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The New Oxford World History Series

The Ancient Balkans:
The New Oxford World History Series

Andrew Baruch Wachtel is the Bertha and Max Dressler Professor of the Humanities, dean of the graduate school, and director of the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern Univeristy.  In The Balkans In World History, part of the The New Oxford World History Series, Wachtel depicts the Balkans as that borderland geographical space in which four of the world’s greatest civilizations have overlapped in a sustained and meaningful way to produce a complex, dynamic, sometimes combustible, multilayered local civilization.  In the excerpt below we look at the very beginning of Balkan civilization.

For a modern observer in the Balkans, traces of the region’s prehistory and early history are readily found.  Visitors can explore the tells (sites of ancient settlements where successive layers of homes created large artificial hills) of the Bulgarian plains, the Lion Gate at the fortress of Mycenae in Greece, or the magnificent remains of Diocletian’s palace in Split, Croatia.  Other traces can be heard in the Greek, Albanian, and Romanian languages whose progenitors were all spoken on the Balkan Peninsula in classical times.  Still others can be tasted, in the olives and wine grapes brought to the Balkans by prehistoric settlers more than four thousand years ago.  Even some of the modern political problems of the Balkans can be linked directly to classical times – such as the ongoing dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia as to which state has the right to claim the legacy of Alexander the Great.

Evidence of human habitation in the Balkans dates back almost fifty thousand years, and anatomically modern humans appeared here, as elsewhere in southern Europe, somewhat more than thirty-five thousand years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic period.  These early humans lived, as the archeological record reveals, in small mobile groups, hunting, exploiting the bounty of lakes and seas, gathering wild plants, and fashioning stone tools.  Patterns of life on the Balkan Peninsula were similar to those elsewhere on the continent at this time, though populations appear to have been sparser, for although the region was for the most part spared the glaciation that accompanied the last Ice Age in Europe (which ended around 10,000 BCE), it lacked the populations of large mammals that roamed the northern parts of the continent and could support larger hunting groups.

Around the time of Mesolithic period (approximately 10,000 BCE to approximately 7000 BCE in the Balkans), hunter-gatherer groups began to settle into somewhat more permanent habitations.  On terraces cut into the banks of the Danube River between today’s Serbia and Romania, at a site called Lepenski Vir, archeologists have discovered remarkably well-preserve foundations of early shelters.  The oldest, dating from around 7000 BCE, incorporate both wood and stone and were probably covered with skins.  Although the builders did you make pottery, nor did they have domesticated crops, the care and effort taken in the building process indicate that they already possessed an appreciation of place and sufficient organizational and technological skills to alter their landscape in a conscious way.  These same people also had the desire and leisure to create sculptural works, both abstract and anthropomorphic, which are presumed to have had ritual significance of some kind.

A true revolution came to the Balkans in the period between 7000 and 6500 BCE (the beginning of the Neolithic period).  Three crucial innovations have been documented at sites scattered widely over the region: sustained cultivation of the land (excavations have revealed traces of domesticated wheat, barley, peas, and beans); fired clay pottery for storage, cooking, and ceremonial use; and new domesticated animals, particularly goats and sheep, which joined animals domesticated sometime earlier, including cattle and pigs.  Despite these innovations, tools continued to be fashioned of flaked stone, and the newly agricultural societies continued to hunt, fish, and gather the forest bounty that had earlier been their sole source of subsistence.  Given the sparse populations of the region in the Mesolithic period and the fact that these innovations first appeared in the southern Balkans and spread toward the north, it seems likely that the original farmers consisted not of indigenous peoples but rather of colonists who arrived from the Middle East through Asia Minor, where these same processes had been initiated perhaps a millennium earlier.  Indigenous populations did not necessarily disappear completely, but the evidence suggests they were for the most part absorbed by newcomers.

Little is known about the interactions of the Neolithic peoples of the Balkans either within their own communities or across communities.  It is clear that in the period from about 6000 to 4000 BCE, the Neolithic inhabitants tended to build and rebuild their communities on a single site.  The remains of these sites, called tells, can still be seen today as raised mounds formed by the successive layering of simple wood and mud huts.  The largest, such as Karanovo in Bulgaria, are almost forty feet tall and show evidence of more or less continuous habitations for some two thousand years.  Built on open sites near floodplains where the most fertile soils lie, they lack fortifications, an indication that organized warfare was not yet a problem.  Presumably, populations were still relatively sparse and there was enough room for all…

…For reasons that remain unclear, traumatic changes occured throughout much of the Balkan region around 4000 BCE.  Long-inhabited sites were abandoned, ornamental work in clay and metal appears more rarely, and there are signs of a general depopulation.  Although some grand explanations for this phenomenon have been proposed – including the theory that peaceful, female-led indigenous peoples suffered invasion at the hands of war-like, male-dominated Indo-European tribes (carriers of the ancestral language for all but a handful of modern European languages) – no hard evidence can be found to substaintiate them.

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