Northern Europeans Were Not So Sold on Farming

A new study of ancient beads shows “an enduring cultural boundary” between northern and southern Europe during the Neolithic Age

Patrik Giardino/Corbis

Europe is associated with fertile fields and miles of farms, and archaeologists have long known that the practice dates back as far as 8,000 years. But not all early Europeans were into farming—and new research shows that the early peoples of northern Europe actually rejected the practice.

In a new study, an international team of researchers looked at farming practices during the Early Neolithic Period (8,000-5,000 B.C.). They didn’t go looking for tools or ancient fields, however. Instead, they turned to beads to figure out how farming spread throughout Neolithic cultures.

Though researchers knew the spread of farming influenced the types of beads that were worn and traded, they didn’t know how farming spread from Greece to the rest of the continent. So they looked at over 200 types of beads found at more than 400 sites in Europe over a period spanning 3,000 years. When they analyzed the beads, they found “an enduring cultural boundary” between Northern Europe and the rest of the continent during the period in question.

Ornaments linked to farmers just didn’t exist in northern Europe during the time period they studied. And the way in which the beads were distributed ruled out the possibility that the difference was merely due to availability of materials. For example, though shells were available in the Baltic, early Neolithic peoples there didn’t make beads out of them (unlike their neighbors to the south). Instead, northern peoples clung to beads associated with foraging populations.

“This discovery goes beyond farming,” explains Solange Rigaud, the study’s lead author, in a release. “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.” Rigaud says that her team’s research shows that, at least during the Neolithic period, farming didn’t advance in the north like it did in the south.

The team hopes this research can form the foundation for future studies about how genes and cultural traits moved through Europe in ancient times. They may have sowed their seeds thousands of years ago, but the new study will join other revelations, like the fact that early farmers endured boom and bust cycles that dramatically affected their populations, to try to piece together just how farming changed the face of Europe.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.