New DNA study gives researchers a fascinating look at the Neolithic Battle Axe Culture

Around 5,000 years ago, a culture known as the Battle Axe Culture (BAC) existed in Scandinavia and Germany as part of the larger Corded Ware Culture that stretched southward to the Black Sea and eastward into Russia. For decades, archaeologists have been trying to solve the mystery of this culture. Now, a new DNA study is helping us learn more about them.

The remains of peoples belonging to this culture were found with the heads of battle axes buried with them. Made of stone, and later out of metal during the Copper and Bronze Ages, these battle axes are associated with Scandinavian and Germanic Corded Ware.


Stone axe of the Corded Ware Culture as displayed at a museum in Kladno, Czech Republic. Image via Wikimedia.

Over 3,000 battle axes have been found at sites across Scandinavia, even as far north as the Arctic Circle.

But because of farming, many sites have been plowed over, robbing archaeologists of more evidence and artifacts that would be helpful to learn more about this culture, including pottery, bones, and other battle-axes.

One site we have discovered and excavated was found in the 1950s by a road construction crew building a roundabout in Linköping, Sweden. The site featured a grave where a man and a woman were buried with a child and a dog along with other goods they presumably needed in the afterlife, including a battle axe.

“Today, we call this site ‘Bergsgraven’. I have been curious about this particular burial for a long time. The collaboration of archaeologists with geneticists allows us to understand more about these people as individuals as well as where their ancestors came from,” Uppsala University archaeogeneticist Helena Malmström, lead author of the study, explained in a statement.

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The boat-shaped battle axe head next to stone age human remains as found at the Bergsgraven site in Sweden nearly 70 years ago. Image via Ostergotlands Museum.

One mystery that researchers have been trying to figure out is whether the Battle Axe Culture was simply a regional development or did it arrive via migration by other peoples.

“The appearance and development of the culture complex has been debated for a long time, especially whether it was a regional phenomenon or whether it was associated with migratory processes of human groups, and – if the latter – from where,” Stockholm University osteoarchaeologist and study author Jan Storå said.

So, the team set out to apply genetic coding to the problem, especially since DNA has been used in recent times to help people discover where they come from, but has also been used to track ancient migrations.

The study, as published by The Royal Society, sought to “investigate the genomes of individuals associated with the Battle Axe Culture (BAC), a Middle Neolithic complex in Scandinavia resembling the continental Corded Ware Culture (CWC).”

According to the study:

We sequenced 11 individuals (dated to 3330–1665 calibrated before common era (cal BCE)) from modern-day Sweden, Estonia, and Poland to 0.26–3.24× coverage. Three of the individuals were from CWC contexts and two from the central-Swedish BAC burial ‘Bergsgraven’.

By analysing these genomes together with the previously published data, we show that the BAC represents a group different from other Neolithic populations in Scandinavia, revealing stratification among cultural groups. Similar to continental CWC, the BAC-associated individuals display ancestry from the Pontic–Caspian steppe herders, as well as smaller components originating from hunter–gatherers and Early Neolithic farmers.

Thus, the steppe ancestry seen in these Scandinavian BAC individuals can be explained only by migration into Scandinavia. Furthermore, we highlight the reuse of megalithic tombs of the earlier Funnel Beaker Culture (FBC) by people related to BAC. The BAC groups likely mixed with resident middle Neolithic farmers (e.g. FBC) without substantial contributions from Neolithic foragers.

“This suggests that the introduction of this new cultural manifestation was associated with movements of people,” Uppsala University population geneticist Torsten Günther said. “These groups have a history which we ultimately can trace back to the Pontic Steppe north of the Black Sea.”

Interestingly enough, the Pontic Steppe is where geneticists have traced the earliest domestication of horses.

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Horses continue to run wild at the Pontic Steppe today. Image via Wikimedia.

“Archaeogenomic analyses reveal new and surprising results concerning demographic processes in the Stone Age,” Günther continued.

The movement of people, just as it has throughout history, brought in new customs and new technologies and processes that were adopted by locals, who in turn influenced the outsiders.

“Prehistoric movements of people have played a major role in spreading innovations,” Storå said. “But there is also some integration and reconnection of previous elements. For example, we find that people sharing the genetic signal of the Battle Axe sites were re-using megalithic tombs for their burials.”

It should be pointed out that the presence of these battle axes does not mean they were used in battle. In fact, evidence suggests that they were used for defense by more isolated farmers, which makes sense since more rural areas are not as defended as urban centers.


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Corded Ware Culture battle axes on display in Germany. Image via Wikimedia.

The study concluded that the Battle Axe Culture descends from Yamnaya herders from the Pontic steppe, which differentiated them from other farming and herding groups in the region.

Comparisons between these individuals and other prehistoric Scandinavians provided further valuable insights. Mattias Jakobsson, a population geneticist at Uppsala University and one of the senior authors of this study, notes:

“It is also interesting that the herders from the Battle Axe Culture differed from other contemporary farmer and hunter-gatherer groups in Scandinavia,” Uppsala University population geneticist Mattias Jakobsson said. “At least three genetically and culturally different groups lived side-by-side for centuries and did not mix a lot.”

The mixing that did occur, however, is still somewhat of a mystery because the team doesn’t know if it happened before the migration or after.

“That remains an open question and still leaves room for future studies as more data from additional individuals as well as other geographic regions should provide a more detailed resolution,” Malmström concluded.

The research is ultimately helping archaeologists piece together periods of human history that occurred thousands of years ago, and it’s already shaping the upcoming re-display of the Bergsgraven exhibit, which will include the new findings so visitors can learn more about the Battle Axe Culture themselves.

“Östergötlands Museum is currently closed for renovation and renewal,” archaeologist Per Nilsson explained. “Therefore, the display of the Bergsgraven grave has been temporarily removed, but it will be a central part of the upcoming exhibition, in which we aim to integrate current archaeological and historical research. This is a rare opportunity to build a new exhibition, and of course, we want to tell the audience about the new analyses and interpretations made of the material.”

This is yet another genetic study that is offering new insight into a period of human history we don’t know as much about. Further studies and improved technology and techniques could one day pave the way to learning more than we ever thought possible. And just like the battle axes, new technology will shape and define our own time.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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