The Beginnings of Culture in Denmark

My grandmother is a second-generation Danish immigrant.  Her family settled in the Green Bay, WI, area.  But the ties to Denmark were never really severed in my family.  My great-grandmother was one of fifteen children, and most remained in the country of their birth.  There were constantly members of the family who were traveling to visit the relatives who had moved to this country.

A couple of years ago, my family found out that our ancestral homestead had been turned into a museum of Danish life in the early twentieth century.  Not surprisingly, it was a farm.  Denmark is a predominately agricultural country, with dairy farming making up a sizable proportion of the economy.  Therefore, it is very interesting to explore the origins of this complete lifestyle change for the people of Denmark – it has remained an integral part of their lives.

Germanic peoples developed agriculture around 4500 B.C.E.  From Germany, agriculture spread to Denmark around 3200-3100 B.C.E. (Rowley-Conwy, 300).  Before this time, people living in Denmark are thought to have exploited marine resources (Denmark is a peninsula that divides the Baltic Sea and the North Sea).  In addition to marine fish and shellfish, Mesolithic Danes had access to acorns, hazelnuts, fruits, pigs, red and roe deer, swans, ducks, and small whales (Rowley-Conwy, 302-5).  The combination of reliance on the major marine migratory species (supplemented by plant and land animal resources) and the security of a sedentary lifestyle for Danish hunter-gatherers provided “factor[s] enabling the [area’s] economy to continue despite the proximity of farming cultures” (Rowley-Conwy, 301).

An important ocean resource for the Danes appears to have been oysters. They are available from February to April, during the time when there isn’t a lot of food available. Oysters were abundant during the Mesolithic, but show a decline in availability around the time Danes switched to farming.  It is hypothesized by Peter Rowley-Conwy that the decline of oysters was due to the decreased salinity of the water in the Baltic, causing oysters to live in deeper water (9-18m) to get more of the salty water it needs (Rowley-Conwy, 315).  This depth was too much for Mesolithic Danes to plunder for their oysters.  Therefore, these peoples had no backup food source if the foods gathered in the winter spoiled.

Had the Danes not lived close to people who had already developed agriculture, they would have most likely become more mobile and began a nomadic lifestyle in order to provide the community with enough food during the winter.  However, there were German agricultural cultures that lived near, and contact with these cultures has been shown by “the finds of shoelast adzes of German Neolithic manufacture” in Danish sites (Rowley-Conwy, 319).  So the development of agriculture was adapted in Denmark as a way to obtain food for hard times while still maintaining sedentary ways, which were safer for humans than constant traveling.

The change to agriculture occurs fairly uniformly around 3200-3100 B.C.E., with the adoption of domesticated grains and animals from Germany  (Rowley-Conwy, 300).  It is sensible to assume that widespread lack of food in Denmark caused the need for a new lifestyle, and that the contact with the Germans to the south led to the development of German-style agriculture as a way of food production that did not require the movement of settled communities.

This pattern does not reveal a story that is even remotely similar to the common examples of the origins of agriculture and organism domestication.  The familiar stories of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt are the stories of ingenious people who learned how to harness nature and live advanced lives in comparison to the hunter-gatherer “barbarians” living elsewhere.  By comparison, my ancestors had the lives of sedentary hunter-gatherers and modified their lives little by switching to a farming lifestyle.  Thus, the hypothesis of agriculture origin that applies best to the Danish is Donald O. Henry’s theory of sedentism and population control.

Kenneth L. Feder and Michael Alan Park state that Henry’s theory is that “some groups of nomadic foragers [were] more sedentary . . . focusing on particularly productive, locally abundant wild foods” (443).  The Danish were certainly not actively roaming around.  They had permanent campsites.

They also had numerous abundant wild foods.  In the summer and fall, especially, many plant foods, fish, fruits and mammals (deer and pig) were readily available to humans (Rowley-Conwy, 307).  However, in the winter, the sole food resources were marine mammals and birds, which can be extremely difficult to catch with traditional weapons because the animals can either swim or fly away, whereas land animals can be chased and fish can be netted.  The sole source of food in the winter and spring that is relatively unmoving is the oysters.

Therefore, food is fairly abundant most of the year except for that small part, in which the Danes required the stable oysters to supplement stored foods or hunted spoils.  Thus, the Mesolithic Danish culture does not quite fit the profile of a typical sedentism and population growth hypothesis society.  They did not always have a great surplus to exploit; indeed, they were living off of one primary resource for two to three months of the year.

Donald O. Henry’s theory on domestication claims that “[lower] infant mortality . . . , [longer] life span . . . , and [increased] female fertility” led to more people, necessitating the development of domesticates (Feder and Park, 443).  With the Danish people of 4000 B.C.E., this is clearly not all of the story.  The populations appear to have been relatively stable, perhaps with a slight increase in numbers; they had no large boom in population.  Denmark is not very heavily populated even today.  They have a population of 5.3 million on an area a little smaller than the state of Alabama (including three islands in the Baltic) (CIA, 2002; Geobop, 1998).

The main drive for changing from hunting and gathering behaviors to agriculture was the loss of food in the late winter and early spring.  This is the time that people are least likely to have food because: the weather is not good enough for plants to grow; land animals are thin or hibernating; and whatever people have stored for the winter has been already eaten.

To be fair, Donald O. Henry’s theory was meant to specifically relate to the Levant (Feder and Park, 448).  However, his hypothesis was the only one of the major ideas on how agriculture was started that sounded even remotely like what happened in Denmark.

A more plausible explanation on what happened to cause the Danish agricultural revolution is that they became sedentary peoples due to the surrounding abundant resources and because of the added security and safety immobile living provided.  This sedentism relied heavily on oysters in the late winter-early spring of the year.  When the oysters had to live in deeper water in order to obtain enough salt from the water, the Danes were forced to make a difficult choice between continuing their hunter-gatherer ways while having to move around throughout the year, or to import a whole new way of obtaining food in order to remain in villages.  They chose the latter because it had the advantage of not forcing them from their homes and allowed them to keep their surplus objects and foods for a good amount of time.

There are some major problems with universal theories of how domestication and agriculture started.  Eight different hypotheses are given by Feder and Park, and I am sure that there are many more theories floating around as to why plants and animals were domesticated (442-3).  These theories attempt to take patterns from one or two regions and apply them throughout the world.  It is impossible for humans to agree on anything today, and I think it is reasonable to assume that prehistoric humans were no more likely to have formed a uniform reason as to why they started to farm and grow to provide their food rather than hunting and gathering.

What worked for one region most likely did not work for another.  The oasis hypothesis is probably true for North Africa and parts of the Near East, but Europe is not as low on water than those regions, and the people from those areas most likely did not gather extensively at few water sources.  Ester Boserup’s demographic hypothesis is probably correct for areas that had booms in their population, but not for those that had a stable population throughout the change between the two subsistence strategies.  The marginal habitat theory applies only to the fringe areas of the world that humans were pushing into, not those areas that had been populated for a long time.

This poses a problem.  Why did farming develop all over the place, rather than in just one of these regions, if one theory is going to explain it all?  The archaeologists may have a better time of it to look at the patterns that the archaeological record have laid out for us.  We can then see what caused this one group of people to move into agriculture, and then we can appreciate this new level in their society.

So, it is possible to see that there are major problems with trying to come up with a blanket explanation.  What works better is exploring the archaeology of a region and explaining the movements of individual populations towards domestication and agriculture.  Humans have always been known for finding multiple ways of doing the same thing.  It is infinitely more interesting, entertaining and informative to discover the numerous ways we had for taking this one important step than it is to argue over which one theory is correct.

Works Cited

“Cia – The World Factbook – Denmark.”  Copyright 2002.  Visited: 15 April 2002.

Feder, Kenneth L. and Michael Alan Park.  Human Antiquity.  Mountain View, CA: 2001.

“Geobop’s Alabama Facts!”  Copyright 1998-2001.  Visited: 15 April 2002.

Rowley-Conwy, Peter.  “The Laziness of the Short-Distance Hunter: The Origins of Agriculture in Western Denmark.”  Journal of Anthropological Archaeology: vol. 3, pp.300-324.  1984.


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