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Bradford professor leaves no stone unturned in solving prehistoric mystery


In the 7th Century BC, after 3,500 years of existence, the lake-dwelling people of the Circum-Alpine region just disappeared - but nobody knew why. In a new book by Francesco Menotti, the University of Bradford's Anniversary Chair in Archaeology, this prehistoric mystery is finally solved, offering us some interesting parallels and lessons for modern society.

During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages (the 42nd to 7th Century BC), the Circum-Alpine region – land in countries we know as Switzerland, eastern France, southern Germany, northern Italy, Austria and Slovenia – was home to a number of thriving communities who lived, traded and farmed on the banks of the many lakes. But after 3,500 years they left.

The question of why these people suddenly vanished from the lake shores has vexed researchers. Experts have posited a number of theories, including fluctuations in climate, an economic crisis, the impact of long-distance trade and cultural change, but nobody really knew for certain. Until now.

In 2009, thanks to Swiss National Science Foundation funding, archaeologist Francesco Menotti was offered the opportunity to tackle the question of why such a strong tradition could unravel, a question that had followed him throughout his career.

In answering this prehistoric mystery, Menotti brought together an interdisciplinary team of experts including archaeologists, climatologists, archaeozoologists, archaeobotanists, geoarchaeologists and others who would, for the first time, investigate and explore the question together.

This multifaceted approach was highly successful. In a new book called ‘The end of the lake-dwellings in the Circum-Alpine region’, the team was able to publish their findings, solving the conundrum.

In the end, it wasn’t climate change or the environment that caused the demise of this society it was simply ‘progress’. Changes in culture brought by increasing exposure to new and different cultural influences spelt the end of their traditional way of life.

Over 3,500 years, the lake-dwelling peoples became more and more engaged with trade – both locally and across longer distances. In the end, researchers were able to see evidence of trade and exchange networks stretching from the Mediterranean and northern Italy, to northern Europe/Scandinavia. But this trade brought with it certain demands and an exposure to, and engagement with, other cultures, changing forever their centuries old way of life.

The researchers were able to identify how the new trade in goods brought with it the circulation of people, ideas and cultural traits. This can be seen in changes to burial practices and the increasing importance of demonstrating social status through the display of material goods, including razors, swords, keys and more. In the end, it was not the long-distance trade that forced the lake-dwellers to abandon the lake shores; it was their processes of adapting to the various cultural variations brought along with it that did it.

Before abandoning their long-lasting traditional way of life, the lake-dwellers made a few last attempts to return to the lakes at certain points, but by then society had changed. In a relatively short space of time, this ancient way of life was ‘forgotten’.

Interestingly, initially climate change was held to be the most likely reason for the movement. In the end, the research team were surprised that climate played virtually no part in the decision to leave. In fact, through their research, the team was encouraged by the ability of our distant ‘relatives’ to adapt to changes in the climate. Demonstrating remarkable resilience and planning, research highlights how the lake-dwelling population was able to change the range of crops they grew, or animals they hunted to survive any difficult periods.

Understanding how ancient populations dealt with climate change could have significance for our own struggles with these issues. At the same time, appreciating how a society reacts to external influence, the impact of trade and the speed at which a seemingly strong and self-sufficient culture can unravel so quickly are all fascinating learning points.

Menotti himself is keen to point out how society may wish to be more wary when embracing new technologies or changes, remarking that: “We ought to be cautious about the decisions that we make, as we channel ourselves into situations from which we have no way back once the decision is made.”

The end of the lake dwelling in the Circum-Alpine region is published by Oxbow books:

The picture shows a 19th Century illustration of the lake dwellings.

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