The Earliest Farmers in Europe

By van Andel, Tjeerd H.; Runnels, Curtis N. | Antiquity, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Earliest Farmers in Europe


van Andel, Tjeerd H., Runnels, Curtis N., Antiquity


Demic diffusion into Greece: three key observations

In this paper we argue that agriculture arrived in southeastern Europe by demic diffusion and present a major modification of Ammerman & Cavalli Sforza's (1984: 6) wave-of-advance model for this process. Our arguments rest on three observations:

i the concentration of Neolithic settlement in areas of Greece and the southeastern Balkans that were only sparsely occupied by an indigenous Mesolithic population;

ii the patchiness of the settlement patterns, and

iii the obvious preference of the immigrants for the floodplains of rivers and lakes.

None of these observations is entirely new, but none has received the attention they collectively deserve.

Greece had a small, scattered Mesolithic population found so far only in the coastal zone of the south and west, but the Neolithic settlements are located mainly outside areas of prior occupation (Runnels 1988; 1995). Perles (1988), evaluating mainly from lithic technology the evidence for the origins of the Greek Neolithic, also concluded that the Thessalian Neolithic was the result of people moving into a hitherto uninhabited area, although at Franchthi Cave a Mesolithic element persisted into an intrusive Neolithic (Hansen 1991: 173-83).

The same applies to the southeastern Balkans if we exclude the Lepenski Vir sites of the Iron Gates of the Danube. Except for some coastal sites (Gatsov 1989), the Mesolithic is unknown in Bulgaria and in southern Yugoslavia (Srejovic 1989), and Chapman (1989: 505) stresses the lack of indigenous population in nearly all of southeasternmost Europe. We leave aside here recent suggestions of an extensive Mesolithic population on the now-submerged shelves of the Black Sea, because we regard their complete wipe-out as implausible.

The patchiness of the earliest Neolithic settlements in Greece and the Balkans is striking [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The dense site pattern in Thessaly contrasts sharply with their absence in Macedonia and the sparse scatter in Boeotia, Attika, Epiros and the Peloponnese. This variability has been attributed to uneven exploration and a low discovery rate wherever dwelling mounds were not part of the Neolithic landscape, but that argument cannot be sustained, now that surveys of the southern Argolid (Jameson et al. 1994), Nemea (Cherry et al. 1988), Berbati (Wells et al. 1990), Boeotia (Bintliff & Snodgrass 1985), Messenia (McDonald & Rapp 1972; J.L. Davis pers. comm.), Langadas in Macedonia (Andreou & Kotsakis 1994) and Nikopolis in southern Epiros (J.D. Wiseman pers. comm.) have confirmed the reality of FIGURE 1. Moreover, this dispersed pattern persisted for several millennia, suggesting that the mere presence of open space was not enough cause for expansion.

Barker (1985: 57-60) has summarized the prevailing view on early Neolithic land preferences:

Today the most profitable arable soils tend to be those of the great plains, such as those in Macedonia in Greece, or the Tavoliere, Maremma and Po plains in Italy. However, . . . the fertility of the great plains and valleys could only be tapped economically with modern technology. . . . Naturally waterlogged, many of the major plains and valleys have been far more important regions of animal grazing in the past than of arable soil.

This runs counter to Sherratt's view who had realized much earlier (1972; 1980) that early Neolithic farmers might have chosen flood-plain soils for the water they stored after the floods of spring. He was ignored because of a pervasive belief that the traditional farming methods of Greece and the southeastern Balkans illustrate prehistoric agricultural practice.

As Barker (1985: 60) stated:

Mediterranean ards and ploughs are designed to scuffle the topsoil, prepare the seed bed and trap moisture in the soil. The lightness of the implement is the reason why the fertile but waterlogged plains and river valleys of the Mediterranean region have so often been left for animal pasture until the modern era. …

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