Transition to Farming in Europe

Just a conceptual framework here. 

Just so you know going in, whenever reading up on the topic.  There are ritual incantations by all the sources that depend entirely on PC money – National Geographic, Smithsonian – that must be made whenever discussing European genetics.  They must recite that there are no pure European races dating back endlessly with continuous presence until the present day.  Nay, nay.  Nazis, thought that, and you don’t want to be like them.  Lots of other people thought so, too, and they were also racist.  All of your recent European ancestors were likely racist, and good people don’t even come close to thinking like that anymore. Once you understand that this is part of their common religion and they have to say this at the opening of every academic exercise (sort of like everyone saying the Pledge of Allegiance at town meeting, or singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events) it becomes more endurable.  It is comforting to them, making the appropriate obeisance before proceeding.  Because it’s a new religion, they are still working things out. They see heretics everywhere.

Then they go on to explain to you that until very recently, the major sources for European genetics do come from three waves which stabilised thousands of years ago.  But don’t get any idea that this means anything.  Those were really, really different groups, you know, and there were groups within groups, like Celtic and Slavic tribes both being Indo-European, and groups within those groups. So no one is pure. Got that, you potentially fascist reader?

The first group in were hunter-gatherers 45,000 years ago. Unsurprising, as there was nothing but h-g’s at that point, no farmers anywhere. They outcompeted but did interbreed some with Neandertals, possibly because they were meaner, or maybe smarter. Glaciers came and went and areas were depopulated and repopulated. Who they were has been murky, but we are starting to get some initial narrative. It’s complicated, but a group we call European Hunter-Gatherers, especially West Hunter Gatherers (WHG) became the temporary Indigenous Peoples of their day. Europeans still have lots of that ancestry, as you can note from the Distribution maps of European Admixture I linked to a couple of days ago. 

Y-chromosomes tend to record major turnover events, where the males of one group seriously outcompete the males of another enough to establish that lineage.  So massacres and genocides are there, but so is multicentury 1%-per-generation dominance.  Sometimes the females (and children) were massacred, but more often they were taken as wives, concubines, or slaves, so there was not a complete turnover. Yet because Y-haplogroups are only a single ancestral line and exclusively on the sex chromosome, one gets a more complete picture from the autosomal – that is, all the other chromosomes – DNA. 

So here come the Early European Farmers (EEF) out of the eastern Mediterranean about 8,000 y/a, with all their fancy wheat and barley, gradually overwhelming the WHG’s, starting in Turkey and the Balkans. They came further by two routes, up the Danube through central Europe (what we now call the LBK – or Linear Band Keramik culture) and an Atlantic route up as far as France and eventually Britain and Ireland (eventually the Atlantic Megalithic Culture). It took over a thousand years for them to converge and have to compete with each other rather than only the locals, but this eventually happened in northern France. 

All that as background.  Here is what I really wanted to tell you.

The EEF’s and WHG’s coexisted for centuries, even millennia. They weren’t competing for the same land and resources, and may not have interacted much. The did interbreed, but not so very much given the time span.  The h-g’s liked swampy areas abundant with fish and waterfowl, the farmers needed loess soil for crops. The latter did not spread evenly and gradually across the landscape, but in hops to new highly-fertile areas. They would not be numerous upon arrival and would pick spots not much used by the current inhabitants. Their population would grow only gradually at first, and when they figured out maximal exploitation of each niche (likely a lot of trial-and-error) the explosive population growth could not easily be managed once they had taken up all the good land in the area. We think they did expand their settlements somewhat, but mostly, they headed up the coast or up the river a couple of hundred miles until they found another highly fertile spot. Whatever hunter-gatherers there were could be avoided. 

There would be competition for fresh water, and areas for grazing reindeer or aurochs would have some similarity to areas good for domesticated animals. There was violence and direct competition. But more usually, they didn’t want each other’s lives.  Hunter gatherers persisted for millennia, though driven into progressively less-desirable land. Each took a few tricks from the other over time – the farmers had good pottery, which the h-g’s traded for and imitated; simpler hunting and fishing techniques might have to be resorted to in hard times. Even now, commercial fishing is a kind of hunting-gathering strategy, just more sophisticated, and hunting to at least supplement foodstuffs was not only sport but survival for some until recently. But they largely stuck to their ancestral cultural strategies. 

There have been arguments in anthropology for decades about whether the ideas of crops and domestication spread or the farmers themselves spread, but that has been largely resolved. In the “pots versus people” dispute, it’s both, but mostly the people. A little interbreeding, a little borrowing, a lot of climate and resource variation where one strategy is better than the other for years or even decades, and you get a hybrid culture. But this is never complete, as fishermen still fish and shepherds still herd even now. In Europe, the EEF’s eventually came to dominate. There were indeed descended from Aegean farmers (Greece, Turkey) much more than from locals. People don’t say to themselves “well, the reindeer catch was bad these last two years, I think I’ll give this farming thing a whirl. Where can I get land?”

The cultures hybridised enough to build Stonehenge and the like, just in time for the third wave to come in and push them around. Y-haplogroups R1a and R1b. 

Any number of possible pictures to illustrate, but this is good; This would be the endpoint of the period I have just written about, before the Yamnaya really get untracked taking over Europe. From this article.

5 thoughts on “Transition to Farming in Europe”

  1. It’s awkward for the narrative, isn’t it? The interbreeding with Neanderthal, and the potential mixing with other older archaic species of homo, distinguishes the descendants of the “out of Africa populations” from the descendants of anatomically modern humans who remained in Africa. This had neurological impacts, and, in addition, includes genes that influence skin, hair, lipid metabolism, a subset of type 2 diabetes among other things. They have just scratched the surface in this field.

  2. It’s important to bear in mind that even 45,000 years is less than an eye-blink in terms of evolution. This is why dividing humanity into “races” on the basis of what are trivial external differences is so specious. We are so widely distributed and so peripatetic that there isn’t so much as a hint of a sub-species to Homo-Sapiens. A net advance of a mile per year is lightening fast compared to the average species.

    Once we covered most of the globe, evolution stopped for us. The chance of any significant mutation propagating even a little ways before the great sea of average overwhelms it is minuscule.

    What the above shows most clearly is the difference of many orders of magnitude between purposeful Human migration and the biological process of evolution.

    Research I’ve seen on modern hunter-gatherers in the rather austere ranges left to them show that they may spend as little as 15 hours a week on gathering food. In the much more abundant paleo-Europe it was probably less, even accounting for winter. This would be predicated on a very low population density and access to a large range. The much higher population density made possible by farming would be a stress even if it didn’t lead to open conflict. I would bet that it did, often.

    New fertile land would only be available at the frontier. Behind this, the natural tendency would be to use technology to bring marginal land into production. Specifically terracing and draining wetlands. This would have been possible because of the availability of labor from the higher population density.

    As the climate warmed, cultivation would have pushed into the uplands aided by switching to crops that are more suited to the shorter cooler growing seasons there like barley and oats instead of wheat.

    All of this would have reduced the range available to the hunter/gatherers too far to allow them to survive. This is easily seen in the settlement of North America and recently enough to be well documented.

  3. Evolution has accelerated consistently since hominid intelligence started increasing and population increased. It is very fast indeed at this point, with measurable changes over even a few centuries. With more people, there are more mutations, more selection in more environments, and sharper competition. Greg Cochran’s “The 10,000-year Explosion” is very good on this, as is the research on the dramatic increase in Ashkenazi intelligence since 1200 and the reduction in intrapopulation violence behind the Hajnal Line since 1300, and the dramatic increase in IQ of the African population that moved to North America since 1500 – about 15 points, compared to only 10 in the Caribbean and none back in Africa. That may be because so many of those were descended from natives on the Bight of Benin, especially the Ibo tribe.

    As to races, choose your poison. You can allow them and be called a racist, or not allow them and be called a racist because people of African descent have not been thriving and it must be something about your culture, even though nothing has held up to examination.

  4. AVI,
    “Evolution has accelerated consistently since hominid intelligence started increasing and population increased.”

    I think you are confusing evolution with variation. Evolution has occurred when a heritable genetic trait becomes widely distributed within a species because of differential reproductive fitness. The variations you cite are limited to specific populations and, strictly speaking, haven’t been established as heritable. While some combination of genetic factors is a plausible hypothesis, It’s even less clear that they confer an advantage in reproductive fitness. Nor do they appear to affect fertility between populations.

    The sociological and political ramifications are profound nevertheless. As I said, the people with these traits, however they are derived, now move at the speed of an airliner not with the geological deliberation of Evolution. This was as true when they were limited to walking. They tend to associate preferentially among themselves as well.

    Race probably has less scientific validity than the miasma theory of infection. It is a model that obfuscates far more than it clarifies. At least some diseases are airborne. Of all the differences between all the people derived from Africa, the least useful characteristic is their skin color. We have computers and genetic sequencing now, we can handle the complexity of more than five groups.

  5. @ MCS – I know very well what I am writing. Please read up on the last fifteen years of genetics, rather than reciting what everyone expected to be true in 2000. I gave you Cochran, but if you like podcasts better there is Insiteome with Razib Kahn and Spencer Wells and their interviews with David Reich, Robert Plomin, John Hawks, Svante Paabo, etc. You know, just a few guys from Anthro 101 at a freshman bull session.

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