What Linked the Bell Beakers in Third Millennium BC Europe?

Article excerpt


During the late 1940s, while English-speaking anthropology was divided between functionalism and diffusionism (a debate later re-enacted by archaeologists), Claude Levi-Strauss founded structural anthropology with the publication of Les structures elementaires de la parente (1949).This seminal work not only advocated the recognition of the concept of structure in anthropological reasoning, but also stressed the necessity for human communities to maintain a constant flow of individuals from one group to the next, especially as part of marital rules, as Mauss had shown earlier for the movement of goods (Mauss 192324). Recent studies have convincingly demonstrated the existence of prehistoric human mobility and its role in issues such as cultural transmission (e.g. Petrequin et al. 1998; Shennan 2000; Scarre 2001). Price and his colleagues have unambiguously shown prehistoric human movements in central Europe (southern Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary) during the second half of the third millennium BC (Price et al. 1998; 2004), within the large-scale archaeological culture known as the Bell Beaker (hereafter BB) phenomenon. Through the comparison of strontium isotope ratios in different body tissues, which reflect geological location at the time of their formation (see Ericson 1985 for a full description of the method and first archaeological application), they show significantly different results between tooth enamel and bone for 55 out of 81 individuals, thus implying that these people had changed their place of residence during their lifetime. However, partly because of the geological complexity of central Europe, it was impossible to determine their place of birth, and these results show no clear patterning between men, women and children. But determining the precise birthplace of these individuals is of secondary importance, as the fundamental interest of this particular study, and more generally of this kind of analysis, is to prove that some individuals are allochtonous, thus proving the mobility of past people.

This case-study raises two main further comments. First, the results echo physical anthropological accounts of the same data set: metric and non-metric analyses of BB skeletal material have insisted on its difference from older local populations, thus implying the arrival of new people (e.g. Gerhardt 1976; Menk 1979; Czarnetzki 1984). The older studies were based on sometimes debatable grounds, which eventually led to untenable positions of racial anthropology. However, Price et al.'s results require us to get the skeletons out of the cupboard once more and to re-assess more critically, beyond our own politically correct assumptions, their potential relevance for the analysis of human mobility. Secondly, despite Price et al.'s claim that 'discussions of this phenomenon occupy surprisingly little space in texts or library shelves' (Price et al. 2004:10), a statement which only informs us about the size of shelves on both sides of the Atlantic, the BB phenomenon provides a massive amount of material evidence which has begun to be re-evaluated in terms of cultural transmission, involving not only transfer of goods and of ideas, but also of people (e.g. Brodie 1997; Salanova 2000; Needham 2005; Vander Linden 2006).

Mapping Beaker communities

With an increasing diversity of data, the time has come to move from the mere recognition of human mobility in the BB phenomenon to its characterisation and so to re-assess its potential role in the creation of this archaeological culture. While such research, much indebted to Clarke's polythetism (Clarke 1968), can be carried out at any scale, preference will be given here to the big picture, in order to take full advantage of the variability exhibited by the BB phenomenon (for further methodological development, see Vander Linden 2006: chapters 1 & 12).

A general distribution map of BBs is provided here (Figure 1) without attempting to distinguish between the types of Beaker or the context in which they are found (e. …