Hard Times Followed Booms for Europe's Ancient Farmers

Radiocarbon dating points to centuries-long population cycles.

Remains of two ovens, clay pots and stone tools are seen among the ruins of a Neolithic home unearthead by archaeologists in northern Greece, near the city of Pella.


Feast or famine was the rule for Europe's first farmers, archaeologists report. A population bust followed boom times in early agriculture from France to Ireland, a catalog of radiocarbon dates reveals.

Farming first moved into Europe from Greece around 8,500 years ago, spreading to Ireland and northern Europe over the next several thousand years. The switch from hunting and gathering to farming was a giant step forward for humanity, but the results from early Europe point to tough times for early farmers. (Related: "The Development of Agriculture.")

"Likely it played out in stark terms of soil degradation, probably ending in disease and warfare," says anthropologist Sean Downey of the University of Maryland in College Park, a co-author of the new Nature Communications journal study. "It's fairly depressing and Malthusian, what happened."

Hewing forests, sowing seeds, and raising crops for the first time, Europe's first farmers initially spread across western Europe, stretching from southern France to Denmark to Ireland, as analyzed in the study. The researchers compared ancient land use and climate indicators against a comprehensive tally of 13,658 radiocarbon dates from archaeological sites across Europe. The data tells a story of Stone Age (or Neolithic) farming economies suffering a crash around 4000 B.C.

Some regions suffered population losses of 30 percent to 60 percent, as revealed by land use and grave findings, comparable to the effects of the Black Death across Europe during the Middle Ages. "The collapse played out over three to six centuries. It was more of a long-lasting depression," Downey says.

Farmers were never all that numerous in Neolithic Europe even in good times; population densities in modern Europe are about 33 times higher than they were during that era.

A later, smaller boom happened around 2800 B.C. Neither the busts nor the booms appear tied to climate conditions, which surprised the researchers. A March study in the journal Science, for example, had pointed to drought playing a large role in the collapse of the classic Maya civilization around 800 A.D. (See "Climate Change Killed Off Maya Civilization.")

"I believe their results will be the origin of numerous new studies," says population modeling expert Neus Isern of Spain's Universitat de Girona."Why did the Neolithic economy crash if there was no natural disaster behind it? Was the Neolithic economy not as sustainable as we assume?"

Downey speculates that early farmers may have hastened soil degradation through deforestation and overuse of soils, while also raising the possibility of disease triggering population declines. Another possibility is that migration may have played a role in booms and busts, says archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Dublin.

"It may be the case that the second boom is the outcome of a secondary product revolution—mainly dairying, which may have started earlier but gained momentum later," Pinhasi says. Europe is a hot spot for genes that enable up to 90 percent of the adult population to drink milk, an advantage that likely evolved only about 7,500 years ago, according to a 2009 study.

"I can't help but think there is a real important message here for contemporary thinking today, where there is a lot of blind faith that new technology will always carry the day," Downey says. "That is not how it went in the Neolithic."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.