A more recent, revised and updated version of this paper has been published (2019)

Bell Beaker culture

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The Bell Beaker phenomenon is defined by groups that show a common know-how in technology, especially regarding pottery, copper metallurgy (Amzallag 2009), and flint. No single unified network of know-how transmission can be reconstructed, only local or regional networks (Linden 2015). Despite this a supra-local homogeneity can be observed in the whole of Europe from 2500 BC “in similar funerary rituals, in the way of interacting with territory, in the way of representing iconography and decorating pottery, and in the way of representing social differences” (Martínez and Salanova 2015). The Bell Beaker phenomenon made thus the previous regional networks of Western Europe uniform with identical social codes.

With the advent of radiocarbon dating the compilation of Bell Beaker pottery dates (Müller and VanVilligen 2001) showed that the most likely origin of the pottery style was Iberia, pointing to high quality, tall beakers of the so-called maritime style. Only later were these dates and the Bell Beaker migrations put together in a common paradigm, when it was noted that the expansion of beakers with lower profiles and a more complex decoration, from East Group beakers, were replaced in the Danube area by plain jars, cups and plates, and these vessels then dominated in the later developments (Harrison and Heyd 2007).

The migration of mobile Yamna migrants into the plains of the lower Danube and the central Carpathian basin is noted in small and large groups in the Balkans, establishing pastoral societies as forerunners of Heyd’s “Yamna package”, with domesticated horses, ox-drawn wagons, and herds of cattle and sheep, and noticed as far as southern and central Germany. The so-called “proto-Bell Beaker package” arises at the same time ca. 2900-2800 in Portugal, with a new culture of large fortified settlements, megalithic tombs and collective burials (see above Figure 7). This “proto-package” is found for example in the Maritime Beaker, and expanded ca. 2700-2500 and got enriched through some areas in Western Europe, e.g. in the corded Beaker type, but clear internal social boundaries existed in this period. This Bell Beaker idea turned into the classical “Bell Beaker Package” during its expansion to the east, reaching southern France in the 26th c. BC, then arriving in central Europe, and the Csepel group of the Carpathian basin, around 2500 BC (Harrison and Heyd 2007).

The Bell Beaker migrations (ca. 2500-2100 BC) between Central Europe, the British Isles, and the Iberian Peninsula have long been associated (Gimbutas 1993) with the expansion over central and western Europe of Yamna migrants through the Vučedol complex in the Carpathian basin, with specific correspondences found in burial rites, armament, costume, ornaments, technology in general, and also in ranked society, funerary rites, belief in life after death, and in general symbolism. According to Anthony (2007), Bell Beaker sites of Csepel around Budapest, west of the East Hungarian settlement region of Yamna migrants, and dated ca. 2800-2600, could have been the direct bridge between Yamna on the east and Moravia and Bavaria to the west, through which Yamna dialects spread to southern Germany, where decorated cup styles, domestic pot types, and grave dagger types from the Middle Danube were adopted ca. 2600 BC.

This small original region along the Danube, at the crossroads of the Yamna and proto-Bell Beaker “packages”, before its expansion as a Bell Beaker folk throughout Europe, has therefore strong potential as homeland of a common North-West Indo-European language that would later evolve into the majority of the known Indo-European branches of Europe (Mallory 2013).

Contemporaneous with these changes was the evolution noted in the East Group (in southern Germany, Moravia, and the upper Danube territories), into ranked family-based social structures based on self-sufficient farmsteads; a progressive specialization in stockbreeding and plant cultivation of less demanding species; with burials following family units, signalled by ‘founder’ graves; and without defensive position, hillforts, or fortifications (unlike later chiefdoms of the Bronze Age, where families and single persons gain power). This structure allowed for individual and social mobility, increased communication and internal exchange of information, goods, genes, and social values. (Heyd 2014).

Main R1b1a1a2a1a-L151 subclades R1b1a1a2a1a1-U106/S21/M405 split ca. 2800 BC with identical TMRCA, while R1b1a1a2a1a2-P312/S116 split at the same time, but shows a TMRCA ca. 2600, which points to a comparatively later successful expansion of its surviving subclades.

R1b1a1a2a1a2-P312 split later still into common west European subclades R1b1a1a2a1a2a-DF27, R1b1a1a2a1a2b-U152, and R1b1a1a2a1a2c-L21, ca. 2400 BC, with the same date for TMRCA, which suggests an expansion coincident with the spread of Bell Beaker peoples to the west. 

Copper-age-late.jpg Diachronic map of migrations in Europe ca. 2600-2250 BC (Heyd 2014; Anthony 2007; Sjogren, Price, and Kristiansen 2016; Harrison and Heyd 2007; Prieto and Salanova 2015; Fokkens and Nicolis 2012). See original file at <https://indo-european.eu/en/maps/chalcolithic/>.


Amzallag, Nissim. 2009. From Metallurgy to Bronze Age Civilizations: The Synthetic Theory. American Journal of Archaeology 113 (4):497-519.

Gimbutas, Marija. 1993. The Indo-Europeanization of Europe: the intrusion of steppe pastoralists from south Russia and the transformation of Old Europe. Word 44 (2):205-222. Harrison, Richard, and Volker Heyd. 2007. The Transformation of Europe in the Third Millennium BC: the example of ‘Le Petit-Chasseur I + III’ (Sion, Valais, Switzerland). Praehistorische Zeitschrift 82 (2).

Heyd, Volker. 2014. Families, Prestige Goods, Warriors & Complex Societies: Beaker Groups of the 3rd Millennium cal BC Along the Upper & Middle Danube. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 73:327-379.

Linden, Marc Vander. 2015. What linked the Bell Beakers in third millennium BC Europe? Antiquity 81 (312):343-352.

Mallory, J.P. 2013. The Indo-Europeanization of Atlantic Europe. In Celtic From the West 2: Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe, edited by J. T. Koch and B. CUnliffe. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Martínez, Maria Pilar Prieto, and Laure Salanova. 2015. Concluding remarks. The Bell Beaker Transition: The end of the neolithisation of Europe; the starting point of a new order. In The Bell BeakerTransition in Europe. Mobility and local evolution during the 3rd millenium BC, edited by M. P. P. Martínez and L. Salanova. Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow Books.

Müller, J., and S. VanVilligen. 2001. New radiocarbon evidence for European Bell Beakers and the consequences for the diffusion of the Bell Beaker Phenomenon. Nicolis (ed.):59-80.