Stronger together

In the Neolithic age, rituals were a kind of glue that held communities together. Neolithic people worked together in the fields and lived communally in large houses. Such ritual activities as the building of megalithic tombs and the ancestor worship performed there ensured that the rules governing communal existence were passed on in the absence of writing. These rituals were the backbone of social life, providing meaning, cohesion and purpose over centuries. Megalithic tombs are particularly striking examples of this ideological orientation towards social equality.

Over many generations, they served as the final resting place of men and women, young and old — and the remnants of thousands of these tombs continue to be striking features across parts of the European landscape.

  • Excursion

    Megalithic tombs

  • In the Neolithic, tombs built from stone slabs known as ‘erratic boulders’ were a widespread phenomenon across the North European Plain. Some five thousand such monuments are still preserved today.

  • These megalithic tombs consist of several upright slabs supporting one or more horizontal slabs to form a chamber and then covered with a mound of earth. Most of these graves were built between 3600 and 3000 BCE. Bones were preserved in some of these chambers, allowing archaeologists to conclude that they served as the burial site for all members of a community.

  • Building these tombs required a great deal of labour and a high degree of organisation. It is likely that people from several settlements cooperated in the building work. Funeral offerings for the deceased included amber jewellery and often sumptuously decorated clay jars.

  • Our analyses have revealed that these vessels would once have contained primarily beef, in addition to dairy and vegetarian foodstuffs.

    We wanted to see for ourselves how a megalithic tomb might have been built: Building a megalithic tomb at Kiel University.

The changing social structure

Around 3000 BCE, however, life changed. Living together in large villages led to conflict and the old ideology with its emphasis on equality came up against its limits. Meanwhile, the climate was changing. The situation worsened as summers grew cooler and harvests smaller.

Settlements were now protected by fences, and some people began to show off their power by openly bearing arms. As the old order collapsed, more and more people were buried not in their ancestors' megalithic tombs but in graves of their own.

  • Excursion

    What were the technological innovations of the Neolithic?

  • Scratch plough (ard) marks (3550 BCE), criss-cross scoring of the soil by an ard, find-spot: Flintbek, Schleswig-Holstein

    The Neolithic is the era when human beings began to engage in arable and livestock farming. Initially, small, garden-like fields were tended with digging sticks. This changed around 3600 BCE. The ard now allowed larger areas to be cultivated.

  • Wooden cart axle (2450 BCE). Find-spot: Pfahlweg (wooden trackway) PR7, Lower Saxony

    Although scratch ploughs might in theory have been pulled by domesticated animals, such as pigs or cattle, we have so far been unable to confirm that this was actually practised. Contemporary images do, however, suggest that cattle were used for another purpose, beginning around 3450 BCE, by which time the wheel had been introduced and animals were used to draw carts.

  • Cart tracks (3400 BCE), gauge 1.1—1.2 m. Find-spot: Flintbek, Schleswig-Holstein

    The world’s oldest archaeological evidence of cart tracks was found in northern Germany, under a grave mound at Flintbek near Kiel. They date from approximately 3400 BCE.

    Another innovation was metal, which was introduced to the north in the form of copper axe.

  • Copper hoard (3800 BCE), dagger, flat axe, spiral bracelet, spiral tape, sheet copper.

    At first, however, the new material did not become established, and imports seem to cease around 3300 BCE. Not until 2300 BCE does metal regain its former importance — this time irreversibly. By adding tin, copper became bronze and a new era began — the Bronze Age.

  • The raw material used in Neolithic copper objects was mined in a number of European regions (1. Find spots, 2. Tin mining; 3. Copper mining).

    Our researchers have found that the copper used in the objects found in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia was mined in south-eastern Europe and the Alpine region. This has allowed us to reconstruct trade and exchange routes covering more than one thousand kilometres.

How to gain direction in life — and at what cost?

These changes did not take place overnight. Some groups would maintain their tradition of “stronger together” for several generations longer than others. Yet they found themselves increasingly behind the times. A new way of life based around small groups and individualistic practices took hold, leaving the old values to decline into insignificance. A new idea of society emerged.

In times of change and uncertainty – then as now – people seek orientation and direction. They found them in a form of society organised by strict rules but founded on inequality. But what is our solution?

Landmarks of the North

Megalithic tombs and Bronze Age burial mounds

Dark Ages today

Finding the I in we

Where individualism and community spirit collide — whether now or 5,000 years ago — individuals find themselves having to reconcile their desire for autonomy with the interests of the community. Wanting to belong is a key aspect of our humanity and finds expression, just as it did thousands of years ago, in cultivating family ties or seeking out connections with like-minded people. At the same time, we seek to express our individuality, our own unique personalities, and we may do so using objects like cars, houses or smartphones, or activities such as travel or sports.

And no less so than 5,000 years ago, we are made all the more aware of this tension as we are confronted with climate change or conflict. They challenge us not least by demanding a collective response and confronting us with the question of whether and how to place limits on individual rights. Human beings must face these collective challenges by working together as societies.