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Shutdown in the Neolithic Age

Around 3100 BC, Central Europe was hit by a crisis which led to a complete change in living conditions. Nothing was the same afterwards.

Megalithic grave in a foggy forest
© Sara Jagiolla

People from the Stone Age, around 3,600 BC, buried their dead in the "Brutkamp" megalithic grave in Dithmarschen in Schleswig-Holstein for a long time. Megalithic graves like this one were not used as from the 31st Century BC.

"There was a shutdown," said Professor Johannes Müller. "We don't know why, but we know that a crisis occurred," explained the archaeologist from the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology in Kiel. "What had developed over a long period of time, disappeared forever in the 31st Century BC, and the lives of the people changed in almost all respects".

The consequences of the dramatic change were manifold: settlements and houses became smaller, and where possible moved from the plains to the hills. The cultural landscape changed. Arable land previously cultivated with the plough became overgrown, and transformed back into forests and natural landscapes. A previously-unknown form of ceramics spread across Central Europe: globular amphorae, globular-shaped containers, often with ornate necks.

And the burial practices also changed. The people no longer buried their dead collectively in large stone graves, which were previously used repeatedly for new burials over hundreds of years. Instead, there were now individual graves which often contained weapons as burial objects, indicating the status of the deceased. "The placement of the stones weighing many tonnes required teamwork. The people expressed their sense of community by constructing giant stone monuments and the collective burials," explained Müller. “After the crisis around 3100 BC, we see that the individual takes centre stage."

What triggered this change which affected all areas of life? In an interdisciplinary team, scientists from the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1266 "Scales of Transformation" are trying to track down the cause of the crisis.

Among other things, they are investigating whether the spread of epidemics was primarily responsible for the change in society. "There is a general assumption that the risk of epidemics increased considerably with the settlement at the start of the Neolithic Age," said Professor Ben Krause-Kyora, biochemist and archaeologist at the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology (IKMB). The population density increased, and people lived at close quarters with their cattle in settlements, which favoured the spread of pathogens. In addition, deficient or unbalanced nutrition, polluted water and a lack of hygiene increased the risk of infections.

"In fact, through the analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA), we have already identified various causes of diseases from the Neolithic Age that we also know today, such as bubonic plague or leprosy. However, from the mere existence of these pathogens, we cannot conclude that the diseases also spread epidemically and led to high mortality rates," explained Krause-Kyora. This would also require further evidence such as mass graves, in which all individuals had the same infection. "Currently, the hypothesis of an epidemic-related change during the Neolithic Age cannot be adequately supported by our investigations," he continued, summarising the state of research.

The researchers also examined the effects of migration, and found that the networks and communication routes broadened considerably around 3100 BC. People were in contact from France to Ukraine. "But we cannot prove any large population migrations, only isolated migration by individuals or small groups," said archaeologist Clara Drummer, who investigated whether the change in burial customs was caused by migration in her doctoral research.

Despite all the investigations to date, the change in society at the time remains a mystery to science. But the effects are clearly visible. Over a period of about eight generations, the diversity of the economic and social practices initially increased in many regions of Central Europe and Scandinavia. "This is something that we also observe at other times historically, which obviously helps in general to navigate a path out of crises – and can serve as a message for our situation today: diversity can be the key to overcoming crises," said Müller.

Around 2800 BC, the path opened to a whole new age: the archaeological phenomena appear quite uniform throughout Europe once again – this time with emphasis on the depiction of the individual, in the form of burial mounds and elaborate individual burials. “Apparently, a separate armed group had gained power over other people," speculated Müller. “This is also a danger in crisis situations."

Author: Angelika Hoffmann