardingen Culture  3,500 – 2,500BCE

A related but separate culture known as the Vlaardingen Culture (3,500 – 2,500BCE) evolved in the coastal area. It is believed that this culture displayed both aspects of the new agriculture developments as well as of the previous hunter gathering Swifterbant culture. However, by now these people were well and truly settled farmers. A stone ax of these people was also discovered near Tilburg in Brabant. A pot typical of their culture, with little holes around the top (to put rope though?) was also found in Herpen, near Oss.

The Vlaardingen people had by now reached a similar lifestyle as the early Beaker people on the löss grounds, some 2,000 year earlier.

The Vlaardingen people also lived along the rivers where their Swifterbant ancestors lived, but also spread more throughout the dunes along the North Sea.

Stein Group 3450-2500BCE

There is strong evidence that this culture group either originated in central Europe (Poland) or was heavily influenced by the people here. The latest theory is that for yet unknown reasons the local people who lived in the Low Countries and neighbouring areas to the east and the south, here suddenly and in large numbers adopted this new culture, starting to use stone axes and pottery and changed their burial traditions (single graves). [14. Onder heide en akkers, Evert van Ginkel and Liesbeth Theunissen, 2009, p79]

This is a localised sub culture group based an a tomb found near the Limburg town of Stein. However, they appeared first further north, with several finds in Drenthe and Overijssel. Towards the end of their period they start to appear  in Brabant along the river Maas. These farmers burried complete pots or just shards in isolation. One such grave was unearthed in Berghem, near Oss.   In Linden a bit further along the river Maas a large pit with several complete pots has been unearthed.

From here this culture mover further south. Other evidence of this group of people has been found in Moergestel and Eindhoven. It is only during this period that agriculture had started to become more common in Brabant. A single grave burial from these people was unearthed in Bergeijk. The settlements still look more like a hunters camp rather than farms. It is perhaps not strange that the earliest farming evidence is along the river Maas where obviously communication and trading between the various people took place.

Other sub-cultures include the Rope Beaker or Swedish-Norwegian Battle Axe (3,100 – 2,500 BCE). The Dutch variant is also known as the Standvoetbeker also known as enkelgraf culture (single grave). However, it has also been argued that they all belong to one and the same culture group.

Corded Ware Pottery 3,200-2,300BCE

The Indo-European culture, as well as its language, started in all earnest to spread through northwestern Europe during the Corded Ware period, especially with the Bell Beaker variant in our region. This most probably was further stimulated as Eurasian plough farming became more widespread and agriculture finally became more fully implemented. The technique used was short-term fallowing, a form of (grain) crop rotation where part of the land  is left uncultivated for a short  period of time. This was linked with livestock raising, oxes and later horses were used as draught animals and other livestock provided meat, milk, wool and manure.

Its pottery is the most obvious common evidence of these mobile pastoral people.  This common culture predates – but is also the starting point – for the various IndoEuropean cultures/language groups which started to evolve in more independent groups/cultures. This culture had over 20 regional variants, also reflecting the independent developments that started to emerge. These drinking beakers, mostly around one litre in size, started to accompany the axe as male burial gifts; both the number of axes and beakers started to increase. The previous polished stone axes, associated with forest clearing, started to be replace by more prestigious battleaxes.

The emphasis on drinking had reached these regions from Anatolia and southeast Europe. Most probably they were filled with a weak alcohol brew made from honey and wild fruits (mead), all scarce resources and thus further emphasising prestige and importance.

Sexual dimorphism that starts to occur during this period and which is for example visible in the different ways men and women are buried, most probably also reflects the ideology and beliefs of these people. More is discussed separately  in relation to the religious expression of these people.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)