Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Beaker Revolution

The May 2018 issue of Current Archaeology features the Bell Beakers.  Here's one of the articles by Katherine Krakowka.


  1. If you'll excuse the diversion, I'd like to take you back to this prescient post from a few years ago.:

    Because I think the recent work on the Eurogenes blog has made Koch's theory about Celtic much more compelling.

    Consider a few things. First, that Eurogenes has a plot showing the Beaker genetics reliably maps coterminous to modern French and ... Germans, while separating themselves from modern Slavs and Balts. Further, his data plots suggest that at the time of the Tollense battle, proto-Slavic people were already a discrete genetic presence. And based on isotope studies of that battle, it most likely that they were, around the time of the Sea Peoples and the Mediterranean collapse, already in central Europe, in the area of Austria/Slovakia or Hungary, and that they were an advanced culture capable of raising large armies.

    The most parsimonious interpretation of all this is that Beakers at least at some point, across some geography, spoke Proto-Celtic/Italic/Germanic (proto-C/G/I). That a Slavic intrusion into central Europe is the explanation for the divergence of Germanic from Celt-Italic, and that this Slavic intrusion lasted till near the end of the Bronze Age, and would even be considered expansive. The easiest explanation for Tollense is that proto-Slavs were in part intermediaries carrying northern exotic goods to the eastern Mediterranean. They were exerting significant military power hundreds of miles from the place where their isotopic signature was formed, against people who seem to be more Germanic/Nordic in genetics.

    The collapse of the Sea Peoples must have hit the Slavic economy hard. Just at that point, the Atlantic economy is juiced by the Phoenician contact, energizing populations that are already vibrant and advanced. One urgent need is to cut off their Slavic rivals to the eastern Med markets.

    A small but expansive group of Atlantic Celtic speakers begins probing their Slavic neighbors, finds weakness, and exploits it, in a wave that only begins to recede after washing all the way to Galatia.

    Given the normal dynamics of such pulses, this likely happened over a fairly short time period - ie, not over the millennium which encompasses Hallstatt, La Tene and the early historical advances of the Celtic peoples, but rather, over the shorter time-period that encompasses just La Tene and early historic events. Hallstatt was actually the continuation of the Slavic presence, rather than the early Celtic presence.

    Even before the genetic material began to push this alternative, Koch was aware of the quandary, the need to separate Hallstatt and La Tene, and that's why he had done some tentative work on weaponry styles that seem to emanate from Celtic areas into La Tene. It is not surprising that a conquering Celtic culture might adopt the art and other trappings of an advanced culture. And indeed, this would be an elite imposition of language, since we know the genetics didn't change much.

    Maju, in a comment on your post, had pointed out that surely P-Celtic is derivative. But it made no sense to see P-Celtic as both derivative and expansive, yet to posit a recent (Hallstatt-era) central European homeland for Q-Celtic. It makes much more sense to see Q-Celtic as having expanded first, through the Atlantic Bronze, with P-Celtic then arising somewhere, and expanding in different directions during either Hallstatt, or more likely, La Tene.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Really I don't have a strong opinion on the matter. I think most Beakers spoke a common, late Indo-European macro of some sort. Beyond that I don't know. What I do find interesting is that the concentration of Beaker 'islands' across the continent correspond to places where Celts expanded in later times. Obviously Beakers did not speak Celtic, but it does indicate a similar preference for similar peoples and ways of life.

  2. A corollary of what I'm saying is that proto-Germanic presence south of Denmark was recent and on-going during late pre-history.

    But whose land were they taking? It makes little sense to me to think that the proto-Germanic speakers are making slow but steady advances into Celtic Hallstatt lands even as Celtic peoples are aggressively expanding in EVERY other direction - south into the Po, eastward to Galicia, westward to Spain, France and the British Isles.

    Instead, they were pulsing into Hallstatt territories opened up because the Celtic pulse across southern central Europe left isolated, weakened communities of proto-Slavic speakers, cut off from the larger Slavic lands and from the economy that once had once made them fearsome overlords of most of Europe.

    This seems to make more sense to me than to think that a Celtic Hallstatt was expanding confidently and aggressively southward into the Po Basin, eastward to Galatia and westward into Spain, France and Britain even as it's homeland was being nibbled away by slow but steady advances of Germanic tribes out of Scandinavia.

  3. I think my second post is too speculative and may not accord well with the timelines and archaeology. Perhaps I should focus on Urnfield as the avatar of proto-Slavic expansion across central and into northern Europe.

    Regardless, my core point is that the genetics seem to suggest that Beakers seem to have been speakers of something like proto-C/G/I, that a lasting Bronze Age Slavic presence seems to have isolated those who became proto-Germanic speakers from the proto-Celt-Italics, and that this makes the Atlantic Bronze Age the most likely forebears of proto-Celtic. That the Celtic expansion was likely an eastward moving P-Celtic pulse from the Atlantic into formerly proto-Slavic-speaking areas.

  4. A smaller point - what is most interesting about the Tollense battlefield is the conjunction of DNA with isotope studies. We know these people were near the shores of the Baltic in what is now Germany. We know that a moiety of them was genetically surprisingly close to modern Slavs. But critically, we also know they were from hundreds of miles south. Without the isotope studies, we know who but not much of the why. With the isotopes, we can begin to tell their stories.

    More broadly, now that we know that population movements did play a major role in pre-history, increasingly, it will be isotope studies that flesh out the skeleton of a story provided by the geneticists. If I were an isotope analyst, I would be pretty excited. They'll be at the forefront of coming advances in our knowledge of prehistory.