Healthy but Mortal: Human Biology and the First Farmers of Western Europe

Article excerpt

What do we know about the effects of the transition to agriculture on human biology? A literature has grown up that gives us the impression that we know a great deal about what happened to bones and teeth when people became sedentary farmers. A review of the sources of these ideas and the evidence supporting them, especially based on work in Portugal, reveals that a reconsideration of the biological consequences of farming in Europe is overdue.


Ces ruraux donnent pour la plupart une impression de bonne sante, surtout si l'on prend en compte le fait qu'ils avaient bien du mourir de quelque chose

MASSET 1993: 141

Reliance on easily stored and processed carbohydrates brought on long-term malnutrition .... physical anthropologists often can determine exactly when a society settled into a Neolithic existence, just by noting the sudden appearance of smaller and more heavily diseased skeletal remains

TURNBAUGH et al. 1993: 454

The literature on the shift from foraging to farming economies often conveys the impression that we clearly know what happened to human populations as they changed from being foragers to farmers: poor nutrition; signs of stress and malnutrition; increased infection; reduced stature; reduced bone robusticity; smaller teeth with simpler morphology; reduced face and jaws; increased dental pathology; reduced sexual dimorphism; increased fertility; increased population density (e.g. Cohen 1989; 1994). It is categorically stated as fact in some undergraduate texts (e.g. Turnbaugh et al. 1993: 454) that malnutrition, disease, dental pathology and reduced size necessarily accompany agriculture. But these are hypotheses, said to apply to Europe, although derived primarily from research in Sudanese Nubia and the North American Midwest.

The extra-European data

There are problems with these data. Those from Nubia are incomplete. No early Neolithic skeletons are available from lower Nubia; agriculture is late and poorly recorded (Martin et al. 1984). The post-Neolithic A and C group populations, dated c. 5000-3500 BP, display biological continuity (Johnson & Lovell 1995; Prowse & Lovell 1995) but also show the marked dental reduction hypothesized to accompany agriculture. However, two facts are noteworthy:

1 both, especially the earlier A group, retained some Mesolithic subsistence patterns;

2 as agriculture intensifies in the C group, and dental pathology increases (Beckett & Lovell 1994), some skeletal lesions considered to mark agricultural malnutrition decrease very significantly. The cemeteries which have primarily contributed to the negative perception of the agricultural transformation in Nubia are medieval; some seem to provide biased samples (Jackes 1992: 216).

Data from the North American Midwest present different problems. Cassidy (1980; 1984), comparing Indian Knoll (c. 4000-5000 BP) with Hardin village (C. AD 1600), found the most significant indicators for health status to be the pattern of childhood deaths, frequency of periosteal reactions and mean cortical index (which refers to the thickness of the bone cortex especially in femora). However, the cortical index is age-dependent (Jackes 1992), so the differences in the estimated age distributions of adults over 17 years between the two samples is relevant. Activity is also an important factor in long bone cortical thickness, and periosteal reaction rates are activity-mediated as well as health-related (Jackes 1988a: 63). The major difference between the two sites, childhood age at death, is governed by two factors:

1 at Hardin village infant under-representation is evident, and

2 population increase at the rate of r = .01 is likely (see Jackes 1994 for methods used to compare palaeodemographic data).

We can assume the underlying age pyramids of the two populations were different since one was non-stationary, and we would therefore expect differences in the percentage of children among the dead. …