Europe’s last forest people: the disappearance of foragers on an entire continent

Almost everywhere around the world there are pockets with the last remaining foragers. America has its Native Americans, Asia the Sentinelese, Australia its aboriginals, and Africa is still relatively rich in foragers with the San, Hadzabe, Aka and other people. Europe is an exception, with no remaining hunter-gather or mesolithic cultures left. The Inuit are descended from the Thule people, who settled Greenland in between AD 1200 and 1400, at a time when probably the last indigenous European foragers had already gone extinct.

When did the last European foragers, the Western Hunter-Gathers (WGHs) go extinct? In much of Europe there were no more foragers to be found by the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1.500 BCE. How did that happen?

In order to find out, we have to look at genetically “strange” Sardinians and Ötzi, the famous Iceman found on the border of the Austrian and Italian Alps. In Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018) David Reich writes:

We tried all possible pairs of comparison populations from more than fifty worldwide populations and found that the mixture evidence was strongest when one comparison population was southern European, especially Sardinians, and the other was Native Americans. It was clearly Native American populations that produced the most negative values, as we found that the statistic was more negative when we used Native Americans for the second comparison population than when we used East Asians, Siberians, or New Guineans. What we had found was evidence that people in northern Europe, such as the French, are descended from a mixture of populations, one of which shared more ancestry with present-day Native Americans than with any other population living today […] We proposed that more than fifteen thousand years ago, there was a population living in northern Eurasia that was not the primary ancestral population of the present-day inhabitants of the region. Some people from this population migrated east across Siberia and contributed to the population that crossed the Bering land bridge and gave rise to Native Americans. Others migrated west and contributed to Europeans. This would explain why today, the evidence of mixture in Europeans is strong when using Native Americans as a surrogate for the ancestral population and not as strong in indigenous Siberians, who plausibly descend from more recent, post-ice age migrations into Siberia from more southern parts of East Asia

Sardians are more closely related genetically to people for the Near East than to Northern European. When Ötzi, who died around 3.300 BCE was discovered it was first assumed that he had been a native hunter-gatherer:

But the ancient DNA data showed that his closest genetic relatives are not present-day Alpine people. Instead, his closest relatives today are the people of Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean Sea.[…] Instead of being genetically close to each other, the farmers and hunter-gatherers were almost as different from each other as Europeans are from East Asians today . And the farmers once again had that strange link to Sardinians.

What replaced many of those WHGs was, of course, the Neolithic expansion of Near East farmers.

As the case of Sardinia shows the genetic replacement was often nearly 100%. Early farmers simply did not like to interbreed with foragers. You can see that as a kind of prehistoric xenophobia. Farmers struggled hard for their survival and had little intention of sharing their surplus with foragers.

This first wave of displacement probably pushed many foragers further north where the land was less arable. However, it wouldn’t take long before the second wave of displacement hit: Yamnaya pastoralists coming from the Russian steppe, bringing the vast majority of (Indoeruopean) languages spoken in Europe today by subjecting local populations.

A genetic map of Europe shows that as a rule of thumb the further north a country is located the more original hunter-gatherer genes its population has. Geneticists also know that herders were less picky about interbreeding with foragers than farmers. In fact, the Yamnaya themselves consisted of pastoralists and Caucasian hunter-gatherers. Some of those hunter-gatherers may have adopted herding from pastoralists, like the modern Saami. Some may have joined pastoralist tribes and they may have peacefully coexisted. However, this is a scenario that is not very likely. The human Y chromosome exhibits surprisingly low levels of genetic diversity, which basically amounts to relatively few men being the progenitors of the current population. We know that some pastoralist men were super successful in leaving progeny.

In East Asians, Europeans, Near Easterners, and North Africans, the authors found many Star Clusters with common male ancestors living roughly around five thousand years ago. Powerful males in this period left an extraordinary impact on the populations that followed them-more than in any previous period-with some bequeathing DNA to more descendants today than Genghis Khan.

The Genetic Footprint of Genghis Khan is formidable: 8% of Asian men carry his genes. A likely scenario is that pastoralists regularly raped or kidnapped forager women, thus keeping forager genes but keeping out a significant male contribution.

The remaining foragers were pushed even further north beyond the Eurasian steppe into boreal forests. We can therefore assume that the last European foragers inhabited the area around the Baltic Sea. In fact, we do have historic records. The Romans basically knew three kinds of people: civilized (complex agricultural societies, like Rome, Greece and Egypt), barbarian (complex herder-descended societies, like the Celts, Scythians, and Persians) and savage: hunter-gatherer bands. Tacitus describes in Germania a people who were probably Europe’s last foragers, the Fenni (it’s not quite clear if it’s the Finns, Saami or other people):

In wonderful savageness live the nation of the Fenni, and in beastly poverty, destitute of arms, of horses, and of homes; their food, the common herbs; their apparel, skins; their bed, the earth; their only hope in their arrows, which for want of iron they point with bones. Their common support they have from the chase, women as well as men; for with these the former wander up and down, and crave a portion of the prey. Nor other shelter have they even for their babes, against the violence of tempests and ravening beasts, than to cover them with the branches of trees twisted together; this a reception for the old men, and hither resort the young. Such a condition they judge more happy than the painful occupation of cultivating the ground, than the labour of rearing houses, than the agitations of hope and fear attending the defense of their own property or the seizing that of others. Secure against the designs of men, secure against the malignity of the Gods, they have accomplished a thing of infinite difficulty; that to them nothing remains even to be wished.

There is no doubt that what Tacitus describes here in 98 AD is a genuine hunter-gatherer way of life. However, it’s unlikely that they were original European hunter-gatherers.. One possibility is that these people had been farmers or herders reverting to foraging (something that happened several times in history). In any case, Baltic people often have both high WHG and Siberian HG genes.

What is striking in this mention of northern European foragers is the admiration that Tacitus shows for them. Romans easily felt superior to all other peoples in the Ancient World. He finds there is happiness in their non-materialistic lifestyle, full of freedom and peace, devoid of avarice. What Tacitus didn’t know, he was one of the rare people in Rome who had a high amount of hunter-gatherer gene admixture. I have argued that intuitive (N) types in the Myers-Briggs inventory have a higher percentage of hunter-gatherer genes. For Britain, that would amount to roughly 20%, with 35% pastoralists (SP), 45% farmers (SJ).

In general, most of the ancient philosophers, scientists, artists and poets were forager types who would have found farming and herding extremely difficult to do, as they didn’t have many adaptations for these modes of subsistence. In fact, foragers all over the world find it difficult to adopt farming or herding and foragers bereft of their traditional way of life have the highest rates of suicide all over the world.

An interesting group contemporary with Tacitus who probably contained high amounts of HG genes were the Celtic druids. The druids were learned men, who loved discussing science, astronomy and potions and were considered the most just people. Forager type people have the highest sense of egalitarian justice as they are less likely to put the interests of their in-group first. In fact, there are no in-groups in forager societies.

As a rule of thumb we can assume that the higher the percentage of HG genes and the lower the percentage of farmer genes is, the harder people will find it to adapt to a modern lifestyle, which is basically a sedentary farmer lifestyle based on a 40-hour routine work-week, status and authority.

So, how did the last of the first disappear from history? Recently a reader from Russia (thank you sarhaiu!) pointed me towards the struggles of modern Uralic people. The Kets’ religion prohibits them from practising agriculture and they work as impoverished labourers doing odd jobs. The population is rapidly shrinking. We see the same patterns among Uralic indigenous peoples as everywhere else in the world where forager populations have been bereft of their way of life: poverty, high alcoholism (self-medication), unemployment and high suicide rates. Forager genes are disappearing from the gene pool. Foragers can’t adapt easily to a “farmer world”. It’s something that should have become obvious a long time ago.



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