Simanaitis Says

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AN IMPORTANT EVENT in human immigration occurred some 8000 years ago on the banks of the Danube. Farmers migrating from the Near East encountered local hunter-gatherers. DNA evidence shows how these two distinct cultures merged to form proto-Europeans defining the cusp of the Mesolithic (Middle Stone) and Neolithic (New Stone) Periods, the last two phases of the Stone Age. Archaeological digs reveal unique art arising from this cultural merger.

Quartz sandstone sculptures from 6300–5900 B.C. are on display at Serbia’s Museum Lepenski Vir. Photo by Mickey Mystique via Wikipedia Commons. This and other images from The New York Times, August 20, 2019.

James Gorman poses “An Archaeological Puzzle on the Danube,” in The New York Times, August 20, 2019. What can we learn about the artists creating these sculptures?

Here are tidbits gleaned from his article and some Internet sleuthing. (For earlier Danube tidbits, see Nick Thorpe’s fine book reviewed here at SimanaitisSays.)

Lepenski Vir’s History. According to Wikipedia, “Lepenski Vir, Лепенски Вир, ‘Lepena Whirlpool,’ located in Serbia, is an important archaeological site of the Mesolithic Iron Gates culture of the Balkans.” The latest data suggest habitation as early as 9500 B.C. For its first several millennia, Lepenski Vir was the home of a hunter-gatherer culture.

A burial site from 6000-5900 B.C. laid out for examination after a 1968 excavation. Most of the site was flooded during the building of Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station, opened in 1972. Photo by Dusan Boric.

The Coming of Agriculture. Farmers from the Near East immigrated into the region over a period of 200 years around 6000 B.C. The resulting transition of a hunter-gatherer culture to agriculture gives archaeologists a benchmark defining the transition of the Mesolithic Period into the Neolithic Period.

A recreation of the Lepenski Vir archaeological site at the Museum of Lepenski Vir in Boljetin, Serbia. This website offers an interesting documentary; see “Read more.”

As noted by Gorman, “It took a few thousand years for agriculture to spread to all of Europe…. Lepenski Vir offers a snapshot of that process at its very beginning.”

Art of a Cultural Transition. As described by Serbia’s PanaComp Travel, the Lepenski Vir sculptures are “perfectly carved stone figures of human beings with large eyes and fish-like mouths, probably idols of hunters and fishermen whose lives depended on mighty Danube River… the first monumental art created after the Ice Age.”

This Image from establishes scale of the Lepenski Vir art.

The People of Lepenski Vir. Gorman quotes David Reich, Harvard specialist in human migration and ancient DNA. Reich is co-author of a recent paper on “The Genomic History of Southeastern Europe.”

“As part of that study,” Gorman notes, “they drew DNA from four individuals at Lepenski Vir. Two were identifiable as Near Eastern farmers…. Another had a mixed hunter-gatherer/farmer heritage…. Another had hunter-gatherer heritage.”

To put hunter-gathers in perspective, Gorman says, “The DNA of this ancient population of hunter-gatherers contributes only a small fraction of European ancestry today, Dr. Reich said. Europeans now represent a mixture of genetic contributions from waves of migrants. The site, he said, is a key landmark in the ‘lost landscape of human variation.’ ”

The Uniqueness of Lepenski Vir Sculptures. Whereas similar art appeared in other regions, the faces on Lepenski Vir sculptures set them apart. What’s more, Gorman notes, “The farmers did not bring them with them. The hunter-gatherers did not make them before the farmers came. They did not spread to the rest of Europe.”

Thus Gorman’s “Archaeological Puzzle on the Danube.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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