Steppe 1.1b: culture vultures descend
Part 2 of 2
Previously on the Steppe:
By 3300 BC, the wagon-bound lifestyle of the Yamnaya extended from the edge of Europe to the mountains of Mongolia. In Mongolia, the Yamnaya lifestyle was perfectly suited to the pastures of the Altai. Their herds, their wagons and their weapons suited their new territory. It was far different in the west, in a Europe of thick forests, rolling fields of wheat and declining but venerable civilizations. There were centuries of interaction between the Yamnaya and the farmers of the west before the steppe nomads rapidly expanded after 3000 BC. How was it that these wagon-bound nomads conquered a continent in a matter of a few generations?
The Neolithic farmers had brought with them a cultural toolkit assembled in Anatolia and the Levant: wheat, pulses, cattle, sheep, goats and even dogs. Moving northward, the climate changed, becoming less suitable for their crops, so they concentrated themselves in fertile pockets and river valleys. Eventually, they pushed into southern Scandinavia and the British Isles, cold, damp lands where they clung to the margins of existence. Nevertheless, even on these less hospitable frontiers, they persisted for thousands of years.
But intensive farming continuously in the same region eventually leads to environmental degradation. Humans slowly eat away at their resources, until there is nothing left. When the forests are gone, there is no longer wood for firing the hearth, and erosion mercilessly carries away rich soil. Nutrients are depleted and irrigated fields turn to salt. When the end comes, the last unfortunate generation is often unprepared. After 3000 BC, the Cucuteni-Trypillia of Romania abandoned their towns. Tens of thousands of humans just “vanished” from the large settlements, though there is evidence of refugees in caves, hilltop villages and on islands. A clue to what befell them is found far to the west, in the Britain and Ireland of the same era. There, farming gave way to cattle and sheep herding, due to both climate change and resource exhaustion. If the Cucuteni-Trypillian towns existed in symbiosis with a thickly settled countryside, then a population collapse in their hinterlands may have proven devastating. An agricultural civilization lives and dies by the fortune of its farmers.
We’ve seen this movie before. Archaeologists and historians had a difficult time imagining that Guatemala’s highland villagers were descendants of the builders of the great Maya cities which had flourished 1,000 years earlier. But the translation of the Maya Codex confirmed that the modern Maya were heirs to a great civilization which collapsed and declined due to overpopulation and ecological instability. The Classical Greeks were not clear that the great fortresses of the Bronze Age had been created by their own ancestors, so total was the collapse and clean the cultural rupture. The Mycenaean kingdoms collapsed after 1200 BC, and their inhabitants died or fled to the countryside. Homer’s world is that of the Dark Age that came after, when illiterate warlords ruled small domains that had regressed to a rustic simplicity. Only in such a society would Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, be depicted ploughing his own fields, and marrying his sister off to a wealthy swineherd.
We cannot go back and read the histories or review the mythology of the last Neolithic farming societies of Northern Europe. They had no writing and their oral history is lost to us. They cannot speak to us except in their materials, which is why we call the societies the Yamnaya replaced by preposterous names like the “Funnelbeaker culture.” But we can draw lessons from later occasions of societal collapse to posit why and how they fell. The world of the last Neolithic farmers was that of a decayed society that was overwhelmed, absorbed, and transformed. Ingenious enough to construct imposing stoneworks without mortar, they were caught flat-footed when faced with the triple threat of famine, plague and war.
But the Yamnaya could not just roll in and transplant their lifestyle in totality. The Hungarian plain is the most westerly extension of the Eurasian steppe. Pure nomadism is dependent upon raising vast herds which could not be sustained beyond the most ideal central zone of the Danube. The European societies contemporaneous with the later Yamnaya, but to their west and north, raised cattle and sheep, but they also farmed. They were agro-pastoralists, not nomads. We now know that the Yamnaya changed again when that was the path to conquest. Genetics has clinched the fact that many societies which mixed pastoralism with farming were overwhelmingly descended from Yamnaya newcomers. But not exclusively.