There was scale and structure before history

By Razib Khan | May 17, 2011 2:56 pm

Until relatively recently the spread of agriculture in Europe, and to some extent the whole world, was pigeon-holed into two maximalist models: cultural or demographic diffusionist. Neither of these models were maximalist in that they denied the impact of culture or demographics in totality, but they tended to be rhetorically brandished in a manner where it was clear which dynamic was the dominant mode of explaining the nature of cultural and genetic variation and their origins. Here are two representative headlines from the BBC:

Most European males ‘descended from farmers’.

Genetic roots of Europe, “New DNA evidence suggests that a few hundred Stone Age hunter-gatherers were the ancestors of many modern day northern Europeans.”

For whatever reason archaeologists themselves haven’t been able to resolve these issues. To me it seems that ultimately even if genetics is not determinate or even fundamentally specially insightful, it will at least sharpen the discussions, and move scholars away from arguments of rhetorical excess.

One of the broader issues which I’ve been coming to greater consciousness of is the idea whereby all pre-literate societies were diffuse to the point of being in a state of band-level anarchy. The “demic diffusion” model to some extent seems to play into this, where simple demographic population growth due to the ability of farmers to extract more calories per unit of land allowed them to “swamp” the hunter-gatherers. This is a “low level” fundamental explanation which does not require any sort of collective complexity beyond that of the village. It is the a classic illustration of a “social physics” model of human behavior. Similarly, the cultural diffusion model often seems predicated an imitation-through-proximity, as a serial adoption of farming practices occurs through choice or necessity (as an analogy, consider the adoption of firearms).

In hindsight I think the major problem with these models is that they downplay by understandable omission the higher order social complexity of institutions and identities which characterize humans. I do not believe that only with the emergence of writing did supra-band level identity emerge. This seems clear from the ethnography, and what we know from the fringes of history. The Inca for example did not have full elaborated literacy, and yet had political dominion and cultural hegemony from Ecuador to central Chile. We need to consider pots, people, and, politics, for human prehistory.

Dienekes points to a very useful review in Current Anthropology, which attempts to take a more subtle and nuanced view of the data, supplemented by genetics. Westward Ho! The Spread of Agriculture from Central Europe to the Atlantic:

Recent work on the four major areas of the spread of agriculture in Neolithic western Europe has revealed that they are both chronologically and economically much more abrupt than has hitherto been envisaged. Most claims of a little agriculture in Late Mesolithic communities are shown to be incorrect. In most places, full sedentary agriculture was introduced very rapidly at the start of the Neolithic. “Transitional” economies are virtually absent. Consequently, the long-term processes of internal development from forager to farmer, so often discussed in Mesolithic-Neolithic Europe, are increasingly hard to sustain. The spread of agriculture by immigration is thus an increasingly viable explanation. The crucial role of boats for transport and of dairying for the survival of new farming settlements are both highlighted. Farming migrations were punctuated and sporadic, not a single wave of advance. Consequently, there was much genetic mixing as farming spread, so that agricultural immigrants into any region carried a majority of native European Mesolithic genes, not Near Eastern ones.

The best thing about the paper is probably its map, which is a good way to condense information for those of us who lack detailed knowledge. The dates are all years before the present:

The worst thing is that the genetic references are thin and somewhat outdated. I think the genetics is now making a stronger case for disruption, confusion, and replacement, than is acknowledged in this article. A general framework which applies through the article seems to be that we must look to punctuation of cultural and demographic change as the norm, rather than the exception. The old diffusion models may be predicated on a level of smoothness and gradualism in historical and social process which are simply not feasible. There are limits to ability of biological evolution to allow for plasticity generation to generation (too much natural selection and the population may go extinct as you cull too many individuals to maintain a viable breeding population). Many of these limitations are not as strong for cultural evolution. As an example, between 3000 and 500 BCE despite all the changes Egyptian culture would have been recognizable to an individual extracted from any random moment to another. In contrast, between 500 BCE and 500 CE the culture would have shifted radically. There was arguably more change under the Ptolemies alone than over all of the native Egyptian dynasties.

An explicit aspect highlighted in the argument above are the natural preconditions for cultural change and expansion. This reflects my argument that cultures can move much more easily across longitudes than latitudes, earlier made famous by Jared Diamond. The long pause of agriculture on the north European plain was partly probably the structural constraint because of the poor fit between southern crops and northern climes. But once a sufficient fit was operative did that naturally result in the rapid sweep of farmers north? Perhaps not. The colonization of the New World by European powers shows that there are strong institutional and cultural variables which may effect the nature and speed of colonization. The Roanoke Colony failed in part because there was relatively little institutional backing and support, as well as the lack of potential migrants. In the 1630s there was a massive migration of British to New England. Was this due to economics? No. It was due to the emigration of Puritans who were fleeing an Anglican Church was become more self-consciously Anglo-Catholic (I am aware that Anglo-Catholicism as we know it today is arguably a product of the Oxford Movement, but you get my drift with where Bishop Laud was going). Without writing and cultural continuity we would have no real understanding of the massive rise in numbers in the New England colonies, which guaranteed their long term ability to withstand the counter-attacks by the native populations. In other words a general understanding of the rise and spread of farming in any given region shouldn’t just rely on the inevitable social forces of history, but also give some nod to the likely contingent parameters for any given specific event. The spread of farming was probably inevitable. But how it played out was subject to contingent detail.

One of those details which is nicely emphasized by this piece is that water was probably the critical mode of transport for prehistoric populations expanding through “empty lands.” Long distance bulk transport was only feasible by water before the rise of the railroad. The evidence from archaeological finds seems to point to the likely possibility of cultural nuclei, from which new forms and populations spread outward, filling in the “gaps.” These nuclei were almost certainly likely connected by water. Think of the Greek or American colonies, which consisted of small towns surrounded by agricultural hinterlands, and unified by sea. When you re-frame expansion in such a manner it seems ludicrous to speak of a “wave of advance,” whether it be demographic or cultural.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
MORE ABOUT: Anthropology, Culture

Comments (15)

Links to this Post

  1. Map Modern Day Europe – ALL MAPS | May 19, 2011
  1. “One of the broader issues which I’ve been coming to greater consciousness of is the idea whereby all pre-literate societies were diffuse to the point of being in a state of band-level anarchy.”

    Surely this is an area where pots are more informative than genetics. We can see the regional reach of similar toolkits and pot designs. We can look at the oldest urban ruins and estimate the scale of those communities We can look at modern ethnographic accounts to make plausible predictions about the social structure of communities with ruins of particular sizes and particular mixes of building types.

    Certainly, pre-literate societies were not all band-level anarchies. On the other hand, there is little evidence for multi-city regional kingships, at least outside the Indus River Valley, until roughly the Copper Age and advent of writing. The biggest Vinca cities (pre-Copper Age) would have been about the size of a single typical modern urban neighborhood and would have been far less differentiated and specialized than later cities, perhaps ruled by a chief-like figure. In the early Neolithic we see nothing bigger than villages, perhaps ruled by a “big man.”

    There may have been cultural links between villages or city-states or rural conglomerations or hunter-gather bands in earlier eras, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for sustained and cohesive regional political entities. It is hard to imagine the larger level entities combining for anything more than a seasonal brief meetups, perhaps something like markets, or brideswaps, or athletic games, or migration route seasonal group hunts, or something of that kind.

    Ethnography provides weaker guidance here because it takes larger areas free of modern states or modern culture to see these kind of large scale structures, and to know that they exist for some reason other than a mere extraordinary case of uniting against outsiders. The Iriqouis Confederation may be the closest we ever come to observing somethiing like that.

  2. Robert

    Very good overview of why the spread of farming is subject to the contingent details of such but I think you may mis-characterize Bishop Laud as Anglo-Catholic. He was a conservative, autocratic, uber establishmentarian, and a Royalist to be sure but the Puritans had it in for him for his staunch support for the episcopal model of church governance and his somewhat Arminian theological views contra their hard-core Calvinistic predestinationism. The Roundheads chopped off his head for past affronts and his support for the king not because there was any evidence that he wanted to bring England and Scotland back to Rome.

    At least that is my understanding of it and it is the historicasl position of the CofE on the matter.

  3. #2, i probably should have left that detail out, but i was trying out a way to communicate the issue precisely both to people who often a) get confused because of lack of context b) and, who ding me for misrepresentation of detail. so, i said:

    It was due to the emigration of Puritans who were fleeing an Anglican Church was become more self-consciously Anglo-Catholic (I am aware that Anglo-Catholicism as we know it today is arguably a product of the Oxford Movement, but you get my drift with where Bishop Laud was going).

    from what i have read ‘anglo-catholicism’ as we today understand it really traces to the oxford movement. but its general impulse seems to be clear even as far back as henry the viii, who reformed the church be retained its broad catholic form. in any case, i didn’t mean to imply that laud et al. and other high churchmen wanted to bring the anglicans back to rome. that’s why it’s anglo-catholicism, retaining the forms of the universal church, but making a distinction from the roman church. from what i know the earlier high churchmen didn’t use the term anglo-catholic specifically, but they seem to have prefigured the catholic sacramental inclinations of this form of high church protestantism.

    anyway, i should have omitted that detail. next you know we’ll having a discussion of five points calvinism. no thanks 🙂

    p.s. for those readers inclined to add detail, i am aware of that many of the oxford movement being roman catholics.

  4. Dwight E. Howell

    I take it you’re saying that while the ability of farmers to expand depended on having crops, livestock, and farming methods that were effective beyond the frontier the timing and degree of expansion may have often depended on somebody getting kicked out or fleeing political forces/violence that may have been heading their way due to an invasion or power grab of some sort?

    There are more than enough known examples of such events to justify expecting them in prehistory.

  5. Rob Schmidt

    An interesting discussion. One point which is too easy to overlook is the length of time when it would appear that there was a successful resistance by indigenous populations along the North and Baltic seas to incursions of new agricultural technologies and presumably populations. We’re talking 1400 to 1300 years, roughly, after a process of agricultural expansion through time and across geographical distances that we can interpret as apparently relentless. After such an expansion, 1300 years of a “pause” is s long time!

    I have long found unconvincing the suggestion that this pause in expansion of agricultural technologies and/or populations can be attributed to a poor ecological “fit” to northern European coastal regions . Is there any strong evidence for a really substantial shift in those technologies during the pause? Not that I’m aware of. I find it far more convincing to accept that maritime economic adaptations by indigenous Mesolithic populations (fishing, shellfishing, hunting marine mammals and land mammals, and gathering) were more than robust enough to be competitive at the ideological and economic levels. In other words, there are well-known areas, almost invariably maritime, where hunter-gatherer economies were remarkably productive, as in Pacific Northwest salmon exploitative adaptations. Thus it is important to recognize that farming was not always superior to hunting/gathering in terms of producing subsistence for relatively large populations.

    So the challenge has been to account for the long pause, and the subsequent rapid spread around 6000 BPE of the Neolithic. For at least a generation, there has been speculation about a possible ideological component to help explain this pattern. That is, some have suggested the emergence of a new religious, or religio-political ideology associated with a new social configuration of farming populations, an emergence that could have swept through both farming and hunting/gathering communities. The reason to look for something like this is that no obvious ecological mechanism can be discerned that would be consistent with the pattern of development that we see reproduced on the map included in the article. So the reference to the settling of North America by European farming populations is instructive, because it is an instance where population movement is explained by ideological factors, but the situation at the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition is different, in that there we have no indication of an undisputed technological superiority by the incoming population (I’m referring of course to weapons).

    There is no evidence of a vast population increase in these areas after Neolithic patterns of settlement “displace” Mesolithic patterns. So just as there was no superiority in weapons, neither was there a superiority in ecological adaption, at least insofar as we can discern in terms of population increase.

    So I return to ideological explanations as being most attractive, in that such mechanisms would best explain the evidence available. How in particular might we envision the population interactions between successful hunter/gatherers and successful farmers? As ever, the most fruitful path is to use imagination informed by historical and ethnological cases.

  6. expansion may have often depended on somebody getting kicked out or fleeing political forces/violence that may have been heading their way due to an invasion or power grab of some sort?

    yes. the key is that i think mass scaled ‘state-like’ entities may have existed before writing.

  7. Lassi Hippeläinen

    “The crucial role of boats for transport…”

    My pet peeve. The key word for expansion is LOGISTICS. In Europe, full of rivers and lakes, and surrounded by sea, it means boats. Except in the winter, when it means sledges.

    It’s funny how winter gets ignored. Is it because many researchers are from warmer climates, and do not understand how winter is the Great Enabler of Transport? How do you cross a swamp? Wait till it freezes. A frozen river is a highway calling for a horse-drawn sledge. And if I had big brick of stone to move to Stonehenge, I would do it in the winter, along an ice track.

  8. Eurologist

    *Except in the winter, when it means sledges.*

    That’s all fine, until you realize that agricultural expansion was most efficient in times when winters where exceptionally mild – even by today’s standards. There were no major rivers of importance in continental Europe that froze – especially along the routes of expansion.

    Conversely, cultures that expanded northward during warm times retreated and/or were replaced by ‘Mesolithic’ (-looking) folks when climate declined.

  9. Markk

    please remove – wrong entry – why can I edit but not delete?

  10. “A frozen river is a highway calling for a horse-drawn sledge.”

    Domesticated horses were not present on the Neolithic frontier and a big part of the cargo (livestock) could have walked on its own. Shelter was an on the spot fabrication from local materials, tools were light, wardrobes were small and the heaviest cargo would have probably been sacks of seeds.

    Honestly, I suspect that coasts and rivers may have been more important as food sources (fish and other seafood) and (in the case of rivers including coastal river deltas) as water sources, than as means of transportation via boat. The speed of farming expansion was on the order of single digit miles per year. Even in a generation, this is just a few couple of weeks walk each time.

    Ice tracks may make sense to explain the logistics of something like Stonehenge.

    But, in an initial expansion phase, a winter cold enough to freeze rivers and swamps is a lousy time to expand into virgin territory because you need shelter more in the winter than than in the summer and virgin territories, by definition, have no shelter for the new arrivals. The pre-modern pattern for farmers in places that have cold winters is to hole up in your house with as much of your livestock as could be accomodated in it with you, and have as little activity as possible so that you conserve heating resources and don’t draw down your winter food store any more than you must, not to go out and engage in the luxury of exploration. Also, a cold winter arrival time for European pioneers would mean months of waiting before the first crops could be planted, which would delay the critical first harvest and require them to carry more food supplies with them to tide them over until then – and those winter months would also be months when supplemental foraging for food wouldn’t have been fruitful. Ideally, a migrating farmer would want to immediately plant crops upon arriving at a new homestead, supplement food supplies carried in with abundant forage and be able to build shelter, establish a firewood supply and harvest a crop before the first winter hit.

    “the timing and degree of expansion may have often depended on somebody getting kicked out or fleeing political forces/violence that may have been heading their way due to an invasion or power grab of some sort?”

    There certainly are historical examples of this happening (e.g. the linguistically Uralic superstrate expansion into Hungary, The Mayflower, the Mormon migrations).

    But, it takes a lot less of a push to coax someone into virgin territory than it does do orchestrate the moves into already occupied territories that we see in the historical and legendary record (e.g. much of the Hebrew Bible and hte legendary origins of the Scots). The observed pace of expansion doesn’t require that any individual community’s migration had to be very many miles.

    Probably the best candidate for colonization that may have been more push than pull motivated is the TRB replacement of the PWC, although climate could also be a factor in that.

  11. pconroy


    Generally I agree with your argument, but you’re thinking mostly in terms of the “Push” of migration, but maybe forgetting the “Pull” of migration?!

    I’d imagine a lot of migration was Pull, and if so the problems of winter forage and food, in the North of Europe, largely disappear. What am I talking about? Well, consider the case of elite soldiers – often ones with better weapons, bronze versus stone, iron versus bronze, and/or military culture and upbringing. As I’ve mentioned a few times on the interwebz, many times tribal societies will employ mercenaries to help against another tribe in some dispute, and these mercenaries end up taking over from one or both tribes.

    This scenario is seen in the spread of the Turks into the Middle East, the spread of the Normans into Ireland, the spread of the Gallowglass into Ireland, the spread of the Circassians (Mamlukes) into Egypt, the spread of the Germans, Slavs (Vandals) and Iranians (Alans), into the Western Roman empire, the spread of the Germans (Saxons) into Britain, and so on ad infinitum…

    So this would account too for the “hopscotch” pattern of agriculture spread. As the new warriors would take family and culture with them, and not be settling in a hostile environment, but a welcoming one – where most of the basics would be supplied to them wholesale.

  12. The problem with this model it’s fundamental belief in the hunter/gather myth which began ONLY in the Neolithic Period once the Mesolithic Forests were gone. Prior to this date the forest would have prevented hunter/gathering in any mass form and of insufficient size to support the population in that period.

    The map clearly shows a model of shoreline cultures and if Doggerland was included the map would show that this culture would be boat based which blows the diffusion model out of the water for earlier migration.

    Mesolithic finds around Stonehenge has found ‘jade’ and from the alps the ‘amsbury archer’ in the Neolithic Period showing that trading routes must have been available and these routes can only be accessible by boat. There is also sufficient archaeological finds of shells and fish bones in Star Carr (9000BC) to support the marine hypothesis.

    I believe that these simple facts will make more sense of the genetic model you are trying to analyse.


  13. Lassi Hippeläinen

    @8 and 10: My comment about winters doesn’t necessarily apply to initial expansion. But there was need to commute back home from the new location, and that’s where winter can help. Even in established communities the ability to trade with the neighbours helps survival.

    And you can put any muscle power in the place of horses.

  14. ackbark

    This is to say that farming spread as a subset of the general activity of fishing populations because fishing requires more consistent teamwork and the cultural manners that enhance it?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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