Scotland’s First Farmers

10 min read

North Lanarkshire hosts a diverse collection of ancient artifacts, ranging from prehistory into early historical times. Millennia of activity in the local area can be traced through Mesolithic hunting tools, Bronze Age burial urns, and tools from Iron Age crannogs centuries before the Roman invasions. There are also several Neolithic artifacts in our collections, some on display in Cumbernauld and Motherwell.

These objects belong to the fascinating (and contentious) history of the people who first brought farming to Britain.

The Neolithic Revolution

The Neolithic (the New Stone Age) was the period when agriculture and herding overtook hunting, fishing and foraging as a way of life. The term does not describe a rigid time frame, but rather a new set of skills and technologies, allowing people to base their lives around regular harvests and rearing of animals.

The advent of farming can be traced to the Levant (modern Syria, Lebanon, Palestine etc.) at least 12,000 years ago. Before farming developed, Levantine hunter-gatherers harvested wild cereals for food, and even made bread. The gradual transition to a grain-based diet likely led to the deliberate cultivation of plants.

At the same time, people for the first time managed to domesticate wild animals, such as pigs, sheep, and cattle. Population increase was slow at first, but farming eventually paid dividends, allowing far greater numbers of people to live off the land. With the slow but steady growth of farming, hunter-gatherers were gradually pushed out, unable to compete with the more numerous farmers.

It was following this transformation that a thriving culture of farmers in north-west Anatolia (modern Turkey) began to look westwards. They started to consider the wild lands on their doorstep, wondering whether they might be explored and settled. Around 9000 years ago, the first groups of farmers ventured out from their homeland, and began to explore the forests of the west, founding new settlements within the bounds of modern Europe.

They spread slowly but surely. Beginning in the south-east, they made their way along the shores of the Mediterranean, clearing forests, planting crops and building settlements in the fertile valleys and plains. Their polished stone axes were efficient, but they were also objects of reverence, symbolic of man’s newfound power over nature.

Character of the farmers

Neolithic farmer ancestry is present throughout Europe today, but is highest in the south, where their closest relatives today are Mediterranean islanders, particularly Sardinians. Compared with the heavy-set hunter-gatherers that they encountered, and the later Bronze Age invaders from the steppe, Neolithic people tended to be shorter and more slightly built. This can partly be attributed to genetics, but diet and lifestyle played a big part as well. Compared to the rich and varied diet of hunter-gatherers, farmers did not enjoy the same quality of nutrition, and living with animals meant that they were exposed to more infectious diseases. Skeletons show that with the onset of farming, the average height dropped markedly for both sexes. People also began to suffer from dental overcrowding due to the softer diet’s effect on the developing jaws, a common problem even today.

Despite these new stresses, Anatolian farmers went on to colonise an entire continent, and were responsible for many technological and cultural innovations. They seem to have spoken a diverse group of languages that are now lost, with the Indo-European languages arriving from the steppe in the early Bronze Age.

Aryans vs ecofeminists?

Because so little is known for definite about Neolithic Europe, the period has been contentious in modern scholarship. The field went through a particularly rough period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when contemporary concerns bled into academia, and made the Neolithic into an outpost of an ideological battle. In these years, archaeologists became embroiled in new debates surrounding the work of Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Gimbutas controversially interpreted the Neolithic period as a time of pacifism and labour equality, when Europe was ruled by an enlightened matriarchy under the guidance of a goddess.

Gimbutas termed Neolithic Europe ‘the Civilisation of the Goddess,’ and wrote three books about the subject, arguing that Europe only became patriarchal and elitist after the Indo-European (erstwhile called Aryan) invasions ushered in the Bronze Age. The machismo of the latter culture was expressed by the distinctive burial mounds (‘kurgans’ in Russian) that they built for their dead, who were sent into the afterlife with weapons, treasures and sacrifices. This practice would become ubiquitous in ancient Europe, from Homeric Greece to the Viking Age.

The royal burial mounds at Old Uppsala, Sweden. In Viking and Celtic literature, grave mounds are invariably linked with ghosts and other supernatural beings.

An artistic reconstruction of a Yamnaya (Kurgan) Culture man.

The early Indo-European emphasis on the warrior was expressed not just by their burials and carvings, but also by words we might still recognise today, such as ‘klewos’ (glory – became Ancient Greek kleos and Irish clú), ‘meilets’ (warrior – this word became military), and ‘regs’ (king – became Latin rex, Irish rígh, and Indian raj). Proto-Indo-Europeans were likely the first people to domesticate horses, an achievement with enormous implications for warfare, trade and migration. Their culture was patriarchal, with their religion centred on a god called Dyēus Phter, the Sky Father (or Day Father), whose name and attributes are closely preserved in Zeus and Jupiter.

The Scythians were one of many kurgan-building peoples to descend from the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

Developments in archaeology and genetics have shown that Gimbutas was right about the Indo-European expansion from the steppe, as well as the role of the horse. However, there is simply not enough evidence to support Gimbutas’ assumptions about the cultures of ‘Old Europe’, and her polemics provoked academic backlash for side-taking and stretching the facts to fit a narrative with New Age appeal. Gimbutas’ works attracted a large following among ’90s feminists and environmentalists, who eagerly embraced the ‘goddess’ as a mythical precedent for their respective causes, following an older left wing belief in lost Edenic equality. They were also reacting against a persistent current in both right wing polemic and popular culture, which tended to praise the Aryans for the same warlike qualities that got them a bad name with Gimbutas, as well as their contribution to world religions.

Robert E. Howard’s iconic pulp hero, Conan the Cimmerian, belonged to a fictional race ancestral to the Aryans.

Since the time of Gimbutas’ writings, new evidence has emerged of harsh warfare in Neolithic Europe (see below), as well as preferential burials with more grave goods for men. If Neolithic cultures were ever egalitarian in terms of labour, they were no longer so by the time they encountered the Indo-Europeans. By the late Neolithic, people had moved far beyond subsistence, developing a clear hierarchy based on the possession (and presumably defense) of status symbols.

In the west, the most powerful tribes left behind awesome tombs and monuments, and individual chiefs had ornate (and lethal) stone maces, like the sceptres of later monarchs. Even the kurgans themselves were dwarfed by late Neolithic equivalents, such as the Tumulus of Saint Michel in Brittany. It is also noteworthy that the first hoard of gold in the world belonged not to Aryans, but to the Varna Culture of Neolithic Bulgaria.

Decorated grave slabs at Gavrinis, Brittany. Late Neolithic.

A plan of the Saint-Michel tumulus, showing the internal passages and burials. The church on top still stands.

A mace head from Maesmor, North Wales. Compare the stunning Knowth macehead from Ireland.

Hunters and farmers

The early farmers were not alone in Europe. They were coming into lands occupied for millennia by a hardy Mesolithic people called the Western Hunter Gatherers.

As the farmers spread, many of these hunters were killed by the invaders, and others seem to have been forcibly assimilated. Surviving hunter-gatherers were always a minority in the farmers’ lands, but proved a resilient one. In fact, they ended up permanently modifying the makeup of Neolithic Europe. Their male-line descendants are well-represented in Scandinavia and the Balkans even today, and total WHG ancestry peaks at a very respectable 40% in contemporary Baltic countries.

Hunter-gatherer ancestry increased from the Early Neolithic to the Late Neolithic.

War in the Neolithic

Contrary to Gimbutas’ impressions, the Neolithic was far from a peaceful time. As the continent became more populous, people began fighting over fertile land and resources, resulting in bloody and protracted periods of warfare. The evidence of this is most striking in the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture, the first Neolithic people to cross the Alps into Germany. LBK violence was organised, prolonged, and stands out in European prehistory as uniquely cruel and unusual.

Miniature reconstruction of an LBK longhouse.

There is abundant evidence for the fortification of LBK villages, and many skeletons from the culture have traumatised bones. In the western LBK area, where violence was most intense, an astonishing 32% of skeletons had suffered traumatic injuries, sometimes multiple times in their lives.

Archaeologists have found mass graves where entire villages of LBK people had been massacred. The demography of the victims tells a grim story: only the young women were spared, probably abducted by the killers. The modus operandi in such massacres was to either capture the victims first, or disable them with arrows, before finishing them off with stone axes.

There is even evidence of cannibalism on a disturbing scale among LBK people, with the site of Herxheim harbouring the bones of over 1000 individuals, ranging from infants to the elderly. The victims were brought with offerings of pottery, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, implying ritual sacrifice. Over a period of 50 years, people were killed and butchered like animals, with the killers stripping away the flesh, breaking open marrow-rich bones, and ritually dismantling the victims’ skulls. Troublingly, the small bones of the victims’ hands showed preferential breaking, whereas wild animals chew randomly.

The majority of such killings took place within the same culture, rather than farmer versus hunter-gatherer. Only a few of the fortifications in the area date from the frontier period when Neolithic people were first encountering hunter-gatherers. However, there are signs of a brief and one-sided period of warfare between the two groups, with the farmers always coming out on top, and disposing of the corpses unceremoniously, sometimes under rubbish heaps.

The Age of Stonehenge

The arrival of farmers in the British Isles took place c. 4000 B.C. Britain, like the rest of Europe, was inhabited by Mesolithic people, but these natives proved little hindrance to the more numerous farmers. By the time the farmers reached Britain, they had perfected the ‘farming package’ of technology, and adapted it to the chillier climates in northern Europe. This allowed them to thrive, increasing their numbers and overwhelming the native population, which contributed very little DNA to Neolithic Britain. As the farmers set their minds to building houses and tilling untouched lands for the first time, the landscape itself was re-shaped, with many forests vanishing thanks to their efficient stone axes. A new culture was taking root.

Drawing of a carved stone ball from Aberdeenshire, c. 3200-2500 B.C. A 3D model of the ball can be found here.

The carved entrance stone of the tomb at Newgrange, County Meath, c. 3200 B.C. Newgrange is one of the most iconic Neolithic sites in Europe.

This mature and prosperous culture enjoyed close links with cultures in Brittany and along the Atlantic coasts, and traded beads from as far away as Egypt. It was also responsible for many of the famous rings of standing stones throughout the country. These were arranged to align with the sun at particular times of year, serving as calendar marks for the major festivals, such as mayday and the winter solstice.

One such festive calendar, aligned with the sun at the winter solstice, is Britain’s most iconic ancient site of all: Stonehenge. The monument had relatively humble origins as a circular ditch, with ancient holes indicating the use of timber posts instead of stones. However, c. 2600 B.C., a new and far more ambitious phase of construction began. The massive bluestones that still stand today were hauled an astonishing 150 miles overland from Pembrokeshire. The imposing stone circle was built over many generations, taking as long as 200 years to complete the main phase.

An autumn sunset at Stonehenge.

It has recently been discovered that Stonehenge was a place of midwinter revelries on an impressive scale. Analysis of isotopes in animals’ teeth has shown that people were bringing animals, especially pigs, from all over Britain, even as far away as Orkney, for the feast. The animals’ teeth indicate that they were fattened with cereal mash, the sweet waste product left by the brewing of ale, making ale the most likely drink of choice for the feasters. Pigs brought to the feast were slaughtered young, before reaching their full size, and their bones were piled haphazardly, often partly intact, having been butchered wastefully.

Clearly, this was a time of growing luxury – people had surplus grain and livestock, and could afford extravagance. The impression of a rich and well-functioning society is reinforced by the trade of axes from factories in Wales to the rest of Britain, and even more so by the hundreds of polished jadeitite axes imported from Italy.

All of this tends to suggest a golden age in late Neolithic Britain. This was a time of peace and plenty, a far cry from the depravity at Herxheim.

It was not to last.

Barbarian invasion

The late Neolithic in Britain is marked by the arrival of a fierce new people: the Beaker Culture. Crossing the sea from the Low Countries, Beaker people were descended in large part, and overwhelmingly in the male line, from Gimbutas’ kurgan builders, the Yamnaya Culture. With an abiding fondness for horses, weapons, and burial mounds, the Beaker folk took very much after their forefathers from the east. Ancient DNA evidence tells of a swift and probably violent takeover, beginning c. 2450 B.C., and resulting in the replacement of over 90% of British Neolithic ancestry within 500 years.

Armed with bronze axes and daggers, the Beaker folk swept in to dominate the cultivated areas, burying their dead in cists and barrows near Neolithic ritual sites, including Stonehenge itself, Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian, and Temple Wood in Argyll (compare the local Drumpellier burials). Beaker people were tall for their day and robustly built, with lighter features. They had specialist archers, and they probably brought horses with them to Britain. Such advantages must have played an important part in the invasions, allowing mounted warriors to outmanoeuvre their enemies and attack them from a distance.

Exmoor ponies, with their primitive appearance, likely resemble the horses of the Beaker Culture.

In light of the luxury at Stonehenge, it may well be that the Neolithic people were victims of their own success, with rumours of their prosperity attracting invaders, like tales of El Dorado.

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