A Short History of Migration – Massimo Livi-Bacci.

Waves of Progress and Gradual Migration

Territorial movement is a human prerogative and an integral part of human capital; it is one of many ways that the human species has sought to improve its living conditions.

It is an innate quality that has assured the survival of hunter-gatherers, the expansion of the species across the continents, the spread of agriculture, the settlement of open spaces, world integration, and the first globalization of the nineteenth century.

We can also describe this prerogative as a form of adaptability or fitness. This fitness – an intertwining of biological, psychological, and cultural characteristics – has not been constant over historical epochs or even during specific migrations.

For example, the settlement of open spaces required individuals inclined to form solid families tied to traditional values, individuals who would have many children and work hard, providing the fuel for further expansion.

The migration of the last two centuries has instead been different: often directed to urban areas and engaged in trade and industrial work, it has favored single and culturally flexible individuals who instead created relatively small families.

The birth of political nations or states and the drawing up of national borders converted migrations into international movements and so spawned migration policies, namely, the intervention by governments (or powerful lords or other institutions) to direct, plan, and encourage migrations.

These policies reduced to a greater or lesser extent the free choice of migrants. They were based on the presumption that under current circumstances higher powers could judge the fitness of migrants better than the migrants themselves. In some cases, attempts were made to increase that fitness, supplying resources, knowledge, or other advantages. Results varied and might be successful or catastrophic.

In the modern era, even before the Industrial Revolution, movement became easier – resources increased, technology improved, infrastructures were consolidated – as internal and international migration systems developed. Navigation of the oceans tied together Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas.

Starting in 1500, Europe became a net exporter of human capital, following millennia during which it had been a target for immigration and invasion. Meanwhile, the ability and inclination of states to interfere in individual choices regarding migration increased.

Migration accelerated, reaching truly massive proportions in the nineteenth century. The slow pace of agricultural migration gave way to faster and more intense migration flows that had profound effects on both the sending and receiving countries.

The past century, instead, from World War I to the present day, has been characterized by irregular progress, contradictory policies, the shock of two world wars, the temporary separation of Eastern and Western Europe, the inversion of the migration cycle – Europe has once again become an importer of human capital – and the profound impact of the so-called demographic transition (declining mortality and fertility). In recent decades, immigration policies have grown progressively more restrictive and more selective as immigration pressure has increased, a function of both demographic and economic differences between North and South.

The prerogative of migrants has been weakened. Migration is seen as a price to be paid for demographic decline, as a remedy for labor-market bottlenecks, as an emergency in need of resolution, as a looming threat. Migrants are more and more viewed simply as labor rather than as an integral part of the societies they join.

Never before has the conflict of interests between sending countries, receiving countries, and the migrants themselves been more evident. Much has been done to increase and regulate economic trade; nothing has been done to govern migration. When it comes to migration, states hold tenaciously to the concept of national sovereignty, refusing to cede even a bit of authority to super-national bodies.

And yet some sort of global governance and cooperation is sorely needed if those competing interests are to be reconciled, and if we want to restore to migration that positive role it has always played in human development.

Migration is a human prerogative and so a normal constitutive element of any society.


Waves of Progress and Gradual Migration

Man has spread widely over the face of the earth, and must have been exposed, during his incessant migration, to the most diversified conditions. The inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, the Cape of Good Hope, and Tasmania in the one hemisphere, and of the arctic regions in the other, must have passed through many climates, and changed their habits many times, before they reached their present homes. – Charles Darwin

Humanity originated in equatorial Africa; and its methods of survival, ways of life, and habits had to continually evolve in order to make settlement possible in those more extreme corners of the two hemispheres.

Darwin’s passage, two centuries after his birth, reminds us of the role migration has played – from the origins of humanity up to the present day – in the geographic distribution of the human race, the growth of population, and the ever-changing circumstances of life.

Migration has been a key element of social and biological evolution. Nonetheless, in the twenty-first century, the great migrations are frequently viewed not as a primary driving force of social change, but instead as an anarchic social force, a mismatched tile that cannot find its place in the larger mosaic, interference that disturbs the regular course of everyday life.

Two complementary forces contributed to the gradual occupation of the earth by humans: the ability to reproduce and grow demographically, and the ability to move, that is, to migrate. We do not fully understand how these forces operated: whether smoothly over time or in periodic jumps; when they sped up and when they slowed down. We do know that they contributed to the ability of humans to adapt to changing environmental circumstances, both in nature and climate.

Moreover, they were accompanied by complex selection mechanisms so that the characteristics of those who moved on were not identical to those of the others who stayed behind. Rather than become embroiled in a field outside our own expertise, however – and one in which scientific controversy continues to rage – we shall limit ourselves to the fairly straightforward conclusion that migration is an innately human characteristic, and that it has promoted the diffusion, consolidation, and growth of the human species.

Modern human beings spread across the globe from Africa into Western Asia and Europe and then into Eastern Asia, finally reaching the Americas and Australia in the final stages of expansion. That expansion was achieved by moving into areas previously uninhabited, or else occupied by humans with less developed abilities (such as the Neanderthals in Europe).

The first Siberian hunters to venture towards the East and traverse the land bridge which emerged between Asia and America during the last Ice Age, some 20,000 or more years ago, were the forerunners of a long and slow march from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. According to some scholars, occupation of the entire American continent, from the far-flung Northern regions to the most distant Southern lands, occurred in a relatively short span of time, perhaps in just a few thousand years.

We can speak with more assurance about the Neolithic Revolution and the emergence of agriculture in the Near East and Europe. It was a process that began 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent and continued until about 5,000 years ago, when farming reached the British Isles.

There are two theories that seek to explain this process, though neither is mutually exclusive and a synthesis of the two is certainly possible.

The first theory attributes the spread of agriculture to a process of cultural diffusion. In this case, ideas, practices, and techniques spread across territory.

The other theory, that of “demic diffusion,” holds that it was not the ideas and practices that spread but the farmers and cultivators themselves, migrants sustained by robust demographic growth.

The combination of demographic growth and migration would have set in motion a slow but continuous “wave of progress.”

Archaeological dating of European sites where populations developed a sedentary, grain-based system of agriculture is consistent with this theory.

The populating of the European continent appears to have occurred along a South–East to North–West axis – from the Eastern Mediterranean to the British isles – which brought with it the cultivation of new lands and the settlement of new villages. It was a slow wave of progress fueled by demographic growth and the availability of unsettled lands; it advanced at a rate of roughly 1 kilometer per year.

This expansion resembled that of the Bantu people who, in migrating from their point of origin along the border of Cameroon and Nigeria, gradually occupied central and southern Africa over the course of three millennia and cultivated a swath of land running from north to south for a distance of 5,000 kilometers.

These prehistoric migrations – both the more rapid movement of hunter-gatherers and the slower spread of agriculture – occurred in unoccupied or very sparsely populated areas. The migrants rarely if ever came in contact with other human inhabitants and were not forced to compete for resources.

Over the past 2,000 years, instances of this sort of unopposed expansion have become rarer and rarer. As areas became more densely settled, migrants had to interact and coexist with local populations, possibly imposing their own lifestyle or else adopting the one they encountered as a function of force and circumstance.

The process of migration can generate conflicts, confrontations, intermingling, and amalgamation – of a cultural, social, and bio-demographic nature. Naturally, all this occurs over a very drawn-out period of time. At the beginning of the Common Era (0 CE), geographic Europe – the land that lies between the Atlantic and the Urals, the North Sea and the Mediterranean – counted perhaps 30 or 40 million inhabitants, with roughly one-twentieth of its current density and many empty or sparsely populated regions, regions that by the eve of the Industrial Revolution were far less extensive.

Many of the migratory movements that characterized Europe in the first millennium of the modern era were movements of invasion and settlement, like the spread of the Germanic peoples following the fall of the Roman Empire. These were intrusions by groups that were small relative to native populations and driven by ambitions of conquest. Overall, they would have comprised only a few percentage points of the native populations.

Over this past millennium, European migratory currents have continued to be active: for example, the intense migration towards the East that not even the demographic depression caused by the pandemic of the fourteenth century could stop completely, and that indeed continued until the nineteenth century. It was a process of gradual settlement by the Germanic peoples in lands that had been occupied by Slavs over the previous millennium.

In addition to this major migration, there were also many other minor movements: that from north to south following the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, or the northward movements of the Scandinavian people, or the southward path taken by Russian migrants in search of a more stable frontier.

In the Reconquista, the new territories were large while the population of the conquering Christian kingdoms was small, and their settlement in those regions was not a function of land hunger but instead responded to military and political considerations.

New settlements were not always stable and were often established at the expense of older communities. It was a case of too much land for too few people, who moreover were often poorly equipped and organized.

At the other end of the continent, instead, the Scandinavian people not only expanded inward toward the heart of the European continent, but also toward areas that were less hospitable and climatically challenging. In the ninth century, the Norwegians, united under Harald Fairhair, occupied Iceland: an extraordinary document, the Landnámabók, dated at around 930, describes a settlement of 30–50,000 people. They also settled in the Shetland and Orkney Islands and later established an unstable colony in Greenland.

In addition to these courageous episodes, the establishment of agriculture is documented in the Baltic Islands, in Scania, and in the central lowlands of Sweden. The great Germanic eastward migration that began in the ninth century and ended due to the crisis of the fourteenth century is a telling case. We pause to consider the events and movements of this period because they provide a model rendered impossible in our crowded modern world. Put simply, the process developed in three directions: southward, following the natural course of the Danube toward the plains of Hungary; laterally, into the open lands of the Low Countries, Thuringia, Saxony, and Silesia, north of the central Bohemian uplands; and northward, skirting the marshlands and German forests that rendered settlement and migration difficult, and so following the Baltic coast and leading to the gradual foundation of cities such as Rostock and Konigsberg.

The Slavic settlements then were pushed to the east and heavily encroached upon from the Germanic lands of Austria in the south, Silesia in the center, and Pomerania and Prussia in the north. Beyond these relatively compact areas (which still maintained, to varying degrees, an ethnically Slavic presence), migratory penetration did not come to a halt, but instead became fragmented, branching into the Baltic provinces, Volhynia, the Ukraine, Transylvania, Hungary, and points further east.

Though this process of settlement was, as we shall see, similar to the spontaneous wave of migration that had populated the European continent a few thousand years before, it had one key difference. It was, in fact, a deliberate and intentional process led and organized by a true migration policy.

The colonization process was led by princes, like the Margrave of Meissen, bishops, and, later, the Knights of the Teutonic Order, all of whom invested significant resources. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the establishment of colonies beyond the border marked by the Elbe and Saale Rivers, eastern frontier of the Carolingian Empire and so the boundary of Germanic settlement.

The twelfth century saw the colonization of Holstein, Mecklenburg, and Brandenburg, and, in the thirteenth, migration spread to Eastern Brandenburg, Pomerania, Silesia, and northern Moravia, beyond the Oder line. The settling of Prussia beyond the Vistula reached its apex in the fourteenth century.

Though the Germanic expansion did not penetrate Bohemia, inner Pomerania, or Lusatia, the process of eastward expansion continued, despite the setbacks caused by the long demographic crisis of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The pace of colonization can be measured by the growth of new cities and peaked around 1300. The great eastward migration, the Drang nach Osten, was the major wave of medieval migration, but not the only one.

Under the influence of constant movement, the European continent took on a fairly stable structure, one that survived the rapid depopulation caused by plague cycles which left many abandoned villages in their wake. A stable and reliable network of houses, villages, castles, and cities came to occupy much of the European continent.

The medieval migration described here raises a number of questions relevant to our discussion. The first concerns the dimensions of this migratory phenomenon, though most of the evidence is conjectural. Study of the available documentary evidence – censuses, registers, town charters, etc. – suggests that the great twelfth-century migration from the German territories into the land between the Elbe and the Oder Rivers consisted of around 200,000 people.

The following century saw a migration of similar dimensions, leading to the colonization of lands reaching as far as Pomerania and Silesia. Documentary evidence indicates that between the years 1200 and 1360, around 1,200 villages were founded in Silesia and another 1,400 in Eastern Prussia, for a grand total of 60,000 farms and potentially around 300,000 people.

These numbers are relatively small, though they need to be compared to a German population of origin of modest dimensions, just a few million people (around 6 million in the thirteenth century). Even supposing that these estimates are low and that the population flow might have been two or three times greater, we still arrive at very modest rates of migration, no more than one per thousand per annum.

Nonetheless, this relatively modest flow had an important “foundation” effect – a few progenitors with many descendants – if we consider that the number of Germanic people living east of the Elbe–Saale line at the end of the nineteenth century was almost 30 million.

At this point we should address some important questions. First: were these eastward movements caused, as is often postulated, by land hunger resulting from the increased density of cultivated areas in the zones of departure, and so from rapid demographic growth?

There are various reasons to question this traditional interpretation: population density was indeed low in the zone of departure, especially at the beginning of the migration; the wave of emigration was relatively small as compared to the vigorous natural growth of the period; and there remained sparsely occupied areas close to home. Instead, this wave of migration seems to have owed more to the high level of technology and organization of the emigrating population and the correspondingly less developed state of the native Slavic population (the Wends) in the zone of immigration. Moreover, the settled lands presented extremely favorable conditions to farmers and the distances were fairly short.

The German immigrants had plows, axes, and tools that allowed them to deforest and cultivate difficult land. The Slavs hunted and fished and practiced an itinerant agriculture that entailed the abandonment of fields once their fertility was exhausted.

The circumstances and characteristics of the migration, organized and planned by the clergy and nobility, by the chivalric Orders (Templar and Teutonic knights), and by the great religious orders (Cistercians, Premonstratensians) are as follows.

First, the leaders were able to pick and choose specific lands – uncultivated ones in this case – to measure, divide, and monitor the availability of water and risk of flooding. They also had capital to invest, necessary to sustain the emigrants on their journey, keep them fed until the harvest, and provide them with seeds, tools, and fundamental resources. The organization of the migration required middlemen to administer relations between the founding lords and the peasants, and so there emerged the figure of the migration agent who displayed all the characteristics of an entrepreneur.

This capacity to organize and distribute resources entailed assignment to the average family of a farm (hufe) of roughly 20 hectares (either the small 17 hectare Flemish farm or the larger 24 hectare Frankish one) and the establishment of villages of 200–300 people (isolated houses were the exception). Moreover, the land was free from feudal bonds far into the future and could be bequeathed, sold, or abandoned.

These favorable conditions, and the need to actively recruit participants, suggests that the supply of available land exceeded the demand: The great extension of the movement is only explained by the fact that colonists bred colonists; for all over the world new settlers have big families.

Migration from Old Germany in many cases slackened early. Conditions of tenure in the colonized areas also encouraged this colonization by colonists’ families. Law or custom favoured the undivided inheritance of peasant holdings; so there were many younger sons without land.

If we follow this theory, the idea of a population driven to leave its homeland solely because of the pressure of strong demographic growth (growth that did indeed exist) begins to lose ground. Rather, this process of migration appears to be self-generating, encouraged by the abundance of available land and the technological and organizational superiority of the colonists, as compared to the sparsely settled, agriculturally less developed native population.

The opportunity to exchange a small farm in one’s native land for a couple of dozen hectares must have been attractive. The favorable conditions encountered by the first migrants in turn provoked strong demographic growth, and so triggered successive waves of migration.

In this way, the process of colonization did not require large-scale movements across long distances, but instead depended on a steady, continuous march led by generations of the offspring of colonists. We can then describe the Drang nach Osten as a slow wave of progress – almost 1,000 kilometers West to East in three centuries – conceptually analogous to the spread of agriculture from the Middle East to the British Isles several millennia before.

However, the latter migration differed in the way it was planned and organized, and also in that the territories that were occupied in the process of migration were not deserted, but populated by semi-nomadic Slavs.

Finally, the economy, technology, culture, and society were profoundly different. We can find characteristics similar to this wave of progress even during the peak of the Industrial Revolution: for example, in the gradual colonization of the American continent that progressed during the nineteenth century across the Mississippi River and westward to the Pacific Ocean.

The shift of the “frontier” toward the west occurred for numerous reasons: political (the acquisition of new territories such as Louisiana, Texas, and California), legislative (the Homestead Act of 1862 which bestowed free land on colonists willing to improve it), technological (the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad), and the chance of personal gain (placer deposits of gold were discovered in California in 1849).

It was a migration begun by fur trappers, miners, and ranchers, but whose driving force was made up of pioneering farmers. They were sustained by forces similar to those that sustained waves of migration in the past: the occupation of unoccupied or sparsely occupied territories by groups of prolific, agrarian families who, in turn, contributed to subsequent migrations.

One well-received theory attributes the ample dimension and high rates of childbirth among the families of farmers and landowners in the nineteenth century to the greater availability of land and the low cost of providing for their children. The frontier did not grow thanks to an influx of new migrants from the east – the costs of travel, acquiring and preparing land, buying tools and materials, and building a home were too high for the common worker – but thanks to the reproductive capacity of the already settled families.

This world, however, was a very different one from those we have considered above, and the wave of settlement was fed by migration from Europe and by industrialization, forces that rapidly destroyed the pre-existing economic order.

At just about the same time, the settling of Asiatic Russia was under way, led by a wave of peasant families crossing the Urals and consisting of 4.5 million people, more than 1 million of whom were political prisoners. It took place between the liberation of the serfs in 1861 and World War I.

In this case, too, we can detect traces of a wave of progress that pushed the frontier eastward, crossing the Urals, occupying Siberia and the steppes, and moving onward to the most distant eastern shores of Asia. It was pushed along by the availability of land and a high level of natural increase.

We refer, though, only to “traces,” as Czarist policies that sought to control and organize population movement heavily influenced the migration that was also responding to natural forces. Similarly, the wave paradigm appears to fit the populating of Manchuria following the Manchu dynasty’s conquest of China. Chinese immigration into these vast open territories, initially forbidden and then permitted, greatly intensified during the nineteenth century and counteracted the increasing pressure of Russian migration into the regions of the Usuri and Amur Rivers. The population, estimated at little more than a million in 1787, tripled by 1850 and increased sixfold between 1850 and 1904 as a result of immigration pressure from densely populated and impoverished northern China.

The majority of these immigrants were peasants who produced wheat, millet, corn, and soybeans. They fed a flow of migration that reached flood stage in the 1920s with completion of the Peking–Mukden railroad.


A short history of migration.

by Massimo Livi-Bacci

get it at Amazon.com


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