Prehistoric Human Migration in the Linearbandkeramik of Central Europe

By Price, T. Douglas; Bentley, R. Alexander et al. | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Prehistoric Human Migration in the Linearbandkeramik of Central Europe


Price, T. Douglas, Bentley, R. Alexander, Luning, Jens, Gronenborn, Detlef, Wahl, Joachim, Antiquity


The Linearbandkeramik (LBK), dating from approximately 5700 to 5000 BC,(1) has traditionally been regarded as the initial phase of the Neolithic of Central Europe and a classic example of prehistoric migration. Its origin is thought to have been in the Starcevo-Koros culture of the Hungarian Plain (Lenneis et al. 1996; Gronenborn 1999). The earliest radiocarbon dates for LBK across its distribution seemed almost identical, suggesting a rapid expansion over hundreds of kilometres from the middle Danube in Hungary to the Rhine in the west, to central Poland to the north and the northern Ukraine to the east. The fast spread of LBK farming and the overall homogeneity of material remains, as seen in house construction, settlement plan, burials, incised pottery, stone artefacts and other items, have often been interpreted as evidence of migration (Luning 1988). The arrival of domesticated plants and animals with the LBK also fits a concept of population movement. Explanations have ranged from an abrupt `wave-of-advance' colonization (Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1984) to community fissioning (Bogucki 1988).

Investigations in the last 15 years, however, have challenged this conventional view. New radiocarbon dates show that the LBK began in Hungary around 5700 BC and arrived at the Rhine about 5500 BC, suggesting a somewhat more gradual movement (Lenneis et al. 1996). Detailed analyses of the earliest LBK artefactual materials have documented substantial heterogeneity (Gronenborn 1999, Luning et al. 1989). Other studies have revealed the presence of forager-herder/horticulturists in Central and Western Europe prior to the appearance of the LBK, a time known as the Terminal Mesolithic. During this period a new pottery tradition emerged, known as `La Hoguette', thought to have derived from very early Neolithic groups in the south of France (Luning et al. 1989; Jeunesse 1987). Finally, some evidence for even earlier pre-LBK cultivation in Central Europe comes from radiocarbon dates of c. 6500 BC for domesticated flax seeds and cereal pollen from the Zurich region (Erny-Rodmann et al. 1997) and for small-scale animal husbandry and possibly horticulture around the Rhine--Main confluence by 5800 BC (Schweizer 2000).

The indigenous adoption of agriculture in Central Europe is now sometimes invoked as an alternative to colonization to explain the spread of the LBK (Tillmann 1994; Whittle 1996; Price 2001). The facts used to examine the question of colonization vs indigenous adoption have traditionally come from artefacts and architecture. However, such items and ideas can be traded, stolen or copied as well as carried, rendering them less reliable in evidence. In this study we examine human skeletal remains directly for indications of movement using isotopic signals. Strontium isotope analysis is a new method to `provenience' prehistoric human skeletons and determine migrants in a population. Strontium isotopes in prehistoric human teeth and bones provide a geochemical signature of the place of birth and the place of death respectively. Differences in the strontium isotope ratio between the bone and tooth enamel of the same individual indicate a change in residence during life (Ericson 1989; Price et al. 1994).

Our discussion begins with some general information about the Linearbandkeramik and more specific details on the LBK in the Rhine Valley where our samples were taken. We then outline the principles of strontium isotope analysis and the relevant geology of the Rhine Valley, followed by a description of two cemeteries there. Finally, we present the results and interpretation of the strontium isotope data. There are differences between tooth and bone in some skeletons indicating migration. Differences in the incidence and sex of migrants between the Middle and Late LBK suggest that the nature of movement changed over time.

The Linearbandkeramik

The chronology of the LBK has been recently revised (FIGURE 1). …

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