Cutting a long story short? The process of neolithization in the Dutch delta re-examined.

Daan Raemaekers

The transition from an existence based on hunting and gathering to a farming way of life has been one of the major research topics of archaeology world wide ever since the days of Gordon V. Childe's agricultural revolution. This process of neolithization is traditionally perceived as one of the major steps in human cultural live. In the case of north-western Europe, the stage is set by the intrusion of farmers of the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) around 5300 BC. Thanks to excellent wetland preservation in the delta part of the Netherlands, the transition to farming is relatively well documented. This essay questions the traditional view that the process of neolithization was extremely slow and covered many centuries, using material gathered from a group of excavated sites (Figure 1).


The study of the process of neolithization starts with the definition of terminology. Foremost in the archaeological discourse of north-western Europe it is a custom to describe this process in terms of food production. The most influential model to describe the process of neolithization is the availability model of Zvelebil (1986). He divides the process into three stages: the availability phase, the substitution phase and the consolidation phase. During the availability phase, knowledge about domestic plants and animals is present in the hunter-gatherer communities, but their dietary contribution is minimal (less than five per cent of bone remains are from domestic animals). During the substitution phase, animal herding and crop cultivation become structural parts of the subsistence strategy (5-50 per cent of the bone remains are from domestic animals). In the consolidation phase, agriculture is the main source of food.

In order to determine the dietary importance of domestic animals, two assumptions have to be made explicit. First of all, one has to suppose that the percentages in a bone assemblage somehow reflect the dietary importance of the animals present. Because sieving has not been a standard excavation technique on most of the sites discussed below, small bone material (especially from fishes and birds) is certainly under-represented in the bone assemblages. For this reason, I confine the study below to mammal bones. Second, because the distinction between bones of domestic pig (Sus domesticus) and wild boar (Sus scrofa) is often difficult and historical sources suggest that domestic pig used to be purposefully interbred with feral pigs, it was decided to create one category in which all pig bones are taken together (following Gehasse 1995). In this way, the large variety in mammal bone assemblages was reduced to three major categories: wild mammals, domestic mammals and pigs (Figure 2 and Table 1). The distance between the sites in Figure 2 is a measure of the difference between the mammal bone assemblages.

The Swifterbant culture (5000-3400 BC)

The process of neolithization in the Dutch delta starts with the first contacts between indigenous Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the LBK farmers in the loess areas to the south and the east. These contacts are documented through the presence of various LBK artefacts in a zone extending dozens of kilometers from the loess (Verhart 2000). Around 5000 BC, hunter-gatherers start the production of pottery, a new technique probably derived front their farming neighbours (Raemaekers 1999). This availability phase ends around 4600 BC. Sites from this phase have especially come to light during the last decade. Major excavations such as A27/ Hoge Vaart (Hogestijn & Peeters 2001), Polderweg (Louwe Kooijmans 2001a) and De Bruin (Louwe Kooijmans 2001 b) provided no evidence for the cultivation of cereals, but do reveal a small-scale introduction of domestic animals around 4600 BC. These finds include bones from domestic cattle, pig and sheep/goat for the phase 3 occupation at De Bruin (4700-4450 BC; Oversteegen et al. 2001) and bones from sheep/goat and possibly domestic pig from Brandwijk-layer 30 (4610-4550 BC; Raemaekers 1999). Now, the discussion focuses on the relevance of the absence of cereal remains in this period. Is this absence the result of the type of sites we know or are cereals truly absent in this society (Brinkkemper et al. 1999)? In other words, will the excavation of new sites dating to the early phase of the Swifterbant culture reveal the presence of cereal remains and/or bones from domestic animals in this period or are we dealing with an availability phase from 5300 till 4600 BC?

The occupation history of the period between 4600 and 4200 remains unknown today, but is certain that at the end of this Forschungslucke both cereal cultivation and animal husbandry are standard subsistence strategies alongside a continued importance of hunting and gathering. Sites such as Swifterbant and Hazendonk yielded cereal remains (Casparie et al. 1977, Bakels 1986) and bones from cattle, pig and sheep/goat (Zeiler 1997). In figure 2 and table 1 all available data on mammal bone assemblages from the middle phase of the Swifterbant culture are listed (4600-3800 BC). They make clear that the bone assemblages from this phase are typified by the combination of bones from domestic and wild mammals. The limited importance of both animal husbandry and cereal cultivation in the middle phase of the Swifterbant culture is best illustrated on the basis of the finds from the site P14. This site is located on a major boulder clay outcrop: if any of the known Swifterbant sites is suited for extensive cereal cultivation and animal husbandry, it is P14. Yet, its mammal bone assemblage is similar to that from the Swifterbant levees and the pollen diagrams from P14 indicate that its vegetation was largely intact. In other words, cereal cultivation was apparently not carried out on a large scale. On the basis of these similarities between Swifterbant and P14, 1 have suggested that the small importance of both cereal cultivation and animal husbandry is a cultural characteristic of the Swifterbant culture (Raemaekers 1999).

The Hazendonk 3 group (3800-3400 BC)

Until the start of the 1990s, the Hazendonk 3 group remained a regional group that was poorly understood. On the type site, the Hazendonk river dune, it was first discovered under a find layer with material from the Vlaardingen group (Louwe Kooijmans 1974). Later, similar pottery was excavated in find circumstances where subsistence data was not preserved (see Raemaekers 1999 for an overview). The ecological data from the Hazendonk 3 type site encompassed remains from emmer wheat and naked barley and a bone assemblage dominated by bones from wild animals. During the last decade, a series of new sites has been discovered: Wateringen 4 (Raemaekers et al. 1997) and Ypenburg (Koot 2000; Koot & Van der Have 2002). It now appears that the Hazendonk 3 group is a regional group that developed from the middle phase of the Swifterbant culture (Raemaekers 1999). On both new sites, remains from the above-mentioned types of cereals were found. In the bone assemblage from Wateringen 4, bones of domestic mammals are more abundant than in the older Swifterbant sites. The presence of house plans (on both new sites) and the conclusions from use wear analysis that a broad spectrum of activities was carried out, lead to the impression that these sites were inhabited year-round by family groups. On the basis of these newly discovered sites one might suggest that the process of neolithization reached its consolidation phase at this time: it is in this period that sites appear which strongly suggest the importance of both animal husbandry and cereal cultivation.

The Vlaardingen group (3400-2400 BC)

One of the major characteristics of the Vlaardingen group is (perceived to be) its inter-site variability. This pertains to the site location (coastal dunes, river dunes, levees, intercoastal ridges and on pleistocene sandy soils), its sources of flint, its pottery characteristics, its bone assemblages, its use wear characteristics and the presence/absence of house plans (Van Regteren Altena et al. 1962/1963; Louwe Kooijmans 1986). On the basis of this variability, one might define three groups of sites with specific characteristics.

The first group of sites is located on the coastal dunes and intercoastal ridges (Haamstede, Voorschoten, Leidschendam, Zandwerven). These sites are characterised by the presence of house plans, a bone assemblage dominated by bones from domestic animals, the presence of cereal remains and a wide spectrum of activities as demonstrated by use wear analysis. Probably, this first group concerns settlements that were inhabited on a year-round basis by family groups and where cereal cultivation and animal husbandry were important food strategies. The second group consists of the levee sites of Hekelingen and Vlaardingen. While in Vlaardingen there were remains from a number of house plans, the natural environment seems less suited for year-round occupation. Furthermore, use-wear analysis suggests that a smaller spectrum of activities was carried out (Van Gijn 1989) and bones from domestic animals are less abundant, it is most likely that the levee sites were predominantly inhabited on a seasonal basis by a task force. Such a task force might be related to specific food procurement strategies such as fishing and hunting, but one might also suppose that crops were cultivated. The produce of the task force would then be transported back to base camps as are known from the coastal area. However, it is far from certain that the inhabitants of Hekelingen did have their home base in the coastal area: the major presence of flint material derived from the south which suggests that a base camp on the sandy soils of Brabant is also a possibility. The southern limit of the Vlaardingen group is as yet poorly documented in Hulst in Zeeland (Van Heeringen 1991) and Toterfout in Brabant (Van Regteren Altena et al. 1962/1963).

The river dune sites constitute the third group, of which Hazendonk is the best documented. On this site, no house plans have been defined, but this may be related to erosion. Cereal remains again consist of emmer wheat and naked barley. In contrast to the above-mentioned groups, the bone assemblage is dominated by bones from wild animals. It is important to realise that this pertains to both Vlaardingen phases of occupation of Hazendonk. Apparently, the site was repeatedly visited for specific activities. These activities probably included the hunting of fur animals and deer and fishing and fowling (Zeiler 1997).

In the period of the Vlaardingen group, there are sites of which the mammal bone assemblages are dominated by the bones from domestic animals and with evidence for cereal cultivation in pollen diagrams. This suggests that the location of base camps was determined by the possibilities for nearby cereal cultivation and animal husbandry. In other words, these subsistence strategies were important factors for site location and cereal cultivation and animal husbandry shifted from being an extension of the broad spectrum subsistence base (characteristic for the period of the Swifterbant culture) to being the major subsistence strategies. In Zvelebil's terms, we might talk of the final stage of neolithization, the consolidation phase.

The traditional 'long transition model'

Clearly, the above-mentioned data nicely fit the model in which the process of neolithization is a linear process. Domestic animals and cereals are slowly and piece-meal introduced in hunter-gatherer societies until 'real agrarian settlements' occur during the period of the Vlaardingen group (possibly already during the period of the Hazendonk 3 group). The main argument in this model relates to the perceived difference between the coastal sites of the Vlaardingen group (house plans, many bones from domestic animals and evidence for cereal cultivation in pollen diagrams) and the sites from the Swifterbant culture (seasonally occupied river dunes and levees in extensive wetlands, no house plans, little domestic animals and questionable cereal cultivation) (see Louwe Kooijmans 1986 and Raemaekers et al. 1997). In this way, a contrast is created in which the Swifterbant culture corresponds with Zvelebil's substitution phase and the Vlaardingen group with the consolidation phase. To a large extent, this interpretation is based on the similarity of the bone assemblages of the Swifterbant culture (especially the comparison between P14 and Swifterbant S3, see above) and the differences between the bone assemblages of the Swifterbant and Vlaardingen sites (e.g. Louwe Kooijmans 1993; Raemaeker et al. 1997).


Figure 2 makes clear that the most apparent differences in bone assemblages are found between sites in different natural environments and not between sites with different age but located in the same environment. The type-sites Swifterbant and Vlaardingen are both levee sites and are located on al most the same location in figure 2 (nos. 3 and 16). There is also a strong congruence between the various river dune bone assemblages (circle symbol). It appears that over the ages, the same set of activities was carried out in the same natural environments. This suggests that it may well be that the process of neolithization in the Dutch delta is not a lengthy one. With hindsight, it has to be concluded that in the 'long transition model' there is little consideration for the effect of large-scale erosion in the coastal area. In the left half of figure 2 there are only sites dated after c. 3600 BC. In the sections above, the absence of older sites in this part of the figure is implicitly interpreted as a prehistoric reality and incorporated into the explanation. Here, the cautionary tale is that the sites in the left of figure 2 are all coastal sites. It has to be remembered that the oldest preserved beach ridges in the Western Netherlands date to the period of the Hazendonk 3 group: older ridges (plus any archaeological sites on them) were eroded as a result of the Holocene sea water level rise. The rise in sea water level resulted in the drowning and erosion of a series of coastal landscapes and the formation of new coastal landscapes further inland. At the time of the Hazendonk 3 group, this period of reworking of coastal sediments ended in the area to the south-east of The Hague: it is in this area that the oldest coastal sites are preserved, in other words, it has to be kept in mind that a 'short transition model' also fits the available data.


If the effect of large-scale erosion in the Dutch coastal area is taken into account, it has to be concluded that the duration of the process of neolithization is not easily determined for the Dutch delta. At the moment, the wealth of zoological information does not allow an interpretation in terms of the three phases of Zvelibil's availability model because we have to realise that one coastal site dated older than c. 4000 BC might alter our interpretation drastically. It remains unknown whether coastal sites from the Swifterbant culture would have been similar to their Vlaardingen counterparts in terms of their subsistence base. This means that the long transition model and the short transition model are equally valid.

This situation will remain so until older beach ridges are discovered. In this context, the densely populated south-western part of the Randstad (the area between The Hague, Rotterdam and Hook) is a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, a major part of the archaeological sites is probably already destroyed as a result of both natural and human activities. On the other hand, major infra- structural projects in this area will lead to new discoveries of well-preserved archaeological sites deep in the subsoil, which would otherwise remain undiscovered.

Table 1. Comparison of bone assemblages from the Swifterbant culture,
the Hazendonk 3 group and the Vlaardingen group (after Raemaekers et
al. 1997). Numbers refer to figure 2.

Number Site (BC)

1 P14, laag A 4900-4400
2 Brandwijk L30 4610-4550
3 Swifterbant S3 4330-3970
4 Brandwijk L50-basis 4220-4100
5 P14, laag B 4100-3800
6 Brandwijk L50-top 4030-3940
7 Hazendonk 1 + 2 4020-3790
8 Schokkerhaven 3950-3720
9 Brandwijk L60 3940-3820
10 P14, laag C 3800-3600
11 P14, laag D 3600-3350
12 1114, laag E 3600-3300
13 Hazendonk 3 3670-3610
14 Wateringen 4 3625-3400
15 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 1b 3260-2960
16 Vlaardingen 3030-2790
17 Hekelingen III-1 3000-2600
18 Hekelingen III-2 3000-2600
19 Hekelingen III-3 3000-2600
20 Hekelingen I 2880-2460
21 Zandwerven 2860-2290
22 Voorschoten-Boschgeest 2850-2460

23 Voorschoten-Boschgeest 2850-2460

24 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 2 2570-2470
25 Voorschoten-De Donk 2390-2340
26 Ewijk
27 Leidschendam

Number Site period

1 P14, laag A Swifterbant culture
2 Brandwijk L30 Swifterbant culture
3 Swifterbant S3 Swifterbant culture
4 Brandwijk L50-basis Swifterbant culture
5 P14, laag B Swifterbant culture
6 Brandwijk L50-top Swifterbant culture
7 Hazendonk 1 + 2 Swifterbant culture
8 Schokkerhaven Swifterbant culture
9 Brandwijk L60 Swifterbant culture
10 P14, laag C Swifterbant culture
11 P14, laag D Swifterbant culture
12 1114, laag E Swifterbant culture
13 Hazendonk 3 Hazendonk 3 group
14 Wateringen 4 Hazendonk 3 group
15 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 1b Vlaardingen group
16 Vlaardingen Vlaardingen group
17 Hekelingen III-1 Vlaardingen group
18 Hekelingen III-2 Vlaardingen group
19 Hekelingen III-3 Vlaardingen group
20 Hekelingen I Vlaardingen group
21 Zandwerven Vlaardingen group
22 Voorschoten-Boschgeest Vlaardingen group

23 Voorschoten-Boschgeest Vlaardingen group

24 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 2 Vlaardingen group
25 Voorschoten-De Donk Vlaardingen group
26 Ewijk Vlaardingen group
27 Leidschendam Vlaardingen group

% Wild %
Number Site mammals Pig

1 P14, laag A 48 39
2 Brandwijk L30 60 20
3 Swifterbant S3 35 55
4 Brandwijk L50-basis 63 31
5 P14, laag B 65 26
6 Brandwijk L50-top 59 33
7 Hazendonk 1 + 2 74 10
8 Schokkerhaven 70 11
9 Brandwijk L60 68 22
10 P14, laag C 54 35
11 P14, laag D 35 25
12 1114, laag E 28 42
13 Hazendonk 3 83 10
14 Wateringen 4 27 23
15 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 1b 81 15
16 Vlaardingen 48 37
17 Hekelingen III-1 45 36
18 Hekelingen III-2 58 18
19 Hekelingen III-3 61 25
20 Hekelingen I 50 26
21 Zandwerven 2 2
22 Voorschoten-Boschgeest 13 15

23 Voorschoten-Boschgeest 32 8

24 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 2 77 12
25 Voorschoten-De Donk 3 51
26 Ewijk 4 39
27 Leidschendam 12 38

% Domestic Assemb.
Number Site mammals size

1 P14, laag A 13 218
2 Brandwijk L30 20 31
3 Swifterbant S3 10 5878
4 Brandwijk L50-basis 6 64
5 P14, laag B 9 562
6 Brandwijk L50-top 8 232
7 Hazendonk 1 + 2 16 343
8 Schokkerhaven 19 117
9 Brandwijk L60 10 236
10 P14, laag C 11 285
11 P14, laag D 40 96
12 1114, laag E 30 104
13 Hazendonk 3 7 1505
14 Wateringen 4 49 3060
15 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 1b 2 1391
16 Vlaardingen 15 2755
17 Hekelingen III-1 20 1138
18 Hekelingen III-2 24 1591
19 Hekelingen III-3 14 1031
20 Hekelingen I 24 628
21 Zandwerven 96 61
22 Voorschoten-Boschgeest 72 328

23 Voorschoten-Boschgeest 60 105

24 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 2 11 2597
25 Voorschoten-De Donk 46 100
26 Ewijk 57 874
27 Leidschendam 50 472

Number Site environment

1 P14, laag A Boulder clay outcrop
2 Brandwijk L30 River dune
3 Swifterbant S3 Levee
4 Brandwijk L50-basis River dune
5 P14, laag B Boulder clay outcrop
6 Brandwijk L50-top River dune
7 Hazendonk 1 + 2 River dune
8 Schokkerhaven River dune
9 Brandwijk L60 River dune
10 P14, laag C Boulder clay outcrop
11 P14, laag D Boulder clay outcrop
12 1114, laag E Boulder clay outcrop
13 Hazendonk 3 River dune
14 Wateringen 4 Coastal dune
15 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 1b River dune
16 Vlaardingen Levee

17 Hekelingen III-1 Levee
18 Hekelingen III-2 Levee
19 Hekelingen III-3 Levee
20 Hekelingen I Levee
21 Zandwerven Tidal flat barrier
22 Voorschoten-Boschgeest Coastal dune

23 Voorschoten-Boschgeest Coastal dune

24 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 2 River dune
25 Voorschoten-De Donk Coastal dune
26 Ewijk Large levee
27 Leidschendam Coastal dune

Number Site References

1 P14, laag A Gehasse 1995
2 Brandwijk L30 Robeerst 1995
3 Swifterbant S3 Zeiler 1997
4 Brandwijk L50-basis Robeerst 1995
5 P14, laag B Gehasse 1995
6 Brandwijk L50-top Robeerst 1995
7 Hazendonk 1 + 2 Zeiler 1997
8 Schokkerhaven Gehasse 1995
9 Brandwijk L60 Robeersr 1995
10 P14, laag C Gehasse 1995
11 P14, laag D Gehasse 1995
12 1114, laag E Gehasse 1995
13 Hazendonk 3 Zeiler 1997
14 Wateringen 4 Raemaekers et. al. 1997
15 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 1b Zeiler 1997
16 Vlaardingen Clason 1967
17 Hekelingen III-1 Prummel 1987
18 Hekelingen III-2 Prummel 1987
19 Hekelingen III-3 Prummel 1987
20 Hekelingen I Clason 1967
21 Zandwerven Clason 1967
22 Voorschoten-Boschgeest Groenman-van
Waateringe et al. 1968
23 Voorschoten-Boschgeest Groenman-van
Waateringe et al. 1968
24 Hazendonk-Vlaardingen 2 Zeiler 1997
25 Voorschoten-De Donk Deckers 1991
26 Ewijk Clason 1990
27 Leidschendam Groenman-van
Waateringe et al. 1968

Assemb. = Assemblage


This article is based on a lecture given in Leiden at March 23th 1999 in honour of Professor EJ.R. Modderman's eightieth birthday. In his response to an earlier version of this text (Raemaekers 2001), he remarked that he was pleased to read that the importance of the natural environment was stressed: 'the natural setting of a site determines the exploitation possibilities for its inhabitants'. I wish to thank Dr. Wietske Prummel (Groningen Insititute of Archaeology) for her remarks.


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Antiquity, Dec 2003 v77 i298 p740(9)