Beaker Folk

23 Feb 2018

Late last year we had an article in PNAS that claimed the Bell Beaker folk movement was an actual migration event as far as Britain was concerned, a movement of people from Frisia into Britain which overwhelmed the Neolithic inhabitants. It gave rise to the Bronze Age which in Britain is closely associated with the adoption of field systems and farms of the kind we see in the modern landscape. The Neolithic period differed in the style of farming practised with a greater emphasis on the seasonal herding of animals, which may have had links going back to the hunter gatherer Mesolithic period where deer and aurochs herds were exploited, and presumably managed to a certain degree. The implication was that the newcomers were able to inherit the landscape and impose their method of farming. Now it seems two articles in Nature have supported some of the conclusions (Feb 21st 2018) - see and ... one can see why the BBC are enthusiastic (all grist to the multi cultural mill) but quite how a 'whole' population can be replaced, or completely disappear, is difficult to comprehend. After all we were informed a few days ago that relic genes of the pre-Columbus inhabitants of the Caribbean islands survive in the modern population. Why would the genes of the Neolithic people disappear. Needless to say the researchers have no idea and are forced to suggest the newcomers brought the plague with them. They could hardly have thought through that one as the Black Death did not wipe out the population of Europe - but killed off a third of people. A genetic signature survived.

Genetic research is getting better all the time we are told. Evidence of migration is popping out of the wood work all the time. This appears to support the idea of diffusion - and kicks back at the anti diffusionist archaeology of earlier times (which the BBC was fond of in days of yore). Human populations are constantly on the move and mixing all the time, according to a 'computerised' biologist. Is this a biologist that likes to sit in front of a computer and play around? Strange definition but apt for the modern world of science research. The findings are two fold, as they concern the Bell Beaker Folk culture. It is known that this was associated with either a migration or the proselysation of an idea (or religio-myth). Genetics are now proving the migration theory is sound. They arrived in Britain in 2500BC (modern calibration but equivalent to 2300BC in Mandelkehr's dating scheme, based on older calibration methodology). Mandelkehr was able to show widespread migration of people took place at this point of time - all across the world (even in the Arctic Circle). The idea of migration is therefore not radical - but what is radical is the idea the newcomers completely replaced the older inhabitants. The earlier PNAS article last year mentioned 400 skeletons were examined for genetic information - and we may assume the two Nature articles are based on a figure somewhat similar. One might criticise the findings on the basis of not enough evidence - but there is more. The Bel Beaker folk are supposed to be the backdrop of an even earlier migration, from central Asia, at around 3000BC. Horse mounted newcomers migrated west as far as the Atlantic, to Mongolia in the east and India in the south. The genetics of this migration are now said to explain the spread of the Indo European languages (but others would disagree). Hunter gatherers, or Mesolithic people in northern Europe, were largely replaced - or absorbed. The authro of the study, David Reich, we may note, is taking short cuts to obtain his data, one of which he invented himself. These short cuts are used to reduce the costs of genetic sampling and it is interesting to further note that Reich, or his laboratory, is responsible for analysing three quarters of the world's published genetic information - consisting of 3700 genomes. Is that telling us something about Reich and his methods?

According to the BBC the Bell Beaker newcomers replaced 90 per cent of the British gene pool, in a few hundred years. What I find peculiar at this point in time is that these new findings actually reflect much earlier movements of people in the Mesolithic era, a migration into Europe from central Asia at the end of the Ice Age. Can the two things happen almost in a copy cat way on more than one occasion? Secondly, has the BBC thought about the subject too deeply as it would seem to show the English language is a lot older than currently considered. English is closely related to Frisian (on the opposite side of the North Sea basin and once joined by a land bridge) so might a proto-English language have been introduced by the newcomers. How might this impinge on the idea we all spoke Celtic prior to the Anglo Saxon invasion? How many genomes used by Reich and his team came from the Celtic west of Britain (or from Ireland and Scotland)? How many genomes were used to get the genetic signature of the Neolithic and Mesolithic peoples?

Another thing to bear in mind is that when the C14 dating methodology was introduced we had a lot of very recent dates popping up, geological as well as archaeological. Velikovsky in his book 'Earth in Upheaval' actually reflects this period prior to the calibration of C14 and the learning curve involved in making sure samples were not contaminated (and so on). Is genetic research at a similar stage of enthusiasm - and in the future might it be forced to clean up a few dodgy areas (such as the short cuts used by Reich). All we can safely say at the moment is that there was a migration of people from one side of the North Sea to the other - at 2500BC (2300BC in old money and more closely aligned to the 2345BC narrow growth tree ring event). Does a catastrophic event underlie the movement of people - not just to Britain but around the globe. How they might have impacted the earlier population is open to question. Were they wiped out by a catastrophic event, by an epidemic, or by an affliction that affected their livestock and reduced their numbers, leaving the way open to a new kind of farming (with a bigger emphasis on arables).