Book Summary: “First Migrants: Ancient Migrations in Global Perspective” by Peter Bellwood

Title: First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective
Author: Peter Bellwood
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The author describes the history of migrations of Hunter Gatherer and Horticultural societies and shows their immense impact on human history.

If you would like to learn more about how migrations shaped human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Migration has played a critical role in human history.
  • The most significant migrations in world history occurred when we were still Hunter Gatherers. With very limited technology, they settled almost the entire Earth.
  • The large language families and cultural groupings of today originated as a result of migrations from the major centers of agriculture thousands of years ago.

Other books by the same author

Important Quotes from Book

Our genes, our languages, our systems of food production and technology, all exist in part because of migration… it often meant that internally generated mutations and cultural innovations in the broadest senses could find new and fertile ground and proliferate to a degree unthinkable if the carriers all stayed at home. If all our ancestors had remained immobile, we simply would not exist as the environmentally demanding and dominating species that we have become today.

As with modern migration, prehistoric migration always needed a reason. One very common reason in many situations was growth in the size of the human population.

Humans, indeed, are the only mammal species to have colonized all regions of the world capable of supporting life through their own energy and culture. Our domestic animals and plants traveled with us, as did our commensals such as rats, weeds, and viruses, but it was the humans who made these diasporas possible.

In my view, the real energy behind the world’s major colonizing migrations was human and demographic, in the sense that increasing human populations required new resources, especially territory, and more so if other groups or declining environmental conditions impinged on a long-term basis on the territories they already held.

Desire for land to increase food production seems to have been the major factor behind successful migration, especially in tribal circumstances.

Another factor that was especially important in stimulating migration, also widely reported in historical and ethnographic circumstances, was an ideological focus on giving high status and considerable political power to the founders of new settlements, especially in societies that recognized genealogical ranking by birth order. This was a cultural predilection found widely amongst expansive groups such as the Polynesians and Micronesians of the Pacific. It was often characteristic of ranked societies in which younger siblings inherited less productive land than older ones, and so had to consider out-migration to found a new settlement.

If the new lineage remained within the power structure of the foundation royal lineage, it could never rise to highest status. But if the young man concerned was able to claim independence for himself and his followers, then he would automatically rise to the highest status level in the local aristocracy. What better motive to migrate somewhere and find a place to call one’s own?

Remarkably, the spreads of all major language families to their precolonial era limits, of hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist populations alike, occurred in full and absolute prehistory.

The conclusion that can be drawn from the recent colonial past is that a single language, when introduced into a new territory, will normally only take hold on a permanent basis, as a whole-population vernacular, if it is imported in the mouths of substantial numbers of native speakers, or if a modern state hastens its adoption through literacy and schools.

Language very often serves as a badge of identity – people do not give up native vernaculars lightly.

The various agricultural transitions that occurred between roughly 8500 bc and ad 1, depending on which part of the world is under focus, could well turn out in combination to have marked the most significant fault line for language spread and replacement in human prehistory, only matched again by the colossal population and language upheavals that occurred during the colonial era, since ad 1500.

Migrating Hominins:

A species organized into large cooperating groups of both sexes, with permeable rather than rigid territorial group boundaries, and perhaps communicating with rudimentary spoken language, would have had a far better chance of successfully colonizing a new and unknown landscape than one without such advantages.

Successful movements of hominins out of Africa into Eurasia probably occurred on at least three occasions, and quite possibly many more.

In terms of meat, open vegetation would have provided better hunting or scavenging possibilities than dense rainforest, in which many prey species live high in the tree canopy and probably out of reach for those who lacked bows, arrows and blowpipes, all believed to be relatively recent human inventions. But rainforests often have tubers and seasonal fruits, and my general impression is that while rainforests probably slowed human expansion down, the only environments capable of stopping early hominin expansion altogether, once it had started from Africa, would have been absolute deserts, wide seas, or very cold climates under ice, tundra, or coniferous taiga forest.

Existing hunter-gatherer societies differ from other primate ones in having cohabiting and interacting groupings of nuclear families, recognized affinal ties based on marriage (‘in-laws’), and conscious recognition of kin relationships that tie separate communities across very large areas. Hunter-gatherers (including our sapiens ancestors) are mobile, and draw marital partners from wide geographical regions.

Human language is an incredible creation within the biological world, and no other creatures even begin to approach us in linguistic complexity.

Hunter Gather migrations:

Although agriculturalist migration has been a major phenomenon of the past 10,000 years, hunter-gatherer migration never really ceased. It can be tracked in some regions virtually into the colonial era.

What has been rather rare in the recent recorded history of migration is any clear instance of a hunter-gatherer population replacing another one of similar density, technology, and economy, throughout a fully inhabited region (Krantz 1976). Most recorded hunter-gatherer migrations, such as those of the Eskimo-Aleut and Apacheans, were into territories either uninhabited or mostly abandoned by their previous inhabitants.

Migration examples:

  • Uralic languages out of central Siberia to northern Europe
  • Na-Dene languages out of central Siberia to North America
  • Eskimo-Aleut and Inuit to northern North America
  • Africans to Green Sahara
  • Pama-Nyungan from Indonesia to northern Australia

First Farmers:

I wish to introduce the concept of food production and to explain how it has led, on many occasions within the past 10,000 years, to the migrations of many of the direct ancestors of the indigenous agriculturalist populations of the world. It also led to the spreads of many of the world’s major language families.

The most important homelands of food production… were located in tropical monsoonal or warm temperate latitudes, with strong seasonality in their rainfall distributions. This is because seasonality was necessary for the annual (as opposed to perennial) growth cycle that characterized most of the major domesticated cereals and legumes (podded plants such as beans and peas), and even many tubers. An annual growth habit still characterizes the major crops that feed us today. Annual plants use their relatively large seeds or tubers as food storage organs for the season of dormancy. Hence, they provide more food for their human exploiters than do small-grained perennial species.

Map of homelands of agriculture in Old World on page 125.

The very rapid emergence into warm conditions after the Younger Dryas was therefore a very major facilitator for population growth and ultimately the development of agriculture in many regions. It was not, however, a universal cause. Had it been, then agriculture would have started at the same time everywhere. It most certainly did not do this.

Non-shattering and synchronously ripening cereals and legumes are the backbone of any agricultural system, since they allow efficient harvesting and hence higher yields.

The level of agricultural dependence in any given situation is therefore a significant issue for demographic growth and population expansion.

Food production allowed humans to live at significantly higher population densities than hunting and gathering. For instance, Walker and Hamilton (2011) estimate that a 10% increase in agricultural dietary dependence will result in a 50% rise in expected population size.

For early food producers, there would have been two rather opposed ways of dealing with the problem of rapid growth in population size. An intensification of food production, by applying more labor to a given piece of land in order to extract more food to feed more people, was one of them.

However, other groups of people might have seen many advantages in migration. These would have included younger offspring of farmers who missed out on inheritance of significant rights to land, people in impoverished circumstances who simply had no land at all, and people in surrounding regions who faced impact from the population instability generated by growth in the more central farming regions.

From this perspective, the expansions of early food producers involved two kinds of people – members of the food-producing societies themselves, and neighbors impacted by domino effects. In real life, because of propinquity, both groups might have been very closely related in cultural and genetic terms.

Some of the first farmers in regions such as Europe, sub- Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania (excluding New Guinea) created very homogeneous and widespread cultural landscapes, far more extensive than many of the more regionalized cultures that followed, and far more extensive than could possibly have been created without some degree of population movement.

It appears also that many of the agriculturalist language families spread from homeland regions located either within, or closely clustered around, the archaeologically defined homelands of agriculture.

Throughout their time spans, these complexes have been fueled by a remarkably small number of astoundingly productive domesticated crops and animals (Diamond 1997). A world without wheat, barley, rice, peas, beans, millets, yams, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and chickens would be a hungry world indeed, given our present population size.

The four big regions in terms of food production, virtual behemoths of global development in early agriculture:

1. The Fertile Crescent of Western Asia: Here we find the origins of wheat, barley, sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, and certain podded legumes such as peas, broad beans and lentils. The food production system that developed here spread with human migration, between roughly 8500 and 3000 bc, to regions characterized mainly by winter rainfall regimes. These included the Middle East to as far as northwestern India, the Mediterranean, temperate Europe, the central Asian steppes and semi-deserts, and North Africa. The system eventually reached its limits as a total complex (ignoring deserts and high mountains) against the monsoon climates of sub-Saharan Africa and those of South and East Asia, also against the Arctic climates of northern Eurasia. However, many of its component crops and animals traveled much further before the colonial era.

2. The Yellow and Yangzi Basins of China. Here we find the origins of short grain (subspecies japonica) rice, foxtail and common millet, soybean, pigs and chickens, indigenous cattle, and let us not forget the silkworm. This food production system spread to and beyond the limits of the Asian monsoon, with human migration, between 4000 and 1000 bc, in a complementary fashion to that from the Fertile Crescent. It traveled westwards to overlap with the Fertile Crescent complex in northern India, western China and Tibet, where both rice and wheat were grown, but never really extended beyond these regions into central Asia. Japonica rice-growing populations eventually settled most of Southeast Asia.

3. Northern sub-Saharan Africa. Here we find the origins of certain yam species, a West African species of rice, and several species of millet (especially pearl millet, finger millet and sorghum). The origin region for all these crops is rather wide, extending from West Africa across to Ethiopia, and the main crops were perhaps domesticated between 5000 and 3000 years ago. They spread with human migration through all the monsoonal regions of sub-Saharan Africa, reaching their limits in the Kalahari Desert and the small area of Mediterranean climate in southwestern Africa, neither region penetrated by crop-growing populations, as opposed to sheep pastoralists, in prehistory. The millets also spread to India and Pakistan around 4000 years ago, presumably by transference across the Indian Ocean. The tropical African food production system received a sharp boost, perhaps around 2000 years ago, when bananas and taro were introduced from Southeast Asia, presumably by sea voyagers reaching the East African coast from Indonesia. Eurasian sheep, goats, and cattle were introduced much earlier, around the sixth millennium bc from the Levant, with humped cattle also being transferred later from South Asia to East Africa.

4. Mesoamerica. Here we find the origins of maize, some species of beans and squashes, tomatoes, capsicum (chili pepper), avocado, and turkeys. Other crops such as sweet potatoes, other capsicums (peppers) and Xanthosoma (an aroid, like taro) were probably domesticated further south, in northern South America. The Mesoamerican hearth was the main source for the maize, beans and squash triumvirate that began to spread widely with human migration after 2000 bc, first to the US Southwest and the Andes, and later (during the first millennium ad) without detectable population migration into the eastern United States. As with the western Pacific, however, the Mesoamerican complex, and the other American food production complexes generally, were not such great drivers of human migration as their Old World counterparts, owing basically to their lesser levels of energy production and to geographical circumscription.

The other four regions had less migratory impact in human history, and their Holocene food production complexes only spread seriously after the introductions of highly productive and externally domesticated cereal or animal species.

  • Western Pacific, especially New Guinea Highlands
  • South Asia, although this may have been an extension of Middle East or East Asia
  • Central Andes and coastal regions of Peru
  • Eastern Woodlands of US

My main observation is that most of the significant food producer migrations of the Holocene were driven by a small number of very productive subsistence complexes that were based on the exploitation of relative small sets of productive domesticated plants and animals. It has been these complexes that have underpinned much of the structure of global prehistory during the Holocene, at least in the agricultural latitudes.

Fertile Crescent:

The Fertile Crescent food production complex eventually spread to become roughly coterminous with the pre-ad 1500 distributions of the Indo-European and Afroasiatic language families, and with those human populations who reveal clear Western Eurasian ancestry in their genes. There is, of course, considerable variation across these populations.

The major cereals and legumes that were domesticated here were adapted to grow during the winter rainfall season, and this was a major determining factor in the ultimate distribution of what is here termed “the Fertile Crescent food production complex.”

The loess soils of northern Europe were sufficiently fertile to allow permanent cropping every year, fertilized by animal droppings, rather than requiring shifting cultivation with long fallows.


The Ganges Basin, therefore, has a Neolithic record that started about 4000 years later than that in the Indus, reflecting the shift from winter rainfall climates in the west, suitable for wheat and barley, into monsoon climates in the east with summer rainfall, suitable for rice and millets… the eventual passage of the Fertile Crescent economy from the Indus into the Ganges Basin overcame one of the greatest potential barriers in the history of this food-producing complex.

A climatic divide between winter and summer rainfall marked the passage of the Fertile Crescent economy from the Indus into the Ganges Valley. A similar divide marked the passage from the Indus southwards into Peninsular India, since this was also a monsoonal region.

The Dravidian language family, therefore, appears to have begun life in Iran as part of an independent linguistic macrofamily (Elamo-Dravidian) that also included Elamite. Its main distribution was created by a Neolithic migration of its ancestral speakers from the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent into southern Pakistan and northwestern India. Its speakers became transformed economically during their movement into the dry monsoonal climate of Peninsular India, towards pastoralism on the one hand, and towards cultivation of a range of indigenous drought-resistant millets and grams on the other. The genetic profile of the Dravidian-speakers today is predominantly indigenous to South Asia, and presumably also to pre-Indo-European southern Iran.

North Africa:

The Nile alluvium in Egypt was a perfect place for growing Fertile Crescent crops since it flooded in the autumn, just in time for the winter growing season, so winter cultivation in normal years could have occurred as the floods receded without any need during the Neolithic for elaborate irrigation works.

East Asia:

Today, almost one half of the world’s population owes a good part of its origin to the expansion of the East Asian food production complex, as does close to the other half (excluding sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans) to the spread from the Fertile Crescent.

This East Asian agricultural complex did not spread much further into central Asia because of the dry and cold climate, and also because of competition from pastoral economies of westerly steppe derivation with their Fertile Crescent crops and animals.

What of Japan?..  The plant subsistence complex of the preceding Jomon phase (14,000 to 500 bc), with soybean, barnyard millet (Echinochloa esculenta), beans, acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, and occasional finds of rice, was clearly associated with some degree of food production. But this crop complex and its attached human populations appear never to have spread outside Japan, or even beyond Okinawa or the Kurile Islands.

Japan, therefore, offers us an interesting example of a small but seemingly independent development of food production, with a range of cereals and tree crops similar to those domesticated in China.

Han Chinese populations have spread over most of what is now China south of the Yangzi only within the past 2500 years. In a way, the Chinese were once the ultimate ‘stay-at-homes’ of the East Asian Neolithic revolution, just as the ancestral Semitic speakers stayed at home in the Levant, and ancestral Formosan (Austronesian) speakers stayed at home in Taiwan. It is absolutely essential to understand that Han Chinese ethnic identity has not always been coincident with the geographical distribution of the Chinese people today, even less so with the piece of geographical space that today is called China.

There were some interesting differences between the two food production complexes, however. The East Asian one remained almost entirely within the monsoon and trade wind zones with summer rainfall. Its early spreads were clearly constrained by changes in latitude, day length and temperature, both to the north and towards the equator in the south. The Fertile Crescent complex, by comparison, spread in a more longitudinal fashion, predominantly west and east, and found its major friction zone in terms of changing rainfall seasonality as it entered the monsoon zone in India.

Southeast Asia and Polynesia:

The East Asian food production complex eventually came to dominate many of the northern and western islands of Southeast Asia as a result of migration out of southern coastal China into Taiwan around 3500 bc. This was followed by a crossing from Taiwan into the northern Philippines around 2200 bc. The complex underwent considerable transformation after 1500 bc in the eastern islands of Indonesia, with the loss of rice and millet cultivation33 and a switch to tree and tuber crops such as bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, taro and yams. Some of these were of Island Southeast Asian and western Pacific origin, and they lead us into the western Pacific food production complex, which evolved quite independently of that in East Asia. The western Pacific complex contributed to the major migrations by Austronesian-speaking populations into Oceania after 1300 bc, culminating after ad 800 in the colonization of the remotest islands of eastern Polynesia.

The most important economic players in the genesis of this western Pacific agricultural complex were the ancestors of the indigenous Papuan-speaking populations of New Guinea and adjacent islands. The New Guinea highlands, in particular, form a unique environment in world terms, being well watered, high in altitude, equatorial in climate (hence without marked rainfall seasons), and well protected by mountain walls from external population intrusion. They are also high enough in altitude to be malaria-free, an important consideration given the evidence for the rather disastrous effects of malaria in some Southeast Asian lowland Neolithic societies, as well as in lowland regions of Indonesia and Melanesia today. The New Guinea Highland archaeological record indicates that people there were cultivating bananas, taro and perhaps sugar cane by at least 4500 bc. But no cereals or domesticated animals were present, so levels of productivity compared to those in China were quite low.

Without rice, Polynesians did not need pots in which to boil their food, and managed instead with earth ovens and open hearths. Together with the earlier losses, prior to reaching Oceania, of rice and millet, loom weaving, and the associated clay spindle whorls for spinning fibers, this eventual loss of pottery-making suggests bottleneck cultural simplification as small groups pushed ever further east, gradually losing contact with their more complex homeland cultures and leaving behind aspects of cultural knowledge.

Of all human ethnolinguistic dispersals prior to ad 1500, that of the Austronesian-speaking peoples was the most extensive.

My final conclusion… is that the primary cultural driver of all of this Holocene migration and interlaced population growth in Eurasia was food production itself, including the domesticated plants and animals and the ways by which they were created by human management rather than hunted and collected from the wild. The same conclusion holds for Africa and the Americas.


As in Eurasia, the major food-producing plants of Africa and the Americas were domesticated in seasonally dry tropical to warm temperate regions, where cereals, legumes and tubers developed the annual energy-storing habits that led to large seed and tuber size, exactly as in the Fertile Crescent and East Asia.

Ultimately, the Bantu were stopped only by the change to a winter rainfall Mediterranean climate in Natal, and by the Kalahari Desert in the southwest… The Bantu migration, assisted by the working of iron for tools, was one of the greatest ethnolinguistic spreads in world history, given that Bantu speakers today number 240 million people and speak somewhere between 450 and 650 different languages, all with a common and rather recent shared origin.

While Afroasiatic populations introduced agriculture and animal husbandry to northeastern Africa, they did not spread very far to the south of the Sahara. As in Asia, where the winter rainfall to monsoon climatic divide kept western and eastern Eurasians apart for several millennia (and still does so today), so also in Africa the fluctuating northern boundary of the African monsoon kept apart Afroasiatic and Niger-Congo speaking populations. Nilo-Saharans straddled the boundary, and the Ethiopian highlands were environmentally unique enough to go their own way, just like New Guinea within the Indo-Pacific region. The monsoon boundary was perhaps the greatest environmental determinant of African agricultural history, backed of course in the north by the mighty Sahara, the gateway into the continent from all regions north or east, except for seaborne visitors such as Austronesians.

New World:

Language groups based upon migration from agricultural homelands:

  • Uto-Aztecans from northern Mesoamerica to US Southwest
  • Iroquois and Sioux from Mississippi/Ohio river basin.
  • See page 226-7 for South American languages


Migration has been a continuous activity throughout human prehistory, but it has also been cyclical in its intensity. It has served as a distributor rather than a primary generator of human biological and cultural innovation. Successful prehistoric migrations would have required a number of important facilitating conditions. First comes opportunity through demographic profile; a successful migrant population must have been able to grow in numbers, although whether such growth came entirely from an increasing birth rate within or by assimilation of others from without can often be an interesting question. Obviously, growth was always from within in situations of initial colonization. Second comes opportunity through geographical access, usually reflecting environmental opportunity to enter a region that was previously inaccessible, whether previously occupied or not. Third comes opportunity through technology and economy.

Looking at all of the data on ancient migration presented in the previous chapters, can we make any further interesting observations? The most impressive migrations in human prehistory had nothing to do with ancient states or conquering armies, but were related entirely to small tribal populations of hunters and gatherers, farmers, and fisher folk. In general, the oldest migrations appear to have gone the furthest, especially those of the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who discovered the previously unsettled Americas and Australia. Once the continents, apart from Antarctica, had hunter-gatherer populations in residence, then subsequent migration by further hunter- gatherers into inhabited territory was more limited in extent. The First Americans were able to migrate much further than the Na-Dene or the Eskimo-Aleuts, simply because they got there first.

During the Holocene, rapid expansion commenced again with many of the early food producing populations, such as the Indo-Europeans, Bantu and Sino- Tibetans of the Old World. These populations, by virtue of their rapid demographic growth and developing technologies, were able to penetrate vast territories formerly the preserve of hunters and gatherers. However, once these early food producer migrations reached their pre-colonial limits, in both hemispheres, the pace of migration died down. In Eurasia, most significant continental-scale migration was long over by the time of Christ, only to commence again during the colonial era after ad 1500.

We must therefore conclude that the Palaeolithic migrations were the greatest in geographical extent… Most of these food producer migrations also occurred into regions that were already settled, hence, they faced varying degrees of resistance… Migrations into empty or relatively empty territories spread more rapidly and successfully than migrations into densely inhabited terrain, a conclusion driven home by a simple examination of the course of European colonial history since ad 1500. Much always depended, of course, on the relative levels of population density and cultural complexity between indigenous and migrant groups.

If we focus on those individual episodes of migration, then we can be fairly sure that they were originally small in population numbers in prehistoric contexts. Mass coordinated migration, such as that which led to the recent European colonizations of Australia and North America, obviously could not have occurred in prehistory. There was simply not the transport technology nor the massive bureaucracy necessary to implement such a process. However, and I believe this to be very important, while initial groups of prehistoric migrants were necessarily small, their potential for demographic growth, once they reached new and encouraging circumstances, was in many cases absolutely phenomenal.

If you would like to learn more about how migrations shaped human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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