Europe’s first farmers – HeritageDaily
A research team from the University of Bern has for the first time succeeded in accurately dating the stilt dwellings on the shores of Lake Ohrid in the southwestern Balkans: they emerged in the middle of the 5th millennium Before our era. The region around Europe’s oldest lake has played a key role in the proliferation of agriculture.
The remains of underwater sites are a stroke of luck for prehistoric archeology. The wooden piles from which their foundations were built were perfectly preserved: in the absence of oxygen, they were not corroded by bacteria or fungi. The wood thus preserved is ideal for dendrochronological examinations, which can be dated using growth rings.
The age of the wood, and therefore the time when the colonies were built, can be determined in combination with radiocarbon dating. This method is now being applied for the first time outside the Alpine region.
Under the aegis of the University of Bern, around 800 piles were dated as part of the major international EXPLO project (see box). They come from a site on the east coast of Lake Ohrid.
The new findings prove that the settlement in the bay of Ploča Mičov Grad near the Macedonian city of Ohrid was built in different phases. And over thousands of years: From the Neolithic (mid 5th millennium BC) to the Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC).
Until now, it was assumed to be a colony dating from around 1000 BC. This intensive construction activity explains the extraordinary density of wooden piles on the site. The settlements were built practically on top of each other.
The cradle of European agriculture
“The precise dates of the different settlement phases of Ploča Mičov Grad represent important temporal reference points for a chronology of prehistory in the southwestern Balkans,” explains Albert Hafner. He is professor of prehistoric archeology at the University of Bern and member of the Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research. The precise chronological classification, in turn, opened up unimaginable possibilities of interpretation for the traces found from the early occupation of Lake Ohrid.
A so-called cultural layer is hidden under the current lake bed. It is mainly composed of organic matter and is up to 1.7 meters thick. It contains, among other things, the remains of harvested cereals, plants and wild animals, which can provide conclusions on the development of agriculture.
In the Balkans, newly arrived farmers faced relatively cool and humid climatic conditions, which forced them to adapt their farming practices accordingly. “The interactions between this breakthrough innovation and the environment are largely unknown,” Hafner said. This is precisely the research gap that the EXPLO project aims to fill.
The stilt dwellings of the Alpine region and the archaeological site of the Balkans are the only remains of settlements from the Neolithic period with excellent organic conservation. The first discoveries are particularly interesting because the region played a key role in the proliferation of agriculture: the first farmers in Europe lived there. The first cattle ranchers and farmers of Anatolia first reached the Aegean region, particularly northern Greece, then central Europe via southern Italy and the Balkans over 8,000 years ago .
Important cultural heritage in the Balkans
“Our investigations highlight the great potential for future research on prehistoric settlements in the region,” Hafner said. The importance of the settlements on Lake Ohrid is enormous: “The stilt dwellings around the Alps have been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, and the wetland settlements in the southwestern Balkans are no less important, ”said Albert Hafner.
The region offers a situation comparable to the area around the Alps: remains of prehistoric settlements have been preserved in many lakes in modern Albania, northern Greece and North Macedonia. However, with few exceptions, sites in the Balkan region have not been studied much so far.
The Bernese researchers are also pursuing other long-term goals. “We want to help ensure that the value of these wetlands is recognized locally and that these cultural assets are better protected,” Hafner explained. The sites are not only located on the North Macedonian shore of Lake Ohrid, where the EXPLO team conducted field campaigns in 2018 and 2019, but also on the West Albanian shore of the lake, where researchers have been active. this summer at the Lin 3 site. Ultimately, it is planned to expand collaboration with local partners, support the education and training of researchers in the region and promote local initiatives.
University of Bern
Header image credit: Marco Hostettler