Adventure, copper and the spread of Neolithic agriculture into Europe

by Edward Pegler on 7 April, 2010

Was the search for copper a motivating force in the spread of agriculture into Neolithic Europe? It might have given second sons a more exciting life than setting up a farm next to your dad’s.

Map of Europe showing the distribution of farming by 5000BC, as well as the locations of European copper and gold deposits


The map here shows the distribution of the earliest Neolithic farming in Europe as well as the location of copper deposits.

It’s a composite – my own sticking together of about five different maps. Because of the distortions of each of the maps I’ve had to fiddle with the perspective. However much I tried, it was bound to come out inaccurate.

For example, I’m sure that the green blob should touch the grey blob. But it will have to do because I do not have a GIS system and the maps were scanned from state-of-the-art paper books.

So let me explain exactly what this map is supposed to show:

The brown blobs represent areas where agriculture existed by about 6500 BC. They include southern Turkey, the Levant, Eastern Greece and the area either side of the sea of Marmara. This last bit perhaps should go with the grey blob, but I think it should be here.

The other blobs represent areas where farming was adopted in Europe during the next several hundred years. I shall discuss each in turn.

Starčevo-Karanovo cultures

The grey blob represents the area occupied by the first people who farmed in the Balkans. It dates around 6000BC, give or take a few hundred years. This includes the Starčevo, Criş, Körös cultures (all similar) and the Karanovo culture in the southeast. I say occupied, but much of the area was thick forest with just the occasional rising wisp of smoke to indicate settlement in one of the many river valleys.

The Balkan area is the source of much discussion among archaeologists. Apart from the Lepenski Vir area, there is little evidence for foragers living in the thick forest before farming started. I suspect they were probably there somewhere but didn’t leave much behind.

Mediterranean impressed ware cultures

The yellow blobs around the western Mediterranean represent what’s known as “Impressed Ware” cultures. They date between about 6000 and 5500 BC. These groups of people had pottery with designs made by pressing objects into the clay before firing. The most famous pottery type has the impression of large cockle shells (genus Cardium).

Generally speaking, Impressed Ware cultures are associated either with agriculture or with the herding of animals such as sheep. Indirect evidence, such as the exchange of items between islands, indicates that some people in the Impressed Ware cultures were extremely good mariners, travelling up to 500 km in a journey.

LBK culture

The green blob represents the Early “Linear Band Keramik” culture. This is dated from around 5600 BC, give or take, to a few hundred years later. The culture is associated with a rather stylish pottery covered in broad ribbon decoration. Its people lived within long, barn-like buildings in ordered, often defended villages situated on the partially forested loess soils of central Europe. There is increasing evidence for some nasty goings on in the LBK settlements.

European copper

The red and orange dots represent natural sources of copper. They are compiled from two books which, strangely, don’t correspond more than a few times. I don’t know why. I’ve also added the sites of gold deposits for interest’s sake.

So what’s my point?

Firstly there is absolutely no correlation between the distribution of copper in Turkey, Greece and the Levant and the distribution of agriculture. So far so disappointing. However, as far as I can see there is some kind of relationship between copper and early farming sites in the rest of Europe.

The world is unconvinced

I can see you doubt me. What about Britain? What about the copper dots in north-eastern Spain? Then there’s that set of four blobs apparently in the Austro-Italian Alps. True true. But these are all remote or difficult parts of Europe.

(ADDENDUM: both Britain and the Alps were covered in ice during the last few ice ages. The movement of ice would dilute any concentrations of surface copper ore by distributing it over a far larger area than it originally had been distributed. I didn’t think of this when I wrote the post).

Additionally, many of the copper dots fall just outside the highlighted areas. Again true, and I wouldn’t be surprised if even more of them were actually just outside the highlighted area if I’d plotted this all a bit better. I still don’t think this undermines the point I’m making.

A much bigger objection is that the copper age in Europe did not happen for another thousand years. However, if you read The Neolithic, or the “Missing Copper” Age you’ll see I have a possible explanation for that. I suggest that it’s not copper ore that people used at this early stage but the little bits of native copper which lay around on or very near the surface above future copper mines.

A story

Around 6500 BC, the tiny supplies of native copper lying around in Turkey and the Middle East had pretty much all been collected and turned into jewellery. Some of the copper in circulation had been lost or buried but there wasn’t a lot around anyway.

But occasionally an individual or band would appear in one of the Greek farming villages, either coming by boat from the west or from one of the river valleys into the Balkan mountains to the north. They brought with them women or rare herbs or razor-sharp obsidian and exchanged them for textiles, exotic shells and alcohol from the farmers.

Very occasionally, one of the band would excite intense interest from the villagers when he produced a copper bead from his pack. Villagers would do a lot for one of those beads. It meant prestige for its new owner. On the other hand a villager, with a bit of care, could get a good deal on the bead and then pass it on for a much better exchange with someone further east.

Adventurous second sons

So adventurous young villagers, second sons seeking their fortune, started to follow the boats back west… or followed the bands back into the northern mountains. Most would disappear, never to be seen again. But some came back with another couple of beads and their futures secure.

And as these travellers came back with fabulous tales of forager tribeswomen wearing necklaces containing several copper beads, more people followed, tracing the copper nearer and nearer to its source. Along the way they established rough and ready settlements, deep in the forest or on the coasts, way-stations for other travellers along the emerging trade routes.

Most travellers would get nothing for their efforts and go back, failures, to their villages. Some settled along the way, farmed small plots and took local wives. A few became more prosperous, networking winners from the new, winding trade networks through Europe.

The Wave of Advance

Conventional archaeological wisdom, originally championed by Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and Albert Ammerman, currently argues for a wave of advance of farming across Europe. This results from second-son syndrome, the fact that younger sons in fertile agricultural families do not inherit the land of their fathers. They need, basically, to sod off and not cause any trouble.

The wave of advance theory basically says that second sons went and farmed the next piece of land beyond the Neolithic frontier of agriculture, chopping down the trees and clearing the land next to your parents’. What a life.

Recently it has become evident that the theory has problems. The first problem is that the genetic mix of central and western Europe is largely indigenous, with only between 10 and 25% of the population coming from elsewhere. The second problem is that the wave of advance turns out to be more of a “hop of advance”. Farming villages sprung up miles away from the last, either deep in the forest or hundreds of miles along the coast.

A modified Wave of Advance

I would propose a modified version of the wave of advance. Yes, second sons were not wanted on their parents’ homesteads. But what they did was what second sons have done ever since, go off to make their fortunes, far away in heathen lands. In the process they set up isolated farming settlements in a way that fits the archaeological data far better.

Furthermore, this version gives the foragers a chance to survive and pass on their genes. They are the ones who, at least initially, hold the secret of where the riches are (indeed, it’s interesting that many of the copper dots plot just at the edge of or just outside the farming areas – well, that’s my excuse). The foragers can be part of the system. They are no longer an irrelevance to the incomers, people simply to be exterminated without thought.

I would never really argue that the search for copper was the sole reason for the expansion of farming in Europe. There are too many areas of the map where farming happened nowhere near copper. But it makes more sense to me that this kind of search for riches drove the first farmers along Europe’s coasts and into its dark heart.

(Further addendum: since writing this post, and really losing interest in it, I’ve stumbed across a map from Branigan 1974 showing the distribution of small copper deposits in the Aegean area. These deposits are distributed only in the eastern half of mainland Greece, extending into north into Thessaly, and in the Cycladic Islands and Crete.

Interestingly, this matches the dispersion of the first farmers pretty well and slightly revives my hope in the idea of this article. My only reservation on making this point is that it makes you wonder if the more you look, the more tiny copper deposits you’ll find everywhere, making it easier and easier to match them to farming. Someone out there please test this idea more thoroughly.)


Blake, E. & Knapp, A.B. (eds) 2004 The archaeology of mediterranean prehistory, Wiley-Blackwell, pp333 (p219, Fig. 9.1 for source of red dots)

Cunliffe, B. 2008 Europe between the oceans, Yale, pp518 (source of impressed ware, early LBK and Balkan Neolithic distributions – the Balkan Neolithic modified based on other information)

Kristiansen, K. 1998 Europe before history, Cambridge, pp505 (p30, fig. 11 for source of orange dots)

Richards, M. 2003 The Neolithic Invasion of Europe. Annual Review of Anthropology 32, p135-162.

Sagona, A. & Zimansky, P. 2009 Ancient Turkey, Routeledge, pp420

Van Andel, T.J. & Runnels, C.N. undated The Earliest Farmers in Europe.

New References

Branigan, K. 1974 Aegean Metalwork of the Early and Middle Bronze Age, Oxford, pp216.

Zilhão, J. 2001 Radiocarbon evidence for maritime pioneer colonization at the origins of farming in west Mediterranean Europe, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A, 98, p14180–14185.

(Arguing for the incredibly rapid spread of Cardial Ware culture over perhaps six generations around 5400BC. This underlines that this is not just the growth of farming through a ‘wave of advance but more like pioneer settlement, as suggested above).

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ellen Friedman August 21, 2016 at 7:27 am

Thanks for providing a commentary on your ideas, your sources and a frank assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of what you present – good to get people thinking.


Edward Pegler August 22, 2016 at 11:54 am

Dear Ellen

Thanks for the comment. I’m starting to have suspicions that there may have been an economic push from the Middle East that led to expansion in all directions around 7000BC, as well as perhaps a pull. The initial wave of agricultural and population expansion into northern and western Europe has been argued to be followed by population decline in most of those areas (see Stephen Shennan & Kevan Edinborough’s work). I suspect that copper has some role to play in all of this, perhaps to do with easing exchanges between different and suspicious villages and groups in an area, helping them get through hard times. In this case a shortage of copper would, bizarrely, be bad for the success of early agriculture.
Someone on one of my other pages suggested that copper could have been used as a fungicide by them. It’s possible but I don’t currently think this is significant.

best wishes Ned


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