Farming arrived in Europe with migrants, isotopic data show

Feb 11, 2013 by Terry Devitt

For decades, archaeologists have debated how farming spread to Stone Age Europe, setting the stage for the rise of Western civilization.

Now, new data gleaned from the teeth of prehistoric farmers and the hunter-gatherers with whom they briefly overlapped shows that agriculture was introduced to Central Europe from the Near East by colonizers who brought with them.

"One of the big questions in European archaeology has been whether farming was brought or borrowed from the Near East," says T. Douglas Price, a University of Wisconsin-Madison archaeologist who, with Cardiff University's Dusan Boric, measured strontium isotopes in the teeth of 153 humans from Neolithic burials in an area known as the Danube Gorges in modern Romania and Serbia.

The report, which appears this week (Feb. 11, 2013) in the , draws on isotopic signatures of strontium found in the tooth enamel of people who died nearly 8,000 years ago, about 6,200 B.C. Strontium is a chemical found in rocks everywhere. It enters the body through diet at or around birth and etches an indelible signature in teeth that accurately documents the geology of an individual's birthplace.

"The evidence from the Danube Gorges shows clearly that new people came in bringing farming and replaced the earlier Mesolithic hunter-gatherers," says Price, a UW-Madison professor of anthropology and an expert on early agriculture in Europe.

The Danube Gorges slice through the Carpathian Mountains and in the Stone Age were a heavily forested setting, rich in fish and game, including huge sturgeon, catfish, and . The bends and twists of the Danube in the Gorges region made it especially important as a source of fish, and thus potentially a desirable entryway to Europe for highly mobile and expanding Neolithic communities accompanied by their domesticates – wheat, barley, flax, goats and cattle.

The new research, explains Price, speaks to the question of colonization versus adoption of transformative technologies such as farming. "It is also useful because it suggests another route across the Black Sea or up the east coast of Bulgaria to the Danube for farmers moving into Europe. This contrasts with movement by sea across the Mediterranean or Aegean, which is the standard picture."

Archaeologists have long wrestled with the question of how farming spread across Europe, ushering in a host of technologies, including the use of pottery, that ultimately led to the rise Western civilizations. Two big ideas have dominated the debate: Did the technology arrive with colonizers from Asia, notably Anatolia or modern Turkey? Or did the technology, including newly domesticated plants and animals, simply diffuse across the European landscape through networks of local foragers?

There is some evidence for the importation of early agriculture along the shores of the Mediterranean and in Central Europe, Price notes, "but elsewhere in Europe it is not clear whether it was colonists or locals adopting."

Isotopic studies of strontium and other chemicals found in the teeth and bones of Neolithic humans, however, are now helping archaeologists better track the movement of ancient peoples across the landscape. Strontium signatures last not just a lifetime, but potentially thousands of years as , the densest tissue in the body, resists decomposition and contamination after death. It is now commonly used by archaeologists to determine if an individual was local or foreign to the place where their remains were discovered.

An interesting finding of the study is that 8,000 years ago, when Neolithic farmers were beginning to migrate into the Danube Gorges and overlap with Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, more women than men were identified as foreigners. A possible explanation for the variance, according to the study, is that women came to these sites from Neolithic farming communities as part of an ongoing social exchange.

In the Danube Gorges, the overlap of colonizing early farmers and hunter-gatherers lasted perhaps a couple of hundred years before the forager societies were completely absorbed by the beginning of the sixth millennium B.C.

Explore further: Earliest ancestor of land herbivores discovered

Related Stories

A new glimpse into ancient human history

Apr 30, 2012

Analyzing DNA from four ancient skeletons and comparing it with thousands of genetic samples from living humans, a group of Scandinavian scientists reported that agriculture initially spread through Europe because farmers ...

DNA reveals origins of first European farmers

Nov 09, 2010

A team of international researchers led by ancient DNA experts from the University of Adelaide has resolved the longstanding issue of the origins of the people who introduced farming to Europe some 8000 years ...

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

23 hours ago

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

23 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...