An analysis of more than 200 bead-types found at more than 400 sites over a 3,000-year period suggests Northern Europeans in the Neolithic period initially rejected the practice of farming, which was otherwise spreading throughout the continent.
“This discovery goes beyond farming,” says lead author Solange Rigaud, a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, a collaborative arrangement between France’s National Center for Scientific Research and New York University.
“It also reveals two different cultural trajectories that took place in Europe thousands of years ago, with southern and central regions advancing in many ways and northern regions maintaining their traditions.”
For the new study, researchers focused on the adoption or rejection of ornaments—certain types of beads or bracelets worn by different populations, an approach they say is suitable for understanding the spread of specific practices.
Previous scholarship has shown a link between the embrace of survival methods and the adoption of particular ornaments. But the new study, published in PLOS ONE, marks the first time ornaments have been used to trace the adoption of farming in this part of the world during the Early Neolithic period (8,000-5,000 BCE).
The first farmers came to Europe 8,000 years ago, beginning in Greece and marking the start of a major economic revolution on the continent: the move from foraging to farming over the next 3,000 years. However, the pathways of the spread of farming during this period are less clear.
Earlier research has linked farming and foraging populations with the creation and adornment of discrete types of beads, bracelets, and pendants. The new findings trace the adoption of ornaments linked to farming populations in order to elucidate the patterns of transition from foraging and hunting to farming.
The spread of ornaments linked to farmers—human-shaped beads and bracelets composed of perforated shells—stretch from eastern Greece and the Black Sea shore to France’s Brittany region and from the Mediterranean Sea northward to Spain.
By contrast, these types of ornaments were not found in the Baltic region of northern Europe. Rather, this area held on to decorative wear typically used by hunting and foraging populations—perforated shells rather than the beads or bracelets found in farming communities.
“It’s clear hunters and foragers in the Baltic area resisted the adoption of ornaments worn by farmers during this period,” Rigaud says. “We’ve therefore concluded that this cultural boundary reflected a block in the advancement of farming—at least during the Neolithic period.”
The French Ministry of National Education, Research, and Technology, the Fyssen Foundation, and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Action funded the work.
Other researchers from CNRS and from the University of Bergen in Norway are coauthors of the study.