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Parallel worlds and mixed economies in 3rd millennium BC Estonia and Latvia

Tartu University archaeologists studied the northeast Baltic transition from hunter-gatherer to farming society. For over millennia, the native foraging population and the eastern newcomers who domesticated animals, coexisted without assimilating to one another's way of life, the study finds.

In fact, the term "transition" is even misplaced in the context of the northeast Baltic, where the local hunter-gatherer society maintained its life-ways alongside farming pioneering societies arriving from the eastern steppes, the new research revealed.

Key points:

  • The research reveals that there was no transition from foraging to farming in the 3rd millennium BC in the northeast Baltic (Estonia and Latvia).
  • Instead, there were two parallel worlds, with the local population retaining forager lifestyles and the newcomer farmer population (Corded Ware peoples from eastern steppes) adapting to northern latitudes by developing mixed economies, both foraging and farming.
  • This coexistence of two socioeconomically distinct societies lasted for about one to two thousand years, until the emergence of widespread animal husbandry in the first millennium BC.
  • Future research will focus on the dialogues between these societies and prolonged adaptation strategies with several success-failure episodes over millennia.

The transition from hunting, fishing and gathering to farming and domestication of animals is one of the biggest paradigm shifts in human history.

The roots of European agriculture go back to the Levant some 11,000 years ago, where it slowly emerged with local populations adopting native plants and animals. This is ultimately, where our main domesticated animals – goats, sheep, cattle and pigs – come from. 

The spread of farming to Europe has been explained through the exchange of ideas (cultural diffusion) and population replacement.

The arrival of farming in the east Baltic, contemporary Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, has been initiated by arrival of Corded Ware cultural groups in the 3rd millennium BC.

Corded Ware people with their migratory steppe-related ancestry, customs and culture differed significantly from the local hunter–fisher–gatherer societies.

Yet, the adoption of farming in the east Baltic with its dense woodland and aquatic landscapes, abundant wild resources and missing indigenous species suitable for domestication, has not been well understood so far.

The researchers showed that the lack of attention to regional variations and complexities specific to the Baltic region obscured the complete picture.

Ester Oras. Source: ERR

When and how did native foraging populations in the northeastern portion of the Baltic (Estonia and Latvia) establish a subsistence economy?

The group of international researchers, led by Ester Oras, an associate professor of archaeology and chemistry at the University of Tartu, focused exclusively on the nature and extent of early farming in the northeast Baltic, the territory of what is now covered by Estonia and Latvia.

Their research is the most comprehensive study to date on the topic and provides a biological and biomolecular dietary overview, combining zooarchaeological, archaeobotanical, dietary stable isotope, and pottery lipid residue analyses.

On the basis of prior archaeological and genetic evidence, they knew that agriculture arrived in Estonia and Latvia with the Corded Ware people, who were migrants from the eastern steppes.

New radiocarbon dating of bone artifacts and processing residues found in the tombs of the Corded Ware culture suggests that the first domestic animals – cattle, goats and sheep and probably pigs – arrived here between 2730-2490 BC.

New radiocarbon dating of bone artifacts and raw materials found in the Corded Ware culture burials suggests that the first domestic animals – cattle, goats and sheep and probably pigs – arrived here between 2730-2490 BC.

However, the newcomers were not a homogeneous group. The science revealed that the diets of these people were not exactly similar, with some having more access to domesticates, others incorporating more wild animals and fish into their diet.

Moreover, the Corded Ware populations coexisted as a culturally distinct group for an extensive period of time in parallel with local hunter-fisher-gatherers, who showed no indication of the adoption of domesticates.

So the first half of the 3rd millennium BC already saw Corded Ware peoples domesticate animals and start farming in the northeast Baltic, but domesticated animals became fully widespread here only around 1,000 BC.

The early newcomers developed a mixed economy, adapting to northern latitudes

Corded Ware culture burial sites have domesticated animal bones found in them consistently and their pottery vessels show the earliest presence of dairy products in the region.

As milk can only come from domesticated animals such as cattle, goats or sheep in this latitude, this is a clear evidence of animal farming.

However, the northern latitudes' rich wild resources were also suited for a more diversified economy. So the early Corded Ware populations also exploited local wild resources, and some burials in the northeast Baltic contain wild animal bones.

Pottery analysis also shows that Corded Ware people were using both domesticated and wild resources in their culinary activities.

Thus, northeast Baltic Corded Ware societies relied on a mixed economy, which is very similar to early farming in the northwest Baltic and Central Europe.

No transition to farming in the 3rd millennium BC among natives in the northeast Baltic

Domesticates had little impact on nearby foraging populations, who relied on wild economies and showed no early farming through pottery or human bone tissue analysis.

The researchers concluded that this proves the coexistence of parallel worlds, where farming and/or mixed economy-based groups resided together with the foragers for nearly a full millennium.

The ancient genomic data may also reflect this socioeconomic divide because the Corded Ware populations, who originated in the steppe region, have different genetic ancestry than the Tamula (south Estonia) and Naakamäe populations, who followed forager diets.

Parallel worlds but no hierarchical structure

Hunter-gatherers who lived here in the 3rd millennium BC had a traditional lifestyle, which included hunting small and large animals (including seals), fishing in rivers, lakes, and the Baltic Sea, and consuming wild vegetables. Both comb and string pottery include fish and seal fats, as well as pig and ruminant animal fats.

Hunter-gatherers who lived here in the 3rd millennium BC had a traditional lifestyle, which included hunting small and large animals (including seals), fishing in rivers, lakes, and the Baltic Sea, and consuming wild plants. Both Comb and Corded ware pottery include fish and seal fats, as well as pig and ruminant animal fats.

Hunter-gatherers did not automatically become subsistence farmers. Archeological evidence from Latvia's Abora I settlement, where farmers and hunter-gatherers coexisted, is in support of this.

The Estonian material does not allow the same easy comparison of the two cultures inside a single habitat, but the archaeological material confirms the complexity of the process.

An interesting case in point: an adult man was found in the Ardu burial site in Estonia, whose stable isotope values analyzed from skeletal bones show a classical farmer-animal-herder diet in his youth, while in the later years of his life there was a significant change, with more Baltic Sea fish and mammals entering his diet. So this may be labeled as an individual transition or reversal from farming to hunting.

The investigation revealed no major nutritional changes at this latitude in the third millennium BC. The transition from hunter-gatherer to subsistence and livestock farming was more complicated than imagined and certainly not a one-way development.

The new data shows the intricacy of the transition

There was no single or linear development in farming methods. In fact, the term "transition" is even misplaced in the northeast Baltic, where local hunter-gatherers maintained their forager lifestyles alongside farming pioneering societies.

The two distinct societies coexisted without unequivocally adopting each other's ways of life for over a millennium.

The researchers hope now to examine the contacts between these two parallel worlds: the dialogues between these societies and their prolonged adaptation to each other that have resulted in several success-failure episodes over millennia.

Ester Oras, Mari Tõrv, Kristiina Johanson, Eve Rannamäe, Anneli Poska, Lembi Lõugas, Liivi Varul and Aivar Kriiska are the Estonian co-authors on the international team. The research is published online in Royal Society Open Science, October 2023.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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