barley Sweden Finland agriculture farming hunter gatherers Pitted Ware Culture

A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Finland changes understanding of livelihoods

A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Finland changes understanding of livelihoods

barley Sweden Finland agriculture farming hunter gatherers Pitted Ware Culture
Researchers determined the age of millennia-old barley grains using radiocarbon dating. Credit: photo by Santeri Vanhanen, CC-BY 4.0 licence

New findings reveal that hunter-gatherers took to farming already 5,000 years ago in eastern Sweden, and on the Aland Islands, located on the southwest coast of Finland

On the basis of prior research, representatives of the Pitted Ware Culture from the Stone Age have been known as hard-core sealers, or even Inuits of the Baltic Sea. Now, researchers have discovered barley and wheat grains in areas previously inhabited by this culture, leading to the conclusion that the Pitted Ware Culture adopted agriculture on a small scale.

A study carried out in cooperation with parties representing the discipline of archaeology and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, as well as Swedish operators in the field of archaeology (The Archaeologists, a governmental consultant agency, and Arkeologikonsult, a business), found grains of barley and wheat in Pitted Ware settlements on Finland's Aland Islands and in the region of modern Stockholm.

The age of the grains was ascertained using radiocarbon dating. Based on the results, the grains originated in the period of the Pitted Ware culture, thus being approximately 4,300-5,300 years old. In addition to the cereal grains, the plant remnants found in the sites included hazelnut shells, apple seeds, tuberous roots of lesser celandine and rose hips.

The study suggests that small-scale farming was adopted by the Pitted Ware Culture by learning the trade from farmers of the Funnel Beaker Culture, the latter having expanded from continental Europe to Scandinavia.

Other archaeological artefacts are also evidence of close contact between these two cultures.

"The grains found on Aland are proof that the Pitted Ware Culture introduced cultivation to places where it had not yet been practised," says Santeri Vanhanen, a doctoral student of archaeology at the University of Helsinki.

In the study, the age of cereal grains found at the sites tagged with numbers in the map were determined with radiocarbon dating. These findings demonstrate that hunter-gatherers adopted farming on the Åland Islands on the southwestern coast of Finland and in eastern Sweden already 5,000 years ago. Credit: Santeri Vanhanen, CC-BY 4.0 licence

Cereal perhaps used to brew beer?

The 5,000-year-old barley grain found on Aland is the oldest grain of cereal ever found in Finland. The researchers also found a handful of barley and wheat grains a few hundred years younger, representing either common wheat or club wheat.

"We also dated one barley grain found in Raseborg, southern Finland. This grain and the other earliest grains found in mainland Finland date back some 3,500 years, some 1,500 years behind Aland according to current knowledge," Vanhanen explains.

In prior studies, it has been extremely difficult to demonstrate that the hunter-gatherer population would have adopted farming during recorded history, let alone in the Stone Age. Research on ancient DNA has in recent years proven that the spread of agriculture in Europe was almost exclusively down to migrants.

"We find it possible that this population, which was primarily specialised in marine hunting, continued to grow plants as the practice provided the community with social significance."

From time to time, an abundance of pig bones are found at Pitted Ware sites, even though pigs were not an important part of their daily nourishment. For instance, the bones of more than 30 pigs were found in a grave located on the island of Gotland.

"Members of the Pitted Ware culture may have held ritual feasts where pigs and cereal products were consumed. It's not inconceivable that grains might even have been used to brew beer, but the evidence is yet to be found," Vanhanen continues.

Santeri Vanhanen is a doctoral student of archaeology at the University of Helsinki. Credit: Marko Marila

Grain age determined through radiocarbon dating

The research relies primarily on archaeobotanical methodology, which helps examine plant remains preserved in archaeological sites. In this study, soil samples were collected from the sites, from which plant remains were extracted using a flotation method. The plant remains are charred; in other words, the grains and seeds have turned into carbon after having come to contact with fire.

Plant remains can be identified by examining them through a microscope and comparing them to modern plant parts. The age of individual grains can be determined with radiocarbon dating, based on the fractionation of the radioactive carbon-14 isotope. This way, the age of a grain aged several millennia can be determined with a precision of a few centuries.


The study was published in the Scientific Reports journal on 20 March 2019. The research article, entitled "Maritime Hunter-Gatherers Adopt Cultivation at the Farming Extreme of Northern Europe 5000 Years Ago", is freely available on the journal's website:

This is how the Inuit culture of the Baltic Sea was born. Read more on the University of Helsinki website:

Press release from the University of Helsinki

farming agriculture

Food for thought: Why did we ever start farming?

Food for thought: Why did we ever start farming?

The reason that humans shifted away from hunting and gathering, and to agriculture -- a much more labor-intensive process -- has always been a riddle. It is only more confusing because the shift happened independently in about a dozen areas across the globe.

"A lot of evidence suggests domestication and agriculture doesn't make much sense," says Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student in UConn's department of anthropology. "Hunter-gatherers are sometimes working fewer hours a day, their health is better, and their diets are more varied, so why would anyone switch over and start farming?"

Weitzel sought to get to the root of the shift in his new paper in American Antiquity, by looking at one area of the world, the Eastern United States.In a nutshell, he looked for evidence to support either of two popular theories.

One theory posits that in times of plenty there may have been more time to start dabbling in the domestication of plants like squash and sunflowers, the latter of which were domesticated by the native peoples of Tennessee around 4,500 years ago.

The other theory argues that domestication may have happened out of need to supplement diets when times were not as good. As the human population grew, perhaps resources shifted due to reasons such as over-exploitation of resources or a changing climate. "Was there some imbalance between resources and the human populations that lead to domestication?"

Weitzel tested both hypotheses. He did this by analyzing animal bones from the last 13,000 years and taken from a half-dozen archeological sites in northern Alabama and the Tennessee River valley, where human settlements and their detritus give clues about how they lived, including what they ate. He coupled the findings with pollen data taken from sediment cores collected from lakes and wetlands, cores that serve as a record about the types of plants present at different points in time. The findings are ... mixed.

Weitzel found pollen from oak and hickory, leading to the conclusion that forests composed of those species began to dominate the region as the climate warmed, but also led to decreasing water levels in lakes and wetlands. Along with the decreasing lakes, the bone records showed a shift from diets rich in water fowl and large fishes to subsistence on smaller shellfish.

Taken together, that data provides evidence for the second hypothesis: There was some kind of imbalance between the growing human population and their resource base, effected perhaps by exploitation and also by climate change.

But Weitzel also saw support for the first hypothesis in that an abundance of oak and hickory forest supported an equally prevalent game species population. "That is what we see in the animal bone data," says Weitzel. "Fundamentally, when times are good and there are lots of animals present, you'd expect people to hunt the prey that is most efficient," says Weitzel. "Deer are much more efficient than squirrels for example, which are smaller, with less meat, and more difficult to catch."

A single deer or goose can feed several people, but if over-hunted, or if the landscape changes to one less favorable for the animal population, humans must subsist on other smaller, less efficient food sources. Agriculture, despite being hard work, may have become a necessary option to supplement diet when imbalances like these occurred.

Despite the mixed results, the findings supporting domestication happening in times when there was less than an ideal amount of food is significant, says Weitzel.

"I think that the existence of declining efficiency in even one habitat type is enough to show that ... domestication happening in times of plenty isn't the best way to understand initial domestication." The broader context of this research is important, says Weitzel, because looking to the past and seeing how these populations coped and adapted to change can help inform what we should do as today's climate warms in the coming decades.

"Having an archaeological voice backed by this deep-time perspective in policy making is very important."

farming agriculture
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Press release from the University of Connecticut

farmers from Anatolia hunter-gatherers Turkey agriculture

First Anatolian farmers were local hunter-gatherers that adopted agriculture

First Anatolian farmers were local hunter-gatherers that adopted agriculture

The first farmers from Anatolia, who brought farming to Europe and represent the single largest ancestral component in modern-day Europeans, are directly descended from local hunter-gatherers who adopted a farming way of life

An international team, led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and in collaboration with scientists from the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel, has analyzed 8 pre-historic individuals, including the first genome-wide data from a 15,000-year-old Anatolian hunter-gatherer, and found that the first Anatolian farmers were direct descendants of local hunter-gatherers. These findings provide support for archaeological evidence that farming was adopted and developed by local hunter-gatherers who changed their subsistence strategy, rather than being introduced by a large movement of people from another area. Interestingly, while the study shows the long-term persistence of the Anatolian hunter-gatherer gene pool over 7,000 years, it also indicates a pattern of genetic interactions with neighboring groups.

Farming was developed approximately 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a region that includes present-day Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan as well as the fringes of southern Anatolia and western Iran. By about 8,300 BCE it had spread to central Anatolia, in present-day Turkey. These early Anatolian farmers subsequently migrated throughout Europe, bringing this new subsistence strategy and their genes. Today, the single largest component of the ancestry of modern-day Europeans comes from these Anatolian farmers. It has long been debated, however, whether farming was brought to Anatolia similarly by a group of migrating farmers from the Fertile Crescent, or whether the local hunter-gatherers of Anatolia adopted farming practices from their neighbors.

A new study by an international team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and in collaboration with scientists from the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel, published in Nature Communications, confirms existing archaeological evidence that shows that Anatolian hunter-gatherers did indeed adopt farming themselves, and the later Anatolian farmers were direct descendants of a gene-pool that remained relatively stable for over 7,000 years.

Local hunter-gatherers adopted an agricultural lifestyle

For this study, the researchers newly analyzed ancient DNA from 8 individuals, and succeeded in recovering for the first time whole-genome data from a 15,000-year-old Anatolian hunter-gatherer. This allowed the team to compare that individual's DNA to later Anatolian farmers, as well as individuals from neighboring regions, to determine how they were related. They also compared the individuals newly analyzed in the study to existing data from 587 ancient individuals and 254 present-day populations.

The researchers found that the early Anatolian farmers derived the vast majority of their ancestry (~90%) from a population related to the Anatolian hunter-gatherer in the study. "This suggests a long-term genetic stability in central Anatolia over five millennia, despite changes in climate and subsistence strategy," explains Michal Feldman of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

"Our results provide additional, genetic support for previous archaeological evidence that suggests that Anatolia was not merely a stepping stone in a movement of early farmers from the Fertile Crescent into Europe," states Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute of the Science of Human History, co-senior author of the study. "Rather, it was a place where local hunter-gatherers adopted ideas, plants and technology that led to agricultural subsistence."

Genetic interactions with neighbors warrant further study

In addition to the long-term stability of the major component of the Anatolian ancestry, the researchers also found a pattern of interactions with their neighbors. By the time that farming had taken hold in Anatolia between 8,300-7,800 BCE, the researchers found that the local population had about a 10% genetic contribution from populations related to those living in what is today Iran and the neighboring Caucasus, with almost the entire remaining 90% coming from Anatolian hunter-gatherers. By about 7000-6000 BCE, however, the Anatolian farmers derived about 20% of their ancestry from populations related to those living in the Levant region.

"There are some large gaps, both in time and geography, in the genomes we currently have available for study," explains Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author on the study. "This makes it difficult to say how these more subtle genetic interactions took place - whether it was through short-term large movements of people, or more frequent but low-level interactions." The researchers hope that further research in this and neighboring regions could help to answer these questions.

farmers from Anatolia hunter-gatherers Turkey agriculture
This is the burial of a 15,000 year old Anatolian hunter-gatherer. Credit: Douglas Baird

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History/Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte (MPI-SHH)