In general, archeological findings have indicated that the Germanic people living east of the Rhine were primarily pastoral, though not nomadic, like the people of the Eurasian steppes, because the climate of Germany did not necessitate such movement. They did not spend all of their time tending herds as they also hunted and farmed to supplement their diet of meat, milk, and cheese.
The settlements which existed in Germania during this time ranged from the small, single farm to a group of farms situated in what would best be described as a village. Archeologists and historians have determined that the early Germans tended to stay within a certain territory for long periods of time. However, they would occasionally move their homes to a new site.
They were not entirely dependent, or socially defined by, their possession of animals, though it was their primary means of subsistence and source of prestige, dignity and wealth. Cattle were the most important livestock, but geography and environment determined whether sheep or pigs were the second most important. They were also farmers, and barley, oats and rye were the most common grains, while vegetables and herbs were also cultivated.
Additionally, fruits, such as apples, berries and grapes were gathered, though not cultivated. Thus, with the ability to raise, grow, or gather a wide array of food, and the ability to barter for that which they could not produce on their own, the Germanic economy was able to support fairly large communities, much like the neighboring western Roman provinces.
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E.A. Thompson, “The Germans in the Time of Caesar,” in The Barbarian Invasions: Catalyst of a New Order, ed. Katherine Fischer Drew, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).
Patrick Geary, Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
Walter Goffart, Barbarians and Romans.
Malcolm Todd, The Northern Barbarians.