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date: 30 November 2020

Hunting and Gathering in a Farmers’ World

Abstract and Keywords

This paper examines the legacy of previous research traditions which continue to frame discussion of forager–farmer interactions around the globe. The history of archaeological research in Europe is subjected to critical review as it was scholars in the region who first began to formulate links between the spread of farming, the onset of the Neolithic period, and a coeval demise in foraging societies during the nineteenth century.. Subsequent discussions are still heavily structured by this early thinking, but in more recent periods a number of different processes and scenarios have also been considered. A review of these evolving perspectives on the transition to farming therefore provides a useful framework against which the themes and contributions made by each of the papers can be situated. Many of these case studies focus primarily on Europe, but important comparative insights are also provided from other world regions. This review of current research appears to indicate that as general understandings of many of the regional sequences have steadily improved, the data no longer appear to fit easily within the predictions of the older explanatory models.

Keywords: forager–farmer interactions, hunter-gatherers, Neolithic, agriculture, transition to farming, Mesolithic, migration, diffusion, fusion model

Introduction: Hunter-Gatherers and the Transition to Agriculture

The rise of agriculture has widely been regarded as one of the most important shifts in human existence. Agro-pastoral farming economies can support higher population densities, and the capacity to feed greater concentrations of people in one place, and for long periods, was a crucial development that led to the rise of urban centres, states, and empires. The emergence of agricultural economies therefore underpins many important later developments in human history. However, the origins of farming, and the ways in which it spread, are highly complex, and have been the focus of some of the most long-standing debates in prehistoric archaeology.

Some of the earliest evidence for prehistoric plant domestications comes from western Asia in the closing phases of the Pleistocene, but other crops that went on to become staples were also domesticated independently in a number of other world regions during the early Holocene. Generally, a range of different early domesticates was used in close local combination, and these crop ‘packages’ were then adjusted slowly over time, either through further local domestications of wild species, or by adding in other domesticated crops from other regions (see Harris, this volume). In general, plants were domesticated before animals (Outram, this volume), but different local combinations of domesticated plants and animals went on to form the basis of a number of different early agricultural systems that emerged in separate parts of the world. After these early agro-pastoral economies became established, often as part of a slow process lasting many millennia, they then began to spread into surrounding regions, forming part of a much wider global transition to farming. Over time, this process constituted one of the most important economic transformations to affect global humanity, and this fact alone has ensured that it remained one of the most fundamentally important research themes in archaeology.

(p. 768) The role of hunting and gathering in the transition to agriculture has been regarded as both utterly central to its initiation but also somewhat tangential and indeed irrelevant to its later dispersal. For example, at a local level, hunter-gatherers invented farming—it is now clear that subtle modifications by foragers in their wild plant gathering and management practices, along with new kinds of selective hunting, taming, and herding strategies, were of fundamental importance as they must have created the contexts for the slow process of different plant and animal domestication events that played out in different parts of the world. In starting to incorporate increasing management of plants and animals into their subsistence strategies, many prehistoric hunter-gatherers began to create transitional or intermediate economies that included elements of early plant domestication, initial use of domestic animals, as well as additional forms of hunting and wild plant gathering. Over time they went on to develop a much fuller reliance on domesticates, leading to the first fully established farming economies.

Up until this juncture, the world had been inhabited solely by hunter-gatherers. Now hunter-gatherers were increasingly sharing the world with early farming communities. As the practice of farming began its relentless expansion into new areas throughout the Holocene, the role of hunter-gatherers in this wider transition tends to be obscured from view. This perspective is inherently problematic: hunter-gatherers were responsible for the domestication of plants and many animals and they may also have played a central role in the dispersal of this new kind of economy into other regions. Understanding the transition to agriculture, and the role of hunter-gatherers in this transition, has been the subject of some of the most important and enduring debates in prehistoric archaeology. This has especially been the case in Europe, but in other areas too. That farming eventually spread into most corners of the world is clear, probably by a variety of different processes and contingent scenarios. However, the exact role of hunter-gatherers in these regional transitions remains one of the most important themes in prehistoric archaeology.

More precisely, understanding the transition to farming requires an investigation of the form, content, and also the ideological significance of forager–farmer interactions and contact zones as they emerged and played out across different world regions during the Holocene. This is because these general debates tend to boil down to the same sets of questions: were hunter-gatherers swept aside or quickly assimilated by the expansion of early farming populations? Or was it merely knowledge of farming that spread among foragers, who then decided to take up agriculture? Was the transition to agriculture just about the rise of a new kind of economy, or did agricultural dispersals form part of a wider ‘package’ of innovations that included other kinds of material culture and technology? Was the spread of this new economy really of primary importance, or was it merely secondary to an earlier and more fundamentally important ideological shift that eventually made farming acceptable to hunter-gatherers? This chapter reviews treatment of these questions, and looks at how to move this debate forwards.

Aims of Part V

This part aims to critically examine how these general questions have been subject to regional debate, focusing on chapters which look at case studies from a wide range of (p. 769) regions across the world. Primary consideration is given to the emergence of early debates in Europe. Many of these debates about hunter-gatherers and the transition to farming first emerged in nineteenth-century Europe; their enduring legacy continues to structure debates through to the present day. They are also relevant to many other parts of the world, but in some cases have not been central. Of particular importance in Europe were early definitions of the Neolithic with explicit links to a farming economy, but also to other kinds of material culture, and indeed ideology: it is in Europe that forager–farmer interactions and the transition to agriculture have also become synonymous with the onset of the Neolithic. Having examined different definitions of the Neolithic, it is also important to examine how different mechanisms have been argued to be responsible for its spread. Was it a sudden economic and technological shift, or a more slow and drawn-out process—not so much the Neolithic but Neolithization? The goal of this part of the handbook, then, is to explore how these regional transitions have been approached and understood, highlighting the role of forager–farmer interactions, but viewing them specifically from a hunter-gatherer perspective.

Research Framework: The Neolithic Transition to Farming

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century traditions of research and thinking continue to structure current interpretations of forager–farmer interactions to a remarkable extent. In the nineteenth century the creation of the three-age system by Thomsen divided European prehistory into Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages (Rowley-Conwy 2007). Apart from in Denmark (Kristiansen 2002, 20), most early archaeological considerations were focused on material culture, particularly stone tools for the Stone Age, and metalwork for the Bronze and Iron Ages. Early and mid-nineteenth-century excavations in Europe produced considerable archaeological material, so that by the latter part of the century Lubbock (1865) suggested that the Stone Age needed subdividing into the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) and New Stone Age (Neolithic). These two periods were distinctive in relation to both faunal remains found as well as stone tool types—extinct megafauna and chipped stone tools from the Palaeolithic, compared to cultivated plants and domestic animal species and polished stone tools and pottery from the Neolithic (Trigger 2006, 114). Later on, transitional stone tool technologies were recognized and a Middle Stone Age (the Mesolithic) added to the prehistoric sequence (and see Cummings, this volume).

Towards the end of the nineteenth century scholars started to pay less attention to the archaeological record, instead focusing their attention on ethnology. This followed the idea that the study of modern living peoples could inform our understanding of the past, to the extent that it is possible to comprehend every element of prehistoric life simply by studying modern living equivalents. So in order to gain insights into life in the Stone Age, scholars simply needed to study living peoples who were at an equivalent technological stage (Trigger 2006, 146). This approach tied in with a social evolutionary framework with a focus on the economy, since it was noted that hunter-gatherers tended to be technologically less advanced than farming groups. It was at this stage, then, that there was a shift in (p. 770) focus from material culture to economy, and that the Mesolithic became associated with hunter-gatherers and the Neolithic with agriculture. While this specific way of thinking saw little support beyond the nineteenth century, social evolutionary thinking had a long-lasting impact (also see Pluciennik, this volume).

In the first part of the twentieth century Gordon Childe wrote the first major synthesis of European prehistory using a culture-historical framework. Culture-history placed its emphasis not on understanding past peoples via ethnographic analogy but through their material remains. By studying sets of material culture found in the archaeological record it was possible to identify distinctive cultural groups (Childe 1925; 1929). Childe had a particular interest in the Neolithic period, and for him, the big change in prehistory came at the start of the Neolithic, which he described as a ‘revolution’. While the culture-historical framework within which Childe was operating did not emphasize what people did (i.e. either hunt and gather or farm) but what they had (i.e. pots, polished stone tools, and so on: Barker 2006, 15), the Neolithic revolution nevertheless became synonymous with the advent of farming as it was part of the broader set of Neolithic traits.

Furthermore, Childe also emphasized the importance of pottery in the Neolithic revolution which he assumed was exclusively associated with farming populations (Childe 1942, 57). Thus, Childe had essentially mapped the social evolutionary categories of ‘hunter-gatherer’ and ‘farmer’ on the archaeological sequences of Europe, associating them specifically with two periods of prehistory, the Mesolithic and Neolithic. Childe’s model did not just define prehistoric cultures, it also provided an explanatory framework for cultural change as well as a chronology (see below). For Childe, changes in cultures were caused by diffusion and migration (Green 1981, 52–3). Thus Childe explained how the Neolithic spread into Europe: agriculture and pottery spread via diffusion and migration from the Near East. This was to set the tone of debates for generations to come.

European Sequences and Debates

By the mid-twentieth century the transition from the Mesolithic and Neolithic was discussed in fairly simplistic terms: it involved the wholesale spread of people carrying a new economic regime, along with a distinctive set of new material culture, across the whole of Europe via migration and diffusion (only in Scandinavia were there hints of something more complex going on: Kristiansen 2002, 20). Thus agricultural peoples swept across Europe, and there was only limited discussion of the fate of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer populations. Before radiocarbon dating attention was firmly focused on material culture not only as a cultural identifier but also to enable cross-dating with historical sequences. Indeed Childe used this method to date European prehistoric cultures, creating a short chronology for the European sequence (see Renfrew 1973, 39–47). The Neolithic was identified in the archaeological record as a cultural ‘package’. Few regional sequences had been developed at this time (Whittle 2007, 617), although broad-scale differences had been noted.

The advent of radiocarbon dating revolutionized the chronology of the origins of agriculture. Initial dates from early farming sites in the Near East came back 1,500 years earlier than previously suggested, and once dates from Europe had been calibrated, these were also much earlier than previously believed. This essentially created a fault-line across Europe, severing previously assumed cultural connections (Renfrew 1973, 105). While scholars (p. 771) rebuilt chronological sequences as a result of suites of radiocarbon dates, New Archaeology, developed in the 1960s by Binford in America and subsequently adopted in parts of Europe, also had a significant impact. The ecological approaches pioneered by New Archaeology placed renewed emphasis on the Neolithic as an economic transformation. Thus, this emphasis on subsistence served only to strengthen the notion that the Neolithic primarily involved the spread of a new economy (Higgs and Jarman 1972).

The idea that the Neolithic (as an economic regime) was spread via population movement continued to structure research throughout the 1970s and culminated with the work of Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza (1984). They suggested that Neolithic people moved across Europe in a ‘wave of advance’. Through the careful analysis of both archaeological sites and radiocarbon dates they claimed that the Neolithic spread very slowly across continents, at a rate of roughly 1 km a year, and it involved the small-scale migratory movements of farmers rather than the wholesale movements of people. By the end of the 1970s, then, a new chronology was in place for the start of the Neolithic, the Neolithic was still predominantly understood as the spread of a new economy by migration of farmers, and thus, interest in the participation of foragers in this process was minimal.

Shifts in Interpretation

Several major new contributions emerged in Europe in 1980s, and these began to highlight the importance of understanding forager–farmer interactions in this process. These new perspectives were a result of the combination of a number of different traditions of research being utilized and explored at this time. Firstly, it was increasingly evident that hunting and gathering was a viable alternative to farming in many areas. This was demonstrable in many parts of the world where hunting and gathering continued to thrive alongside agricultural production (for example in both prehistoric and historic times in North America). Furthermore, hunter-gatherer societies did not just consist of small mobile bands with low population densities, scratching out a pitiful existence until swept aside by farmers, as many earlier models had assumed. Among archaeologists there was a growing appreciation of ethnographic evidence which demonstrated the existence of sophisticated hunter-gatherer societies from different parts of the globe (the ‘complex’ societies of the Northwest Coast of North America and the Ainu of Japan, for example). Importantly, these examples illustrated how the intensified use of particular natural resources led to elaborate cultural and social patterns.

Thus in Europe in the 1980s there were growing debates about the extent to which Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were both populous and complex. One of the first suggestions that foragers (essentially the indigenous population) may have been active agents in the way that agriculture was able to spread was written by Bender (1978), and this idea was applied to the European sequence in the 1980s. One influential discussion was Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy’s (1984; 1986) ‘availability model’, which offered a framework for understanding the change from hunter-gatherer to farmer which did not necessarily involve migration, but instead focused on the potential role of indigenous foragers in the process. Importantly, hunter-gatherer populations could adopt only selected elements of the Neolithic ‘package’ if they so wished, as well as at different rates. They suggested that there was an ‘availability’ phase (where domesticates were available to foragers but were not adopted in large (p. 772) quantities, domesticates making up less than 5 per cent of an assemblage), a ‘substitution’ phase (where domesticates made up 50 per cent of an assemblage), and finally a ‘consolidation’ phase, where people became fully dependent on agriculture. This highlighted the possibility that in some regions hunter-gatherers may have been active agents in what was potentially a slow and variable process of Neolithization.

Greater details of various regional sequences also began to emerge at this point. For example, in Scandinavia there was the suggestion that the phenomenon of indigenous hunter-gatherers switching to agriculture was a much longer and more drawn-out process which had the additional implication that a transition to agriculture—part or full—was not necessarily reliant on migration as the causal factor (Whittle 2007, 617). Instead there may have been much more complex forager–farmer dynamics than had been previously envisaged (Dennell 1984). It was therefore possible to identify in the archaeological record forager–farmer contact zones, as well areas where farming had been adopted but where hunting and gathering were still going on.

Thus, the transition to the Neolithic in Europe began to be viewed by archaeologists working at this time as a much more complex, regionally-variable, and drawn-out process, rather than the quick and uniform process created by migration that had previously been predicted. Furthermore, if some hunter-gatherers, for example those in the Baltic, could intensify foraging practices and become complex foragers providing a sustainable alternative to farming, there may well have been scenarios where well-established foragers confronted farming as it spread, either via direct migration or via the spread of objects and/or ideas. This meant that at some point potentially both foragers and farmers would have encountered each other. This may have created quite complex forager–farmer dynamics at the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition. In order to make sense of these forager–farmer contact zones, ethnographic analogy was employed in several ways (see Zvelebil and Fewster 2001 for a summary). This drew on anthropological debates around forager–farmer interactions, with the emphasis on the effects this had on hunter-gatherers (e.g. Woodburn 1988). The growing field of indigenous archaeology (Spector 1993) further reinforced the tendency to highlight the agency of indigenous Mesolithic peoples in the prehistoric adoption of agriculture (Fewster 2001, 86–7). Thus, in Europe, farming may have spread at very different rates, and by fundamentally different processes, in different areas. For a time, at least, hunter-gatherers were exposed to new practices, people, things, and they could select which to adopt and in what order.

The Neolithic: An Ideological or Economic Shift?

Another major shift in debates about the Neolithic arose from a reaction against the ecological and economic focus of New Archaeology. Scholars such as Thomas (1988), for example, deliberately wanted to invert the emphasis on the economy during the transition and argued instead that the transition in north-west Europe was more to do with an ideological shift than an economic one. Thomas placed emphasis on tracing the arrival of new kinds of knowledge, particularly ritual knowledge, but also knowledge of agriculture and knowledge of making new types of material culture. None of this necessarily involved the movements of population, and it therefore became known as the ‘indigenist’ approach (Zvelebil 2000, 59). In a similar view, Ian Hodder argued that the spread of the Neolithic across Europe was (p. 773) a cognitive/ideological shift, driven primarily by the desire to a transform the wild into the cultural: essentially the cognitive domestication of the social and economic world (Hodder 1990). As the 1990s progressed, pan-European models, either economic or ideological, were increasingly being abandoned with scholars exploring regional sequences, backed up with detailed programmes of excavation (see, for example, Armit and Finlayson 1992; summary of work in the Low Countries: Louwe Koojimans 2007).

Moreover, other types of data were being explored in greater depth in order to inform this debate. Historical linguistics was investigated with the aim of tracing the dispersal of peoples via different language groups, specifically relating to the origin and spread of Indo-European (see, for example, Bellwood 2000; Renfrew 2000). Likewise, genetic evidence, specifically from mtDNA and Y chromosomes, has been used to map out the possible genetic spread of people from the Near East into Europe in the post-glacial period (with the assumption that this represented the spread of Neolithic people: Zvelebil 2000, 69–73). However, how these data are interpreted varies, with some authors suggesting major genetic replacement via population movement, while others interpret the evidence as supporting considerable continuity of population (Lahr et al. 2000, 81). Stable isotope and strontium isotope analysis have been used on skeletal remains from both the Mesolithic and Neolithic (see, for example, Bentley 2007; Eriksson 2003; Schulting and Richards 2002), again to understand the spread of populations, and the rise of potential forager–farmer contacts, but the production and interpretation of these data are contested (see Milner et al. 2004) and results can be interpreted to fit different models. Increasingly, then, interpretations of the start of the Neolithic in Europe now incorporate not only archaeology and ethnographic analogy but also genetic and linguistic data as well as the application of a range of scientific techniques. These add further depth, but also additional complexity to the debate. At this point, it is worth summarizing the main debates about the processes behind the transition to farming.

Current Debates About Processes and Patterns in the Transition to Farming

At present, there are two basic processes envisaged for agricultural dispersal in Europe, both of which are still being discussed, researched, and tested through a variety of different datasets. These processes have been neatly summarized by both Whittle (2007) and Zvelebil (2000) and at the most basic level involve either:

  1. 1. Migration/demic diffusion (farming spreads, moved by people). From Childe’s original idea of folk migration from the Near East, through to discussions of demic diffusion, the spread of farming and/or associated material-culture sets occurring via different forms of population movement and colonization still remains an important process for explaining the spread of agriculture and the start of the Neolithic in Europe (also see Rowley-Conwy 2004).


  1. 2. Indigenous involvement/cultural diffusion (diffusion of ideas/objects through contact). Through frontier mobility, contact, and cultural diffusion, this approach (p. 774) places more emphasis on the role of indigenous populations who were the prime decision-makers in the adoption of the Neolithic. This involved the selective adoption of domesticates and/or new material culture and/or a new ideology by local foragers. In relation to Europe, this scenario has been primarily applied to Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia (Zvelebil 2000, 59).

Although many still favour either/or scenarios, at either regional or local scales, others now accept the general validity of both processes, but argue that they were relevant in different areas and at different times, all of which created complex continental patterns. These intermediate positions take two forms and can be summarized as:

  1. 3. Integrationist (i.e. some migration, some diffusion). Zvelebil (2000) in particular argued for an approach which allowed for both migration and indigenous adoption: he called this the ‘integrationist’ approach, where both general processes are valid but different processes work in different regional patterns creating a much more complex broader pattern—in other words, there is a general ‘going over’ to farming in Europe, but the pattern is one of regional variability in timing, pace, and inherent process. This means that the transition to agriculture was regionally variable, but importantly, he still retains the use of the central categories of foragers and farmers as useful and meaningful analytical categories and concepts. Thus farming may have spread by different processes at very different rates in different areas, and this would have generated potentially quite complex, historically contingent forager–farmer contact zones—but zones which were still discrete entities. This model has analytical utility and is well-defined and concise but it draws on older terms and concepts.

  2. 4. Fusion. Whittle (2007) took the integrationist approach one stage further in relation to the European sequence. He suggested that there is so much conceptual baggage attached to terms and concepts such as Mesolithic and Neolithic that these now impede further progress on understanding the transition. Scholars should start afresh and find new ways to describe and explain these processes (also see Robb and Miracle 2007). The sheer diversity of the phenomenon means it is not possible to reduce it down to a single transition or even locally variable processes which draw on the older ideas of diffusion or migration. Instead, there were a multitude of transition processes (also see Cummings and Harris 2011), essentially a ‘fusion’ (endless combinations of unique circumstances) and that each can only be understood in its own contingent historical and particularistic terms.

Thus, this short review of these rather entrenched debates forms a useful framework against which chapters in this part can be evaluated, and new directions identified. Firstly, given that so much debate about the transition to farming has been set in Europe it makes sense to start with a discussion of the chapters that summarize forager–farmer interactions in Europe, reviewing them in relation to this broader intellectual legacy. This is followed by chapters exploring forager–farmer interactions in a selection of other areas of the globe. These add useful and intellectually refreshing comparative insights because they move the debate beyond the unique European sequence and demonstrate that many other world regions are not restricted by the specific set of debates and explanatory processes. Indeed, (p. 775) they provide a useful set of comparative perspectives for scholars working in Europe as they highlight a range of possible processes for the adoption of agriculture across the globe, and query the emphasis placed on agriculture over a foraging way of life.

The European Chapters

The role of hunter-gatherers in the transition process in Europe is discussed region by region in the first four chapters in this part, all of which outline different regional scenarios of forager–farmer contacts along with the nature of forager–farmer interactions. All the chapters tie back into the debates reviewed above, but do so in different ways. Different strands of evidence are now being employed across the different regions of Europe which suggest a highly complicated and locally contingent transition process to farming, and also the continuity of hunting and gathering in different ways in different areas. In some areas, there is evidence for incoming peoples who relied virtually exclusively on agricultural products. In other areas, there were broad-spectrum foragers who kept a few cattle and took part in small-scale crop cultivation. It is these regional specifics which are now explored in more detail.

Gronenborn discusses the evidence for the Neolithization process in central and western Europe. As reviewed above, older discussions of this area suggested there were two dominant processes to explain to start of agriculture, firstly that the Neolithic (as an economic package) was a result of intrusive, incoming farmers (migration), or secondly, that there was substantial continuity from the Mesolithic through to the Neolithic (diffusion of ideas). Gronenborn suggests that these interpretations were far too simplistic, and instead this area saw a complex sequence of events which created a whole series of contact zones between different peoples, including between incomers and local populations, and between farmers and foragers. For example, the Neolithic of central Europe is called the LBK (Linear Pottery Culture) and the start of the LBK, Gronenborn argues, involved small pioneering groups moving into the area (demic diffusion). However, the arrival of LBK people into this area does not explain the entire sequence here: in the eastern part of the LBK area there is little evidence for an indigenous people living there, but to the west the LBK seems to have involved incomers mixing with indigenous people. Thus, on the western fringes of the LBK people making the La Hoguette style of pottery also practised a mixed economy involving both hunting and gathering as well as pastoralism. It is perhaps no surprise that the outcomes of these different processes also resulted in different Neolithics: the western LBK placed considerable emphasis on lineage which was expressed through house architecture, pottery, and lithics.

A different process altogether occurred in the North European Plain (present-day Low Countries, also discussed by Raemaekers below). In the fifth millennium bc LBK peoples were found to the south of this area, while indigenous foragers on the North European Plain continued to hunt and gather. This created a frontier contact zone with material culture in particular moving across the frontier. It is notable that some peoples on the North European Plain started to make their own pottery, but did not take up agriculture. However, again, Gronenborn stresses that the type of contact between farmers and foragers was not homogeneous, with distinctive regional variations in the kinds of exchanges that took place.

(p. 776) Gronenborn also shows how aDNA evidence can add new insights to the archaeological evidence. In the LBK region of central Europe aDNA cannot be used to differentiate between indigenous Mesolithic people and incoming Neolithic people. This is because there was an earlier movement of people, also with their origins in the Near East, in the Mesolithic. This would essentially mean that late Mesolithic foragers and early Neolithic farmers had the same genetic origins. This evidence, then, highlights potential problems with the straightforward notion of demic diffusion, particularly relating to new populations bringing a new kind of economy. It should also make us query the conceptualization of indigeneity. However, in the northern lowlands of Europe Mesolithic populations remained genetically distinct from LBK peoples with a Near Eastern origin, and it was only with the onset of farming that the two peoples mixed. In this case, Gronenborn concludes that aDNA supports the archaeological evidence for a distinct frontier contact zone between discrete populations, with the take-up of the Neolithic also involving population movement. It seems clear, then, that in central and western Europe there were a wide range of different processes under way as farming was introduced both by incoming peoples and by indigenous people. When these interpretations are viewed against the framework set out above, it is clear that it is a struggle to fit the data within simple either/or migration/diffusion scenarios—instead, there were no essential categories of foragers or farmers, just local historically contingent processes under way in the general transition to agriculture.

In the next chapter Raemaekers discusses in detail the evidence for forager–farmer interactions on the western part of the North European Plain (the Low Countries). Understanding the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition is dictated by large-scale environmental changes in this area. There were continuously rising sea levels in the Holocene which inundated the coastal zone. This means that, unlike southern Scandinavia, the archaeology from this zone is effectively lost. However, inland there are a range of very well-preserved Holocene deposits, which contain both botanical and zoological data. These have been the focus of attention in this area for understanding the process of Neolithization. As noted by Gronenborn, this area had indigenous hunting and gathering peoples who were in contact with the agricultural LBK groups to the south. There was clearly contact between the two, evidenced by the material culture record. However, the sequence here illustrates the fact that there was no sudden uptake of the Neolithic ‘package’. Instead, there was piecemeal adoption of elements of this over an extended time period. Furthermore, it seems that the indigenous population of this area were the prime movers in this process. The first element of change in the older indigenous Mesolithic culture was the adoption of ceramic technology around 5000 bc (known as the Swifterband culture). While the technique of ceramic production was acquired from the LBK, the pottery made was striking different. Other than the adoption of pottery, people continued hunting and gathering as before; thus the adoption of pottery represents a change in cooking technology, not subsistence. This period can therefore be seen as an ‘indigenist’ adoption of pottery into an otherwise broad-based foraging society.

Five hundred years later, around 4500 bc, domesticated cattle, sheep/goats, and pigs were introduced into the area. Again, Raemaekers argues that this was the result of contact, not movements of people. It is interesting to note that while domesticated animals were introduced at this point, they were only of limited nutritional importance; people continued to rely heavily on a wide range of wild animals, birds, and fish. This highlights the point that the presence of domesticates does not necessarily mean people relied entirely on these. At 4200 bc cereals first appear in this area, but again there is substantial evidence for the continued use of (p. 777) collected wild plants. Basically, then, these were broad-spectrum foragers using pots with the use of a few cattle and small-scale crop cultivation. Raemaekers highlights that it is very difficult to classify people in this period as either hunter-gatherers or farmers, Mesolithic or Neolithic. It is clear that people exploited a wide range of wild plants and animals and that domesticates were simply incorporated into existing resource strategies, further widening the subsistence base. Thus, in this sequence, he argues, the traditional subsistence base was the backbone of a lifestyle in which a flexible use of resources, both wild and domestic, dominated. Again, it seems clear that Raemaekers is arguing that this created a new sort of Neolithic, unlike any other sequence in Europe. Again, this chapter illustrates the challenges of making local sense of these dynamics, and points to the inherent problems of the integrationist position as well as the greater validity of the fusion model, which demands new ways of writing about these processes.

In the next chapter Cummings and Harris argue that the transition to the Neolithic in Britain and Ireland is, at present, a highly contested and debated topic. One of the problems with this sequence is that the evidence from this area is limited as there is a general lack of archaeological sites that have produced evidence of both the very late Mesolithic and very earliest Neolithic. The late Mesolithic period is characterized by the presence of mobile hunter-gatherers, but unfortunately a lack of burial evidence and organic preservation (unlike in other adjacent European areas). In contrast, the early Neolithic period in general is characterized by the presence of domesticated animals and plants, pottery, evidence suggesting a more sedentary lifestyle, monumental construction, flint mining, and polished stone tools. As reviewed above, the two basic models are still used to explain the mechanisms behind this general sequence. First, there is strong support for indigenous involvement where the agents of change are the indigenous Mesolithic inhabitants who chose when to adopt different elements of the Neolithic. Second, there is the idea of farmer colonization (in keeping with the broader mass-migration model outlined above), the proponents of which argue that incomers from the continent moved into Britain and Ireland bringing with them the Neolithic package. These incomers then acculturated the native foraging populations.

Instead of arguing for either indigenous adoption or colonization, Cummings and Harris simply explore the different types of evidence. For example, there is good evidence for the widespread adoption of domesticated animals at the start of the Neolithic in Britain and Ireland, but the lithic evidence also suggests that hunting continued. Likewise with plants, there is good evidence for the continued use of wild plants and serious problems with understanding the take-up of domesticated cereals due to archaeological visibility and preservation. Cummings and Harris follow the suggestion of Whittle et al. (2011) that south-eastern England was the location of small-scale colonization from Europe in the century beginning 4100 bc. From this starting point they argue that these incomers mixed with native foragers, the resultant sequence being shaped entirely by this mixing of incomer and native. This is why the British and Irish Neolithic sequence is once again best described by the fusion model outlined above: it is unlike any other set of events Europe. They do highlight, however, that these are interpretations only, and that more evidence from the period 4300–3700 bc is required in order to understand the transition in more detail.

In the next chapter in this part, Damm and Forsberg examine the arrival and impact of elements of the Neolithic package in the northernmost part of Europe, Fennoscandia. This area is particularly interesting for considerations of the process of Neolithization as it (p. 778) is at the ecological limits of where agriculture is viable. Damm and Forsberg argue that for 4,000 years there was no clear-cut dichotomy between foragers and farmers, again in keeping with the fusion model outlined above. Nevertheless, while the sequence here is unique, it can inform broader debates on understanding the process of Neolithization and how scholars categorize people in relation to their economy only (and see Pluciennik, this volume).

Damm and Forsberg begin by discussing the first forager–farmer contacts in this area: as already noted above, Mesolithic peoples (the Ertebølle) in the south of Fennoscandia imported material culture from LBK groups to the south. Then, at around 4000 bc, there is evidence for the quick uptake by indigenous foragers in Denmark, southern Sweden, and southern Norway of agriculture, comprising both domesticated animals and crops. However, to the north, people continued to hunt, gather, and fish. In this early Neolithic period there was very limited interaction between the foragers in the north of Scandinavia and the newly agricultural populations to the south. However, this seems to relate back to older exchange networks (or lack of them) rather than being a product of the arrival of agriculture.

The middle Neolithic period marked a decline in agricultural activity in the northernmost areas which had initially taken up farming. These groups instead began to rely on hunting and gathering: interactions with farming groups are recorded by the movement of material culture between areas. Later on in the middle Neolithic (2800–2350 bc) more changes occurred, this time in the form of pioneer agro-pastoral settlements. Damm and Forsberg argue that a small number of farming groups set up along the coast in what was otherwise an area where foraging predominated. By the late Neolithic, farming communities expanded again, and interactions between foragers and farmers becomes much more conspicuous in the archaeological record. The end result of all of this is that in the later part of the third millennium, and throughout the second millennium, there was a mosaic of foragers and farmers in Fennoscandia.

In the first millennium bc Damm and Forberg illustrate further changes. Declining environmental conditions seem to have resulted in an increased reliance on marine resources, so that many coastal groups integrated fishing with herding and growing crops. Peoples relying solely on hunting and gathering in the interior relied increasingly on reindeer hunting, and their interactions with metal-producing societies also intensified. It is quite clear then that in this area of Northern Europe, there was no ‘wave of advance’ of incoming agriculturalists and simplistic shift from forager to farmer. Instead there was a multitude of interactions between people who primarily made a living foraging and those that primarily made a living farming. These lines were blurred even further as peoples switched between foraging and farming over time and space, essentially becoming composite economies that defy simple classification as either forager or farmer. Once again, this complex sequence highlights whether the integrationist approach is sufficient here, or whether this sequence could be described as in keeping with the fusion model.


What is clear from the chapters on the European transition to farming and Neolithization is that significant progress has been made in examining specific sequences and local processes over the last 20 to 30 years but these debates are still directly referencing older models of (p. 779) migration or indigenous adaptation. All this hints at an impasse: scholars are stuck using the terminology of older models and processes which no longer adequately describe or explain the unique sequences of each area in Europe. Instead the European chapters illustrate considerable local variability and dynamic and historically contingent processes all caught up in a much broader change of ‘going over’ from forager to farmer (cf. Whittle and Cummings 2007).

It is important to note here that the chapters on the European process of Neolithization are not the only ones in the handbook that struggle with categorizing people as either forager or farmer, one of the legacies of social evolutionary thinking (a point made by Pluciennik, this volume). Politis and Hernando (this volume) note that some hunter-gatherers in South America were once horticulturalists, but they took up foraging as a secondary re-adaption to new conditions. These people seem to have returned to hunting and gathering as a reaction to broader changes brought about during the colonial period. Jana Fortier (this volume) also discusses the varied ways in which people subsist in South-East Asia in more recent times, where there is plenty of evidence for people utilizing a range of different subsistence types (from agriculture right through to hunting and gathering, but most often, a highly fluid and dynamic mix of both), dependent on circumstances and also local choice and agency.

Thus, it is useful at this point to depart from European debates and examine how forager–farmer processes have been studied in other world regions. In other areas of the world it is clear that a simple forager–farmer dichotomy is also not often applicable, and that variability and flexibility are the norm. In these areas authors look at the persistence of hunting and gathering over considerable time periods.

Forager–Farmer Contacts in Other World Regions

Barton examines long-term forager–farmer interactions in South-East Asia. He begins by discussing the prehistoric spread of farming. As with similar models in Europe, it has previously been claimed that domesticated rice, domesticated pigs, pottery, and polished stone tools formed a package which spread into the region from 3500 bc. However, as this new subsistence economy spread south and east, domesticated rice may have been dropped in favour of tree and root-crop agriculture as rice was too difficult to grow in equatorial rainforests. There have also been suggestions of some indigenous innovations including plant cultivation where rice could not be grown. The role of rice and other plant adaptations is a key debate in this area as foragers would have needed a source of carbohydrates, which are otherwise in short supply in rainforest environments. Indeed, this whole debate frames the types of forager–farmer interactions in this region. There is no question that foraging persisted in this area, but foragers dependent on farmers would have had very different sets of interactions than those who were isolated or entirely self-sufficient. In contrast to the European sequence, then, in South-East Asia there is a preconceived assumption that foragers would need farmers: indeed, some argue, both could only survive by close mutual interdependence on one another.

(p. 780) The bulk of Barton’s chapter, however, discusses the historical legacy of these early contacts in terms of later forager–farmer interactions. Barton describes a rich mosaic of foragers, farmers, and people practising both foraging and farming in South-East Asia, and how definitions of people in relation only to their economy are not sufficient to describe the variety of ways people make a living in this region. Peoples, therefore, cannot be classed as either foragers or farmers as there is a reliance on both wild and domesticated plants, wild and managed forests, and wild and domestic animals. Moreover, there is considerable flexibility and change, as people make the most of whatever is available locally. In this area, then, any attempts to map nineteenth-century social evolutionary categories of forager or farmer onto local cultural groupings (see above) are inadequate to describe a much more complex set of situations.

Barton also notes that there is an extensive ethnographic literature which charts trade and exchange between foragers and farmers. These are recorded for over two millennia in some areas as forest products have been, and remain, highly desirable to people across many parts of the world. There was a big increase in the exchange of forest products in the seventeenth century with the arrival of a Dutch trading company, along with more recent ethnographic records of indigenous groups. Forest products to be exchanged and exported were predominantly acquired by foraging groups. Material was acquired by foragers and exchanged with nearby farmers who then traded it on. This often created strong alliances between foragers and farmers, with economic and social benefits for both parties. Thus individual communities were not and are not autonomous self-sufficient units, but part of a broad and wide-ranging series of exchange networks. This is very much in keeping with the notion of ‘contact’ zones between foragers and farmers as outlined above, and demonstrates how such contact can be very stable and in place for thousands of years without either forager or farmer changing their subsistence economy as a result. Barton also discusses what happens when previously foraging groups take up sedentary farming. He notes that there is a great deal of variation even within individual communities. For example, some now-sedentary people do not farm every year, finding subsistence in other ways. It is also interesting to note that some settled farmers have abandoned farming and become professional collectors of forest products, filling a niche in the current economic situation. As far as it is possible to tell, forager–farmer interactions in South-East Asia are unlike the various situations outlined for Europe above, although the issues discussed by Barton could fruitfully be explored in relation to the European sequence. This sequence is therefore in keeping with the ideas outlined above which highlight historical contingency and a multitude of outcomes from the same basic start-point.

In the last chapter in this part of the handbook, Katherine Spielmann also demonstrates that there is no clear-cut dichotomy between foragers and famers by exploring complex interactions that existed between different groups in North America. Until the arrival of colonial peoples from Europe there were no large domesticated herd animals in North America, and no populations acquired their food exclusively from farming. However, many groups did grow domesticated plants, quite intensively in some areas (this included indigenous domesticates such as amaranth, chenopodium, and knotweed and imported species from Mesoamerica such as corn, beans, and squash). What is clear with the North American sequences is that it was common for people to move between agriculture and foraging and back again: flexibility was key. It is also clear that those people who spent most of their time growing crops traded extensively with foraging groups, ensuring that both forager and farmer had access to both carbohydrate and protein. Just as in South-East Asia, then, the trade and exchange of food was an essential part of life. To classify people as either foragers or farmers in this (p. 781) context would hide the complexities of how food was acquired from different sources and via different strategies.

Spielmann explores various interactions between foragers and farmers in three case studies. The first case study is that of the Algonquian and Iroquois Huron of the Great Lakes. Historically the Huron were farmers who grew corn and the Algonquians were foragers, with a particular emphasis on fishing. However, both groups took part in other activities, and sometimes the Algonquians would grow corn and the Huron would fish. This demonstrates the flexibility of making a living and how people can move easily between foraging and farming. Spielmann also considers middle Missouri forager–farmer interactions. Historically this involved Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa farming villages and Crow, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, and Sioux bison hunters. The two were involved in extensive trade relations. This example therefore shows that the mutual coexistence of foragers and farmers who exchanged foodstuffs was a viable economic choice. In her final case study she considers the well-documented Plains–Pueblo interactions. Historically, Pueblo groups grew corn and exchanged this for bison meat and hides acquired by Plains groups. However, there was considerable flexibility in this system. By the fifteenth century, however, the two became part of an interdependent system whereby each relied entirely on the other. Trade did not just involve foodstuffs, but the social networks that evolved were also crucial parts of society, making these groups economically and socially reliant on one another.

The chapter by Spielmann demonstrates unequivocally that many peoples were not either foragers or farmers, but adapted to individual circumstances, mixing foraging and farming, or at least having access to the products of both foraging and farming. This meant that many people in North America were a mix of cultivators, fishers, hunters, and gatherers, with considerable variability from year to year and from place to place. This quite clearly demonstrates that there is no simple and straightforward category of forager or farmer. Instead, people used a combination of wild and domestic resources as they saw fit, and which often varied from year to year. Foragers will incorporate domesticates into the suite of resources that they utilize. Farmers will rely on wild resources in addition to what they grow. This shows that the idea of people evolving from hunter-gatherer to farmer is inherently flawed, and not found ubiquitously in the archaeological record. The shifts from forager to farmer and back again in both Barton and Spielmann’s chapters seem to relate not just to economic viability but also to both internal and external social relations. It is possible to postulate that the desire for individuals to gain material objects and/or prestige may also have played an important role (see Hayden, this volume). Again, Spielmann’s chapter demonstrates considerable variability and diversity in how people made a living over time.

Discussion: Going Over, Moving Forwards

At one level, it is clear that in Europe, for example, and many other regions, there was a general process of ‘going over’ to an agricultural way of life—almost all the world’s populations are now supported by the farming of a few staples. This is a general pattern that works at the broadest of scales and over long time periods as the vast majority of peoples across the world now get their food via agricultural methods. Some of the questions about this process refer back to the role of hunter-gatherers and to the nature of prehistoric (p. 782) forager–farmer interactions: after farming had become established and started to spread, were hunter-gatherers swept aside or assimilated by farmers? Was it only the knowledge of farming that spread among foragers? Finally, was the spread of farming only made possible by an earlier and indeed more fundamentally important ideological shift that eventually made farming acceptable to hunter-gatherers? These are the central questions in one of the longest-standing debates in prehistoric archaeology.

Some of most intense debate, for various historical and cultural reasons, has been centred squarely on Europe and its archaeological sequences. The legacy of nineteenth-century social evolutionary thinking and early twentieth-century culture-history means that many of the central perspectives, as well as the key terms of reference, refer back to these older phases of thinking and scholarship. For example, it is clear from the review of the chapters, especially those from Europe, that the social evolutionary thinking and the mapping of the economic categories of forager and farmer onto the archaeological record at the end of the nineteenth century still continues, to a remarkable extent, to structure interpretation and debate: scholars still choose to define groups of people in terms of distinctive units or cultural entities that are primarily defined by how they make a living. Likewise, the older explanatory ideas of migration and diffusion also remain influential. As data, knowledge, and suites of AMS dates have started to highlight regional variability on the pace, timing, and contribution of different processes, the result is increasingly nuanced models which illustrate the regional and temporal complexities of going from relying entirely on foraging to subsisting predominantly on farmed products. Despite this, economies are still discussed in relation to basic economic categories—either foraging or farming—spread via either migration or diffusion.

More generally, this critical review of the European chapters shows that scholars are struggling in their attempts to accommodate the new level of detail that they identify within their data to the rather rigid, older frames of reference that are a definitive feature of working in this intellectual archaeological tradition. In contrast, chapters from other world regions (and many of the ethnohistoric chapters in Part VI) appear to be much less constrained by the intellectual baggage associated with earlier Eurocentric scholarship. They appear to explore variability within regional sequences without referring to the older modes of thinking outlined above. If this is the case, there is an important message for scholars dealing with the European archaeological record: it is time to move discussions forward (cf. Robb and Miracle 2007; Whittle 2007). Thus, several key directions can be highlighted as being likely to structure the future kinds of work that are possible in this area.

  1. 1. Regional variability in data coverage (some regions are well-studied, others are not; even the former need more data). To move forward, scholars need more basic data on many world regions. While some regions of Europe now have excellent datasets, many could still benefit from higher resolution data. This will enable scholars to get a better sense of regional trajectories on the pace, timing, and uptake of different elements available to people at particular points in time.

  2. 2. New frames of reference. One approach would be to use Zvelebil’s integrationist approach as a basic starting point. As reviewed in all these chapters, it is particularly important to find ways to move beyond essentialized descriptions of people (particularly in relation to the forager–farmer dichotomy). Instead the terms forager and farmer can be used as self-critical points of departure for thinking about new ways of understanding people and society. In contrast, the fusion model suggests that (p. 783) scholars find entirely new ways to describe and explain these processes. Perhaps the best starting point for deciding which approach to take is to begin to think about precisely what it is we are interested in understanding. There has been plenty of work on economy in the past, but the most exciting avenues of current research explore identity. In areas with high resolution datasets there is a whole range of ways that we can interrogate the data to explore the issue of both individual and group identity and daily practice (i.e. what people do as well as how they create identity). Material culture can be investigated alongside isotopic evidence (Bentley 2012), the full range of bioarchaeological techniques (cf. Zvelebil and Pettitt 2012), and suites of radiocarbon dates (Whittle et al. 2012). Alongside theoretical approaches to this material, incorporating broader understandings of contextually specific personhood (see Finlay, this volume), connections with particular landscapes (David et al., this volume), and belief systems (Whitley, this volume), archaeologists should be able to get at the multiple dimensions of social life (see Whittle 2003). At the most detailed level, this will enable scholars to explore the life histories of individuals in particular areas, at particular times, and in different ways but also to situate these within general processes and transformations.

  3. 3. Comparative contextual insights. In areas where the biggest challenge is seeking out new ways of thinking about how these multiple intersections of subsistence, identity, and practice are caught up in what can crudely be defined as forager–farmer interactions, scholars might usefully start to develop an explicitly comparative approach to their materials by examining: (a) similarities and differences with analogous regional archaeological sequences in order to pull out unique, as well as universal, trends; (b) carefully selected ethnographic parallels with other areas, e.g. South-East Asia. Analogy, when used in this way, can generate new ways of thinking about active construction of identities and individual life histories and can assist in moving beyond the older debates and entrenched terminology. As such, analogies represent one way of transcending the constraints generated by using older terms and concepts (e.g. forager, farmer, and so on) and provide detail on how social and cultural life are created and experienced in specific cultural settings. For example, the chapters by Barton and Spielmann in this part both highlight the significance of structured mutual exchange networks as being a key component of why people subsist on specific resources within a wider region/network—similar concepts could productively be examined in detail in other parts of the globe. Barton and Spielmann also highlight the importance of access to carbohydrates, not just in terms of diet, but also as a way of enabling both storage and individual aggrandizement (see Hayden, this volume). There are clearly insights to be gained from ethnographic analogy as archaeological scholars seek to move debates forward about how best to explore the specifics of social life and identity in these transitional prehistoric economies.


Understanding the transition to farming, and the roles of foragers within that transition, is one of the oldest, most interesting and, as demonstrated by this chapter, also one of the (p. 784) most challenging topics in prehistoric archaeology. What this critical review of scholarship on this topic does reveal is that there are now more data and elaborate new analytical methods than nineteenth-century theorists could ever have imagined. So where are we in understanding it all? At one level of analysis, there clearly is a general process of ‘going over’ to agriculture at the broadest level, and all the data support this. Under closer scrutiny, and with increasingly more detailed local high-resolution datasets, however, the clear boundaries, categories, units, and even the main entities and actors that have traditionally been used in this long-standing debate now increasingly seem to be shifting, blurring, and taking on new significance. Perhaps the key challenge for future research is to move beyond mapping the general details, and to explore how best to make sense of this major human transformation at more local and more human levels. It also means that the old models, concepts, and approaches might not be best suited for this new task.

This raises an interesting predicament/question. Should archaeologists:

  1. a. Retain older concepts, such as Mesolithic and Neolithic, forager and farmer, as they provide a bridge between older debates and new directions, but use them as points of departure for more critical considerations and new discussions on these processes?

  2. b. Reject older terms and start again? The problem with this approach is how to best pursue this line of scholarship—what language should we use if there are no categories such as foragers or farmers, Mesolithic or Neolithic? This certainly poses a significant, but perhaps also an exciting challenge.

Whatever way individual scholars seek to advance their research and interpretation, it is clear that an interesting approach is to explore historically contingent regional sequences, as well as the significance of these broader changes for the individuals and communities caught up in them. For a topic that has seen so much discussion over the past century, it is clear that this will remain one of the most exciting, and controversial, processes in human history, but one that will continue to offer insights into the cultural significance of how we, as human beings, choose make a living, and into the nature of group and individual identity at this time. The primary challenge now seems to be to find new ways to explore and describe the multiple outcomes of particularistic histories in regions throughout the world.


I am extremely grateful to Peter Jordan for his help with earlier drafts of this chapter, and for his insights into this particular topic.


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