First Scandinavian farmers were far more advanced than we thought

The first farmers in Denmark and Sweden knew how to rear cattle – suggesting they knew much more about farming than previously thought

Kristian Sjøgren

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Shutterstock 126251330The very first farmers in Denmark and Sweden had good control of their cattle. This meant that they could get them to calve in different seasons so farmers had milk all year round. (Shutterstock)

Farming started in Denmark and southern Sweden about 6,000 years ago, and now researchers have discovered that these early farmers were far more advanced than they have previously been given credit for.

According to a new study, settlers from more developed regions of Central Europe moved to Denmark and Sweden, where they introduced advanced farming practices.

They brought knowledge and agricultural experience with them, which they shared with the local hunter-gatherers over the next 300 years, transforming them into a well-developed agrarian society.

In the new study, researchers from England studied cow teeth dated to 3,950 BC from southern Sweden.

The teeth show that the early farmers had mastered the cumbersome task of calving at different times of the year, so that milk was available all year round.

"It’s very interesting that the farmers of the period were able to manipulate the calving seasons, so all the calves did not come in the spring. This is very hard to do, and would not have taken place if the farmers had not intended to do it,” says Kurt Gron, a researcher from the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, UK, and lead-author on the study.

This means that the earliest farmers were highly skilled from the beginning of the Neolithic period, which suggests immigrants were instrumental in bringing pastoral agriculture to the region," he says.

The new results are published in PLOS One.

Danish scientist: Completely new insights

Lasse Sørensen, a postdoc at the National Museum of Denmark, studies the transition of early Scandinavian society from hunter-gatherers to a culture dominated by farming.

He was not involved in the new study, but he describes it as exciting work that is part of a larger discussion of the importance of agriculture for the first farmers.

Until now, most researchers believed that early farming was primitive because the farmers held on to many of their hunter-gatherer traditions.

"We know that the first farmers had cows, but we do not know anything about how they managed them, and how much they still had to rely on their ancient hunter-gatherer traditions to hunt and fish,” says Sørensen.

This study points to a very advanced agriculture, and it gives us a whole new understanding of everyday life in a very interesting transition period in Scandinavian history," he says.

Studied isotopes in teeth

In the new study, researchers analysed the oxygen isotopes in the teeth of prehistoric cattle from Almhov, in south Sweden.

The isotopes are incorporated into teeth when the young cattle drink water and the chemical signal is then preserved.

Since the isotopes in their drinking water vary over the course of a year, analysing the isotopes in the cows’ teeth can tell the researchers which season the cow was born in.

This comparison allowed us to conclude that cattle were manipulated by farmers to give birth in multiple seasons,” says Gron.

They could make yogurt and cheese

Calving in different seasons meant that farmers had access to milk all year round.

According to Sørensen, this means that quite early in the Neolithic period farmers already had the techniques to make milk into yogurt or cheese. Otherwise, why would they produce milk all year round?

They must also have been able to plan and collect food for the cattle to last the winter -- a time when the young calves were especially vulnerable.

All these things required buildings, tools, and skills that Danish hunter-gatherers were not able to either invent themselves or learn from others in such a short period.

"It is a giant leap from hunter-gathering to farming, and it is so advanced that one cannot imagine that hunter-gatherers could have learned the necessary skills from newcomers or by themselves for that matter,” says Sørensen.

It takes many generations to master these techniques so these farmers must have been outsiders. Their presence has spread over the centuries and become integrated with the local populations of hunter-gatherers, who would have had to spend a lot of time learning about the agricultural techniques and the farming lifestyle," he says.

Exactly how old are the teeth?

Søren Andersen is an archaeologist and senior scientist at Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, and studies early farming societies.

Andersen does not agree that the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers happened so suddenly. He suggests it developed gradually -- and contrary to the new study -- was not introduced by a sudden influx of large groups of immigrants from the south.

He does not believe that the scientists behind the new research have proven adequately that the teeth are actually from 3950 BC, and not, for example, 200 years later.

If the teeth are 200 years younger, then this puts them in a period in which all researchers agree that the agricultural revolution was well established in southern Scandinavia. In which case, it would not be so strange for people to manipulate calving times.

Critic not convinced by the new research

"Before the results can be credible, there must be no doubt that the teeth come from the time that the researchers say they do. I believe, however, this has not been proven,” says Andersen.

In addition, researchers come up with evidence from several settlements to say that it was a widespread phenomenon. I remain sceptical until I see evidence that migrants brought agriculture to southern Scandinavia," says Andersen.

Andersen suggests that the agricultural settlements are located in exactly the same places as the hunter-gatherer settlements once lay. According to him, it is illogical that the new migrants should settle in the exact same places where people already lived.

Andersen maintains that the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a farming society happened more gradually.

Translated by Catherine Jex