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Prehistoric Europe

Western Hunter-Gatherers

by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, 13 April 2024

From the early Holocene onwards (starting around 9700 BC), western and Central Europe was inhabited by a genetically-distinct group of hunter-gatherers.

Labelled 'Western Hunter-Gatherers' (WHGs) they had become cut off from sister populations on the far side of the Ural Mountains - the emerging Eastern Hunter-Gatherers (EHGs) - due to post-glacial flooding to the north of the Caspian Sea in the late Palaeolithic.

Their arrival had been part of a gradual process of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer drift from a point in the region of the Altai Mountains, to access Europe and spread across it.

In doing so they replaced the Magdalenian hunters of the Last Glacial Maximum, except in the Iberian peninsula and, to some degree, in south-western France.

However, the sudden post-glacial warming at the start of the Holocene wrought many changes. The arrival of more amenable climate conditions had a considerable impact on Europe's WHGs.

This period is characterised by significant changes in socio-cultural practices, as is shown by new settlement patterns and changes in tool use, subsistence, mortuary practices, and worldviews, all of which help to define the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic in archaeological terms.

For several millennia into the Mesolithic, WHGs were the most common group across much of Europe, until the arrival of Neolithic farmer societies in the seventh and sixth millennia BC. WHGs gradually lost territory until their last populations were limited to the western Atlantic seaboard (and potentially Scandinavia, to lay the basis there for pre-Germanic populations).

Some of the last Mesolithic sites on mainland Europe are represented by iconic open-air sites at Hoedic and Téviec in southern Brittany. These are known for their rich, unusually well-preserved burials.

DNA studies on archaeological remains have shown that these last foragers were part of a network of people who maintained exogamic practices (marrying outside one's own clan or tribe). These socio-cultural dynamics contributed to the avoidance of inbreeding.

An artist's depiction of Aurignacian people
This artist's recreation of people of the Aurignacian - one of a series by Tom Björklund - includes some guesswork regarding hair styles and ornamentation, while even the precise skin tone is still a matter of debate although all his choices are reasonable and with some small connection at least to the available evidence in cave paintings and archaeology

(Skin tone is unlikely to have changed much at all this close to man's first departure from the Near East into Europe, although perhaps ten or twenty thousand years of Near East habitation may already have lightened it beyond this level)

Such DNA studies have been limited to single individuals - or a few - per site and current understanding is limited in terms of prevailing social dynamics for the last Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, not to mention their interaction with incoming Neolithic farmers.

Some of these forager groups certainly did overlap with the arrival of Neolithic farmers in neighbouring regions but the two groups did not mix. DNA analysis has not been able to find any farmer-associated ancestry in the final populations of hunter-gatherers. Their mate-exchange networks appear to have been exclusive for their forager group.

Those last forager groups were eventually replaced and assimilated by the incoming Neolithic farmers. DNA traces of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers do remain in modern Europeans, however, even if the percentage is small.

The period of coexistence between WHGs and Neolithic farmers is pretty narrow in Western Europe. Interactions between WHGs and incoming farming populations have been difficult to decipher though, partially because establishing a precise chronology for the last WHGs has been challenging.

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

In southern Brittany, the Mesolithic way of life seems to have ended around 4800 BC, with the earliest Neolithic sites in Brittany dating between 5000 and 4700 BC.

The Neolithisation of northern Brittany started about 4900 BC, which is about two centuries later than in other regions in France, such as Normandy or in the Paris basin.

The archaeological record describes how the arrival of Neolithic populations changed long-established WHG socio-cultural practices throughout Europe.

In genetic terms, it is now clear that Neolithic populations assimilated WHGs to some extent. How this process occurred is unknown, partially due to a lack of genetic data from some of the key late Mesolithic sites.

There is increasing evidence of regional or even local nuances of contact and mixture though. For instance, Sicily's Grotta dell’Uzzo contains indications of interaction between farmers and WHGs based on diet patterns.

With conditions perfect in the South Caucasus, it was Mesolithic hunters and foragers who were amongst the very first humans to domesticate the grape

However, it remains unclear whether gene flow also occurred from farmers into extant late Mesolithic populations (something which has yet to be reported in scientific studies).

Quite the opposite, in fact. Extensive DNA research has revealed that, across Europe, gene flow took place from WHGs to farmer populations. It has been demonstrated in France that early Neolithic farmers carried late Pleistocene hunter-gatherer lineages, suggesting multiple admixture events, both before and after the arrival of Neolithic groups in France.

Evidence of delayed WHG-farmer interbreeding in southern France, which occurred only several generations after the initial arrival of farming groups, together with the development of local pottery traditions, has been interpreted as the local - eventual - adoption by WHG groups of aspects of Neolithic culture.

In other words, they saw what the new arrivals used, realised the benefits of it, and took it on.

In general, in France especially, WHG populations remained unadmixed throughout the early stages of Neolithic farmer settlement.

Farmers, though, did end up carrying WHG-related ancestry. Gene flow then was typically unidirectional, from WHG to farmers, resulting from individuals with WHG ancestry joining farmer groups and not the other way around. This would largely have been WHG females finding farmer mates, while WHG males were much less likely to involve themselves with these newcomers - or be invited to become involved.

Eventually the WHGs faded out entirely, essentially out-completed by Neolithic farmer groups.


Main Sources

Luciana G Simões, Rita Peyroteo-Stjerna, Grégor Marchand, & Mattias Jakobsson - Genomic ancestry and social dynamics of the last hunter-gatherers of Atlantic France (Edited by T Douglas Price, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Middleton, WI. Received 3 July 2023, accepted 13 November 2023, published 26 February 2024)

E Churchill & Fred H Smith - Makers of the Early Aurignacian of Europe, Steven (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology Vol 43:61-115 (2000))

Qiaomei Fu & Others - The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016)



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