First Farmers of Central Europe

views updated



Bruchenbrücken . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 266

Bylany . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 269

A millennium after agriculture was first introduced to Greece and the southern Balkans (the Sesklo and Karanovo/Kremikovci cultures) and half a millennium after its introduction to the northern Balkans (the Starčevo, Körös, and Criş cultures), peoples of the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture first farmed on the Hungarian Plain near Budapest. Within a period of seven to eight hundred years, these peoples had spread through most of central Europe, to the boundary of the North European Plain. They brought with them new practices not seen earlier in these areas, including agriculture and stock rearing; construction of large, permanent houses and settlements; and the production of pottery. While traditional views of the LBK culture saw these peoples as peaceful, self-sufficient migrants who largely replaced the indigenous hunting-gathering peoples of central Europe, new research has established that the expansion of the LBK involved more complex social interactions, at times including extreme violence.


The LBK culture (named after its linear style of incised pottery decoration) first appeared on the Hungarian Plain, near Budapest, and subsequently spread into Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, southern Poland, parts of the Ukraine, Moldavia, northern Romania, Lower Austria, Germany, Alsace, the Dutch Limburg, Belgium, the Aisne Valley, and the Paris basin. This culture was identified by the German archaeologist Friedrich Klopfleisch (1831–1898) at the end of the nineteenth century, and many archaeologists continue to use the German name Linearbandkeramik or Linienbandkeramik or sometimes simply Bandkeramik. The English translation, also frequently seen in archaeological literature, is Linear Pottery culture, while the French name is Céramique Rubanée. An older usage, introduced by V. Gordon Childe in the 1920s as the foundation of his Danubian sequence of cultures in prehistoric central Europe, but no longer in common use, is Danubian I.

Although a large body of radiocarbon dates is available from LBK sites throughout Europe, difficulties with calibration and resolution make it virtually impossible to construct a chronology relying on carbon-14 dating alone. The LBK period typically is divided into four chronological phases based on the evolution of ceramic decoration: Oldest, Older, Younger, and Youngest. More precise regional chronologies have been developed for most areas of the LBK distribution, however. Similarities with Early Neolithic material culture from the northern Balkans (Körös), in conjunction with radiocarbon dates, place the origin of the LBK culture at c. 5700 b.c. Oldest-phase LBK sites appear over a large area, comprising the Hungarian Plain, Lower Austria, southern Bohemia and Moravia, eastern Germany, the Danube Valley in southern Germany, and as far west as the Main Valley near Frankfurt. Dates for these sites are virtually indistinguishable from one another, indicating rapid dispersal. The Older phase of the LBK culture began c. 5500–5300 b.c. and saw the first settlement of the Rhine Valley (as far north as Belgium and the Netherlands) and southern Poland. During the Younger and Youngest phases there was further expansion into the Ukraine, Moldavia, northern Romania, and the Paris basin in the west. The sites that are farthest west did not appear until c. 4900 b.c., which would indicate that, on average, the LBK culture spread into Europe at a rate of 3.5–5 kilometers per year.


Finds of LBK ceramics have been noted in central Europe since the 1700s, and pits containing LBK material were first excavated during the 1800s. These sites were referred to as "pit houses" and were thought to represent the dwellings of the first farmers. It was not until Werner Buttler and Waldemar Haberey's excavations at Köln-Lindenthal in the 1920s, however, that a full settlement was recovered and the LBK longhouse first recognized.

Since then, hundreds of LBK sites have been fully or partially excavated, making the LBK one of the most extensively researched cultures in European prehistory. LBK sites have been excavated in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Ukraine, Moldavia, Romania, Poland, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Some of the most extensive work was carried out during the 1970s on the Aldenhovener Platte (near Cologne) and the Helmstedt coal seam near Braunschweig, where strip mining allowed for salvage excavation of all LBK sites along entire stream courses. Additional large-scale excavations have been carried out in southern Poland, including settlement survey on a regional level. The Hungarian Plain and the southern Czech Republic also have been intensively investigated. In the west the Dutch Limburg, the Belgian Hesbaye, the Aisne Valley, and the Paris basin all have been surveyed and excavated extensively. A newer University of Frankfurt project has focused on the excavation of Oldest LBK settlements throughout Germany and Austria.


LBK farmers preferred to found their villages on soils formed from loess or redeposited loess (although in some areas fewer than 50 percent are situated on such soils) in close proximity (500 meters or less) to second- or third-order streams. In many cases, sites (Köln-Lindenthal, Elsloo, and Olszanica, for instance) clearly were large, permanent settlements with numerous contemporaneous long-houses and, sometimes, associated cemeteries. Excavations on the Aldenhovener Platte indicate, however, that in other instances, LBK "villages" actually were isolated farmsteads separated by several hundred meters. Little remains of LBK sites other than the bottoms of post holes and pits, owing to post-Neolithic erosion; it nonetheless is clear that certain sites were fortified with ditches, and such features as wells and ovens also have been discovered. Sites typically are situated in "clusters" (Siedlungskammern) of as many as forty sites each, often within a single stream valley.

LBK peoples built massive timber longhouses, usually several meters wide, with the longest being tens of meters in length. Longhouses (recognizable only as post molds) typically consist of two or four outer post rows (the walls) and three rows of inner support posts that held up the roof. Earlier long-houses in western Europe have a characteristic pattern of central post rows in a Y or 7 formation; this pattern is replaced by a single straight row in later houses. Longhouses were modular, with a middle section often interpreted as living quarters; a northwestern section with full surrounding wall trench, generally taken to be a winter stall for animals; and a southeastern section with heavy double posts, usually seen as a raised grain loft. Longhouses always have a central section but may or may not have northwestern and southwestern sections. At many sites, however, the majority of houses have all three segments, arguing against a correlation between house size and the social status of its occupants. No original occupation surface has ever been recovered, but analysis of soil phosphate content has shown no functional difference among the three sections.

LBK stone tools typically are made from broad, long blades with flat platforms struck from unidirectional cores or from flakes. Oldest-phase LBK stone tools more commonly (40 percent as opposed to 20 percent in the later LBK culture) are composed of smaller, narrower blades, in some cases with faceted platforms. Typical tools include end scrapers, sickle blades and armatures (with heavy "sickle gloss," indicating use), and borers. Except for rare examples, burins are virtually absent. Projectile points are present in small numbers (less than 1 percent of a total assemblage) at eastern sites but are much more common (as much as 20 percent of total finds) in the west. At Oldest LBK sites, many of these points are geometric microliths, often trapezes—this trend continued into later phases of the eastern LBK. At western sites the classic "Danubian" triangular point type is more prevalent. Groundstone adzes (of the D-section "shoe last" type) and axes (the Flachhacke) are ubiquitous at LBK sites, as are saddle querns (grinding stones).

LBK ceramics (fig. 1a–e) usually are divided into two types, well-made and elaborately decorated fine ware and a plain coarse ware. While coarse ware almost certainly was used for storage and cooking, the function of fine-ware pots is understood less well. They may have been serving vessels. Oldest LBK pots generally were organically tempered and flat-bottomed, and the decorated examples almost always have a spiral or meander pattern of two or three bands. During later LBK culture phases, round bottoms and inorganic temper were employed almost universally. The three-quarter spherical bowl (Kümpf ) replaced the low bowl as the most common vessel type, and decorative motifs became ever more elaborate. During the Younger phase, a distinct east/west stylistic division was evident, with eastern ceramics being characterized by relative stylistic uniformity. Youngest western ceramics show the development of local style zones, roughly corresponding to separate river systems. In addition to pots, ceramic figurines, clay "altars," and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic vessels are found at earlier LBK sites (particularly eastern ones) and clearly are related to similar objects discovered at Balkan Neolithic sites. Objects of this type became considerably less common in later LBK contexts.


The introduction of agriculture to central Europe coincided with the beginning of the Atlantic climatic phase, a period of warmer temperature (by about 2 degrees Celsius), more humidity (8–22 percent wetter), and milder winters than today's. Atlantic Europe was covered almost entirely by mixed broadleaf forest (elm, oak, and linden/lime), but pollen cores suggest that LBK communities cleared a substantial amount of this forest upon first settlement.

The faunal and floral assemblages at Oldest LBK sites typically contain about 20 percent wild species and 80 percent domesticated species. These domesticates include cattle; sheep and goats; pigs; dogs; emmer, einkorn, and spelt wheat; legumes (peas and vetch); and flax. Oldest sites display a degree of diversity in their assemblages, with southern sites (such as Schwanfeld, Strögen, and Neckenmarkt) having a majority of sheep and goats, northern sites (such as Eitzum and Eilsleben) having cattle, and western sites (Bruchenbrücken and Goddelau) having pigs. Emmer and einkorn forms of wheat were the most common domesticated plants, but the small number of sickle blades has led some researchers to argue that agriculture was practiced less intensively at Oldest LBK villages than at later ones.

After the Oldest LBK phase, domesticates composed as much as 95 percent of all faunal and floral remains, with cattle the most important species in terms of total calories. Emmer wheat remained the most abundant cereal, with einkorn taking second place and spelt wheat third. Small amounts of barley and rye also are known. Wild resources continued to be exploited in small amounts and numbers, including aurochs, wild pigs, red deer, horse, fish, wild fruits (apples and pears), and berries (blackberries and raspberries). There was some regional variation; for example, non-domesticates make up between 20 percent and 50 percent of assemblages at some southern and extreme eastern LBK sites.

Initially, it was believed that LBK communities practiced slash-and-burn cultivation and that the constant need for new land fueled the rapid dispersal of LBK peoples into central Europe. It has since become clear that many LBK sites were settled continuously for several hundred years. Experimental agricultural studies have established that Neolithic farming practices would have been sustainable for hundreds of years on heavy, loess-derived soils, such as those settled by LBK peoples. LBK peoples probably cleared small fields within about a kilometer of villages for both farming and grazing, with one person estimated to require approximately 0.4 hectare of land per year.


It was long held that LBK villages were largely self-sufficient farmsteads with limited long-distance contact and that little social organization existed beyond the village level. It has now become apparent that LBK communities were socially integrated with their close neighbors and had such ties over distances of hundreds of kilometers. For instance, such goods as Spondylus shell were traded into central Europe from the Black Sea and Aegean Sea. In some cases, villages obtained almost their entire supply of flint from distant sources, for instance, Bylany (in the present-day Czech Republic), which obtained flint from Olszanica, more than 200 kilometers distant. It has been suggested that periodic trade expeditions might have been sent out to obtain such materials.

At Langweiler 8 (Aldenhovener Platte), flint from the Netherlands probably was brought in and worked into finished tools before being redistributed to other LBK sites in the immediate vicinity. Evidence of such interdependence between neighboring villages is known in numerous cases. At Langweiler 2 an overabundance of a particular narrow pit feature (Schlitzgrubbe) may indicate that peoples at the site specialized in hide preparation and export. Production specialization is apparent at many LBK sites in the Hesbaye region of Belgium, with evidence of trade in utilitarian goods (pottery and lithics), a practice that may have helped cement social and military alliances.

Cooperation on a regional level also is evidenced by the amount of labor that periodically would have been required to build longhouses and, in particular, fortifications, which also would have necessitated the aid of the inhabitants of several sites to defend them. There is little indication, however, that any form of hereditary status inequality existed in LBK society. Status seems to have come with age, with older men (groundstone axes) and older women being the only ones buried with grave goods. Some researchers have posited a form of "big-man" status competition within LBK society. There is little concrete archaeological material to support such a hypothesis, however, other than evidence from a small number of sites at which houses with larger numbers of groundstone axes and other materials were found. It is only in the context of the late western LBK that there is support for status differentiation, for instance, at Rixheim (a cemetery in Alsace), where there were a few people with very elaborate personal ornamentation.


It once was believed that the LBK expansion essentially was a peaceful process of population replacement. A substantial body of evidence now concludes that LBK society was, at times, intensely violent. Fortification enclosures (taking the form of interrupted V- or U-profiled ditches with inner palisade lines or trenches, sometimes with baffled or screened gates) are known from well over a hundred LBK sites representing most regions and phases. They are most common in the later phases of the western LBK. LBK sites generally were not located in naturally defensible locations, however, and most ditches seem to have filled in rapidly shortly after construction. This would suggest that whatever threats necessitated the construction of fortifications, they were not foreseen at the time of initial settlement and tended to be short lived. Nonetheless, at some sites (Schletz-Asparn, Eilsleben, and Köln-Lindenthal, for instance), there were several phases of fortification.

One review of LBK burials has shown that approximately 2.2 percent of people at eastern LBK sites suffered traumatic injuries during their lifetimes, whereas in the west the rate of injury was nearly 19 percent. While both values are extremely high, they are consistent with other evidence supporting the notion that western LBK society was far more violent than was eastern LBK society. For instance, it is likely that this difference explains the much higher number of projectile points in western LBK assemblages.

Many theories have been advanced concerning the cause and nature of these conflicts. At Vaihingen/Enz (a fortified site near Stuttgart), numerous skeletons were found in two large garbage pits, and fragmented human remains were scattered throughout the site. Many of these remains show evidence of traumatic injury. Upon metrical analysis, the skeletal material from these atypical "burials" was found to be far more robust than that from typical semi-flexed LBK burials (lying on the side with slightly bent knees and arms) at the site's cemetery. These may well have been indigenous hunter-gatherers who were killed during conflict with incoming farmers. While fragmented bones (skulls, mandibles, and long bones) are known from other western LBK sites, they have not been subjected to a similar analysis. Nevertheless, a no-man's-land, 20–25 kilometers wide, between terminal Mesolithic sites and LBK sites in northeastern Belgium indicates that in at least some cases conflict occurred between incoming farmers and indigenous hunter-gatherers.

Evidence of violence between LBK communities is becoming increasingly well documented. The most extreme examples are found at massacre sites, of which two are known. At Talheim (the Middle Rhine Valley), an excavated pit contained thirty-four skeletons with many head wounds caused by blows with LBK axes or adzes as well as arrows. Most of the wounds were located on the back of the victim's skull, indicating that the person was attacked while fleeing. The demographics indicate that an entire village population was killed. At Schletz-Asparn (near Vienna), between sixty-six and three hundred people were killed and thrown into the site's fortification ditch, where they were left exposed for several months. Again, the victims were killed with LBK axes or adzes and arrows. The underrepresentation of young women in the burial population may indicate that the attackers carried them off.

Violence seems to have been so common and extreme at the later western LBK sites that some researchers have referred to this phase as a "crisis" period. In addition to high rates of burial trauma and large numbers of fortified sites, there is evidence of cannibalism (split long bones with charring) at such sites as Herxheim, where large caches of skulls were found, and Ober-Hörgern. There was an apparent concern with securing interior water supplies via wells or cisterns at several sites that were all located within a few hundred meters of running water. In the Kaiserstuhl region (the Upper Rhine Valley), some LBK communities appear to have relocated into more defensive hilly locations off loess soils. At the same time that fortifications were constructed, long-distance trade networks appear to have collapsed, with sites in the Rhine Valley, for instance, forced to rely on inferior local raw materials rather than ones they previously had obtained from the Dutch Limburg.

Lowered water tables and other signs of increasing aridity have been noted at many LBK sites during later phases. Population pressure also has been suggested as a potential source of conflict. Some researchers have related new cult practices evident in the late LBK to this "crisis" period. There is, for example, possible evidence of human sacrifices (of women, in particular) at so-called cult caves, such as the Jungfernhöhle, and numerous skeletons of children as young as five or six years old have been uncovered in the fortification ditch at Menneville (Aisne Valley). Nevertheless, declining environmental conditions alone cannot explain why the western LBK was so much more violent than the eastern LBK. While it is now clear that violence was a common occurrence in Early Neolithic central Europe, the causes of this violence are not yet entirely clear.


The first LBK communities were located on the Hungarian Plain, but the exact origins of the LBK culture remain mysterious. Much LBK material culture (pottery, lithics, groundstone, ceramic figurines) and economy has clear ties to the northern Balkan Early Neolithic. Other aspects, most notably the LBK longhouse, are novel. While there is overlap between the distribution of early LBK sites and Körös sites, no site has yet been excavated that would indicate a distinct transition from one material culture to the other. Oldest-phase LBK sites in Hungary (Budapest III, Becseheley, Bicske, and Medina, among others) already have the full "package" of LBK material culture and economy. It has been suggested that the LBK represents acculturation by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers after contact with farmers to the south, but the extremely low density of Late Mesolithic sites in Hungary makes this argument equally difficult to support.

LBK sites throughout the Oldest distribution area appeared simultaneously (within the resolution limits of radiocarbon dating), indicating an extremely rapid spread of LBK culture. The LBK typically has been viewed as a clear example of prehistoric migration, owing to the rapidity of expansion, the uniformity and novelty of material culture, and the foreign origins of plants and animals. Still, it has been argued that the Oldest LBK phase involved a considerable degree of indigenous incorporation.

Such arguments are based on the continuation of certain Mesolithic trade networks that brought material in from areas well outside the Oldest LBK region (Meuse Valley flints and Szentgál radiolarite from the Bakony Mountains, for instance), the overall greater diversity of resource usage and higher percentages of wild resources (compared to later phases), and certain aspects of the Oldest LBK lithic industry that show continuity with the preceding Mesolithic. For instance, faceted blade platforms are present at some LBK sites but not at others, mirroring their distribution during the Mesolithic. Likewise, projectile point styles show an east/west divide, again mirroring the Mesolithic pattern. These "Mesolithic" traits are present only in small numbers, however, and the majority of Oldest LBK culture sites have no continuity with the preceding Mesolithic. Indeed, one review of radiocarbon dates from central Europe has shown that the majority of Mesolithic sites had ceased to be occupied several hundred years before the appearance of the first LBK communities.

A study of the bone chemistry of bodies from cemeteries of the Older and Younger/Youngest LBK phases in southwestern Germany (Flomborn, Schwanfeld, and Dillingen) has determined that approximately 60 percent of people of the Older phase (the first settlement in the Rhine Valley) had "nonlocal" chemistry profiles. This percentage drops considerably at the Younger/Youngest cemeteries. "Nonlocal" people seem to have received different burial treatment—their burials lack stone axes, and their heads are oriented toward the northwest rather than the southeast. Strontium levels in these remains were found to be consistent with origins in sandy uplands contexts, which were not occupied by LBK groups or Mesolithic peoples, who preferred major river valleys. The possibility, not yet substantiated, exists that these people represent incorporated Mesolithic foragers.

It remains possible that there was a degree of interaction between LBK farmers and indigenous peoples in western central Europe. In addition to typical LBK ceramics, two somewhat enigmatic ceramic types, La Hoguette and Limburg (fig. 1f, g), have been discovered in small numbers at western LBK sites. Both La Hoguette and Limburg ceramics are clearly different from LBK ceramics in form, decoration, and technological methods (particularly the use of bone temper). La Hoguette ceramics are found primarily at Oldest and Older LBK sites in the Middle Rhine Valley, but they have been seen in "Mesolithic" contexts. For instance, at the Bavans rock shelter, La Hoguette ceramics were present in association with Mesolithic lithic remains and what is thought to be domesticated sheep or goat bones, with possible dates as early as 5800 b.c. Limburg ceramics are encountered almost exclusively at LBK sites of the Younger/Youngest phase in the Lower Rhine Valley, Belgium, and France. To date, Limburg ceramics have not been uncovered in any other secure context. The significance of these two wares has been much debated but never resolved. While it seems likely that La Hoguette ceramics were of Mesolithic manufacture, no strong evidence of Mesolithic origin has been uncovered for Limburg ceramics. Both types appear to be stylistically influenced by Epicardial wares from southern France, though they are not similar to each other.

Indigenous hunter-gatherer involvement in the formation of LBK communities has been argued most plausibly for the Oldest LBK period. Such a process might have taken place during later phases of expansion, but the evidence is at best speculative. The vast majority of material culture and cultural practice first seen in central Europe in the context of the LBK shows little or no connection to the preceding Mesolithic. At present, the archaeological record suggests that actual human migration was the primary mechanism by which agriculture was first introduced into central Europe. The reasons for this migration are not certain, but numerous theories have been put forth, including population pressure, favorable ecological conditions for the introduction of Middle Eastern crops to central Europe (the onset of Atlantic climatic conditions), and social pressures (conflict and movement as a means of relieving such tensions).


The trend toward the development of regional styles and practices evident in the later phases of the LBK culture continued into the post-LBK period (after c. 4800 B.C.), when several related "daughter" cultures emerged. Among these cultures is the Rössen in western Germany and the Netherlands, the Villeneuve/Saint Germain in France, the Blicquy in Belgium, the Stichbandkeramik (Stroke-Ornamented Pottery culture) in eastern Germany, and the Lengyel in much of the eastern LBK region. These cultures are distinguished not only by differences in ceramic style but also by varying subsistence adaptations and cultural practices. In general, later Early Neolithic peoples were much less densely settled throughout central Europe, which sometimes is attributed to the late LBK "collapse."

The expansion of LBK peoples for the most part seems to have halted at the boundaries of the North European Plain (except in Poland), where for as long as a millennium they were in contact with complex hunter-gatherers to the north. It has been suggested that Lengyel communities gave rise to the earliest Funnel Beaker communities in the Polish lowlands, continuing the expansion of agriculture onto the North European Plain and into southern Scandinavia.

See alsoThe Mesolithic of Northern Europe (vol. 1, part2); The Mesolithic of Northwest Europe (vol. 1, part 2); Bruchenbrücken (vol. 1, part 3); Bylany (vol. 1, part 3); Beginnings of Farming in Northwestern Europe (vol. 1, part 3); Transition to Farming along the Lower Rhine and Meuse (vol. 1, part 3); Transition to Agriculture in Northern Europe (vol. 1, part 3); Milk, Wool, and Traction: Secondary Animal Products (vol. 1, part 4); Brześć Kujawski (vol. 1, part 4).


Bogucki, Peter. "How Agriculture Came to North-Central Europe." In Europe's First Farmers. Edited by T. Douglas Price, pp. 197–218. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

——. "The Linear Pottery Culture of Central Europe: Conservative Colonists?" In The Emergence of Pottery: Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies. Edited by W. K. Barnett and J. W. Hoopes, pp. 89–98. Smithsonian Series in Archaeological Inquiry. R. M. Adam and B. D. Smith, general editors. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Constantin, Claude. Fin du Rubané, céramique du Limbourg et post-Rubané: Le néolithique le plus ancien en bassin parisien et en Hainaut. BAR International Series, no. 273(ii). Oxford: BAR International Series, 1985.

Gronenborn, Detlef. "A Variation on a Basic Theme: The Transition to Farming in Southern Central Europe." Journal of World Prehistory 13, no. 2 (1999): 123–210.

Lüning, Jens, Ulrich Kloos, and Siegfried Albert. "Westliche Nachbarn der bandkeramischen Kulture: La Hoguette und Limburg." Germania 67, no. 2 (1989): 355–393.

Milisauskas, Sarunas. "Early Neolithic: The First Farmers in Europe, 7000–5500/5000 b.c." In European Prehistory: A Survey. Edited by Sarunas Milisauskas. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2002.

Müller-Karpe, Hermann. Handbuch der VorgeschichteZweiter Band: Jungsteinzeit. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1968.

Preuß, Joachim. Das Neolithikum in Mitteleuropa:Kulturen-Wirtschaft-Umwelt vom 6. bis 3. Jahrtausend v.u.Z. Vols. 1, 2. Weissbach, Germany: Beier and Beran, 1998.

Lawrence H. Keeley, Mark Golitko

About this article

First Farmers of Central Europe

Updated About content Print Article Share Article