Deciphering the DNA of the Bell Beaker Complex

Kathryn Krakowka

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Beaker from bathgate west lothian credit national museums scotland e1522064608260The Bell Beaker Complex was an immensely popular cultural phenomenon that swept through Europe and Britain in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. It is characterised by its ‘beaker’-shaped vessels, which show regional variation in both manufacture and design. This is an example of a vessel in the ‘All-Over-Corded’ style, common in central Europe and Britain. (Image: National Museums Scotland)

More than 4,500 years ago, a hugely popular cultural phenomenon – today known as the Bell Beaker Complex – captured the prehistoric imagination, flourishing across much of Europe. Archaeologists are still deliberating over how this Complex, first identified in the 19th century, developed so quickly and effectively. Now the largest ancient DNA study to-date has shed revolutionary new light on the question, with surprising implications for our understanding of ancient populations – particularly that of Britain, which seems to have undergone an almost complete genetic turnover in just a few centuries. Kathryn Krakowka reports.

At the start of the 3rd millennium BC the peoples of Europe were, for the most part, technologically and socially disparate: in the eastern and southern reaches of the Continent, metallurgy had begun in earnest, while in Britain and other areas of northern Europe flint was still king. By the middle of that millennium, however, the region had been swept – and largely united – by a cultural package known as the Bell Beaker Complex.

Archaeologically, this movement is defined by the presence of ‘beaker’-shaped vessels that are generally found in funerary contexts and often next to crouched human burials. Originally considered a ‘culture’, in recent years the Bell Beaker phase has instead been referred to as a ‘Complex’ or ‘Phenomenon’ due to the wide range of variations seen in the design of the artefacts it produced. While the pottery always retains its distinctive ‘beaker’ shape, the patterns with which the vessels are decorated can differ greatly.

Dsc 7191A double Beaker grave from Trumpington meadows in Cambridgeshire, excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological unit. It contained two individuals in their late teens, one male and one female, as well as two distinctive Beaker vessels. Such pots are commonly found next to crouched human burials, giving these graves their name. (Image: Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Among these, a key group is the ‘Maritime’ beaker vessels, which are found predominantly in Iberia, but also along the Atlantic and Mediterranean shores. This style, defined by repeated patterns of horizontal bands over the entire surface of the pot, is thought to have originated early in the Beaker period. In central Europe, though, we are more likely to find ‘All-Over-Corded’ vessels, which, as the name implies, are adorned with cord-like impressions. While both types have been found in Britain, this latter style seems to have been more dominant.

Archery also seems to have been a defining aspect of the Complex, with paraphernalia including stone wrist-guards, flint arrowheads, and sometimes even bows found in Bell Beaker graves. Other artefacts commonly associated with such burials include copper daggers and buttons with V-shaped holes. In Britain, the most famous Bell Beaker grave is that of the Amesbury Archer from Boscombe Down in Wiltshire (see CA 184 and 265), but these burials have been found throughout Britain, from Orkney to Cornwall.

It is not just new material culture that seems to have spread so effectively across Europe. Presumably these artefacts were also accompanied by a set of practices, beliefs, and other intangible aspects of culture that cannot be elucidated through the archaeological record. It is this assumption that makes the Bell Beaker period so significant: the development of the Complex marks the first time archaeologically that we can see such large-scale cultural diffusion.


Plate 36Artefacts associated with the Bell Beaker Complex include flint arrowheads, stone wrist bracers, and copper knives. (Image: Wessex Archaeology)

While we can unpick its material components, the geographical origins of the Complex remain elusive. The earliest radiocarbon date for a Bell Beaker site (c.2750 BC, at Leceia in the lower Estremadura region of Portugal) suggests possible beginnings among the people of Copper Age Iberia, but other theories propose the Lower Rhine area instead. Unfortunately, an inconsistent radiocarbon resolution for this period means that such evidence can only provide broad date ranges and is not capable of resolving the issue.

What is clear about the Beaker Complex, though, is that from c.2600 BC until c.2000 BC it was extremely popular, rapidly diffusing through large swathes of the Continent. At its peak, it encompassed the vast majority of Europe, as well as parts of northern Africa. The juxtaposition of this fast transmission of ideas and practices with the clear regional variation seen in the design and manufacture of Beaker artefacts is a puzzle, however, sparking fierce debate among archaeologists. The key question is whether this cultural diffusion was driven by the large-scale migration of people across the region, or by the communication of ideas through social interactions.

Recently, the largest ancient human DNA project to-date – carried out by an ambitious international team of over 100 archaeologists and geneticists – set out to address this issue. By sequencing the genomes of hundreds of Neolithic, Copper Age, and Bronze Age Europeans and mapping the relatedness of different populations, they hoped to document the movement of these prehistoric people. The project’s outcomes have game-changing implications not only for our understanding of prehistoric populations, but also for the future prospects of ancient DNA in wider archaeological research.