The Farming Frontier on the Southern Steppes

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North of the Black and Caspian Seas lies the Pontic-Caspian grassland, the western tongue of the vast steppe that covers the center of the Eurasian continent. North of the grassland was, eight thousand years ago, an equally vast forest. The precise location of the border between the forest and the steppe has shifted with changes in the world's climate, but since the end of the last Ice Age the lowland basins of the Black and Caspian Seas have been arid grasslands or deserts fringed on the north by upland forests. The transition zone, the forest-steppe, has always been among the most productive and pleasant environments in Europe because of its mixture of forest and meadow, sufficient rain but not too much. Both hunter-gatherers and early farmers were attracted to the forest-steppe. They came face to face in the forest-steppe of the East Carpathian piedmont, northwest of the Black Sea, about 5800–5600 b.c.

It was a meeting that utterly changed both ways of life because it provided the means for humanity to profit from the Eurasian grasslands: domesticated cattle and sheep. Cattle and sheep were grass processors. They soon spread into plains that formerly were grazed only by wild horses and antelope, and they converted grass into leather, milk, yogurt, cheese, meat, marrow, and bone—the foundation for life and wealth. The steppe region began to witness the emergence of societies committed to stock-breeding while the forest-steppe northwest of the Black Sea remained the home of increasingly prosperous and productive mixed farmers. An economic-cultural frontier formed between them. It remained the most clearly defined and contrastive cultural frontier in prehistoric Europe for about twenty-three hundred years, 5600–3300 b.c.

first farmers: the criŞ culture

The people who brought the first domesticated cattle and sheep into the Pontic-Caspian region were immigrants who belonged to the Criş culture. They were the leading edge of a broad movement that had snaked northward out of Greece and Macedonia into the temperate forests of the Balkans and the Carpathian Basin beginning around 6300 b.c. Small groups of Criş farmers moved into the mountains of Transylvania and spilled over the eastern Carpathian ridges into the steep valleys of the Seret and Prut Rivers about 5800 b.c. Others moved up the Seret and Prut from the Lower Danube Valley, avoiding the arid steppe lowlands near the Black Sea, where rainfall agriculture was impossible. In the East Carpathian piedmont these groups created a northern and a southern variant of the East Carpathian Criş culture, which survived until about 5300–5100 b.c.

Archaeologists have found at least thirty Criş settlement sites in the East Carpathian piedmont. Most were built on the second terrace of a river, overlooking the floodplain; some were on steep-sided promontories (Suceava) or high ridges (Sakarova I). The more substantial homes had sunken floors and contained a kitchen area with a domed clay oven; lighter structures were built on the surface and had an open fire in the center of the single room. Settlements consisted of a few families living in perhaps three to ten simple dwellings, surrounded by agricultural fields, gardens, plum orchards and pastures for the animals. Ceramic vessels were handmade by the coiling method, and included a variety of fine wares with polished red-brown surfaces—tureens, round-bodied jars, bowls with carinated sides, and cups on pedestals. Two copper beads were found at the Criş site of Selishte, dated 5700–5500 b.c. (6830±100 b.p.), among the oldest metal artifacts in Europe. No Criş cemeteries are known nor is it known what the Criş ordinarily did to commemorate their dead.

The clay used to make Criş wall plaster and pottery contains impressions of seeds and chaff from cultivated wheat (emmer, einkorn, and spelt varieties), barley, and peas. Emmer and einkorn made up 70 percent of the identified wheats from the Criş site of Sakarovka I, and wheat composed two thirds of the identified grains. Wheat and peas were not native to southeastern Europe—like sheep, they were exotics, domesticated in the Near East, carried to Greece by immigrant farmers, and propagated through Europe from Greece. Flints included many blades 5 to 10 centimeters in length with edges showing "sickle gloss" from cutting grain; the blades were slotted into curved antler sickle handles. Most of the meat in the diet was from cattle and pigs, with red deer a close third, followed by some domesticated sheep—a distribution of species that suggests a largely forested environment.

The Criş people were different from the local foragers in many ways: they made different kinds of flint tools (large blade tools versus the foragers' microlithic tools); they lived in different places (on the better-drained soils of the second terrace, convenient for farming, while foragers preferred the floodplain, convenient for fishing); their polished stone axes were different; their economy was different; their pottery was quite different; and their tastes were different. Criş pioneers ate mutton, the meat of an animal (Ovis aries), foreign to southeastern Europe. The local foragers never acquired that taste. Some archaeologists have speculated that the East Carpathian Criş culture might have been an acculturated population of local foragers who had adopted a farming economy, rather than immigrant pioneers from the Danube Valley. This is unlikely given the numerous similarities in material culture to the Danubian Criş culture and the differences from the local foragers. But in any case, no one believes that the Criş people were genetically "pure," whatever that means. The important point is that the people who lived in Criş villages were culturally Criş in the material signs of their identity, and therefore almost certainly in nonmaterial signs like language as well. And the Criş culture came, without any doubt, from the Danube Valley. Territorially, Criş farmers never penetrated east of the Prut-Dniester watershed. East of the Prut a substantial population of foragers became the filter through which stockbreeding economies were introduced to Pontic-Caspian societies farther to the east.

foragers become farmers: the bug-dniester culture

At the Soroki II site in the forest-steppe zone of the Dniester Valley, a camp of Mesolithic foragers, without pottery, was covered by a Neolithic level, with pottery. The Mesolithic level (2) was dated about 6500–6200 b.c., and the Neolithic level (1) about 5700–5500 b.c. Some of the ceramic vessels in the top layer looked very much like Criş pots—round-bodied, narrow-mouthed pots on a ring base. But they were made locally, using clay tempered with sand and chopped vegetal matter, and most of the pots in this level were quite different from Criş in shape and decoration. The clay contained seed imprints of cultivated cereals—emmer and einkorn, the same suite of cereals cultivated by the Criş culture. Level 1 also yielded bones of domesticated cattle and pigs, apparently borrowed like the imported wheat from the Criş culture. In the time interval between levels 2 and 1 Criş farmers appeared in the hills to the west, and the foragers of the Dniester Valley began to emulate them, making pottery, cultivating domesticated cereals, and keeping domesticated cattle and pigs. In the South Bug Valley, east of the Dniester, there are many sites with similar flint tools and ceramics. Together, the Dniester and South Bug sites define the Bug-Dniester culture, the earliest native Neolithic culture northwest of the Black Sea. It began around 5700–5600 b.c. and survived until about 5100–4900 b.c.

The Bug-Dniester foragers borrowed domesticated cattle and pigs and cultivated cereals almost as soon as Criş farmers made them available. Criş ceramic vessel shapes, if not potters' methods, were copied as well. Why? What was so attractive about the Criş diet and even the pottery vessels in which it was served? There are three possibilities. One is that the pre-Neolithic Bug-Dniester foragers were running out of good hunting and fishing grounds and were already looking for ways to increase the amount of food that could be harvested within their hunting territories—an economic explanation. But forager population densities do not seem to have been so high, and the abundant tree pollen in Criş-period soils indicates that the Criş pioneers had little impact on the forest around them, so their arrival did not greatly reduce deer populations. The second possibility is that the foragers were impressed by the continuous abundance of food available for feasting and festivals among Criş farmers. Socially ambitious foragers might have begun to cultivate gardens and raise cattle to sponsor similar public feasts among their own people, even making serving bowls like those used in Criş villages—a political and ideological explanation, and one that also explains why Criş pots were copied. The third possibility is that there was some kind of natural disaster in or near the Bug-Dniester region that suddenly created a crisis in both the ecological and political arenas, pushing the old foraging system to its limits at just the moment when Criş farmers arrived. That sounds highly improbable, but curiously enough, an enormous natural disaster might have shocked the region, possibly at about the right time.

The geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman have argued that the Black Sea was just a large brackish lake with a surface level about 100 meters beneath that of the Aegean Sea until sometime between about 6300–5600 b.c. At some point between those dates the saltwater of the Aegean Sea broke through the Bosporus Strait, previously just a long bay open to the Aegean, and poured into the Black Sea basin. If the breakthrough was sudden it would have created a fifty-year-long waterfall twelve times bigger at its peak than Niagara, until the Black Sea rose to the level of the Aegean. Some geologists think the breakthrough might have happened earlier or developed more gradually, although radiocarbon dates from the bottom of the Black Sea do suggest that its salinity and shell species changed between about 6300 b.c. (with Caspian-type shells) and 5600 b.c. (with Aegean-type shells). Before the breakthrough, what is now the northern part of the Black Sea would have been a broad grassy plain bisected by the Crimean Mountains and crossed by large rivers. If this plain was submerged suddenly about 5800–5600 b.c., the foragers who lived there would have retreated into the hills, creating a crisis that perhaps led to the adoption of a new economy.

The Bug-Dniester people adopted only selected parts of the Criş cultural pattern. In Criş settlements domesticated animals contributed 70 to 80 percent of the bones in kitchen middens. In Bug-Dniester settlements in the Dniester Valley, the earliest Neolithic levels contained about 24 percent domesticated animal bones, while middle-phase sites had about 44 percent and late sites 55 percent domesticated animals. Domesticated animals exceeded hunted wild game only in the latest phase. Bug-Dniester cooks did not offer mutton, and Bug-Dniester bakers initially did not use Criş-style saddle querns to grind their grain; instead they used small, rhomboidal stone mortars of a local Late Mesolithic style. They preferred their own chipped flint ax types to the smaller polished stone Criş axes. Their smaller chipped flint tools were also different. Their pottery was quite distinctive. The "local" look of most Bug-Dniester pottery might reflect the influence of indigenous Pontic-Caspian forager ceramic traditions of Dnieper-Donets I type that had developed about 6000–5800 b.c. in the Dnieper Valley, to the east.

the linear pottery and cucuteni-tripolye cultures

During 5300–5200 b.c. a new farming culture, the Linear Pottery culture, moved into the East Carpathian piedmont from southern Poland, gradually replacing the Criş culture. The cultural frontier between Linear Pottery and late Bug-Dniester did not disappear—it just moved a little to the east, from the Prut to the Dniester. Linear Pottery sherds were found in late Bug-Dniester sites (Soroki V in the Dniester, Basikov Ostrov in the South Bug Valley) and Bug-Dniester sherds at the Linear Pottery site of Novi Ruseşti. The frontier was porous to people—no fortifications or other signs of conflict are known, and the sherd exchanges imply direct contact—but the cultures on either side remained quite different.

Around 5100–4900 b.c. a new kind of material-culture complex appeared in the East Carpathian piedmont: the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture (called Cucuteni in Soviet Romania and Tripolye in Ukraine, but a single prehistoric complex). Most of the new customs that defined the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture (house styles, pottery styles, and domestic rituals centered on female figurines) were copied from the Boian culture of the Lower Danube Valley, and indicate a strong new connection with that region. One result was a growing trade in copper bracelets, rings, and beads made from Balkan copper. In the Prut Valley, where Criş and Linear Pottery farmers had lived the longest, elm and lime trees, desirable for timber house construction, declined while open fields and meadows expanded. A stable form of village-based intensive farming developed in an increasingly open and cultivated landscape. Tripolye villages spread eastward into the Dniester and South Bug Valleys in today's Ukraine. The Tripolye A town of Mogil'noe IV near Gaivoron, among the first established in the South Bug Valley, had more than one hundred buildings and covered 15 to 20 hectares, with a population of perhaps four hundred to seven hundred. The Bug-Dniester culture finally disappeared. Late Bug-Dniester traditions had little or no visible influence on early Tripolye house types, rituals, or tools—although some of the earliest Tripolye sites in the South Bug Valley (Lugach, Gard 3) display some Bug-Dniester decorative motifs on their ceramics. The frontier between Cucuteni-Tripolye societies and those visibly derived from local Mesolithic forager cultures shifted eastward to the watershed between the South Bug and the Dnieper.

the dnieper-donets culture

Many sites in the Dnieper Valley were excavated in the 1950s during dam construction below the Dnieper Rapids. Sites around the rapids such as Igren 8, Pokhili, and Vovchok showed the same sequence of cultures: Mesolithic at the bottom; then an Early Neolithic culture called Surskii with shell-tempered pottery and microlithic flint tools (beginning perhaps around 6200 b.c.); then Dnieper-Donets phase I (DDI) with comb-impressed and vegetal-tempered pottery (dated perhaps 6000–5400 b.c.); and on top, Dnieper-Donets II (DDII) with sand-tempered pottery with "pricked" or "stabbed" designs and large flint blade tools (dated 5400–4300 b.c.). The shift from hunting and fishing to herding economies occurred in the Dnieper Valley during the DDII period.

DDII is recognized by changes in pottery (larger, more decorated flat-based pots), flint tools (more large blades), cemeteries (the appearance of communal ossuary pits containing up to fifty skulls and fragmentary skeletons, with up to 170 individuals in a cemetery), the first use of metal ornaments (copper and even gold beads, imported through the Tripolye A culture), and the adoption of a new food-production economy. Domesticated cattle, pigs, and now even sheep were raised and eaten. Some DDII flint blades show "sickle gloss," and one impression of a barley seed was found in a DDII clay pot, so there is a little evidence that might suggest cereal cultivation, but the evidence for agriculture is much less convincing than the evidence for stockbreeding. Domesticated cattle (averaging 25.7 percent of bones), imported sheep and goats (averaging 20.2 percent), and (wild?) horses (averaging 12.1 percent) were the dominant food animals at three DDII occupation sites in the Dnieper Valley.

Social hierarchy seems to have emerged at the same time. A few individuals now were buried with rare prestige objects: gold rings, copper ornaments, polished stone maces, and burnished plaques made of boar's tusk. At the cemetery of Mariupol, one male was buried wearing forty tusk plaques sewn to his thighs and shirt, and numerous strings of shell and mother-of-pearl beads. He also had a polished porphyry four-knobbed mace-head, a bull figurine carved from bone, and seven bird-bone tubes. A child, one of the few buried at Mariupol, wore forty-one boar's-tusk plaques and a cap armored with eleven whole boar's tusks. The exceptional wealth of this child, and of others, hints at the inheritance of status. An elite seems to have emerged in the Dnieper-Azov steppes during DDII. It was defined partly by its access to exotic ornaments, including copper; partly by the display of indigenous signals of status (boar's-tusk plaques, polished stone maces); perhaps partly by differences in the treatment of the body after death (exposed, or with burial of only the skull, versus not exposed, with burial of the whole body); and perhaps partly by the possession and public sacrifice of domesticated animals.

the spread of stockbreeding

Stockbreeding spread very rapidly across the European steppes, sweeping from the Dnieper-Azov steppes eastward to the Volga-Ural region in one hundred to two hundred years. But then the diffusion came to an equally rapid halt. The cultures to the north, in the forest zone, remained foragers for another 2,500 years. The steppe cultures east of the Urals in northern Kazakhstan also stubbornly rejected stockbreeding for equally as long, until about 2500 b.c. An economic-cultural frontier emerged around 5000 b.c. at the forest-steppe boundary in the north and along the Ural River in the east, separating societies that owned animals from those that hunted them.

Domesticated animals were a new kind of wealth. They could be owned, stolen, traded, and offered as gifts or sacrifices. But the adoption of stockbreeding—and perhaps of some cereal cultivation, in the Dnieper Valley if not in the Volga—had different effects in different places. The region between the Dnieper Rapids and the Sea of Azov, the heart of DDII territory, had funeral rituals and pottery types different from those found on the middle Volga River between Saratov and Samara, the heart of the Khvalynsk culture. There was another kind of response in the drier southeastern steppes between the lower Don and the lower Volga, where the Orlovka culture used copper and kept some domesticated animals but did not have elaborate funerals or even cemeteries. And yet another response developed at the moister northern edge of the steppes, in the Samara River valley, where the Samara culture had its own distinct ceramic styles, cemeteries, and burial posture. One of the interesting things about the period from 5000 to 4500 b.c. is the variety of local adaptations to stockbreeding across the different river valleys of the Pontic-Caspian steppes.

Still, a few things were shared across large distances. The veneer of community appeared most clearly in a shared set of markers among local elites: copper beads and bracelets, boar's-tusk ornaments, polished stone maces, and, curiously, bird-bone tubes (found in rich graves at both Mariupol and Khvalynsk). Boar's-tusk plaques of exactly the same type were found at the DDII cemetery of Yasinovatka and at S'yezzhe in the Samara Valley, about 400 kilometers to the east—as far as Rome is from Paris. Copper was widespread. The Khvalynsk I cemetery on the Volga, dated 5000–4500 b.c., contained 34 copper ornaments concentrated in 11 of 158 graves: copper wire rings, small copper beads, and round-sectioned spiral hoops. At least some of the copper came from Balkan Mountain ores, mined in the region of modern Bulgaria, probably traded through the Tripolye A culture. The polished stone mace was made in different forms in the Dnieper Valley (Nikol'skoye), the middle Volga (Khvalynsk), and the North Caspian region (Varfolomievka). But a mace is a weapon, and its wide adoption as a symbol of status suggests a change in the politics of power. Between 5000–4500 b.c. a new kind of social hierarchy based on the ownership of cattle and sheep (and possibly horses) became established in the Pontic-Caspian steppes.

Some have speculated that the first domesticated animals and copper in the western steppes could have been acquired from the cultures of the Caucasus Mountains or from Central Asia, rather than from the west as described here. These theories date from the 1950s, when a Central Asian source was popular, or the 1970s, when a Caucasian source was considered. But radiocarbon dates from the 1980s and 1990s show that the Eneolithic of the European steppes began much earlier than was previously thought, around 5400–5200 b.c. Although there were Neolithic and Eneolithic cultures in southern Central Asia (Djeitun) and in the southern Caucasus valleys (Shulaveri) at this date, no bridge or cultural connection linked these distant farming communities to the European steppes. Yet contact between Criş–Linear Pottery farmers and foragers of the Dnieper-Dniester zone is well documented archaeologically between 5800–5200 b.c., and trace elements in the copper from Khvalynsk suggest a Balkan source. Also, the cultivated cereals that appeared in Bug-Dniester sites and later in the Pontic-Caspian steppe river valleys composed a Balkan-Danubian crop suite (emphasizing emmer wheat and naked barley), not a Caucasian crop suite (emphasizing bread wheat, T. aestivum). A western source seemed therefore more likely based on data from the late twentieth century.

Wool sheep were introduced to the Eurasian steppes well after the period described here. Sheep covered with wool were mutants, bred for that trait, and it seems likely that they first appeared in Mesopotamia about 4000 b.c. The earliest direct evidence for woolen fabrics in the steppes or steppe borderlands is from about 3000 b.c., although wool sheep may have been present earlier. So the stock-breeding system described here was pre-wool—the only textiles were linens, made from flax. Wool sheep gave the steppe people textiles that shed water, took dyes very well, and could be used for tents, clothing, and trade goods. The age of wool quickly also became the age of bronze weapons, wagons, and copper mines in the steppes, a combination of commodities and technologies that would make steppe societies truly wealthy for the first time after about 3000 b.c. The social and economic foundation for this later wealth was established when Criş farmers appeared in the East Carpathian piedmont about 5800 b.c.

See alsoTransition to Farming in the Balkans (vol. 1, part 3); First Farmers of Central Europe (vol. 1, part 3); Domestication of the Horse (vol. 1, part 4).


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David W. Anthony

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The Farming Frontier on the Southern Steppes

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