2000 Years of Cooperation: Indigenous Hunter-Gatherers, Immigrant Farmers and What We Can Learn From Them


In modern society, conflict is expected. One can hardly walk through a supermarket, let alone use the internet, without encountering an onslaught of minimally malaise, and often discrimination and violence. Much in the Archaeological record suggests that the history of humankind has similar violent overtones, but that the advent of warfare occurred simultaneously with the genesis of agriculture; while most societies were hunter-gatherers, there was relatively little to fight over. As a hunter-gatherer, an individual needs only their band, their health, and an area to move through as the seasons change and some resources are spent. However, in order to produce viable crops, a farmer must have land, sufficient rainfall or irrigation, implements, and most likely some form of permanent or semi-permanent structure. It is not surprising, then, that many archaeologists adhere to the theory that most hunter-gatherer societies died out around the time that agriculture was established, due to either adaptation to agriculture, or warfare.

An image from the Blätterhöhle cave near Hagen, Germany.

An image from the Blätterhöhle cave near Hagen, Germany.

A recent study conducted by the Institute of Anthropology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz suggests that the reality may not have been quite so simple. A team of archaeologists led by Professor Joachim Burger recently investigated the Blätterhöhle cave, in which both indigenous hunter-gatherers and immigrant agriculturalists are buried. They found remains in the cave which, paired with the other research that Burger has conducted, offer significant evidence that farmers and hunter-gatherers not only coexisted, they did so for quite some time (Science Daily).

Opening of the Blätterhöhle cave

Opening of the Blätterhöhle cave.

Most people living in central Europe were hunter-gatherers, until approximately 7,500 years ago. Around this time, immigrant farmers brought agricultural practices to the area. Contrary to common belief, these farmers coexisted with the indigenous hunter-gatherers for at least 2000 years (Academia.edu).

A skull found in the Blätterhöhle cave.

A skull found in the Blätterhöhle cave.

This is a compelling story of coexistence over warfare. Archaeology has shown us that even in a situation where people were exposed to a totally different culture from the only society they had ever known, people were able to adapt and compromise. That an outside group was able to exist comfortably enough with the indigenous population that many of both were buried in the same cave speaks volumes about the benefits of accepting cultural difference. In more contemporary history, many societies have been unwilling to adapt to others in any way, as evidenced by the violence and strife that seem to be synonymous with living in a post-industrial society. However, as this example indicates, humans don’t have to interact that way. Coexistence is possible. We just have to be willing to accept differences without anger, and be willing to adapt as our environment and neighbors change.



Science Daily



Image Sources:

Natural Sciences (Image 1 and 3)

Anthroscape (Image 2)


Additional Information:

Human Prehistory

International Business Times


“Starving Time”: Cannibalism in Jamestown Colony

In the winter of 1609, life was bleak for residents of Jamestown colony. Of the 400 settlers, only 61 survived to see the end of 1610. The first group of settlers, consisting of about 200 individuals, predominantly male, were unaccustomed to work and untrained in agriculture. The goal of their colony was mainly to find gold, having been informed that their financial support would end should they not produce valuables. Due in large part to their fixation on finding these valuables, they had little luck growing their own food. Harsh winter and exposure to malaria soon decimated their ranks, and by the end of their first year, only 38 of their original group remained. Having failed to plant or store crops, the settlers resorted to stealing food from the nearby Powhatans, souring the relationship between the two groups and effectively ending their only hope of trading for food.

Rendering of Jamestown, as it may have appeared upon colonization.

Rendering of Jamestown, as it may have appeared upon colonization.

Two supply shipments came during 1608, but neither had sufficient provisions and both carried about 70 people, exacerbating the ongoing famine. The winter of 1609-1610 came to be known as the “Starving Time”, with food so scarce that colonists ate everything that did not eat them first: horses, cats, rats, even shoe leather became fair game as the winter raged on.

Eventually, as the famine showed no sign of abating, thoughts turned to cannibalism. One man was executed for slaughtering his pregnant wife, storing her and salting her flesh. However, although there are many accounts of that crime, prior to the recent discovery of the skeletal remains of a 14-year-old girl, there was no physical evidence that cannibalism had taken place at Jamestown. According to the forensic anthropologist who examined her remains, the girl (whom they named “Jane”) was clearly consumed as a last resort, by someone who had no experience butchering. It is believed that Jane was newly deceased and had been removed from her grave shortly after burial in order to be consumed. Jane’s skull has many tentative cuts in the jaw and forehead, and a large part of the rear of her skull was crushed, likely to remove her brain. These marks are consistent with an inexperienced butcher.

Reconstruction of "Jane", 14-year-old eaten during the "Starving Time", 1609-1610.

Reconstruction of “Jane”, 14-year-old eaten during the “Starving Time”, 1609-1610.

In a case in which the body is removed from the context in which it is buried, much interpretation is required of the archaeologists who examine the site. Jane was found as a disassembled set of bones, her skull and femurs mixed in with the bones of other animals showing signs of consumption. It required the knowledge of archaeological context to connect that cannibalism occurred during the time and place that Jane died, as well as the interpretation of the marks on Jane’s skull. It is thanks to archaeology that scattered remains such as Jane’s are able to be identified and associated with a timeline.

Jane's mandible, with notches indicating the removal of her flesh.

Jane’s mandible, with notches indicating the removal of her flesh.







Sources and Additional Information:

National Geographic

The Smithsonian

Historic Jamestowne