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Prehistoric Europe

Neolithic Colonisation in Europe

by Peter Kessler, 4 May 2024


The question of when Europeans first developed eye colour differentiations from the more typical brown (and the more sensitive but closely-related question of when skin tone lightened) is one which can be answered through DNA research.

Analysis of those genes which were carried by Palaeolithic Europeans of the ice age and its immediate post-glacial period shows, amongst other things, that these people had dark complexions and brown eyes.

It was only in the late Palaeolithic, from about 12,000 BC, that blue eyes begin to spread. Pale skin only appeared across much of the continent after about 5000 BC, initially being borne by the people of early Neolithic farmer cultures such as the Sesklo and Karanovo.

Pre-Neolithic European populations possessed more Neanderthal ancestry than do present-day people, something which is consistent with the idea that much of the DNA which modern humans inherited from Neanderthals had harmful effects. Scientists think this inheritance was progressively lost via natural selection.

Humans and Neanderthals intermixed early, prior to about 43,000 BC, only about five thousand years after the first modern humans had entered Europe, making it more likely that such intermixing took place largely in the Near East.

The Venus of Hohle
The earliest undisputed human sculpture was Aurignacian, designed to be worn as an amulet and small enough to be enclosed in a fist - it clearly represents a woman, with ballooning breasts and elaborately carved genitalia, whilst head, arms and legs are merely suggested

DNA evidence

Extracted DNA from a fossilised skeleton which was dated to the Palaeolithic Aurignacian culture reveals genes from all three of the migratory groups which make up modern Europe's population.

Those groups cover the first wave of hunter-gatherers of the Aurignacian (who largely displaced earlier hunter-gatherers), the Neolithic farmers of the Sesklo culture and others, and the Indo-Europeans of the Yamnaya horizon.

This means that the ancestors of this skeleton had already intermixed with the same Near Eastern population which later adopted farming and then migrated into Europe, and with the distant ancestors of Indo-Europeans who would have such a dramatic effect on late Neolithic Europe.

However, the same skeleton shares very few of those genetic hallmarks and variants which are associated with East Asian and native American populations, suggesting that East Asians and Eurasians diverged very early on.

Neolithic farming

Whilst generally having been accepted, the idea of farming being spread in a single wave directly into Europe from Anatolia has more recently been revised. It is now thought more likely that it spread in several waves and via several routes.

The initial formation of farming may have taken place in the Levant (although not necessarily exclusively), and the trail of domesticated plant types indicates an initial foray by sea into Europe from the Levant (especially to Cyprus to form the Aceramic Neolithic).

Neolithic pottery from the South Caucasus
This Neolithic wine-storage vessel is almost a metre wide and a metre tall, pieced back together from thousands of similar shards which were dated to about 6000 BC, at the very start of the Neolithic in the South Caucasus region

The overland route via Anatolia seems to have been the main one to be used, however, and it was this route by which the bulk of farmer settlers entered into Greece and, relatively soon after, the Balkans.

Further farmer migrations

At the same time as Neolithic Anatolian farmers were flooding into Greece to found the Sesklo culture, further groups of Anatolians were migrating along the northern Mediterranean coastline to reach Iberia, either by island-hopping in boats or by hugging the coastline.

Once there they founded a similar farmer culture, largely replacing the local Mesolithic hunter-gather groups. From there a further migration took place around two or three thousand years later - around 4000 BC.

This was a more adventurous exercise as these Iberian Neolithic migrants travelled through France and largely ended up in southern Ireland.

Based on DNA evidence, they also entered mainland Britain, probably via south-western Britain or Wales, although this evidence requires further examination to confirm or refute it.

It seems to have been these Neolithic immigrants who brought with them the practice of building megalithic monuments.

DNA evidence also shows that the new arrivals did not mix freely with the native hunter-gatherers (and see 'related links' in the sidebar for more on this).

In fact indigenous hunter-gatherers were almost completely replaced by the Neolithic farmers, apart from one group in western Scotland where the Neolithic inhabitants had elevated local ancestry.

This would probably be due to there being more hunter-gatherers and fewer farmers, so the superior farmer culture (and DNA) 'only' dominated rather than replacing almost entirely.

The Neolithic farmer revolution in Europe was complete.

Einkorn wheat
Einkorn wheat was the first cereal to be cultivated and used by humans, a typically Mediterranean species which was brought into use in Europe by Near East Neolithic farmers and their later cultural formations in south-western and Eastern Europe, as well as further afield


Main Sources

David W Anthony - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

David W Anthony - The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC (Princeton University Press, 2009)

Douglass Whitfield Bailey - The Lost World of Old Europe The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2010)

Fiona Coward, Stephen Shennan, Sue Colledge, James Conolly, & Mark Collard - The spread of Neolithic plant economies from the Near East to northwest Europe: a phylogenetic analysis (Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol 35, Issue 1, January 2008, pp 42-56

Rolf Noyer - Proto-Indo-European Language and Society: Late Neolithic in the Pontic-Caspian Region

Online Sources

BBC News


Ron Pinhasi, Joaquim Fort, & Albert J Ammerman - Tracing the Origin and Spread of Agriculture in Europe (PLOS Biology, published online 29 Nov 2005)



Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.