A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Åland, southern Finland, turns researchers’ understanding of ancient Northern livelihoods upside down

New findings reveal that hunter-gatherers took to farming already 5,000 years ago in eastern Sweden, and on the Åland Islands, located on the southwest coast of Finland.

On the basis of prior research, representatives of the Pitted Ware Culture from the Stone Age have been known as hard-core sealers, or even Inuits of the Baltic Sea. Now, researchers have discovered barley and wheat grains in areas previously inhabited by this culture, leading to the conclusion that the Pitted Ware Culture adopted agriculture on a small scale.

A study carried out in cooperation with parties representing the discipline of archaeology and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, as well as Swedish operators in the field of archaeology (The Archaeologists, a governmental consultant agency, and Arkeologikonsult, a business), found grains of barley and wheat in Pitted Ware settlements on Finland’s Åland Islands and in the region of modern Stockholm.

The age of the grains was ascertained using radiocarbon dating. Based on the results, the grains originated in the period of the Pitted Ware culture, thus being approximately 4,300–5,300 years old. In addition to the cereal grains, the plant remnants found in the sites included hazelnut shells, apple seeds, tuberous roots of lesser celandine and rose hips. 

The study suggests that small-scale farming was adopted by the Pitted Ware Culture by learning the trade from farmers of the Funnel Beaker Culture, the latter having expanded from continental Europe to Scandinavia.

Other archaeological artefacts are also evidence of close contact between these two cultures.

“The grains found on Åland are proof that the Pitted Ware Culture introduced cultivation to places where it had not yet been practised,” says Santeri Vanhanen, a doctoral student of archaeology at the University of Helsinki.

Cereal perhaps used to brew beer?

The 5,000-year-old barley grain found on Åland is the oldest grain of cereal ever found in Finland. The researchers also found a handful of barley and wheat grains a few hundred years younger, representing either common wheat or club wheat.

“We also dated one barley grain found in Raseborg, southern Finland. This grain and the other earliest grains found in mainland Finland date back some 3,500 years, some 1,500 years behind Åland according to current knowledge,” Vanhanen explains.

In prior studies, it has been extremely difficult to demonstrate that the hunter-gatherer population would have adopted farming during recorded history, let alone in the Stone Age. Research on ancient DNA has in recent years proven that the spread of agriculture in Europe was almost exclusively down to migrants.

“We find it possible that this population, which was primarily specialised in marine hunting, continued to grow plants as the practice provided the community with social significance.”

From time to time, an abundance of pig bones are found at Pitted Ware sites, even though pigs were not an important part of their daily nourishment. For instance, the bones of more than 30 pigs were found in a grave located on the island of Gotland. 

“Members of the Pitted Ware culture may have held ritual feasts where pigs and cereal products were consumed. It’s not inconceivable that grains might even have been used to brew beer, but the evidence is yet to be found,” Vanhanen continues.

Grain age determined through radiocarbon dating

The research relies primarily on archaeobotanical methodology, which helps examine plant remains preserved in archaeological sites. In this study, soil samples were collected from the sites, from which plant remains were extracted using a flotation method. The plant remains are charred; in other words, the grains and seeds have turned into carbon after having come to contact with fire. 

Plant remains can be identified by examining them through a microscope and comparing them to modern plant parts. The age of individual grains can be determined with radiocarbon dating, based on the fractionation of the radioactive carbon-14 isotope. This way, the age of a grain aged several millennia can be determined with a precision of a few centuries.

The study was published in the Scientific Reports journal on 20 March 2019. The research article, entitled “Maritime Hunter-Gatherers Adopt Cultivation at the Farming Extreme of Northern Europe 5000 Years Ago”, is freely available on the journal's website.

Authors of the article:

Santeri Vanhanen, archaeology, University of Helsinki and The Archaeologists

Volker Heyd, archaeology, University of Helsinki

Marianna Kemell, Department of Chemistry, University of Helsinki

Håkan Ranheden, The Archaeologists, National Historical Museums, Sweden

Niclas Björck, The Archaeologists, National Historical Museums, Sweden

Stefan Gustafsson, Arkeologikonsult, Sweden


Baltic Inuit culture was born out of the encounter between hunter-gatherers and farmers

Agriculture quickly spread to southern Scandinavia approximately 6,000 years ago, when summer temperatures were higher than today. In Sweden, this early farming culture extended roughly to Stockholm’s latitude, never, however, reaching mainland Finland or even the Åland Islands, where no cereal grains or bones of domestic animals have been found from such an early period.

The latest research conducted on ancient DNA demonstrates that the agricultural Funnel Beaker Culture spread to Scandinavia among the migrant population arriving from continental Europe. With them, they brought a method of producing earthenware and stone axes, as well as plant cultivation and animal husbandry.

Summer temperatures began dropping at the time farmers from the Funnel Beaker Culture settled in the Stockholm area. There they crossed paths with hunter-gatherers, some of whom represented the Comb Ware culture in Finland or the Baltic region. As a result of interaction between the populations, the Pitted Ware Culture, combining different cultural features, was born approximately 5,300 years ago.

The spread of the Pitted Ware population to the coast of Scandinavia and the Åland Islands took place approximately 4,300–5,300 years ago. They built simple huts close to water, staying in the same place for at least part of the year.

Artefacts found in the settlements and graves of the culture often depict animals, sometimes also shaman-like figures. The beliefs of the Pitted Ware culture can be considered animistic, typical of hunter-gatherer peoples.

As indicated by animal bones preserved in their habitations, measurements carried out on human skeletons and the chemical composition of their earthenware, this population found almost all of its nourishment in the fish, seal and birds they caught offshore. The population has been called hard-core sealers, and even Inuits of the Baltic.