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The Baltic Corded Ware: When the Herder met the Hunter
Is this the first known case of European farmer-herders 'going native'?
In general, farmers eventually win against hunters. It’s a dynamic we’ve seen play out on every continent, and with the exception of marginal and inhospitable geographies, farmers either push out or convert hunter-gatherers to agriculture. But the process isn’t linear nor inevitable in the short-term, and the strange interactions of the borders between still fascinate us - the Wild West, the frontier, the explorer entering the jungle. When Neolithic farmers first encountered European foragers, a whole range of relationships occurred, from warfare to peaceful co-mingling, and as the static farmers gave way to the incoming steppe herders yet more complex societies arose. One of these was the massive Corded Ware Culture, a huge territory of different sub-groups which practiced a mixed farming-pastoralist economy. Despite millennia of agricultural spread however, there were still pockets of hunter-gatherers in Europe, particularly on the northern coastlines. The story I want to outline here is the curious tale of when the Corded Ware moved into the eastern Baltic, encountering the amber-trading fisher-foragers, whose culture and customs dated back far beyond the Corded Ware, with echoes of the archaic Palaeolithic. But they were not eradicated, nor did the Corded Ware leave. Instead something new temporarily emerged, a hybrid society which we are only just beginning to understand.
Ceramic Foragers - Setting the Scene
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia occupy a unique geographical position in prehistory. A rich productive environment, situated on a sea which readily connects Sweden, Finland and northern Europe, and with easy access to the eastern grasslands and major river systems. The inhabitants of the eastern Baltic received pottery before the first farmers arrived, a forager technology which had slowly diffused across Eurasia, most likely with women marrying into neighbouring groups, bringing their ceramic-making skills to new people. Around the 6th millennium BC life was changing in this region. Much of the Baltic and Finnish/Karelian peoples had adapted to life with precious little flint, making use of slate, quartz, bones and other materials to make tools. As a result, long-distance trade routes had opened up down into northern Europe, bringing coveted amber and Polish ‘chocolate flint’, as well as red and green slates from northern Scandinavia and Lake Onega. Two broad cultures appear to develop between 5200-4200 BC - the Baltic Narva Culture and the larger Comb Ceramic Culture, which stretched from the eastern Baltic to the Urals. Genetically these were a mixture of Eastern and Western Hunter-Gatherers, although the ratios were different: about 70% Western and 30% Eastern for the Narva, and 65% Eastern and 15% Western for the Comb Ceramic, with an intriguing 20% Steppe Herder ancestry as well. Alongside these were a host of other smaller Mesolithic/Neolithic cultures - the Zedmar, the Neman - but we’ll try and keep things simple.
The Narva were one of those hunter-gatherer cultures that don’t make sense to modern ears. They were largely sedentary, made pottery and buried their dead in cemeteries. They constructed stone and wooden pit-houses, with indoor fireplaces that used large stones to keep the inside warm during the night. They fished, hunted seals, tracked deer, gathered wild fruits and traded amber for flint. Their world was one of rivers, marshes, coastlines, lagoons and small islands. It was into this watery scene that the Corded Ware and Globular Amphorae cultures arrived.
The term ‘Neolithic’ is worth highlighting for a moment. To western archaeologists the word refers to the novel package of people, technology and foods which arrived in Europe from Anatolia around the 7th millennium BC. To an archaeologist from eastern Europe the word means something else - thanks to the legacy of Soviet archaeological theory, ‘Neolithic’ refers to the process of a hunter-gatherer tribe becoming sedentary and eventually adopting agriculture, which starts with ceramics. For this reason we have a muddle of terms now for ceramic foragers in northern Europe - Mesolithic, sub-Neolithic, Neolithic - which describe largely sedentary, pottery-using hunter-gatherer-fishers.
When Did Farming Reach The Eastern Baltic?
If the Neolithic was traditionally defined as the emergence of sedentary, pottery-using farmers and pastoralists, how do we know when the Neolithic reached the Baltic? The Narva and other fisher-forager peoples were already stationary and already using ceramics. According to conventional wisdom, some kinds of domestic animals reached Lithuania around 5900 BC, their bones and teeth appearing in settlements, in graves and personal ornaments. But upon closer inspection, we can safely say this is nonsense. In a pretty damning paper from 2016 called Deconstructing the concept of Subneolithic farming in the southeastern Baltic, researchers got access to the archives of these supposed domestic animal remains and thoroughly debunked them:
An investigation proved that most of, or possibly all, the early farming “evidence” came from the wrong identification of the plant and animal species and incorrect dating of crop remains and domestic animal bones. The errors of dating were caused by the fresh water reservoir effect being ignored when dating the bulk lacustrine sediment samples, by the failure to evaluate the impact of the palimpsest and bioturbation phenomena on the formation of an archaeological layer, and by insufficient attention to stratigraphy and spatial documentation of the finds during very extensive archaeological excavations in the second half of the 20th century
This sounds very technical, but essentially it boils down to sloppy work. Teeth were incorrectly identified, animal bones which had been buried inside older layers were labelled Neolithic, when direct dating revealed them to be millennia younger. Despite excavators noting that Iron Age and Mesolithic pottery sherds were all mixed together, they still referred to the goats, sheep and cattle bones as Neolithic. When farmers plough, or dig ditches, or dig waste pits, it is easy for older objects to become tangled up with new. The earliest dates the 2016 paper could find for domesticated animals and crops was between 3200-2700 BC.
Fortunately these dates correspond fairly precisely with waves of pottery coming from the outside. Around 3200 BC ceramics from a culture called the Rzucewo turn up at Nida, Lithuania. Globular Amphorae remains start appearing at Šventoji in 2700 BC and somewhere between 2800-2400 the Corded Ware emerges into the eastern Baltic. The Globular Amphorae descend from a mixture of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Anatolian Neolithic farmers, whilst the Corded Ware shows a more complex mixture of Globular Amphorae and a connection to the Yamnaya-derived steppe herders who moved into central and western Europe around 3000 BC. The Rzucewo are a strange culture, and we’ll discuss them more as we go on.
It seems to be the case that the Narva maintained their culture and way of life after contact with the Globular Amphorae people, perhaps exchanging amber for vessels of dairy or cereals. The neighbouring Neman Culture in Poland/Belarus shows that the Narva swapped pottery for good flint, and that the Rzucewo people also traded in the mixed agricultural-foraging borderlands. But until the arrival of the Corded Ware proper, the Narva seem independent - carving elk head figurines, producing pottery with their distinctive crushed shell temper and hunting and fishing as they always had done.
Enter The Corded Ware
This isn’t the place to provide a detailed overview of the Corded Ware Culture, but suffice to say they were one of the most pivotal in European history - transmitting the Indo-European cultural and linguistic substrate which forms the foundation of European identity and her languages. The vast Corded Ware area can be sub-divided into smaller, more regional peoples - the Battle Axe, Single Grave and so on. Based around pastoralism and some agriculture, the economy of the Corded Ware was bound to come into conflict with local hunter-gatherers and settled dense agricultural zones.
Studies into Corded Ware diet and mobility indicate that they ate more protein enriched foods than the earlier Neolithic - potentially coming from dairy or from manuring their crops. Women had a more varied diet, ate more vegetable and grain-based foods and moved around more, a combination best explained by females travelling to marry into new groups. Corded Ware settlements are more rare than for previous Neolithic societies, which is often explained by their pastoralist lifestyle, and the eastern Baltic is no exception. Both human remains and habitation sites are unusual, in part due to the acidic soils of the Finnic-Baltic regions. Typically Corded Ware presence is identified by their distinctive pottery and stone battleaxes, as well as distinctive burial styles and grave goods. This was certainly a movement of new people into a new area, perhaps sons looking for new pasture land to accommodate growing herds. What they found was a mosaic landscape of rivers, dense oak forests, island chain coastlines and wetlands.
From what we can tell through pottery styles, the Baltic coastline underwent some profound cultural mixing. Looking at the two sites of Nida and Šventoji (Lithuania), we see that the Narva people of Nida seem to culturally blend with their Globular Amphorae neighbours to form the Rzucewo, who in turn adopt more Corded Ware elements as time goes on. At Šventoji there is no Rzucewo, just the appearance of Globular ceramics and then the intrusion of the Corded Ware. If this is confusing to readers, it is no less clear to the archaeologists paid to study it. It looks as though western Lithuania and northern Poland morphed into a shared agricultural-foraging zone, which was then occupied by the Corded Ware, who in turn pushed east and north. Evidence of violence on the few Rzucewo and Corded Ware skeletons we have show increased traumatic lesions, a man from Duonkalnis looks like someone attempted to scalp him, but he survived it. The time difference between Globular Amphorae pottery arriving at Nida and then Šventoji is about 500 years, an incredible length of time for a mere 55 mile difference.
The Corded Ware ‘Going Native’
My interest in this topic came from a line in a 2020 paper: Fishers of the Corded Ware Culture in the Eastern Baltic
Here, we present new AMS radiocarbon (14C) measurements, pollen and macrobotanical data from sediment samples and a portable fish screen, as well as technological, molecular and isotopic data obtained from ceramic vessels from three CWC sites in the eastern Baltic. Overall, our results indicate a de-Neolithisation process undergone by some CWC groups, particularly in lacustrine and coastal ecotones, and a shift to hunting, gathering and fishing.
De-Neolithisation means the process of agro-pastoralists ‘returning’ or changing their economies to hunting and gathering, a phenomenon which has happened many times in many places. For the Corded Ware it seems that the ecology of the eastern Baltic was initially not all that welcoming to their way of life - feeding herds in open fields and growing crops on rich soils. Instead they switched to fishing, hunting and combining their dairy and cereal produce with the fruits of the land. But there is more to this story than meets the eye.
In studying the diet of the eastern Baltic Corded Ware we have two main sources of data - firstly the food residues which have been absorbed into their pottery, and secondly the different isotope ratios in their bones. If the Corded Ware switched their diets from cattle, pigs, cereals and milk to wild fruits, deer, elk and fish, then we could expect to see that reflected in both their pottery and their bone collagen. But we don’t.
The isotope and molecular evidence combined show that the Early Neolithic ceramics from all cultures (i.e. RC, GAC and CWC) were used for the processing of aquatic resources, regardless of location or vessel type, compelling evidence for continuity in pottery use beyond the Neolithic transition. Except for the RC wares, the youngest samples, dating to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, had the highest frequency of aquatic biomarkers compared to the other Early Neolithic ceramics. In the majority of cases, the isotope data suggest these were organisms from either freshwater or brackish environments that characterise the region. Here, there is no evidence that pottery use radically changed with the introduction of domesticated animals. Intriguingly, the human stable isotope record shows dietary shift in the Neolithic period away from aquatic resources.
This, taken from a 2019 article looking at Corded Ware ceramics, paints a confusing picture. The Corded Ware did not adopt Narva ceramics, but their own pots match the Narva cultural signal of processing fish and seafood. Their bones clearly show that they ate domesticated animals and drank milk, but why then do their vessels say otherwise?
One likely possibility is that the Corded Ware bodies we have found reflect a particular type of person from that community - someone of a higher rank or caste, an elite - someone who fed on their traditional foods. This implies that Corded Ware pottery was being made to serve more people than just these elites, mimicking in effect the diet and habits of the local Narva. Did Corded Ware males marry Narva women who continued their traditions but with a different ceramic style?
Looking wider than just the Baltic coast, the Corded Ware in fact spread out across the sea, making connections and moving into Sweden and Finland, from where they traded different styles of ceramics, using different materials. Did they inherit a sailing tradition and sea-lanes from the coastal Narva and other ceramic foragers, did they rely on them to do the trading and sailing? We know that the foraging Comb Ceramic culture expanded from the Baltic coast to visit the Åland islands sometime in the 6th millennium BC. Clearly the Baltic sea was no impediment to these maritime peoples.
Genetic studies of these foragers and the incoming Corded Ware show that there was little to no Anatolian farmer admixture, suggesting the Globular Amphorae people did not marry into the Baltic Mesolithic peoples. In fact, one paper goes so far as to call the eastern Baltic a ‘genetic refugium’ for Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, those who were being driven north by the arrival of the Corded Ware? Ultimately the modern Baltic populations still carry the highest amount of Mesolithic Western Hunter-Gatherer ancestry today, indicating that the Narva and other forager-fisher peoples maintained a strong presence amongst the dominant Corded Ware culture.
How did the Corded Ware change when it moved into the eastern Baltic then? We’ve seen that their diet seemed to shift, at least for some. The Corded Ware settlements at first fall into a periphery-centre model, where the inland mobile Corded Ware differed from the coastal sedentary foragers. A Rzucewo double-burial indicates that both local and pastoralist customs were blending together as time went on.
Corded Ware burials still largely maintained their individualistic nature, rather than communal, but barrows seem to disappear in as a traditional practice. The inclusion of horses and wagons decreases and amber artefacts increase - all commensurate with a mobile people having to adapt to new conditions. It’s likely that the settled communities around the coastline, with their skill at collecting and producing amber objects for trade and links with overseas groups, drew the Corded Ware from their inland comfort zone to the edge of the Baltic and then beyond. In the process of mastering this new civilisational zone, the Corded Ware switched to harvesting the rich and plentiful foods on offer, whilst maintaining their own distinctive way of life. In turn the Narva and other foragers were attracted by the prestige of new animals and crops, but steadfastly refused to become agriculturalists, preferring to maintain their old customs. I’ll leave this here with some thoughts from Christian Lindqvist (1987):
The late agricultural activities in north-eastern Europe as well as other Baltic Sea areas are probably due to the fact that the Corded Ware culture expanded into vast areas with dense forests and woodlands with fairly rich large-game fauna, and coasts with extremely rich aquatic resources, supporting a comparatively dense population of more or less permanently settled, pottery-using hunters, fishers and gatherers... The spread of domesticated animals to northeast Europe was nevertheless inhibited for thousands of years, probably due to the fact that this environment was not suitable for the Mediterranean domesticates, and that there still existed a comparatively rich fauna and flora, which was utilized by a hunting and gathering population.