Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1121:
NEOLITHIC FARMING IN EUROPE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1121.

Today, farming comes to Europe. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In fall, 1974, my family and I walked a trail on the plateau above the Serbian side of the Danube. It was rainy and verdant. Small farms broke into the forest here and there. The compact and efficient style of farming seemed old as the river itself.

I didn't realize that day above the Danube that these were the very first northern European farmlands. Peter Bogucki tells how agriculture passed through this gate on its way into Europe. Farming first arose in the Middle East some nine thousand years ago. The Greeks were farming 500 years later.

From there, the technology of farming split into two forms. One was temperate-zone farming. It reached Italy 7800 years ago and found its way into Spain and France 7400 years back. That migration, it turns out, took place by sea. Our Stone Age ancestors were accomplished sailors and traders before they learned to farm.

But farming spread even more rapidly up the Greek peninsula, through Macedonia, to the Danube. For eight thousand years, people had been farming the plateau I walked that day.

At first, farming settled into the plains of Serbia and Hungary. Much of this movement appears to've been colonization. Farming reached central Europe 7400 years ago, but it didn't get to England and Scandinavia until 1600 years later.

You can trace that migration in two technologies that followed it. One was the livestock that came out of Turkey and went with the farmers: sheep, goats, cows, and pigs. Even today, diets in that part of the world are rich in roast lamb, beef, and pork.

The other marker was a so-called Linear Pottery Culture that came out of Hungary some 7600 years ago. Throughout the migration, people decorated their pots with scribed lines in the clay.

Their farming had to differ radically from that in the dry Mediterranean countries. Mediterranean farmers broke their brittle soil with a stick plow that simply fractured it. Northern farmers had to turn furrows with a much heavier plow. Our word plow comes from an old word, plug, which has no kin in any European language.

Not long ago we discovered the preserved body of a man from one of those farming communities frozen in the Tyrolean Alps -- the so-called ice-man. As we study him, it becomes clear he lived a civilized life. He lived in a house and had some of the first copper implements in that world. He was probably on a trading mission.

I often go back to that rainy day in 1974 -- to smells of apples, straw, manure -- to the ancient quiet of a peaceful people once living there -- to a straw-roofed peasant hut -- to the sense that if I'd suddenly been shifted back 8000 years, things wouldn't have seemed so different. As I relive that day, I feel my kinship with people who once moved their modest herds into Europe and began forming the world we know today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Bogucki, P., The Spread of Early Farming in Europe. American Scientist, Vol. 84, No. 3, May-June, 1996, pp. 242-253.

For more on the invention of agriculture, see Episode 540.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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