The Bell Beaker Complex was an immensely popular cultural phenomenon that swept through Europe and Britain in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. It is characterised by its ‘beaker’-shaped vessels, which show regional variation in both manufacture and design. This is an example of a vessel in the ‘All-Over-Corded’ style, common in central Europe and Britain. (Image: National Museums Scotland)

More than 4,500 years ago, a hugely popular cultural phenomenon – today known as the Bell Beaker Complex – captured the prehistoric imagination, flourishing across much of Europe. Archaeologists are still deliberating over how this Complex, first identified in the 19th century, developed so quickly and effectively. Now the largest ancient DNA study to-date has shed revolutionary new light on the question, with surprising implications for our understanding of ancient populations – particularly that of Britain, which seems to have undergone an almost complete genetic turnover in just a few centuries. Kathryn Krakowka reports.

At the start of the 3rd millennium BC the peoples of Europe were, for the most part, technologically and socially disparate: in the eastern and southern reaches of the Continent, metallurgy had begun in earnest, while in Britain and other areas of northern Europe flint was still king. By the middle of that millennium, however, the region had been swept – and largely united – by a cultural package known as the Bell Beaker Complex.

Archaeologically, this movement is defined by the presence of ‘beaker’-shaped vessels that are generally found in funerary contexts and often next to crouched human burials. Originally considered a ‘culture’, in recent years the Bell Beaker phase has instead been referred to as a ‘Complex’ or ‘Phenomenon’ due to the wide range of variations seen in the design of the artefacts it produced. While the pottery always retains its distinctive ‘beaker’ shape, the patterns with which the vessels are decorated can differ greatly.

A double Beaker grave from Trumpington meadows in Cambridgeshire, excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological unit. It contained two individuals in their late teens, one male and one female, as well as two distinctive Beaker vessels. Such pots are commonly found next to crouched human burials, giving these graves their name. (Image: Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Among these, a key group is the ‘Maritime’ beaker vessels, which are found predominantly in Iberia, but also along the Atlantic and Mediterranean shores. This style, defined by repeated patterns of horizontal bands over the entire surface of the pot, is thought to have originated early in the Beaker period. In central Europe, though, we are more likely to find ‘All-Over-Corded’ vessels, which, as the name implies, are adorned with cord-like impressions. While both types have been found in Britain, this latter style seems to have been more dominant.

Archery also seems to have been a defining aspect of the Complex, with paraphernalia including stone wrist-guards, flint arrowheads, and sometimes even bows found in Bell Beaker graves. Other artefacts commonly associated with such burials include copper daggers and buttons with V-shaped holes. In Britain, the most famous Bell Beaker grave is that of the Amesbury Archer from Boscombe Down in Wiltshire (see CA 184 and 265), but these burials have been found throughout Britain, from Orkney to Cornwall.

It is not just new material culture that seems to have spread so effectively across Europe. Presumably these artefacts were also accompanied by a set of practices, beliefs, and other intangible aspects of culture that cannot be elucidated through the archaeological record. It is this assumption that makes the Bell Beaker period so significant: the development of the Complex marks the first time archaeologically that we can see such large-scale cultural diffusion.


Artefacts associated with the Bell Beaker Complex include flint arrowheads, stone wrist bracers, and copper knives. (Image: Wessex Archaeology)

While we can unpick its material components, the geographical origins of the Complex remain elusive. The earliest radiocarbon date for a Bell Beaker site (c.2750 BC, at Leceia in the lower Estremadura region of Portugal) suggests possible beginnings among the people of Copper Age Iberia, but other theories propose the Lower Rhine area instead. Unfortunately, an inconsistent radiocarbon resolution for this period means that such evidence can only provide broad date ranges and is not capable of resolving the issue.

What is clear about the Beaker Complex, though, is that from c.2600 BC until c.2000 BC it was extremely popular, rapidly diffusing through large swathes of the Continent. At its peak, it encompassed the vast majority of Europe, as well as parts of northern Africa. The juxtaposition of this fast transmission of ideas and practices with the clear regional variation seen in the design and manufacture of Beaker artefacts is a puzzle, however, sparking fierce debate among archaeologists. The key question is whether this cultural diffusion was driven by the large-scale migration of people across the region, or by the communication of ideas through social interactions.

Recently, the largest ancient human DNA project to-date – carried out by an ambitious international team of over 100 archaeologists and geneticists – set out to address this issue. By sequencing the genomes of hundreds of Neolithic, Copper Age, and Bronze Age Europeans and mapping the relatedness of different populations, they hoped to document the movement of these prehistoric people. The project’s outcomes have game-changing implications not only for our understanding of prehistoric populations, but also for the future prospects of ancient DNA in wider archaeological research.


Due to the amazing preservation of aDNA from ancient British individuals, the team was able to examine the region in minute detail. Rather than maintaining the genetic profile of their Neolithic predecessors (who were closely related to Iberian early Neolithic farmers), the results showed that British Bell Beaker populations were in fact more closely related to those from central Europe. This suggests that, although the Beaker Complex spread between Iberia and central Europe through the movement of ideas, in Britain its expansion occurred through the movement of people, and in some numbers.

This figure from the Nature paper that recently published the results of this project starkly illustrates the rapid integration of Continental Beaker Complex-associated groups into the British population. Each bar represents the entire genome of one sampled individual from Britain: blue indicates the proportion of Neolithic ancestry, and red the proportion of central European-associated lineages. (Image: Nature and I Olade et al.)

As mentioned before, both the ‘All-Over-Cord’ and ‘Maritime’ Beaker designs are known in Britain, suggesting cultural influences from both central Europe and Iberia. It would seem logical that these two separate, although linked, styles would have been introduced to the region by different groups – but the new genetic results seem to indicate that this was not the case. Rather, regardless of pottery style, all the sites studied suggest a shared origin with central European Beaker populations, with no evidence for the migration of Iberian Beaker people into Britain at all.

This central European population movement into Britain was swift and hugely successful, DNA analysis suggests. After 2450 BC, when the Beaker Complex first arrived in the region, all sampled individuals from Britain show an abrupt change in their genome, with central European Bell Beaker-associated lineages suddenly accounting for the vast proportion of their overall ancestry. Over the next few hundred years, the proportion of this migrant DNA continued to vary slightly, indicating that some mixture with local Britons was ongoing – although it still accounted, on average, for at least 90% of ancestry. But by the end of the Beaker period the population had completely homogenised, and it seems that the Neolithic peoples of Britain – the ones who built Stonehenge, traversed the Sweet Track, and settled Skara Brae – had all but disappeared.

What could have caused such a rapid disappearance of Neolithic Britons? For now, the answer remains unknown, and opens up a lot of new questions. How did a seemingly thriving population evaporate from the gene pool? There is no evidence to suggest a hostile invasion, although it does, of course, remain a possibility. Other scenarios include an environmental change or catastrophe that the indigenous population could not adapt to, or new diseases that the Beaker migrants may have brought with them against which the local people had no natural resistance. Additionally, the Neolithic British population might have declined when they were forced to shift to a more pastoralist lifestyle after a period of unsuccessful crop farming.

The Amesbury Archer, at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, was discovered with a plethora of Bell Beaker-associated grave goods. (Image: Wessex Archaeology)

We must also ask, where did these newcomers migrate from? The aDNA project found that the British Bell Beaker groups, particularly those in the south, were most closely related to individuals whose remains were recovered from the Oostwoud- Tuithoorn site in the West Frisia region of the Netherlands. The parallels were striking: both groups presented with an almost identical percentage of steppe-related ancestry. This does not necessarily mean that people from Oostwoud were the ones migrating into Britain, but it does suggest that they had a shared common ancestor. Whoever settled Oostwoud, most likely moved on to settle in Great Britain too.

Widening this picture, as the team also analysed the genetic profiles of Neolithic and later Bronze Age populations, they were able to draw a timeline of different genetic traits and their entry into Britain. Among these, the researchers noticed that between the Neolithic period and the start of the Beaker period the genes for lighter skin and eye pigmentation significantly increased in frequency – before this, Britain’s inhabitants seem to have had much darker skin and hair. (The Mesolithic population, exemplified by the individual known as Cheddar Man, was darker still – see CA 337.) The arrival of the Beaker Complex seems, therefore, not only to have completely altered the genetic makeup of the British peoples, but also transformed their physical appearance. One trait that the wave of incomers did not introduce to any great extent, however, was the ability to digest lactose. The gene was not found with any frequency for this period, meaning that dairy consumption would not have become widespread in Britain, or indeed Europe, until some time within the last 3,500 years (see CA 334).

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 338. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

One Comment

  1. Robert Kerr
    April 6, 2018 @ 11:04 pm

    Very interesting that the DNA reveals lactose intolerance. Dairy products are argued to have been one of the key reasons for the steppe pastoral success story!


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