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A Neolithic farmhouse in Greece.

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.

Photograph from Culture Ministry of Greece/Reuters

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published October 1, 2013

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.

6 comments
Tom Carberry
Tom Carberry

"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."

This quote shows the culture bias inherent in all of our thought processes, and the obvious error of those thoughts all in the same sentence.

Empirical evidence suggests the opposite.  Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have shrunk drastically both in body size and brain size.  Yes, in brain size.  Human brains have shrunk on average well over 10% since the dawn of agriculture and our bodies much more.

I believe humans switched to agriculture because of some sort of disaster that led to massive famine and die out.  Empirical evidence supports a massive die out about 70,000 years ago, but not its causes.  Empirical evidence also shows massive climate changes around 4000 to 2000 BCE, which turned verdant areas into deserts.

Agriculture to a large extent means humans learned to eat grasses, such as wheat, barley, rice, and corn.  Ruminants eat grasses, primates do not.  

Humans managed to survive on these grasses, but they did not thrive.  These grasses continue to stunt humans and recent evidence suggests that neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's may result from their consumption.

Sociological evidence also shows that agriculture harmed humans.  With agriculture came slavery and domination of the majority by the few.  This domination by the few has continued to this day.


Tom Carberry
Tom Carberry

"The switch from hunting and gathering to farming was a giant step forward for humanity"

This quote illustrates the cultural biases that permeate all of our thoughts.  This meme comes from the idea of progress and the assumption that agriculture and its attendant civilization improved the human situation.

Empirical physical data suggests the opposite.  Since the dawn of agriculture humans have shrunk drastically, both in body size and in brain size.  Yes, in brain size.  The average brain size of humans shrank over 10% since the dawn of agriculture.  Human bodies even more.

When the Bible talks of giants in the earth and literature like the Iliad talks of heroes with the strength of many men (Ajax hurling a boulder into Hector's chest), I believe they reflect race memories of much better times.

Agriculture meant people started eating grasses like wheat, barley, rice, and corn.  Ruminants eat grass, not primates.  

Sociological data also suggests the opposite.  Civilization has meant luxury for the few and suffering for the many.


Jeffrey Baker
Jeffrey Baker

There is a problem with the methods used in this study. Because of limited funding, archaeologists can not afford to date every single deposit they find. Material submitted for radiocarbon dates are going to be concentrated upon problems that the archaeologists are interested in studying. And, the introduction of agriculture into Europe is and has been a big issue.

Botanical remains that are thought to date to the earliest origins for agriculture are more likely to be submitted for radiocarbon dating than samples that postdate the introduction of agriculture. On a multicomponent site, it is more likely that multiple dates will be submitted for the earliest deposits. The population decline appears to correlate with the onset of the Bronze Age, which is easily identified in archaeological deposits.

This study, may in fact, be measuring the interest archaeologists have in various periods, rather than population changes.


Dan Platt
Dan Platt

I am surprised that there is no evidence of environmental change; the date of the collapse appears to correspond to the end of the Saharan wet period which was accompanied/marked by a shift in the ITCZ and temperature shifts.

Sean Downey
Sean Downey

Regarding @Jeffrey Baker's comments.

Jeff, we address your criticism directly in the paper. We account for the archaeological sampling bias by using 200-year sampling bins at each site. In other words, if there is more than a single date within a 200-year period at any site, we only count this as a single data-point with respect to the demographic proxy.

-Sean Downey


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