I’ve long been interested in learning more about my wild ancestors, the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Europe, in order to better understand who I am. Descriptions of them recorded by the ancient Greeks and Romans were too meager to satisfy my curiosity. Recently, I came across Barry Cunliffe’s book, Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC – AD 1000. Cunliffe is an archaeologist, and ongoing research is discovering many new pieces for the puzzle. His book serves readers a staggering amount of information.
Cave paintings have preserved beautiful memories of the wild paradise of ice age Europe, and the lucky people who enjoyed the continent in the days of its undiminished vitality. The party began breaking up around 9600 B.C., when a warmer climate returned. Glaciers melted and forests expanded northward into tundra country. Tundra critters like the reindeer and elk were forced to migrate further north. Others, like the mammoth and wooly rhino, walked off the stage.
The recovering forests provided habitat for smaller animals, like deer, elk, boars, and aurochs. Here’s a surprising notion: “This forest fauna amounted to only about 20-30 percent of the total biomass of herbivores that had roamed the tundra before them.” In a land of trees, there was far less meat nibbling on the foliage. Folks were forced to live in smaller and fewer settlements. Their population “drastically declined.” They preferred locations close to coastlines, lakes, rivers, and wetlands, where a year round supply of food could be gathered with little effort.
Meanwhile, over the border in Asia, dark juju was swirling in the Fertile Crescent. Between 12,000 and 9600 B.C., the number of permanent settlements was growing, based on hunting and foraging the (temporarily) abundant wild foods. Then came the ominous Aceramic Neolithic period (9600 – 6900 B.C.). By its end, people were growing fully domesticated cereals, and dining on domesticated sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. Cunliffe blames population issues for this shift, which has yet to stop clobbering the planet via seven billion unintended consequences.
The laborious new way of life worked for a while in Asia, but turned into a nightmare when supersized — large-scale irrigation-based agriculture, reckless forest mining, explosive population growth, bloody warfare, and full-blown civilizations run by power-crazy tyrants awash in testosterone. Few civilizations, if any, have ever managed to reverse their mistake and deliberately return to low impact living. Most self-destruct. It’s easier.
Geography has played a starring role in European history. The continent is a lumpy peninsula protruding from the posterior of Asia. It is largely surrounded by navigable seas, and interlaced with navigable rivers. Even in the days before roads, it was fairly easy to journey back and forth across it. The continent had immense forests, fertile soils, a nurturing climate, plenty of water, thriving wildlife and marine life, and large deposits of industrial minerals and precious minerals.
The Fertile Crescent, on the other hand, was an arid region that was poorly suited for supporting large complex societies. But to the west was a vast unmolested paradise, and there were few guards at the border crossings to Europe. Consequently, the wild hunter-gatherers of Europe were among the unluckiest people in the world, similar to the Native Americans in 1492. Their valuable assets were irresistible to the growing mobs of hungry farmers.
Cunliffe euthanized the myth of the Neolithic Revolution, which purported that the Asian farmers swept across Europe in a blitzkrieg, nearly exterminating the indigenous folk, as the white folks did in America. New evidence suggests that diffusion played a significant role in the spread of agriculture, similar to the spread of maize in the eastern U.S. Whenever the folks down the river start growing lots of calories, and feeding swarms of bambinos, your options are: (1) exterminate them, (2) take up the dirty habit, (3) flee, or (4) be overrun. Since farmers outbreed hunters, agriculture tends to spread like a steamroller.
Recent studies of mitochondrial DNA conclude that about 80 percent of European females are genetically indigenous, not related to Asian immigrants. In France, Germany, and northeast Spain, only 15 to 30 percent of males have immigrant genes.
In a nutshell, Europe was essentially a continent of hunter-gatherers in 7000 B.C., and by 4000 B.C. it was reduced to a sad gulag of farmers and herders. “The rapidity of the spread of the Neolithic way of life was remarkable.” According to Cunliffe, wild Europe disintegrated in the face of increased mobility, connectivity, innovation, and imbalance.
Mobility was stimulated by factors such as growing population, depleted soils, overgrazing, and bloodthirsty invaders. Connectivity was increased as trading networks expanded, often leading to tribal alliances led by cocky warlords. Innovation was the clever process of devising new ways for living farther out of balance with nature, a tireless war on the future. The Neolithic path was a devastating hurricane of countless forms of imbalance — population, hierarchy, warfare, technology, ecology, pathology.
Friendly traders who made it through the gauntlet of pirates and highwaymen delivered wine, weapons, jewelry, furs, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. Diseases delighted in paying regular visits to the filthy, malnourished communities, and providing much needed assistance in resolving family planning imbalances. Slave trading was a major industry.
In central Asia and southern Russia, ancestors of the Aryans hunted the fierce wild horses of the grassy steppes and ate them. Over time, they succeeded in reducing them to submissive beasts, and used them for hunting, herding, trading, and raiding — another brilliant innovation! Before long, Europeans on the plains were periodically being raped, pillaged, and slaughtered by scruffy hordes of horse-mounted Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, and Turks.
Equally catastrophic was the dark art of metalworking, another diabolical gift from the Middle East. The Bronze Age began around 3300 BC, and the Iron Age arrived around 1200 BC. The awesome new technology resulted in the deaths of millions of trees and people, and the permanent destruction of many mining regions.
Conflict was the core of the story. Every page I turned unleashed a thousand screams, as jets of hot blood squirted out of the book, forming a sticky puddle around my desk, page after page. They never tired of killing each other. This psychic epidemic — “grow or die” — has now driven us deep into the valley of the shadow of extinction. It’s a game we can neither win nor deliberately abandon. Everyone loses.
Native Americans have always been appalled by the immense craziness of the Europeans who washed up on their shores. Ward Churchill says that we suffer from a profound sense of identity confusion, having lost all connection to our tribal roots. John Trudell says we have become disconnected from spiritual reality. We have lost our identity and need to remember who we are. The cave paintings are the strongest medicine we have, along with our dreams.
Cunliffe’s 10,000-year tour tells us almost nothing about tribal Europeans living in relative harmony with the ecosystem, but it exhaustively describes the birth of disharmony, which is useful to understand. Many of the important lessons in life are learned from goofy unclever teachers, who demonstrate the wrong way to do something, and the Neolithic Europeans excelled at this, as did their descendants around the world.
They weren’t stupid or evil. It’s nearly impossible to intentionally stop or turn a complex society in motion. They were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had little choice but to be swept away by the roaring currents of their era, as we have been. But calmer waters lie downstream, and some folks may survive the journey. May they learn well from our mistakes, let the planet heal, and remember who they are.
Cunliffe, Barry, Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC – AD 1000, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.