Denmark and NW Germany – Mesolithic Through Neolithic

Author’s Prolog

This is a one of a set of essays tracing peoples with my specific paleo-European kinship from their origins in Africa ~70ka to their destination in England in the current era. This chapter explores the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition and the Neolithic of northern Europe.

For motivation, technical background, and links to all chapters, refer to the Preface.

Introduction

Let’s begin with some background discussion regarding the processes involved in learning what went on in prehistory, illustrating also some ‘big picture’ findings pertinent to our topic here.

Paleoarchaeologists consider prehistory as a succession of stone (lithic) and metal ‘ages’ (Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic/Bronze Age, Iron Age) whose dates are fuzzy and vary widely depending on geographic area. These terms are sufficiently well-defined to serve us in these general introductory notes. But we’ll switch to the names of regional cultural ‘horizons’ that will pertain specifically to the populations and times we will explore in more detail.

Prehistorical data is collected one pot, one tool, one grave, one house, one settlement at a time. Current state-of-art methods reveal such local data with rigor and detail, including artifact dating to within a century, pollen analysis to identify surrounding vegetation, and bone isotope analysis that can identify type of diet. Such local focus provides the raw information necessary to infer the daily life activities and social relations of a group of related families at some point in time.

It is sometimes left to the secondary researchers to synthesize this wealth of locality information across a region, leading us to wider enlightenment. Such synthesis involves artifact comparisons across a region, and in the neighboring regions, intuiting common origins and explaining noted differences. This is the formal definition process: place an object in a class, then explain how the object differs from others in its class. Here objects are the actual artifacts, plus the cultural connotations of those artifacts, their inferred uses, sources, meanings, and importance.

We seek both understandings here, the knowing of a people through detailed study of their life’s artifacts, plus the knowing of a region where similar and different peoples interacted to produce a new, common plane of existence. The synthesis to regional abstraction is a necessary first step to understanding the population dynamics of prehistory. In the future, the basing of such secondary investigations in a DNA context will further reduce ambiguity and enable resolution of sticky issues such as the method of culture advance across a region, whether via colonist or acculturation.

The original post-LGM colonists of our Northern Europe target area almost certainly belonged to Y-DNA haplogroup I, based largely on inference from current population studies, but now supported by a few results from pioneering paleogenomic studies that have found subclades of Y-DNA Haplogroup I and mtDNA Haplogroup U exclusively across the target area in the late Mesolithic.

Ending the Mesolithic period in our area, two primary transformations re-vectored Europe’s cultural evolution and introduced admixtures of other DNA haplogroups. In the next chapter we discuss the second of these, the arrival of the R1 peoples with the chalcolithic technical package and Indo-European horizon.

The earlier of these transformations was triggered by the introduction of the neolithic package that changed diets permanently, prompted humans to take control of the landscape for their own purposes, and eventually enabled them to rise above a subsistence economy and do great things (and not such great things) with their free time. These changes were brought to Europe by Haplogroups F, G, J, K, and E-M78, migrating Mediterranean and West Asian peoples who came to Iberia via the sea route, and to central Europe via the Balkans.

Current European population DNA seems rooted in these three ancient genetic substrates. The principal haplogroups for each substrate are:

  • Mesolithic: NRY I and mtDNA U
  • Neolithic: NRY F/G and mtDNA N1 (indigenous east European?) and T/H/K
  • Chalcolithic/Indo-European: NRY R1 and mtDNA, all of the above plus I/W

A study (draft late 2013) likewise posits three substrates, statistically derived from autosomal DNA comparisons of current populations and ancient DNA samples. This seems a confirmation of the hypothesis here, which was culled from Internet data already published.

The study names its substrates Western Hunter-Gatherers (WHG), Early European Farmers (EEF), and Ancient Northern Eurasians (ANE). These may correlate with the three substrates identified above, but the study’s characterization is too vague to be definitive. Of interest is the study supplement, containing the data and details.

The study does provide strong affirmation that our identified mesolithic substrate is exclusively comprised of NRY I and mtDNA U, based on paleogenomic analysis from 8kyo artifacts in Luxembourg and Sweden. Interestingly, all the Sweden males test either I*, I2*, or I2-M423, and the Luxembourg male tests I2-M423. I-M253 and I-M436 subclades seem likely to have been in the vicinity between these areas, but were not found in either locale.

Looking at phenotypes coded in the DNA, the Sweden and Luxembourg individuals likely had light colored or blue eyes, and the Sweden samples also exhibited alleles associated today with light skin. Thus, prior to introduction of agriculture, these mesolithic populations had alleles which, in later generations after diets became dependent on grains, would become selected for light eyes and skin and become dominant across Europe. None of the samples contained alleles for lactase persistence. Those alleles apparently arose after animal husbandry became established.

Aside: The study further posits a Basal Eurasian component that originates before the split of the three identified substrates. The offered hypothesis for such a component seems non-substantive.

A hint of basis for this basal component might lurk within a few, widespread paleogenomic findings of a basal haplogroup C from the Mesolithic, ranging from Eastern Europe to the Iberian Peninsula. To account for such a basal Eurasian component, perhaps there was a CF population that migrated with haplogroup F peoples into West Asia and then, after the LGM, into Europe.

It is also possible there are gaps in our current early NRY haplogroup tree, where the missing haplogroup signals could still persist in autosomal DNA. Another study will be needed to either make this hypothesis go away, or to provide it a paleogenomic footing.

The Indo-European NRY DNA dominates today’s Europe, while the mesolithic population substrate still exists in significant density across northern Europe and in the Balkans. The neolithic substrate has yielded only a background residual population in today’s northern Europe. And further south its current density is less than might be expected. Its concentration in central Europe was on the main route of expansion from east to west across the continent, putting it squarely in the way of the subsequent migration of the Indo-European pastoralists into Europe.

The mesolithic peoples were mainly on the northern fringes of Europe and also in the Balkans, so may have avoided some of the conflicts of the Chalcolithic. Since densities of various haplogroups vary by location across Europe, we look at our target area of northern Germany and note the current population DNA signals today.

  • NRY R1: 58%
  • NRY I: 27%
  • NRY G: 4%
  • NRY J: 4%
  • Other: 7%

While only half the size of the Indo-European portion of the current population, NRY I wins the longevity prize. Together with its ancestor NRY IJ, it has populated Europe for ~40ky. NRY R1 has existed in Europe for only about a tenth as long.

The far north of Europe around the North and Baltic Seas is our focus here, the homeland of the Y-DNA haplogroup I in the Mesolithic. We will examine the Mesolithic->Neolithic transition and discuss its process and characteristics. Then we will describe the mesolithic character of the indigenous north German, south Scandinavian target population and describe its interaction with the advance of neolithic industry. We conclude with the first phase of a new culture that would eliminate the hunter-gatherer mode of existence in northern Europe forever, the TRB culture.

From Meso to Neo

The initial route of neolithic expansion, beginning ~10000BCE, has long been hypothesized as a maritime advancement, hopping from the Fertile Crescent around the Mediterranean and to Crete.  At the Peloponnesian Peninsula, the advance spread inland at least as far as Thessaly. The Mediterranean coasts of Africa and Europe were colonized as this demic wave spread.

The second installment of neolithic advance was via a more northern land route that reached the Balkans from western Anatolia ~6500BCE. This second wave is thought to have brought with it a complete neolithic package of characteristic goods and practices that can be traced to western Anatolia and on to the Fertile Crescent before. This second wave advanced to the Carpathian Basin, then followed the great European rivers north to the European loess belt, reaching all the way to SW Netherlands by 5250BCE.

The continental branch of the neolithic horizon is initially attested in the Starčevo culture of the Balkans. As the neolithic package moved north into Transdanubia and then into the Carpathian basin, the Linearbandkeramik culture is first attested by 6000 BCE. The LBK culture then rapidly expanded east-west across the European loess band from France to Russia. Early paleogenomic data suggest this was a demic expansion characterized by very little genetic admixture. F* and G2a NRY genotypes and the N1a mtDNA genotype have been associated with the LBK expansion.

There was perhaps little active competition for resources between the original population and the newcomers, with possible exception of waterway access. The central European neolithic population appears to have remained genetically stable for over two millennia. It was likely patrilocal, as were likely the mesolithic peoples, judged from the wide dispersion of the various subclades of mtDNA haplogroup U across Eurasia during the Mesolithic. There was almost certainly no NRY R genotype in Europe during this neolithic expansion; this population was still waiting off-stage in central Asia.

To what extent the Neolithic ‘waves’ were demic has been debated a long while. The most recent studies based on genetic analysis show a complex advancement. The initial wavefront appears to have moved quickly around the Mediterranean via the maritime route, perhaps mostly men initially in the boats who assumed females could be bartered for. After the second wave settled into the Balkans, the populations there are thought to have had a substantial percentage (~25%) of colonists from Western Anatolia.

While in the Balkans, the local mesolithic populations became accultured and joined the subsequent migration further into Europe. This process repeated across Europe, developing a SE-NW set of clines of decreasing participation by descendants of the initial neolithic colonists. Except in Britain, the 0% cline for descendants of the initial colonists seems to have been north of the loess belt at the south edge of the low German plain. North of that line, the neolithic wave appears to have advanced largely via the local mesolithic inhabitants borrowing from their accultured neighbors to the south.

There was no smooth front and constant rate of advancement, as a wave front might project. There were mountains, dense forests,  and established mesolithic cultures that would fragment and slow the advance. As with the paleolithic explorers before them, they followed the rivers and shorelines, in this case to locate arable and grazing land. But unlike the early hunter-gatherers, these populations were practicing a sedentary lifestyle that required them to stop at each suitable place for perhaps a generation or more, to make it worthwhile to invest in clearing land and building settlements. How long they would be at a settlement depended on many local factors.

The mesolithic peoples were mobile year round, some living in seasonal camps, others in more permanent camps but making frequent logistical forays. Although neolithic populations were sedentary in the sense of living in a settlement year-round, perhaps on a larger time scale they were as mobile as the mesolithic peoples with whom they came into contact, as they would eventually move on seeking more space and better growing conditions.

When neolithic explorers found a suitable settlement site, they would build dwellings and clear arable plots. In areas cleared by fire, the land would be productive initially. But if the soil were poor, a plot would become quickly non-fertile and would need to be abandoned. Only in the areas of good soil, particularly from alluvial/flood plains, and from the loess belt that stretches from France to Russia, could farming be extended productively so that a community could remain in a place for perhaps a few generations before moving on. In these cases, population increase would cause the population to radiate out from its original location until encountering other settlements.

Loess is a windblown pleniglacial silt deposit that creates well-drained soils, rich in plant-nourishing minerals. The loess belts of Eurasia are illustrated on the following map. Following the map is a nice illustration of loess, a fine silty-clay, water-permeable substrate topped by a characteristic fertile black soil. In addition to the river valley flood plains, these loess soils were magnets for the neolithic adventurers.

28154_European_Loess_Map_hires

From Dagmar Haase/UFZ

Bodenprofil

From Norma Neuheiser/UFZ

The demic component of the neolithic wave eventually was slowed before reaching our far north Germanic cultural zone, with acculturation apparently accounting for much of the final advances of agriculture into the autochthonous northern population areas as far as Scania. The further north one migrated, the smaller the variety of crops that could be productively farmed, and the less the land became adaptable for such use. Animal husbandry likely became an increasingly important part of the agrarian subsistence as latitude increased.

The following map shows both the estimated timings of the wavefront advancement, and also the localization of the advances. The wave sought uncontested population spaces with compatible geophysical attributes in which to pause and establish a local agrarian society. Each of these coalescence spaces then became a center for further radiating expansions in various outward directions, admixing with the neighboring mesolithic populations in a short time. Or sometimes, the agrarian peoples would simply disappear from an established area. No grand theory fits the available data, so all concise knowledge of the neolithic transition must be derived locally.

Northern European Neolithic Horizon

The Mesolithic-Neolithic boundary marks the first great man-made transition that would eventually alter the face of Europe. Up until the Neolithic, it is likely the population density of northern Europe was small, the Mesolithic toolkit was slow in evolution, northern population characteristics were mostly locally homogeneous over millennia. Climate called the tune to which man danced.

Setting the stage, the climate of NW Europe in the mid-Holocene was perhaps 1K warmer than today at 50°N. The following map shows the different bands of biomass types in these times, with most of northern Europe from the Atlantic coast to the Volga covered with cool temperate mixed conifer and deciduous forest, including the North Sea and Baltic coastal lands.

The Mesolithic populations, particularly the coastal ones, were already themselves settling into a semi-sedentary subsistence living style in permanent settlements. With the Neolithic came a new agrarian technology package and the beginning of man-made change to landscape. Man still danced to nature’s tune, but he would increasingly become able to dance to his own tune as well.

Given the heavy forestation mixed with bogs and fens, Mesolithic populations of the north of necessity were mostly riverine and coastal. Early European agriculturalists had to be opportunists, looking for clearings to plant a patch of grain. They had axes and knew the process of clearing land by fire, but apparently largely looked for opportunities to set up shop without having to tame a forest.

Notable man-made landscape change did not begin to appear until the Eneolithic in the far north of Europe. The impenetrable forests were one reason the Romans did not seriously contest lands east of the Rhine. Pollen analysis confirms that the Neolithic forestation did not noticeably change from that of the Mesolithic, except in Greece and Britain, where more lightly wooded landscapes could be more easily adapted to farming on a large scale.

The cultures and technologies of the new people at the Neolithic dance provided an overlay on top of the Mesolithic population substrate they found in place. The autochthonous substrate continued to persist into modern times, a significant population percentage across Europe. In persistence, it had fared better than the agrarian newcomers, who are represented in the current European population as a faint background signal.

We are interested in continuing to track this Mesolithic substrate underlying any Neolithic demic overlay. The challenge is to find some means to do so that will enable us to discriminate between overlay and substrate. Given the recent lack of research interest in paleogenomics in Northern Europe, we currently are left to rely on the physical anthropology of a century ago.

Physical anthropology provides two main tools for our task. It compiles geographic and temporal cultural horizons based on dated artifacts, and it provides an anthropometric of who was where. This who’s who measure, technically called the cephalic index, basically boils down to long heads vs. round heads.

From the scant skeletal material available from the European Paleolithic and northern Mesolithic, it appears our core autochthonous European population frequently expressed round heads of larger than normal size on large, robust bodies (often called the Cro-Magnon type). Such robustness is characteristic of cold-adapted hunter-gatherers, and is gradually lost after transition to permanent settlements and more sentient lifestyle, such as was enjoyed by the Neolithic immigrants to the area. For example, smaller cheekbones result after a transition to diet that requires less powerful chewing muscles.

At the end of this period, our exploration will center around the Denmark-Germany border. And here the present day population has more than an expected density of large round heads in a band that includes Fehmarn Island and the Borreby archaeological site. This current native population also seems to preserve plastic traits such as height and coloring, which hints of more than usual population homogeneity up until quite recently, perhaps a sign of the Mesolithic continuity we hope to further document here.

Neolithic People and Package

The neolithic ‘package’ was comprised of agricultural technologies related to domesticated plants and animals. The people who carried around the technologies also brought cultural beliefs, dwelling types, household goods, tools, and of course themselves. The detailed package contents varied over time and by location.

Some of the earliest skeletal remains for which Y-DNA typing is available, from Germany ~5200BCE, show F*-M89 and G2a-P15 haplogroups associated with the LBK. By 5500BCE, this very limited evidence suggests southeast Europe’s paleolithic hunter-gatherer populations already had been ?colonized by agricultural migrants. This evidence has tipped the scale, characterizing the Neolithic at least in part a demic wave in the south-central European plain. The story is less clear in the north.

G2a-P15 seems to be the most characteristic marker yet discovered for neolithic colonists, both for the first expansion around the Mediterranean, and later contributing to the LBK spread across Europe. Y-DNA Haplogroup G is a subclade of Haplogroup F; its genesis lies in the paleolithic, with various estimates of 10K-20K years ago. The following map shows the distribution of Haplogroup G today. They clearly were a maritime culture during the Holocene. Note the relative absence of Haplogroup G in our far north Germanic zone, attesting to the 0% cline for neolithic colonists on the low German plain.

Haplogrupo_G_(ADN-Y)

From Wikipedia

Neolithic cultivation and animal husbandry were not unique to Eurasia. Agrarian societies  developed independently around the globe, growing rice and millet in southern Asia and maize in Mesoamerica. But it appears from current evidence that it began first in the Middle East.

It is also evident that the autochthonous Mesolithic Europeans were already incorporating some elements of sedentary living into their lifestyles and experimenting with cultivation. And they had the domesticated dog. Thus areas of contact between the two culture types would not have been like a meeting of aliens. There may have been mutual cooperation that facilitated acculturation. There is also cursory evidence to date of DNA exchange between the neighboring groups, females of the mesolithic cultures mating with agrarian males (marrying up?).

The origins of the neolithic wave are documented by the Franchthi Cave in the Peloponnese, showing continuous occupation for more than 20K years. The cave offers a timeline for the neolithic package evolution:

  • 11000 BCE – almonds, pistachios, bitter vetch, lentils
  • 10500 BCE – wild oats, wild barley
  • 7300 BCE – peas, wild pears
  • 6000 BCE – domesticated animals, emmer and einkorn wheat

That the colonists participated in an early maritime economy is attested by obsidian sourced from 80 miles across the sea, and by large fish bones indicative of deep sea fishing.

The LBK culture began around 5500 BCE in the middle Danube and in 500 years extended from the Seine to the Dnieper. Its growth was fueled by its complete neolithic package imported  to Europe from western Anatolia over a millennium before. A study from England shows that transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic diet could happen suddenly and completely when the complete package became available. But in other areas, a more gradual and selective transition seems to have been the norm.

Early on, one sees an LBK advance close to our northern European focus area, in southwest Netherlands. The agrarian newcomers followed the loess belt across Europe to Belgium and then north along the River Maas to the Netherlands’ Graetheide plateau, whose soil is derived from a large loess accumulation. Because the resident hunter-gatherers tended not to occupy the upland loess belt, these rich agricultural areas may have been mostly free space for unchallenged settlement by new colonists.

Neolithic settlements, being permanent (for a few generations), needed to be near a source of water. Some were located some distance from surface water, so they constructed wooden wells often 10m or more in depth and collected rainwater for their own use and to water their animals. The cow, pig, sheep, and goat were the typical domesticates.

Crops needed enough rain to grow and Europe had enough rain. They grew wheat, oats, and barley cereals and various legumes such as lentils and chick peas. Their toolkit indicates they also likely still hunted, fished, and collected wild berries and nuts. By not abandoning their hunting and gathering ways entirely,  they could self-insure against crop failure. Farming was risky, with so many variables impacting success.

At Elsloo along the Maas River, one finds indications of the transition to farming, evidenced by permanent LBK-style longhouses (pictured is a typical floor plan) dating from 5250BCE. While in the Mesolithic, this area was likely a summer fishing and hunting encampment, now it had become a farming settlement.

LBK long houses came in a variety of configurations and a settlement could consist of many houses in a regular pattern. These structures became a characteristic marker for settlements of neolithic farmers, and their designs are passed down to the current era across Europe.

The newcomers lived and farmed in this settlement for nearly 400 years, making it one of the longer lived of the documented Neolithic frontier communities. But then it suddenly disappeared. Artifact evidence suggests that at no time during those 400 years did this LBK culture penetrate further into the northeast across the Netherlands. Perhaps the terrain was not suitable then, or perhaps there were other peoples in their way.

Mesolithic Substrate: The I-Peoples

Y-DNA haplogroup I is represented throughout most of Europe today in modest quantities, rising to significant density in north Germany, Britain, Denmark, and Scandinavia. These areas provided a Holocene refuge from European incursions by other eastern and southern peoples. Since the Neolithic, European haplogroup I has been a background DNA substrate on top of which is seen increasingly the Y-DNA of other peoples.

By the start of the Neolithic, the I-people were comprised at the next level by subclades I1, I2-M438*, I2-M223 and I2-L38. The I1-M253 and I2-M223 people perhaps were concentrated somewhat north of the main east-west European migratory plain, so their population still survives in significant percentages. The I1 peoples remain a dominant population group in Scandinavia, with I2-M223 in significant percentages along the North Sea coast and the German-Danish border, and I2-L38 more settled in central Europe. Some original I2*-M438 population also is represented in Europe today.

The northern European Mesolithic substrate likely consists substantially of I2-M223, I2-L38, and I1-M253. For 15,000 years, these I-peoples are hypothesized to have been living at the edge of great Northern European ice fields, in tundra and arctic steppe environments that made them selectively cold-adapted, providing advantages for their larger body mass and what is believed to be somewhat rounder heads than other later peoples.

Gradually, they also developed paler hair, skin, and eyes. But cold adaptation alone does not explain these latter traits, for the circumpolar Arctic peoples do not have pale skin, eyes and hair. Rather, it is thought to be a combination of genes in the Mesolithic genome responding to diet change during the Neolithic that caused the peoples living along the shores of the North Sea and Baltic Sea to become the palest in the world, having the least melanin in hair, eyes, and skin. Also, their paler blue and green eye color alleles may have been part of this population’s founding genotype, whereas they may not be present in the founding arctic peoples’ genotype.

Many infants in the world are born with blonde hair and blue eyes, but they quickly turn darker. Yet in northern Europe, genetic change enables these infantile traits to persist to adulthood (and similarly the lactose persistence trait). The adaptive advantage is vitamin D production in sub-arctic light. Melanin protects the body from UV radiation, and at the same time reduces the body’s ability to convert sunlight into vitamin D. As the light grows dimmer going north, the body needs less UV protection, so melanin can be reduced if there develops a selective advantage for doing so. The production of vitamin D is that selective advantage. When diet alone does not provide the necessary vitamin D, the skin must lose melanin to increase vitamin D production.

Prior to the Neolithic in northern Europe, people ate reindeer and other game and fish that provided enough dietary vitamin D to enable existence with no melanin reduction. But with the Neolithic, the diet shifted to grains with no vitamin D. Thus, melanin had to go. And it went, from skin, hair, and eyes. Darwin also may have had it partly right, that pale hair and eyes further benefited from sexual selection, accelerating the process.

The coastal lands around the North and Baltic Seas have seen the greatest reduction in adult melanin, because they are the farthest north lands in which cereal grains can be successfully grown. Here the combination of less meat in diet and faint sub-arctic light forces people to have as pale a skin as possible. The Gulf Stream is the reason that grain can be grown this far north, and hence is the probable progenitor of German and Scandinavian blondes. As other ethnicities, notably the R1a people, moved into these areas and exchanged genes and modified diet, they too got paler.

The Neolithic would introduce phenotype, diet and cultural transformations. It remains to be determined to what extant it would also infuse colonists into existing populations with continuity stretching deep into the Mesolithic in the area of Scania, Denmark, and northern Germany.

Now we will explore the successive cultural horizons that were expressed across this geography, beginning with the Mesolithic culture that first encountered the advancing Neolithic wave.

Ertebølle-Ellerbek-Swifterbant Cultures (5300BCE-3950BCE)

Scania, the Jutland peninsula, and the North Sea coast from 5300BCE to 3900BCE are three contiguous areas with nearly identical late Mesolithic cultures, named from north to south Ertebølle-Ellerbek-Swifterbant, collectively known as the Kitchen Midden culture. For simplicity, we’ll refer to them by their most common name, Ertebølle peoples.

This northern European Midden culture descended from the Mesolithic Kongemose Culture of 6000-5200BCE. They are named for their garbage dumps near their settlements, a collection of mostly shell refuse from their diet of shellfish. Other refuse included broken pots, worn-out lithic tools and byproducts, an occasional dog carcass, even human burials. These dumps could cover an area up to 100m x 50m, piled a meter high.

At the midpoint of their culture, they began developing ceramics. Their pots were wide-mouthed, pointed on the bottom for cooking over fire, and had a primitive decoration below the rim. They had access to abundant flint, judging from the numbers of flint tools found. Their lithic toolset was similar to the Kongemose: trapezoidal arrowheads, stone scrapers/chisels, adzes, and axes, some mounted in antler sleeves. They augmented their lithics with a considerable number of wooden tools. Below is an image of a rare hafted transverse (trapeze) arrowhead, found in a peat bog at Tværmose near Vinderup.

From natmus.dk

A significant portion of their diet came from the sea. They also likely made logistical hunting forays into the adjacent uplands, where they may have maintained seasonal camps to which they returned each year. It has been estimated from their game assemblages that their diet was 30% wild boar. They may have gathered wild cereals, berries, and nuts. The chemical composition of their bones tells us that marine sources provided the majority of their diet.

These were peoples of the sea. Most lived along coastlines and their settlements were very near the shore. Consequently, many settlements now lay under several meters of water due to land subsidence and rising sea levels, making excavation costly.

Evidence suggests a semi-sedentary life style in settlements occupied for most of the year. Their fisheries could support extended occupation, their investments in fish traps and canoes required it, and to a degree, their burials confirm it. Their way of life could be described as tethered hunter-gatherer, aka nomadic sedentism, still fluent in the old ways, but also looking ahead to a future stability via control of their main food sources. It is increasingly observed that other hunter-gatherer coastal peoples practiced such nomadic sedentism in various parts of the world.

At certain times of the year, the abundance of fish may have created excess foods for barter with other local groups. But for most of the year, theirs was a typical mesolithic subsistence existence, albeit partially communal. They constructed communal fish weirs with wattle fencing to trap fish and eels. They lived close to their fishing ‘farms’ to facilitate monitoring and collecting trapped fish, to preserve equipment during storms, and to assert property ownership for their valuable protected lagoon and estuary environments.

One such underwater site, Tybrind Vig, revealed many new artifacts, notably some particularly well preserved organic materials. Eel grass rhizomes are credited with the state of preservation of such sub-marine sites, holding the sandy sea floor in place. Tree ring evidence from the site suggests continuous occupation from 5500-4000BCE, from the late Kongemose through the Ertebølle.

Various bone, shell, and teeth fragments from the site, if truly related to anthropogenic activity, indicate hunting of at least 15 species of fish of which cod and flatfish seem most common, four species of shell fish, marine mammals including grey seals, porpoises, and a killer whale, both summer and winter bird species, wild boar, and roe and red deer from most seasons. The hilly areas nearby the site were covered by deciduous forest of lime, elm, and oak, mixed with hazel thickets and willow/alder fens. The shore offered aquatic species the protection of a belt of sea grasses and kelp.

Recovered artifacts include the fragments of the oldest-known European textile, a plant-based fabric woven from lime and willow using a needle-netting technique (see picture below); wooden floats that suggest fish nets or seines; fish hooks of red deer bone with line still attached; lances, spears, bows, arrows; dugout canoes; hundreds of fragments of wattle fencing that utilized 4m long hazel stakes; wicker fish traps; finely-worked leister prongs (hazel tines of various configurations that, when hafted, would create fish spears or sediment rakes for various species and conditions). The number of wooden tools suggested by the site far outnumbers flint tools recovered.

The limewood canoes were probably not stable in open seas, but could navigate inlets and lagoons, and ferry between the near-shore islands and the coast. Various pieces were salvaged, and a typical size of 10m x 0.5 meters is inferred with a capacity estimated at 700kg. A unique feature of some is a small hearth built into the stern, whose purpose is not well understood, but could have been to create light lures for night fishing, or for warmth, or to cook. Many paddles have been recovered. They have typically ash shafts over 1m long, with a 30cm wide heart-shaped paddle attached. Some of the paddles on extra-long shafts are ornamented on both sides with a previously unknown symmetric geometric motif, shown below. This organic motif is quite different from subsequent ceramic decorations, which tended to be linear and angular.

The oldest ceramics in Southern Scandinavia were recovered and dated to 4700BCE. Pot fragments from the site contained a food crust indicating preparation of a cod soup mixed with grass-like herbs.

Because Ertebølle settlements were very close to the sea, subsequent sea transgressions and land subsidence have raised sea level, which has subsequently eroded most evidence of dwellings. Most artifacts mentioned here have been recovered from the middens.

There has been fragmentary evidence of Ertebølle dwellings, which seem typical of many cultural areas in the Mesolithic, rectangular, single-family pit houses of 15-25 m^2. The pit was perhaps 20cm deep and had a floor of bark, leaves, and twig bundles. Extending into the house would be a raised earthen platform incorporating one or two hearths. There were also multi-family pit dwellings. There is evidence of shared storage pits between dwellings. Other features of the arrangement of dwellings in the settlement suggests a level of social structure and cooperativeness.

An early contact between the Midden peoples and a neolithic culture was tangential on the far west, where the neolithic wave reached the aforementioned area of SW Netherlands in the late 5th millennium BCE. Here it may have brushed against the local Ertebølle culture variant, Swifterbant. Other contacts surely gradually occurred across the southern boundary of the Ertebølle region. In some Ertebølle sites, Danubian type amphibolite adzes have been found, as well as pottery exhibiting decoration stylistically similar to LBK ceramics.

Genetic analysis of pig remains across northern Germany find two strains of domesticated pig in Ertebølle settlements, one based on Middle East stock and one on European stock. The latter indicates that local wild boar had been interbred with Middle Eastern domesticates as the Neolithic wave advanced. Domesticated pig remains of the Middle East variety have been found in Ertebølle settlements on the Baltic (Poel and Grube-Rosenhof), evidence there had been some contact between Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures as early as 4600 BCE. Whether this was a result of domesticated pigs going feral or deliberate breeding results cannot be told. Nor can it be known whether these remains were the result of deliberate exchange or happenstance wild kills.

There is yet no further evidence of Ertebølle acculturation; the more northern Ertebølle cultural area remained primarily a tethered hunter-gatherer society until centuries later. Their coastal lifestyle was securely anchored in their fisheries, and their wetlands were not conducive to productive farming. It would not be until the succeeding Funnelbeaker Culture in the early fourth millennium BCE that the tribes of the Elbe and north German plain would first embrace farming with the entire neolithic package.

Simultaneously, sea level transgressions in the North and Baltic Seas occurred cyclically as a result of isostatic continental edge subsidence (glacial rebound adjustment), combined with gradual sea level rise due to glacial melt. The net effect has been estimated as a 2.5m net sea level rise over the fifth millennium BCE. By the end of this millennium, the coastal populations had been forced from their traditional fisheries and settlement sites. This probably constituted a forced break from their traditional subsistence patterns. At such a time of upheaval, their best option may have been to begin to adopt neolithic ways of subsistence.  Perhaps then they joined in competing for upland space for cultivation and herding.l

Funnelbeaker Culture (4100BCE-2800BCE)

The Funnelbeaker Culture (aka Trichterrandbecher or TRB Kultur) succeeded the LBK culture in its locales nearest the North Sea and Baltic. TRB origins are still clouded. It was potentially a combination of a locally developed culture based on ideas communicated from neighboring cultures, combined with some migration of farming/pastoral peoples from the east. It completely replaces the Mesolithic cultures, Ertebolle-Ellerbek-Swifterbant, with the set of West-North-East TRB Cultures shortly after 4000BCE.

For clues, one looks for localities where artifacts span this boundary, such as the coastal Mesolithic site, Saltbxk Vig, whose occupation spans the Ertebølle and Funnelbeaker cultures. Here we see how sea transgression rendered parts of the site unusable, but how a slow changing culture adapted to the change. Simultaneously, upland areas away from the coast were being populated. In these areas, one finds no mesolithic continuity. Were these new upland peoples colonists, unrelated to the prior coastal inhabitants. Or were these the existing peoples learning how to make the upland areas work for them, based on ideas communicated from their southern LBK neighbors? Answers are not yet forthcoming, but current genetics maps show virtually no G2a-P15 substrate in the TRB areas, suggesting that at least the original neolithic colonists did not participate. If there were colonists, they came from elsewhere.

The Mesolithic populations had produced ceramics since ~4700BCE. The TRB ceramics, the most characteristic marker for the new culture, are quite different. Gone are the pots with pointed bottoms. The types of TRB ceramic wares are illustrated below.

TRBPotteryTypes

The-TRB-West-Group by Bakker

More research will be needed before the author is ready to explore the following two millennia in northern Europe. So here we take a large skip forward, directly to the conclusion of our saga. Proceed to Angle-Saxon-Frisian Invasions of England.

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