Day By Day

Monday, October 18, 2010

Volkerwandurung Returns

I recently read Peter Heather's "Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe" and recommend it highly. In it Prof. Heather argues that militarized mass migration [what he calls "predatory migration"] was an important component of the transformation of barbarian populations from primitive, semi-nomadic subsistence farmers into militarily formidable and politically coherent groups that were capable of challenging Roman and other imperial authorities during the first millennium AD. Toward the end of the book he suggests that the concept of predatory migration might usefully be applied to other cultural transformations in early prehistory.

It's an interesting thought, especially as the German press is reporting on new interpretations of sites associated with the emergence of neolithic LBK [linear band keramic] culture in northern Europe. It has long been recognized that this new culture which becomes apparent around 7,000 BC originated in the Danubian basin and perhaps even earlier in Anatolia, but its spread northwestward into northern Europe was a matter of some controversy. Prior to WWII there was general agreement that the change in material culture found in the archaeological record represented a mass migration of a new people, bringing with them neolithic technologies like agriculture, stock raising, etc. and, because of the advantage these technologies conferred upon them, displacing the earlier hunter/gatherer population of the region. 

Since the 1960's, though, mass migration as a mechanism of change has pretty much been written out of the historical record, largely because many scholars were uncomfortable with the implications of the concept [which included ethnic cleansing and tracing nationality groups back to ancient origins -- which had been a feature of pre-war German historiography] and instead a scholarly consensus has emerged around the concept of peaceful change -- either through cultural diffusion in which indigenous populations remain in in place but pick up new habits from their neighbors, or a process of demic diffusion in which small groups of migrants moved slowly into a region peacefully coexisting with or merging with previous inhabitants.

The scholarly consensus, however recently taken a second major hit that reinforces Heather's conclusions. Der Spiegel reports on findings by German archaeologists showing that there was a mass migration of neolithic farmers into northern Europe from the Middle East starting around 7,000 BC. Rather than peacefully absorbing or interbreeding with the indigenous inhabitants the evidence suggests that the migrants displaced them. The advantage these migrants possessed over the indigenous populations seems to have been less technological than genetic [they were lactose intolerant]. Finally, there is extensive evidence for violent confrontation accompanying the migration. [read it here].

Of course the old paradigm is not going to crumble without a fight and hostile commentary on both Heather's book and the Der Spiegel article is pouring out. For a fair and reasonable discussion of what the new findings do and do not suggest check out John Hawks blog here. For an overview of the controversy by Razib Khan go here.

I love the sound of paradigms crashing -- especially those like the diffusion synthesis that have obvious political and ideological underpinnings.

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