Violence, Disease Killed Almost Everyone in Denmark — Twice

Late neolithic Denmark was a tough place to live for hunter-gatherers and farmers — but an easy place to die.

Several studies published on Jan. 10 in the journal Nature show invasions killed almost everyone in Denmark’s dominant population twice, starting in about 3,900 BCE.

These neolithic decimations first targeted hunter-gatherers who had been there for thousands of years. Farmers entering the region wiped them out almost completely — only to be almost totally wiped out themselves by immigrating nomads a thousand years later.

illustration of a woman working in a primitive building

A woman demonstrates the Funnel Beaker culture (ca. 4,000 BCE-2,700 BCE). Image: Hans Splinter via Flickr


That’s a big departure from the consensus, which used to hold that these transitions were mostly harmonious.

“Our study indicates the opposite,” study co-researcher Anne Birgitte Nielsen, a geology researcher and head of the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at Lund University in Sweden, said in a statement. “In addition to violent death, it is likely that new pathogens from livestock finished off many gatherers.”

The research relies on DNA analysis of skeletons and teeth found in what is now Denmark. The first murderous invaders, the farmers of 5,900 BCE, looked distinctly different from their victims. Within only a few generations, they had created a massive shift in genotype, phenotype, diet, and land use in the country.

This was the Funnel Beaker culture, a Neolithic group that originated in a broad area around Denmark. They made pottery shaped like funnels and produced the first farmed foods. This effectively changed the regional diet from wild forage.

They also brought exotic diseases that the hunter-gatherers couldn’t fight off. And as violence raged alongside the pathogenic spread, their numbers dwindled.

Hunter-gatherer DNA continued to exist among these Funnel Beaker people, the study found. But they had almost completely adopted the new customs and remained a stark genetic minority.

However, this group only enjoyed about 1,000 years of dominance. Around 2,850 BCE, the last comprehensive population turnover in Denmark occurred. Pastoralists, or migrating animal herders, arrived from the eastern Steppe. Equally rapid and devastating, the event gave rise to the Single Grave culture — whose ancestry resembles present-day Danes.

neolithic man wearing crude clothing, carrying a bow

Man from the Single Grave culture. Image: Pinterest

“People with genetic roots in Yamnaya — a livestock herding people with origins in southern Russia — came to Scandinavia and wiped out the previous farmer population. Once again, this could have involved both violence and new pathogens,” the team wrote.

These steppe people, for instance, introduced a heightened risk of multiple sclerosis to Denmark. Not only that, they profoundly altered the region’s flora. Vegetation adapted to survive the heavy, migratory grazing of the new herds.

The new group’s distinct burial behavior, which often placed war weapons like battle axes inside graves, also took over.

stone implements on display in a museum

Axes, hatchets, and mace heads from a Single Grave culture burial at the Schleswig-Holstein Museum. Photo: Wiki Commons


In today’s Danes, genetic traces of the Funnel Beaker people have virtually disappeared.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.