Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Swiss-German border Beaker economy - A Brand New Thing

Bell Beakers on the Swiss/German border lived in different types of places, ate different foods, did different things and in a different time period from the preceding Corded Ware folk.

If you look at the previous blog post featuring a presentation on Moravian Beakers by Matějíčková and Dvořák, you'll find a similar reference to discontinuity from a previous layer of Corded folk in the Czech region.

"According to our pattern of reasoning (Fig. 1) discontinuity between the settlement phases connected to CW and BB material cultures, as well as continuity between BB culture and EBA, becomes visible. It can be seen foremost in the use of different parts of landscapes for plant and animal production, as indicated in the pollen record and in the macro remains."

[CW = Corded Ware] 
[BB = Bell Beaker] 
[EBA = Early Bronze Age]

"Advanced Cat Skinning"  Fig.1 (Lechterbeck et al, 2014)

 How was Bell Beaker economy related to Corded Ware and Early Bronze Age lifestyles?  Archaeological, botanical and palynological evidence from the Hegau, Western Lake Constance region   (Lechterbeck, Kerig, Kleinmann, Sillmann, Wick, Rösch, 2014)


"The Europe wide spread of what has been called the Bell Beaker phenomenon remains an enigma of European prehistory. While most of the recent research stresses the ideological aspects of using Bell Beaker material culture, here we take a regional and economical perspective. We look for the chronological relationships and the economic choices of the Bell Beaker phase and of its closest neighbours in time and space: the Late Neolithic Corded Ware and the Early Bronze Age. We focus on the regional archaeological settlement history and present the hitherto richest European Bell Beakerassociated collection of palaeobotanical macro-remains, together with our high-resolution palynological work on annually laminated lake sediments. These different lines of evidence are tied together by an absolute chronology derived from new radiocarbon accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) dates (now more than 200) and from the dendrodates from the World Heritage wet preserved pile dwellings. We show the preceding Late Neolithic, the actual Bell Beaker, and the following Early Bronze age economies each relying on different agricultural strategies that focus on distinct parts of the landscape. There is no link obvious between Late Neolithic and Bell Beaker, but there is between Bell Beaker and Early Bronze Age.  Related to different modes of production, differences in ideology become visible in food preferences as well as in other parts of the material culture. We conclude that the Bell Beaker economy represents a  reorientation of the mode of production focusing on single, rather small farmsteads which often do not leave a distinct signal in the archaeological record."


  1. I'm perplex by the claims of "discontinuity" without a further comprehensive analysis of pre-CW sites (Danubian Neolithic, cum Megalithism in this case). There is a single BB site and 19 (!!!) CW sites, and they are in different districts, so it seems almost impossible to think in terms of replacement.

    What the study seems to say in fact is that in the BB horizon (not necessarily BB culturally in every site but this aspect is not analyzed), the economy becomes more agricultural again after a mostly herder CW phase.

    I think it is very important to differentiate between the "BB age" and the BB culture as such. For example in Thuringia we have the Kromsdorf site, which was dubbed BB by Lee 2012 but, in hindsight, is just an amorphous "BB age" (and possibly also "CW age") site, which shows no specific cultural affiliation. These Kromsdorf people, genetically, resemble much more the previous Danubian farmers, the Corded Ware people (Haak 2008, Brandt 2013) and the later Unetice culture people of the same area but not the BB people of that geography (massively dominated by mtDNA H, per Adler 2012). [For a synthesis of this genetic evolution in Germany see:]

    So, while there is almost certainly, some discontinuity between CW and BB, and almost certainly also the BB horizon (but not necessarily the BB "people" themselves) sets the stage for the Latest Chalcolithic (aka "Early Bronze") developments, probably by means of partly restoring the more sound socio-economy of the Danubian (LBK) era, this can't be linearly interpreted as some sort of mysterious BB "people" arriving from nowhere as mass colonists, first of all because the "BB people" are not that common in the "BB era" but rather, as the study underlines in the intro, some sort of "elitist" cultural phenomenon. These elites probably helped to set straight the herder excesses of the Corded Ware phase but, just as, in the memorable quote of Bertolt Brecht, Caesar didn't conquer Gaul alone, the BB elites had to rely on some sort of commoner workforce, element that is almost certainly native and culturally "amorphous", ill-defined, just as the Kromsdorf people were.

    Of course, genetically speaking, "BB people" carried elements that have helped to shape modern genetics of the area but I strongly suspect that these elements are largely pre-BB and should be mostly related to a demographically more impacting phenomenon that preceded both BB and CW: Megalithism. For the demographic estimates see:

    One question that I have is whether the BB burial type, so similar to CW one in many aspects, yet also different, is nearly restricted to the areas of previous CW establishment, because when I read about BB in SW Europe, it seems to be totally unrelated, not following the "canon" at all but rather displaying some BB elements such as the beaker or others in otherwise locally continuous cultural contexts, such as megalithic tombs. See for example:

    1. PS- I feel that I left the last paragraph a bit lacking. Taking from it:

      ... If so, shouldn't we consider "canon" BB (essentially found only in Central and Northern Europe) as some sort of CW-derived development, regardless of whatever Western influences it has, but also a reaction to CW "excesses"? The fact that the burial standard by gender of BB (women on their right) is exactly the inverse of CW (women on their left) suggests both a heritage and a confrontation. I know that this is interpretative and hence speculative but doesn't make sense that if CW was overly disruptive, yet also strongly influential, this BB phenomenon represents in this area a stabilizing reaction that both accepts the CW consummated fact and recycles/reforms it into a something more effective and stable?

  2. About a year ago I did some research on the celestial alignment in flexed burials (everywhere). This alone is an interesting topic, but what I discovered is that the CW and BB styles could both independently have separate burial origins as a possibility and similarity could be coincidental. Although I would agree with you here that the likely answer comes from borrowing and differentiating.

    1. "what I discovered"

      Would what you discovered plausibly fit a common tradition that split in two i.e. a source population that went in two different directions, and then bumped into each other again at some later time?

  3. Possibly. Well...likely depending how far you want to go back.
    The dichotomous flip flops between neighboring flexed-burial groups can be seen in other populations as in North Africa, particularly pre-dynastic upper and lower Egypt. But you even see this as far away as the Americas where flexed inhumations of women are flipped or two neiboring populations are flipped from each other. So with regards to Beaker and Corded folk, there could be an earlier genetic relation, intermarriage between groups, a religious element or it could mean nothing.

    I'll point out though, there is less diversity in modern burial practices (within modern single cultures) than there has been in the last ten thousand years. Cremation, reburial, multiple burial, disarticulation, excarnation, exposure and bog burial are all within the natural variation for the proto-typical Beaker, same for Corded Ware, Jastorf, Urnfield, Middle Neolithic, etc etc.

    This is partly why I am concerned about the genetics community properly identifying good ancient candidates for testing with good chronologies, good radio dates and uncontestable cultural contexts. Several so far have not been...