Friday, August 13, 2010

More on European hunter-gatherers

Medieval (?) ice cellar for meat storage (Sweden). Link: runlama
In northern climates, the yearly cycle of changing temperatures encouraged humans to think ahead to the next season.

My last post mentioned the debate over the provenance of present-day Europeans. Do they descend from the hunter-gatherers of Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic Europe? Or were those people a dead end? Were they replaced by Middle Eastern farmers when agriculture spread into Europe 9,000 to 3,000 years ago?

This debate will eventually be settled when we can genetically compare late European hunter-gatherers with early European farmers. And ‘eventually’ is not far off. Much data will come on-stream over the next three years, probably enough to end the debate. The evidence will probably show that European hunter-gatherers did adopt farming, but not all of them to the same extent. Some did so before others and thus expanded at the latter’s expense. So my hunch is that European farming spread both culturally and demographically. The early farmers were not a random sample of the late hunter-gatherers.

But why is there so much resistance to the idea that European hunter-gatherers became farmers? One reason is that hunter-gatherers do not easily take to farming. This is a point that the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins made. Becoming a farmer is not just a matter of learning new techniques. It’s also a matter of acquiring a different outlook that is geared to future consumption. “Short-term pain for long-term gain.” Food has to be planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, and stored for winter.

Such a trade-off is rare in hunter-gatherer societies. There’s no point in tending a plot of land because you’re constantly on the move. There’s also no point in holding on to stuff because it has to be carried around.

As Sahlins (2005) puts it:

The hunter, one is tempted to say, is "uneconomic man". At least as concerns non subsistence goods, he is the reverse of that standard caricature immortalised in any General Principles of Economics, page one. His wants are scarce and his means (in relation) plentiful. Consequently he is "comparatively free of material pressures", has "no sense of possession", shows "an undeveloped sense of property", is "completely indifferent to any material pressures", manifests a "lack of interest" in developing his technological equipment.

Sahlins quotes from a monograph on the Yahgan Indians:

They do not know how to take care of their belongings. No one dreams of putting them in order, folding them, drying or cleaning them, hanging them up, or putting them in a neat pile. If they are looking for some particular thing, they rummage carelessly through the hodgepodge of trifles in the little baskets. Larger objects that are piled up in a heap in the hut are dragged hither and thither with no regard for the damage that might be done them.

The European observer has the impression that these (Yahgan) Indians place no value whatever on their utensils and that they have completely forgotten the effort it took to make them. Actually, no one clings to his few goods and chattels which, as it is, are often and easily lost, but just as easily replaced [...] The Indian does not even exercise care when he could conveniently do so. A European is likely to shake his head at the boundless indifference of these people who drag brand-new objects, precious clothing, fresh provisions and valuable items through thick mud, or abandon them to their swift destruction by children and dogs [...] Expensive things that are given them are treasured for a few hours, out of curiosity; after that they thoughtlessly let everything deteriorate in the mud and wet. The less they own, the more comfortable they can travel, and what is ruined they occasionally replace. Hence, they are completely indifferent to any material possessions.

For all these reasons, farming has spread more through the expansion of an existing population of farmers than through the conversion of hunter-gatherers.

Sahlins based his conclusions on those hunter-gatherer groups that exist today, generally tropical or semi-tropical groups like the !Kung and the Australian Aborigines. We know much less about the hunter-gatherers who used to roam across Europe. But we do know that they were more future-oriented and possession-oriented.

First, the changing seasons imposed a yearly cycle of resource availability. Natural selection thus favored humans who could plan their behavior with an eye to the next season. For example, it favored the construction of “ice cellars”—deep storage pits dug down to the permafrost as a way to store meat for future use (Hoffecker 2002, p. 161).

Second, the colder climate limited the number of game animals per square kilometer, thus forcing hunters to cover a larger land surface. This in turn favored a capacity to generate mental models of animal movement over space and time. It also favored a capacity (or rather a willingness) to manage traps and snares by periodically checking them.

As Hoffecker (2002, p. 135) notes about early modern humans, tools and weapons were more complex at arctic latitudes than at tropical latitudes. “Technological complexity in colder environments seems to reflect the need for greater foraging efficiency in settings where many resources are available only for limited periods of time.”

Non-tropical humans coped with seasonal variation in resources by planning ahead. They were thus “pre-adapted” for later developments in cultural evolution, including the advent of agriculture.


Hoffecker, J.F. (2002). Desolate Landscapes. Ice-Age Settlement in Eastern Europe. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Martin, G. (1961). The Yamana, 5 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files. (German edition 1931).

Sahlins, M. (2005).
The Original Affluent Society [Online] in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics


Matt said...

I believe there is a higher degree of sedentism and accumulation among Pacific Northwestern hunter gatherers compared to other hunter gatherers across the world.

Europe is relatively ecologically similar to the Pacific Northwest (similar maritime climates), so I've wondered whether there was any degree of parallel amongst pre-Neolithic populations there, and whether this would affect their ability to adapt to farming.

I am not aware of any evidence of the above though. There are some findings of "Mesolithic houses" in Northwestern Europe (at least in the British Isles) that I am aware of, but the relatively frequency of this phenomenon is world terms and the era is something I am not sure about.

Tod said...

Interesting as always. While I'm sure that this post gives a very big part of the explanation John Manning's ideas on the effect of oestrogenisation may also be relevant.

Ben10 said...

Very interesting. Maybe you should precise what you mean by 'farming'.

Catle herders might have been partially sedentarized if the weither in postglacial europe allowed grass to come back quickly in the pasture, and completely sedentarized if farmers could get enough hay for winter. With hay, you get milk and fresh meat at home, without it you still need to move your herd in winter which is not much better than a hunter.

VG said...

What's also striking about that picture is that it looks like a perfect arch, well before the Romans developed it.

Ben10 said...

My grandfather was a farmer, living mostly on cows for the milk. He had cows, pigs, chickens and ducks, rabits, very little crops beside some potatoes. If you can feed the animals who feed you, you're good. That means hay for winter, mostly. People say that wheat and related crops are the most energy-efficient source of protein, but they forget to mention that cows spend a lot of their energy grazing. They feed themselves. This energy should be taken into account in the balance for protein production because somebody has to spend it. A farmer who has only crops will have to spend this energy himself: sort the seeds, fertilize and prepare the soil for seeding, harvesting, it's a lot of work.
All I remember with cows is that you have to work hard for the hay in summer, that's it. Cows fertilize themselves the pasture. You move them to the next pasture then back to the first, and everyday you get their milk. It's really not much work, perfect for kids. Most cattle herders farmers have plenty of time to go hunting/fishing and put extra meat on the table.

urogallus said...


I am not an expert of prehistoric architecture, but that 'ancient ice cellar' looks more like 17th-19th century CE cellar than something prehistoric. I have seen similar cellars in Värmland, near the border between Sweden and Norway. And as far as I know, meat was storaged dried or smoked, not on ice. And I also strongly suspect that cellars could survive for thousands of years. Roots of the trees and frost destroy cellars in centuries or even in decades.

Very interesting blog, btw.

Anonymous said...

“Technological complexity in colder environments seems to reflect the need for greater foraging efficiency in settings where many resources are available only for limited periods of time.”

That is why complex agrarian civilizations developed in Siberia, Northern Scandinavia and Groenland while the southern people (Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites ans Persians) lived like savages. If I understand well, when northern people are successful this is because they are inherently smart; when southern people are successful this is thanks to the climate.

Matt said...

"the southern people (Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites ans Persians) lived like savages"

What Frost is saying doesn't speak to the "southern people" being less intelligent than the contemporous "northern people". While I'd best let him speak for himself rather than put words into his mouth, the overall drift of his theory (if you read anything at all of his Rome contra barbarians stuff for instance) seems supportive of the idea that contemporous "northern people" may well have had lower IQ than "southern people".

The point that is being made is that Northern foragers generally had a more technologically complex societies than Southern ones, with likely higher time preferences and that, as both of these would in theory make it easier to adapt to agriculture, it might be that you would see a lot more continuity between Mesolithic foragers and the following farming populations than you would expect from analysis of Southern foragers and similar demographic expansions in more southerly zones.

Of course, against this I would assume is the opposing effect of Northern populations being smaller (and thus likely to have less disease resistance) and of being highly hunt and fish dependant (and so possibly reacting less well to the prospect of a diet that resembled "gathered" diets).

Peter Frost said...


The Northwest hunter-gatherers show that farming is not the only path to complex human societies. Once you have enough food to store and a sufficiently dense population, the conditions are in place for a lot of phenomena we associate with agrarian societies.

The difference of course is that advanced fishing societies are more geographically limited.


Partial estrogenization was probably the pathway for increased paternal investment and male food provisioning. But the idea was originally Ed Miller's.


Farming implies a number of key points: food storage, sedentary living at least part of the year, and tending and protection of the food source.

VG, Urogallus

I google for that image (using 'ice cellar' as the key words). There's not much information on the web page where I found it. But the ice cellar looks medieval in origin.


See my earlier post at:

Pseudothyrum said...

Don't forget about fishing. A lot of the "hunting" done was actually fishing.

A great book entitled NUTRITION AND PHYSICAL DEGENERATION shows how human populations thrive under 'primitive' foods as eaten by hunter-gatherers-fishers yet often flounder when eating modern processed foods provided by agriculture -

Throughout the book the author compares the primitive groups to after they had become modernized and tracks the resulting loss of health and vitality.