Europa was a Phoenician princess whose beauty captivated the Greek god Zeus. Disguising himself as a bull, Zeus joined a herd on the seashore, and, feigning gentleness, persuaded Europa to climb on his back. Thereupon he rushed into the sea and swam to Crete, where Europa later gave birth to his son Minos. The myth reminds us that ‘the seashore is a liminal place where unexpected things can happen’. It also highlights Europe’s intimate – perhaps even decisive – relationship with the sea.
Barry Cunliffe has spent 50 years studying the past through its archaeological remains. He has established a pre-eminent reputation for mastery of a huge corpus of Europe-wide data, and an ability to construct panoramic overviews of past epochs. His latest book is his most ambitious so far: nothing less than an attempt to synthesise 10,000 years of European history. His aim is to answer a question of huge world-historical significance: what made Europe special, such that it eventually grew to dominate the globe?
It’s the geography, stupid!
At first, the triumph of Europe can seem surprising. Geographically it is but ‘an excrescence of Asia’, and the first great civilisations were those based on the Nile, the Tigris/Euphrates, the Indus, and the Yellow rivers. By comparison, Early Europe can appear peripheral and backward.
Yet Europe is uniquely blessed by its distinctive geography. Its long and deeply indented coastline is 23,000 miles long – equal to the circumference of the Earth – and it is bounded by great seaways: the Baltic, the North Sea, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. No European is ever far from the sea; as Socrates put it, Europeans cluster like ‘ants or frogs around a pond’. Equally, Europe’s rivers are numerous, long, and highly navigable. The Volga, the Dnieper, the Vistula, the Oder, the Elbe, the Rhine, the Seine, the Loire, the Garonne, the Ebro, the Po, the Danube: these and others have been Europe’s great thoroughfares for thousands of years.
Though dissected by mountain ranges, there are ways through. The Middle European Corridor runs from the steppes of South Russia, through the Danube’s Iron Gates, across the Hungarian Plain, and on into Western Europe. The North European Plain is an open expanse extending from the Paris Basin to Moscow. Both have been routeways of mass movement across Europe from the Neolithic to the Nazis. North-south movement is harder, but the rivers help, and the mountains are crossed by numerous passes. None of the ranges constitutes an impenetrable barrier.
This topography harbours a greater variety of eco-zones than in any other area of comparable size on Earth. The Gulf Stream, originating in the tropics and sweeping around the western, northern, and eastern fringes of the Atlantic, moderates the European climate and shapes a series of distinct zones – the frozen tundra of the far north, the cold forests of the taiga belt of Northern Russia and Scandinavia, the wide temperate zone of mixed-oak woodland in Western Europe, the open steppe-land of Central and Eastern Europe, the warm Mediterranean littoral hemmed in between mountain and sea in the far south.
The effect, argues Cunliffe, is decisive for the development of economy, society, and culture. Historians of the French Annales school have taught us to distinguish between events, ‘conjunctures’, and the longue durée. The Battle of Britain was an event. The Second World War – along with the events leading up to it, and the consequences flowing from it – represents a conjuncture. But, it is the development of global capitalism from the late 18th century to the present that is decisive in framing and shaping contemporary human experience: this is the longue durée. And it is this which, argues Cunliffe, ‘is geographical time – a time of landscapes that enable and constrain, of stable and slow developing technologies and of deep-seated ideologies.’
The Mesolithic crisis
Around 18,000 BC, the ice of the last great glaciation began to melt. Between 12,700 and 9600 BC, climate change was rapid, with sharp fluctuations, but by about 8,000 BC temperatures had settled to a level comparable with today’s. Not until c.5000 BC, however, did Europe finally take its present shape, following the breaking of land-bridges and the flooding of the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Black Sea. The gradual warming meant a protracted, slowly evolving crisis for Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. The replacement of the open tundra roamed by great beasts with, instead, a variety of eco-zones dominated by thick woodland probably cut the bio-mass of wild animals available to hunters to a mere 20-30% of what it had been.
The result was a diversity of responses, adapting to different environments, but with the waterways – rivers, lakes, deltas, estuaries, and seashores – especially favoured for the range and richness of their resources. In particular, there was the Atlantic littoral, where ‘the upwelling of nutrient-rich deep ocean waters, the warming Gulf Stream, and the abundance of river estuaries combine together to create one of the most varied and welcoming coastal regions in the world.’ The famous shell-middens are probably not representative of the main forms of subsistence: a single red deer has the same food value as 50,000 oysters! It is more likely the shell-fish were a fall-back in hard times rather than a staple.
While hinterland groups probably remained wholly nomadic, waterfront groups on the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Baltic seaboards were sometimes successful enough to become sedentary, or at least semi-sedentary, perhaps with twice-yearly seasonal migration, or with a permanent base from which food-acquisition parties would be sent out. Sedentary lifestyles meant increasing social complexity, represented by food storage, grave goods, and art objects.
So successful were the seaboard foragers of the European Mesolithic that they were to hold out for a thousand years against the temptations of the ‘Neolithic Revolution’. Between c.5500 and 5100 BC, the Neolithic spread rapidly from the Balkans, through the Hungarian Plain, to Northern and Western Europe. But then it came to a halt, forming a frontier with the foragers of the Baltic, the North Sea coasts, and such enclaves as Brittany and Galicia. The Ertebølle culture of Southern Scandinavia – Late Mesolithic communities of sedentary foragers – co-existed for 1500 years with the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture of Middle European Neolithic farmers 200km to the south. The frontier was formed of the uninviting glacial clays, sands, and gravels of the North European Plain – though there was movement across, with the Ertebølle people learning from their distant southern neighbours how to grind axes and make pots.
Then, quite suddenly, the Neolithic tide swelled and flowed again. In the years 4300 to 3800 BC, Brittany, Britain, and the Baltic went Neolithic. Why? ‘The equilibrium of a socio-economic system is delicate, and a small dislocation at a single point can trigger change throughout.’ Perhaps, in this case, a mix of rising sea-levels and climate change both destroyed Mesolithic foraging environments and at the same time made cereal production more efficient.
British type-site: Star Carr
Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering (Yorkshire) is a partially waterlogged Mesolithic site that was excavated by Graham Clark between 1949 and 1951. Occupied around 7500 BC, the seasonal settlement was located on the marshy fringes of a post-glacial lake, where there would have been an abundance of natural resources: a typical Mesolithic choice.
The site yielded abundant evidence – in the form of tools and animal remains – for Mesolithic hunting. The flint tools included burins, borers, and end-scrapers, and these seem to have been used for working antler, since barbed spearheads of antler were also found.
More than half the animals hunted – by weight of meat – were wild cattle, followed in order by elk, red deer, roe deer, and wild pig. Smaller animals, including pine marten, red fox, and beaver, were also taken. Probably, everything would have been used: these animals were a source of food, but also yielded antler, horn, bone, leather, and furs. But why were there no fishbones? No-one is sure.
The faunal remains were closely studied to establish the killing season, and these showed that the settlement had been occupied only in late spring and summer.
How did the people of Star Carr hunt? The shoulder-bones of two elks and one red deer bore healed lesions produced by flint-tipped spears or arrows. The fact that these animals had been attacked at close range and escaped – only to be caught later – seems to imply a stalking strategy by one or a few hunters, rather than the stampede system, where animals are driven into a prepared ambush or trap by a large group working together.
Recent research has also shown that wood was worked at Star Carr, possibly using antler wedges, apparently for the construction of some sort of artificial platform. The samples in question represent the earliest worked wood from anywhere in the world.
The Neolithic pioneers
DNA studies are revolutionising the old argument between ‘diffusionists’ and ‘evolutionists’. The diffusionists argued that good ideas spread from one or a few ‘advanced’ centres of innovation to the ‘developing world’ by means of invasion, migration, or trade. The supreme example of this was the notion that the great civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia acted as a beacon of progress for Europe to follow: ex oriente lux – ‘light from the East’.
The evolutionists, by contrast, stressed the creativity of human beings generally, the inventiveness and adaptation of different societies, and the way in which many different and largely independent paths of social evolution could be detected in the archaeological record. When radiocarbon dating proved that many of the great monuments of prehistoric Europe pre-dated the pyramids of Egypt and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the evolutionary view was greatly strengthened.
Now a new scientific revolution is forcing us to re-think yet again. DNA studies can map the past movements of human groups. The picture emerging today is a mixed one. Sometimes the adoption of farming is associated with a new population group coming into an area. The first European farmers, arriving in Eastern Greece in 7500-6500 BC, seem to have been immigrants from Asia who had crossed the Aegean. The ‘Neolithic package’ – cultivated crops, domesticated animals, polished axes, permanent settlements, spinning and weaving, pottery, baked-clay figurines – appears suddenly in the archaeological record alongside the burials of people with a distinctive ‘Asian’ DNA.
Yet again, European geography was decisive: the Neolithic colonists had come by sea. As early as 11,000 BC, Mesolithic cave-dwellers on the mainland had obtained obsidian for making tools from the island of Melos, 120km away. Now, it seems, boat-loads of ‘economic migrants’ – as we must assume them to have been – were moving in search of land to establish pioneer farming colonies. They went first to Cyprus, Crete, and Thessaly. Slowly, the new system spread across the Balkans, and then, from about 5500 BC, when it reached the Hungarian Plain, it swelled into a great tide of change, sweeping across Middle and Western Europe, establishing a more or less uniform LBK culture which eventually extended from the Paris Basin to the Dnieper. The pioneers had spread down the Danube and the Middle European Corridor.
Probably, the LBK farmers were the colonisers of virgin forest. They created clearances and began to cultivate the rich loëss soils of Middle Europe, constructing settlements on upper terraces of valleys, clear of marsh and flood-water, but close to the resources of the rivers. Their settlements were formed of groups of massive long-houses, 30-40m in length, 5m wide, evidence no doubt for a kinship-based social system of extended-family groups.
What drove them? At first, perhaps, population pressure, and then, as forest was cleared and people had fields, food-stores, and herds to protect, war may have driven the weak further into the wilderness. At Talheim in south-west Germany, a ‘death-pit’ of Early LBK date was found to contain 34 individuals, 16 of them children, and most of the bodies bore the marks of violence, mainly from axe-blows to the back of the head, though three had been shot from behind by flint-tipped arrows. Ethnic cleansing is not new, it seems.
A different pattern in the Mediterranean. Here, ‘it was the sea that set the pace’ in what was ‘a time of exploration, seafaring, and island colonisation’. The Neolithic pioneers seem to have leapfrogged from place to place along the seaboard, carrying their cultural package 2,500km from Greece to Portugal over a period of about 500 years. They were at Grotta dell’Uzzo in Sicily by about 5700 BC. Overlying the Mesolithic layers among the deep prehistoric occupation deposits that survive in this cave are Neolithic layers characterised by the remains of wheat, barley, lentils, vetchlings, beans, peas, cattle, sheep/goat, and pig. Soon afterwards, pottery appears. The change was gradual. Wild animals and foods were still represented; but the cultivates and domesticates became steadily more dominant.
British type-site: Windmill Hill
Period: Early Neolithic
The causewayed enclosure at Windmill Hill (Wiltshire) lies on a commanding height in the midst of a huge ritual landscape that includes Avebury and Silbury Hill. But virtually all of the numerous barrows and circles around it are later, often by as much as 2,000 years. Windmill Hill is a monument of the Early Neolithic: it was built around 3700 BC and used intensively for the next 350 years. It is the ‘founder monument’ of the entire prehistoric complex.
At 8.5ha, Windmill Hill was one of the largest causewayed camps in England. It comprised three roughly concentric rings of interrupted ditches flanked by internal banks. The ditches were filled with domestic rubbish, and appear to have been periodically cleared out and re-cut. Infants were found buried on the ditch floors, and other human remains were recovered from the ditch fills.
Excavated in the 1920s by Alexander Keiller, the site yielded an abundance of flint tools, pottery fragments, and animal bones, such that ‘Windmill Hill culture’ is the name often given to Early Neolithic assemblages in Southern Britain.
The animal bones are overwhelmingly from domesticates (60% cattle, 24% sheep, and 16% pig), and cut-marks reveal that flint tools were used to skin cattle, presumably to make clothes and other items from the hides.
Debate continues about the function of causewayed enclosures. Probably they were multi-purpose, being places of political assembly, ritual and funerary activity, and occasionally community defence. What seems certain is that they represent a new economic and social order based on farming, one in which people were grouped into sizeable kinship-based units for control of territory, with enclosures like Windmill Hill acting as central places for forging political unity and creating a common cultural identity.
Europe in her infinite variety
‘It can fairly be said,’ Cunliffe concludes, ‘that in the two thousand years or so, from the time that the pioneer farmers from south-western Asia unloaded their animals and seed corn on the flower-decked coasts of eastern Greece until a very different crew made a precarious landfall on the remote islands of Shetland, to set up their homesteads in what by any standards was a marginal environment verging on the hostile, the very foundations of European society were established. Throughout the peninsula and its islands, farming now underpinned human existence, offering a new stability. Communities became sedentary, enmeshed in networks of gift exchange that were soon to drive technology and lead society to greater heights of complexity.
‘The rapidity of the spread of the Neolithic way of life was remarkable. While there can be no doubt that the indigenous Mesolithic populations played an active role, contributing massively to the gene pool of the emerging farming societies and providing an ambience of mobility, there was also an inbuilt ethic of pioneering that drove the early farmers inexorably forwards to the limits of Europe, by land, through the deciduous forests of the north, and by sea, land-hopping through the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.’
Barry Cunliffe’s Europe between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD 1000, Yale University Press.
Thanks to Sarah Faulkner of Yale University Press for assistance with pictures.
Part Two: How Greece and Rome surpassed the achievements of the first civilisations.