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Origins, kinship, lifeways and monuments: The first farmers of Belgium

Herkomst, verwantschap, levenswijze en monumenten - de eerste landbouwers van België

Funded by Fonds Jean-Jacques Comhaire - Koning Boudewijnstichting
and the Special Research Fund (BOF) of Ghent University.

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The New Stone Age (the Neolithic, ca. 5300-2000 BC) is one of the most important periods in our past with the advent of agriculture. Agriculture spread through Europe through a combination of the migration of Middle Eastern farmers and the acculturation of local hunter-gatherers. Despite the more than 100 Neolithic burials in Belgium, little is known about these people, their way of life and the reasons for the different burial contexts. The public perception of Neolithic burials is one of megalithic tombs and rituals. What most people do not know is that our first farmers buried their dead not only in megalithic tombs but mainly in caves and even in shafts of flint mines. Most of the graves were intended for collective burials and may have been used by several generations. Unfortunately, at present nothing is known about the cultural and biological relationship between the buried individuals, their environment or lifestyle. One of the most pressing questions is how these first farmers came to be: are they migrants from neighbouring regions or descendants of the local hunter gatherers who adopted the Neolithic practices?

Research Team

This project is a collaboration between

Doctoral student: IJk van Hattum

PhD project supervision: Prof. Dr. Isabelle De Groote, Prof. Dr. Philippe Crombe, Prof. Dr. Joel Irish. 

Supervision Stable Isotope analysis: Prof. Vanhaecke, Prof. Boeckx and Dr. Bode.

In collaboration with Anthropologist Dr. Toussaint (Retired AWaP), and archaeologists H. Collet (AWaP) and Dr. Cattelain (Musée du Malgré-Tout). Ancient geneticist Eva Fernandez-Dominguez Durham University.


Research questions

1. Do the burial contexts (cave, megalithic tombs, and mines) represent groups of people of different origins, or social differences within the same group?

La Faucille, abri l'Hottemme and Wéris are contemporaneous sites, or have been attributed to the same Seine-Oise-Marne culture. This makes it possible to investigate relationships between individuals within the same grave and across different sites. The megaliths of Wéris are part of a cluster (incl. Menhirs) that extends over an elevated area surrounded by contemporaneous cave burials (abri l'Hottemme) in the lower river valleys. The more distant (50km) cave La Faucille has an almost identical date as Wéris II and lets us determine whether relationships extend further than the immediate vicinity.

2. How did the first farming populations come about in Belgium?

By including graves from older and younger Neolithic phases (Ambre, Spiennes) and also the Mesolithic (Bois Laiterie) in the study, we will study genetic relationships from a diachronic perspective. This is 1) important to determine whether the first farmers migrated from other regions (colonization theory), or 2) …. from local Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who were in contact with neighbouring farmers (acculturation theory). This approach allows us to investigate whether the different Neolithic phases and cultures belong to the same genetic group or whether they are people that arrived in different migratory waves.

3. Were the individuals in the flint mines victims of an accident or outsiders?

The heavily used mines are located far from the caves in the valleys. The grave context does not provide any explanation as to how and why the skeletons ended up in the mine. The DNA and stable isotope composition the remains of two men and one baby (approx. 4500 ± 50 BP) are analysed to determine their origins, to find out whether these were local inhabitants and biological relatives, and to investigate similarities with the caves and megaliths.


Collecting the samples


Today, we collected the samples from the partners in Wallonia. First we visited Sclayn where we collected the samples from La Faucille cave. Next we went to the Musee du Malgret Tout where we collected the other cave samples and the individuals from the megaliths of Weris. A visit to one of the sites in the rain was a highlight of the day.  Finally we were welcomed by Helene Collet at the mines in Spiennes. A long but wonderful day.

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