Luxury Good without a Trace

No, this isn’t a how-to for sneaking things in or out of the US without paying customs or other fees. It’s about something that led to a few major dust-ups in the archaeology and anthropology world.

A little background before I launch – Europe’s population has changed composition several times since “In the Beginning G-d created.” Migrants from the east, or north, or south, moved in and brought their cultures, technologies, livestock, and genetics with them. Cro-Magnon replaced Neanderthal, Neolithic farmers and herders gradually pushed the hunter-gatherers to the fringes of the continent and the uplands, then various groups of horsemen drifted in and out, culminating in the migration of the Proto-Indo-European speaking horsemen around 3000-2500 BC/BCE. Next were the waves of steppe horsemen that appear in recorded history, and the Slavs. Everyone agrees on that sequence, although exact dates are negotiable.


In the 1960s-70s, when academic feminism was really getting going and starting to mesh with environmentalism, the anthropologist Marija Gimbutas and her students proposed that the first culture to disappear when the PEI speakers arrived, the Tripolye-Cucutani farming culture in what is now Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine, was an egalitarian matriarchy. In fact, some went so far as to claim that all Old European cultures had been matriarchal, or at the very least had full equality of the sexes as well as economic equality prior to the PEI-speakers arrival. They based this in part on the lack of grave goods and the lack of obvious evidence of social stratification. The city mounds and graves of the Tripolye people did not have palaces, there were none of the huge and elaborate grave mounds of the horse nomads. Grave goods seemed very utilitarian, where there were grave goods. And the people were farmers, so crop fertility and land would have been important. Thus, said Gimbutas and her associates, they had to be a matriarchy, in touch with the land, and peaceful, with an egalitarian social structure. The patriarchal, primitive horse nomads had invaded, wiped out the more sophisticated farmers, and imposed Indo-European languages on Old Europe. Like they did in the Indus Valley a thousand years later, but more so.

[If you are thinking, “Haven’t I read that plot somewhere before?” you are correct. The idea got picked up in fantasy as well as anthropology.]

In all fairness to Gimbutas, she didn’t have the tools later generations of archaeologists had. And she didn’t go as far as some of her disciples off the deep end of human behavior. Her term “Old Europe” for the sedentary farming culture has become common coin, even as many of her theories were set aside. She also didn’t have the paleo-climatology information that shows how conditions in the Danube Basin were already deteriorating for farming before the first evidence of arriving PEI-speakers.

My question is: just how egalitarian really was Old Europe in the Danube Basin? True, as of the last I read (2017-18), no major finds of gold or silver or other metals, no kurgan or other obviously elite burials have been located. But one thing that can display status without leaving lots of physical evidence is cloth. Textiles were and are very important trade goods, and unusual or exotic weavings and materials commanded high prices and conveyed prestige. Cloth is easy to transport, has a great deal of regional variety (or did), and decays relatively quickly. What if cloth and other perishable goods were the marks of status?

Fancy baskets, cloth, they also burn easily. And one of the interesting aspects of the Tripolye-Cucuteni culture is that every so often, they burned the settlements and either relocated or rebuilt. So what if you did have an elite, one that showed their power by control of textiles and similar goods? Unless they were buried with them, and the grave survived, no archaeologists would know. And what if, after a few generations, the ruling line died out? The community might well have felt that the settlement had fallen out of favor with the gods, or been afflicted with something, and had to be purified with fire.

This is pure supposition on my part. It is also possible that Old European settlements had the same problems with fire that Rome and Medieval cities suffered. OR that after several generations, waste and household debris had built to the level that it posed a health and safety hazard, and so they burned the place and moved on or rebuilt. And it is possible that they were, indeed, far more egalitarian than the PEI-speakers who moved into Europe later. I’m not certain how that would work, in a world where physical strength was so much more important than it is today, but it is possible.

Still, people being people, and people sorting themselves into groups and hierarchies, one wonders.

15 thoughts on “Luxury Good without a Trace

  1. Your suppositions are less fanciful than that of Gimbutas, and have at least some relation to human nature.

  2. The idea of a place getting so dang nasty that the burned it fits a lot of human nature. Since that would also hook up with “causes health issues”, the cleanse it with fire aspect even makes SENSE.

  3. Another aspect of (so-called) primitive cultures is that every now and then you get raids from neighboring tribes, who use fire as a weapon. Light up a few buildings, and the villagers get more interested in putting out the fire than in chasing the retreating raiders. Light up more than a few buildings, especially on a windy, dry day, and you can easily get an entire village burning to the ground.

  4. Another possibility for the burning was disease. Early cities must have been ‘firetraps’ where the fire was disease. Once 30% or 50% of the children had fallen in one wave, people may have believed the place cursed.

    • Aye, I remember that.
      The lizard tribe of the bird-disks allowed us no possessions, and killed nearly all of our men, lest they rebel.
      The Wolf Ages were kinder, by far. Of the blood, the filth, the degradation visited upon us in those days, I shall say no more.

  5. I would tend to go with farming the area out, and health hazard for the fires. Interesting thoughts on cloth and basketry. All of the metal would have been implements, so passed from generation to generation.

  6. Thing is, with the level of information we have for prehistory, it might have been normal everywhere for high status men to rape women more freely. If high status men were committing murder-rape as part of community ritual life, we might possibly have archeological evidence eventually. Merely raping women more often would be much harder to establish or disprove.

    The basic question is to what extent are deviant acts in our culture more common in societies which are not influenced by our cultural mores at all. Given that there are probably mores in common with all writing civilizations that have provided sufficient intact writing samples to decode, how far can we reason about prehistory? To what extent can we infer from human nature? What is human nature? The religious teachings of Christianity say things about human nature, but modeling based on that is a cultural preference.

    Given what their position on abortion does for their moral authority on the murder-rape of women, feminists can go die in a fire where their claims about prehistory are concerned. Pardon my French.

    My apologies for stating things so crudely and offensively, especially in mixed company.

    • Might?
      Genetic evidence is that approximately 85% of males in prehistory failed to pass on their genes. There’s a huge bottleneck.
      Heck, pretty much every person with any Irish blood is descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, and he was much more recent, at the end of the 4th century.
      Genghis Khan was only 750 years ago, but his scions account for 0.5% of the world’s population.

      • Hold up, that is NOT what the study said.

        It was about how many of the Y lines stayed around.

        The MALES can pass on their genes all day long, and anything that caused more girls to survive to reproduce would drop that metric, drastically.

        And that’s at ANY point along the historical line; a single “kill all males” event would be horrific for the Y line.

        A custom that caused more girls than boys to be born (say, women are unclean except X days after cycle, happening to catch that area’s majority of women loooong before ovulation, dropping birth rate and increasing the number of boys. NFP thing, have sex ASAP when ovulating for a higher chance of boys; it’s also when women are most, uh, interested, generally.) or a local cultural reoccurrence of the “kill all the boys” thing would wipe out the Y trace without wiping out the genetic history of the men.

        My girls are still daddy’s girls, even though you can’t find any evidence of that from looking at Y.

        • Yeah, add in the apparent higher death rate of males, and some minor impact from a few men who had a lot of male children but didn’t father all the sons in that cohort… What statistical tools would let us predict the level of accidental selectivity in lineage conservation that would come from no abnormal pressure? Minor? Major?

          This is a case where we find ourselves assuming a mathematical model to interpret the data. But how do we know it is valid?

          Children probably have better odds surviving to majority when the mothers are part of an extended family, which wants the children and at least approved of the marriage. It isn’t immediately obvious to me that there are established statistical tools which could look at differences between a cultural preference for closer marriages and a cultural preference for more distant marriages.

          Perhaps this work has been done, is well known, and I am simply ignorant.

  7. Unless there’s a lot of evidence of stock-raising, you’d have to assume soil exhaustion would be a major concern. I believe there’s a lot of parallelism with pre-Columbian America.

    • That would be one of my suspicions as well. I have not found anything in English or German yet about the condition of paleosols associated with the sites, and it might be one of those cases where we still lack the tools to find any evidence. Pollen might be a clue, but finding undisturbed ponds or marshes with the right conditions to preserve pollen… Modern farming and development erase a lot of the past.

  8. All this talk of prehistoric cultures and grave sites as status markers raises some interesting questions about Highlander.

    If you have these characters bred in various prehistoric cultures, how does that shape their ideas about status and ambitions?

    Could the lack of high status burial be forever weighing on these folks?

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