Invasion of the farmers

Related to some of our recent discussions, Scientific American has an interesting article on the spread of farming during the neolithic.  From the article:

  • Roughly 9,000 years ago farmers from the Middle East headed toward Europe, seeking new land to cultivate.

  • The farmers traveled either along the Mediterranean coast or the Danube River, encountering hunter-gatherers who lived in dense forests.

  • At first, the farmers and hunter-gatherers traded or mated. By 5,000 years ago, however, agriculture dominated the continent and hierarchical societies had evolved.

  • Genetic studies suggest that individuals with high hunter-gatherer ancestry may have been treated as inferiors.

Map showing the spread of farming into 'Europe
Image from the article. Click through for source.

There was a long running debate among researchers about whether the spread of farming was a diffusion of technology, or an invasion.  The story pieced together by archaeologists now points more toward an invasion, with varying degrees of assimilation and intermixing, more in the southern Mediterranean arm and less in the northern Danube one, at least initially.

Reading the article, it’s hard not to picture it like George R.R. Martin’s First Men encroaching on the domains of the Children of the Forest.  It’s particularly resonant because the archaeology seems to show that the descendants of the hunter-gatherers were often an underclass, especially as we begin to see signs of an increasingly stratified society in the 6700-6500 BCE period, where evidence for human sacrifice starts to show up.  The article itself compares it to the relationship between the African Bantu farmers with the Pygmy forest dwellers, which had a similar dynamic.

Although their fate appears to have varied in different regions and times, it generally doesn’t sound like a happy story for the hunter-gatherers, even if our distant perspective allows us to see it as progress.

22 thoughts on “Invasion of the farmers

    1. Climate change as in the interglacial warming and drying trend? If so, definitely agree that nothing humans did led to that. Farming was likely a reaction to it.

      Given everything we know from the rest of history, the culture clash was likely inevitable.


  1. As with the hunter gatherers then, so with black slaves. How grim. Fascinating as the history is it is far from cosy. You have to wonder what happens if our acquisitive and aggressive species ever achieves FTL travel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s worth noting it wasn’t necessarily all grim. Apparently there were multicultural regions. But yeah, there were other regions of brutal subjugation.

      On FTL, probably a diaspora and fragmentation of our species we could hardly imagine.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Possibly. But as I’ve noted before, we shouldn’t idealize the foraging lifestyle too much. And it’s worth remembering that most people who’ve lived since the beginning of agriculture would never have existed without it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Could it be said that the typical territorial behavior viewed in practically all species, including our hunter/gatherer selves, eventually manifested itself as “colonialism” after we became an agricultural species? I’m using “colonialism” as an equivalent word for the “invasion” word used to describe the spread of farming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It probably was colonialism, in the sense that the farmers probably didn’t even see themselves as an invading force. They probably saw the hunter-gatherers much the same way Europeans saw the various indigenous peoples of the lands they colonized, as not real holders of the land.


  3. Of course, the farmers descendants were the ones to tell the tales. For all we know the hunter-gatherers considered the farmers an underclass (so that each was considered beneath the other), but the HGs didn’t leave behind story tellers or remains that told their story.

    They also bias their descriptions with statements like “By 5,000 years ago, however, agriculture dominated the continent and hierarchical societies had evolved.” It made it sound that agriculture came first and then hierarchical societies came as a result. Agriculture did come first but didn’t dominate early societies which both planted a little and hunted and gathered a lot. Large scale agriculture didn’t just happen, people were coerced by their elites to undertake the back breaking labor involved and the health consequences that came from it. Large scale agriculture is only useful to create taxable wealth that can be confiscated by the elites. It is not something that people would do of their own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There actually aren’t any tales from these periods. It’s all deep in prehistory, long before writing, and far beyond the memory of any oral traditions. The events, with varying degrees of uncertainty, are all reconstructed from archaeology and genetic analysis.

      On hierarchies, the article uses neutral language, which I think is the right approach. We don’t know how hierarchies developed, just that they did. It’s worth remembering that these weren’t empires or states, but mostly just independent villages. “Large scale agriculture” by the standards we think of it, was still far in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read some really interesting stuff recently that implies that religion led to the formation of “cities” and that agriculture developed after and perhaps because of these early settlements. Basically, agriculture may have developed to serve the needs of hierarchy and hierarchy might have developed to serve the human need for meaning.

        Kind of beautiful if you think about it.


        1. There are people who think that’s what Göbekli Tepe is telling us. It’s a large complex of structures that appear to have no purpose other than possibly religious ones. The thing is, it was initially constructed 11,000 years ago, in a region that all the archaeological evidence points to still being inhabited by hunter-gatherers. Aside from the sheer surprise that foraging populations could organize enough to build something like that, its chronology implies that organized religion may have preceded farming.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. There’s an interesting case that religion partially started agriculture. The argument states that hunter gatherers, carrying the grains and fruits they favored, gathered at these religious cites year after year. Bags with holes, pits tossed aside, partially digested grains in “fertilizer,” built up along the roads and at the cites and over time, became numerous enough some people decided to stay.


          2. Harari describes a similar hypothesis, that carrying grains and other foods led to some falling out or left lying around, leading some seeds to take root and grow. Eventually this was noticed, and gradually people learned to control it. Temples would have been a good destination for that kind transport.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Have you read the Epic of Gilgamesh?

    From my perspective there seems to have been an effort by the author(s) to turn people from the temptations of a “savage” lifestyle. Almost like the language and narrative structure we use to persuade kids not to do drugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not directly, although I have read retellings. I could definitely see that happening on the parts about Enkidu, sort of an early version of Tarzan, the wild man that becomes Gilgamesh’s close friend. That tradition is many millenia after the transition to farming, although maybe it was inspired by still existing pockets of foragers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There were definitely hunter gatherers around in the 3rd millennia bc. The subtext in the Epic is that these people seemed to a major pia for the pastoralists and tended to shelter fugitives, which is perhapswhy the lifestyleis portrayedas a kind of temptation. At least, that’s my reading.

        The original is hilariously insane, btw. I recommend it.


        1. Oh, I don’t doubt there were still foragers around in the 3rd millennia bc, since there are foragers around today, albeit undoubtedly less now than back then.

          Thanks for the recommendation. Do you recommend any particular translation?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. NK Sandar’s translation was an enjoyable read for me.

            The Epic is really something else. From a modern person’s point of view it starts off as a really raunchy sex comedy, transitions into a “friends don’t let friends become foragers” type morality tale, then we have Enkidu and Gilgamesh smashing all the monsters of myth because boredom and then, around half way, it suddenly becomes a serious and beautiful examination of mortality.

            Noah and Moses are also in it. 🙂


  5. According to [1] “During the transition to agriculture of the Neolithic and Late Neolithic periods, the longevity for both men and women decreased significantly.”. Moreover “the measures of health decrease dramatically. Male height drops from nearly five foot ten in the Paleolithic to approximately five-three in the Late Neolithic, and the pelvic index drops by 22%. People were not only dying younger, they were dying sicker. Similar patterns were seen in the Americas during the transition period. Overall, the data shows that the transition to an agricultural lifestyle made people less healthy.”

    There is a good overview of this topic at [2].

    How many less “barbarian” societies were destroyed or assimilated by “more barbarian” people in mankind’s history? Destroyers typically did not hold in high regard people, whom they destroy.

    1. Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival. (New York: Random House, 2011)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the things I wonder about these types of analyses is whether they take into account the fact that sedentary societies have larger populations, and enable the survival of less fit individuals. Many of hunter gatherer remains, I suspect, show the much stronger selection pressure that existed for them, with less robust individuals probably not making it out of childhood.

      In a sedentary society, the less fit have a stronger chance at living a longer life. But the result is the average individual in that society is going to appear far less healthy than the average of the foraging one.

      Liked by 1 person

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