Neolithic Seafaring and Maritime Technologies Shaped a New World of Megalithic Societies (4500-2500 cal BC): the NEOSEA project

by Bettina Schulz Paulsson (Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg/Sweden,

Megaliths (derived from Ancient Greek μέγας (mégas) big and λίϑος (líthos) stone), are a worldwide, time-transcending phenomenon including megalithic graves, standing stones and megalithic buildings. In Europe, most of the approximately 35,000 extant megaliths were constructed 4700-2500 cal BC and are located along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coasts. There were two competing hypotheses for the origin of megaliths in Europe. The conventional view from the late 19th and early 20th centuries was of a single-source diffusion from the Near East through the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast (e.g. Montelius 1905; Childe 1950, 1958; Daniel 1960). Following early radiocarbon dating in the 1970s, an alternative hypothesis arose (Renfrew 1973), emphasizing the independent emergence of megaliths in several regions in sedentary Neolithic farming communities. This second model remained dominant until recently. Recent research into the mobility of megalithic societies suggests that seafaring was far more developed in the Neolithic than previously supposed. Temporality and coastal setting of the megaliths, the circulation of green stone artefacts and a shared symbolic identity imply maritime activity (Schulz Paulsson 2017, 2019, Schulz Paulsson et al. 2019, Cassen et al. 2019). Employing Bayesian statistics to 2410 radiocarbon dates from pre-megalithic and megalithic contexts across Europe, demonstrated that the earliest megaliths originated in Brittany, France and spread along the seaways of the Atlantic coasts and the Mediterranean in three principal successive phases (Schulz Paulsson 2019). The depiction of boats in megalithic graves has so far only been recorded in Brittany. This highlights the central role of this region, not only for the emergence and diffusion of megaliths, but also for the development of maritime technology and economy.

The NEOSEA project

NEOSEA is a five-year project (2020–2025) supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (ERC-starting grant 949424). It is a comparative study of early megaliths and megalithic societies in Europe (4500-3500 cal BC) and seeks to define Neolithic seafaring and maritime technologies, and their role in shaping a new interconnected world of megalithic societies. The basic approach in the NEOSEA project is to assemble the overall picture of megalithic seafaring societies in the European Atlantic and the Mediterranean with large-scale analyses. As core data, we will use radiocarbon dates, ancient DNA (aDNA), environmental DNA (eDNA) and strontium/oxygen analyses. The NEOSEA team will compile available human bone sample materials from early megalithic contexts from all over Europe (Fig. 1 red-green phase 4700-3500 cal BC) for radiocarbon dates, aDNA and strontium/oxygen analyses, conduct excavations on two megalithic graves in Brittany, and take core sediments from early megalithic graves which have no bone material to gain environmental DNA, extract the human DNA, and reconstruct the total local environment of these early megalithic societies.

Figure 1: Previous results and main research questions. Map showing the hypothetical route of the megalithic expansion in three main phases red−green−yellow, periods of megalithic stasis (brown−white), and episode of a megalithic Mediterranean revival (orange) in the second millennium cal BC, with the estimated start of megalithic graves in the different European regions at 95% probability (68% probability in brackets) (after Schulz Paulsson 2019). Italic bold type is used for date ranges of posterior estimates based on organic samples from megalithic graves; regular type is used for estimates associated with the earliest cultural material in the megalithic graves. The results suggested the origin of the megalithic tradition in Brittany and an expansion from there out over the seaway. The proposed project wants to explore the early megalithic societies, their maritime capabilities and their maritime networks.

The project is divided into subprojects (1-5). For subproject 1) NEOSEA wants to define phases of maritime expansion and consolidation with a highly precise chronology. For this step, we will produce radiocarbon sequences for the previously undated earliest megalithic graves and megalithic regions in Europe, adopting a Bayesian statistical framework (Bronk Ramsey 2009; Schulz Paulsson 2019). With subproject 2), the project will specify early megalithic maritime connections, patterns of mobility and cultural and genetic admixture in all its variations, determining how these imply travels, expeditions, and migrations of people. For this specific goal, we will employ a combination of novel eDNA, aDNA and strontium/oxygen isotope analysis to trace genetic ancestries, kinship relations and mobility patterns (e.g. Pedersen 2016; Cassidy et al. 2020). Subproject 3) seeks to explain the emergence of monumental stone architecture and seafaring within sea-mammal-hunting societies. We will correct the reservoir effects on Mesolithic bone material, calculate the sea-mammal proportion in the diet and compare aDNA sequences to eDNA sequences from the early megalithic graves with no bone preservation (Fernandes et al. 2014; Slon et al. 2017). For subproject 4) NEOSEA wants to determine the socio-economic forces driving megalithic seafaring and seafaring societies, based on new findings, as well as a comparison of the economies in the main megalithic regions. To investigate seafaring capabilities, the green stone trade, sea-mammal-hunting strategies and the investment of economic surpluses into monument building, we will apply an agent-based modelling (ABM) approach and develop seascape models (Heckbert 2013; Montenegro et al. 2016). Additional examination for subproject 5) relies on placing the aggregate findings of NEOSEA into a global context from cultural anthropology, using a comparative survey of prehistoric and historic seafaring societies, and depictions of prehistoric boats in visual media, such as rock art and ceramics. Taken together the results of the NEOSEA project may produce a completely new understanding of the technological and social complexity of megalithic societies.

Figure 2: Schematic representation of the progression of the project. The research part of the NEOSEA project consists of five subprojects with four overlapping stages of research 1) Setup and archival work, 2) Data collection/fieldwork 3) Data measurement and analysis and 4) Synthesis/Hypothesis testing.

Figure 3: Laserscan of orthostat with boat engravings in the megalithic grave Mane Lud, Locmariaquer enhanced by ratopoviz (rock art topographic visualization) (after Horn et al. 2021).

Figure 4
: The Grand Menhir in Locmariaquer, Brittany with K. Sachsenberg (© Bettina Schulz Paulsson). The Grand Menhir was erected in the earliest megalithic phase (4700-4200 cal BC). It was originally 21 m tall and weighed 330 tons when it was transported over 12 km from its quarry in the Vannes region. There is a sperm whale engraved on the front side.


The NEOSEA project receives funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement 949424).


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