The fast spread of Neolithic farmers in the western Mediterranean

Recent open access Symbols in motion: Flexible cultural boundaries and the fast spread of the Neolithic in the western Mediterranean, by Rigaud, Manen, García-Martínez de Lagrán, PLOS One (2018).

Abstract (emphasis mine):

The rapid diffusion of farming technologies in the western Mediterranean raises questions about the mechanisms that drove the development of intensive contact networks and circulation routes between incoming Neolithic communities. Using a statistical method to analyze a brand-new set of cultural and chronological data, we document the large-scale processes that led to variations between Mediterranean archaeological cultures, and micro-scale processes responsible for the transmission of cultural practices within farming communities. The analysis of two symbolic productions, pottery decorations and personal ornaments, shed light on the complex interactions developed by Early Neolithic farmers in the western Mediterranean area. Pottery decoration diversity correlates with local processes of circulation and exchange, resulting in the emergence and the persistence of stylistic and symbolic boundaries between groups, while personal ornaments reflect extensive networks and the high level of mobility of Early Neolithic farmers. The two symbolic productions express different degrees of cultural interaction that may have facilitated the successful and rapid expansion of early farming societies in the western Mediterranean.

Mean Inverse Distance Weighting (IDW) interpolation of the first two axes of the Principal Coordinates Analysis (Figure D in S1 File). Diversity of the pottery attributes (A) and bead-type associations (B) express two different cultural geographies. Maps were made by S. R. using the software QGIS 2.6.1 and Etopo1 Digital Elevation Model [110].
The maps of interpolated pottery decorative techniques and bead-type diversities throughout the western Mediterranean show the highest interpolated values in southern Italy (Fig B). Hotspots restricted to the east of the Rhône Valley in southern France and eastern Iberia are also visible on the map of bead-type association diversity. Conversely, southern France and eastern Iberia are characterized by lower interpolated values on the map of pottery decorative techniques diversity (Fig A).


Our results shed light on the cultural mechanisms responsible for the complex cultural geography of the western Mediterranean during the transition to farming. Pottery decorations participated in restrained networks in which geographical proximity and local processes of transmission played an influential role. Bead-type associations were used to tell multiple stories about social identities, were especially resistant to change and are characterized by a greater stability through time and space. The high level of cultural connection between the early farming communities favored movement, interaction and exploration and likely represented a successful strategy for their rapid expansion in the western Mediterranean. Cultural boundaries persisted despite a flow of individuals and symbolic transfer across them.

Genetic studies indicate that the last foragers and the first farmers developed social and cultural relationships more closely tied than previously indicated through components of the material culture [139]. Biological data and chronological models support a pattern of diffusion implying geographically discontinuous contacts between local foragers and incoming farmers, but repeated in time [9,140,141]. This process of diffusion conjointly occurred with changes in material culture, including pottery decorations and personal ornaments. Pottery production represents a technological innovation mostly associated with the Neolithic way of life in the western Mediterranean. Pottery decorations were likely particularly sensitive to interactions, leading to their high variability in time and space in order to reinforce group membership. Conversely, personal ornaments were less inclined to change in space and time. Their production by both local foragers and incoming farmers implies different cultural readjustments that led to a completely different pattern of variation in time and space. The preservation of the foragers’ personal ornament styles (and likely also meanings) within emerging farming communities [20,58] has probably contributed to the maintenance of their stability through time and space.

The two symbolic productions appear as a polythetic set of cultural behaviors dedicated to mediating early farmer identities in many ways, and personal ornaments likely reflected the most entrenched and lasting facets of farmers’ ethnicity.

This research is similar to the recent one by Kılınç et al. (2018) studying the same processes initially in Anatolia and the Aegean. With this one it may also be concluded that Archaeology is necessary to assess meaningful cultural (and thus potential ethnolinguistic) change, beyond gross genetic inflows, even in the case of the Near Eastern farmer expansion waves.


Agricultural origins on the Anatolian plateau


New paper (behind paywall) Agricultural origins on the Anatolian plateau, by Baird et al. PNAS (2018), published ahead of print (March 19).

Abstract (emphasis mine):

This paper explores the explanations for, and consequences of, the early appearance of food production outside the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia, where it originated in the 10th/9th millennia cal BC. We present evidence that cultivation appeared in Central Anatolia through adoption by indigenous foragers in the mid ninth millennium cal BC, but also demonstrate that uptake was not uniform, and that some communities chose to actively disregard cultivation. Adoption of cultivation was accompanied by experimentation with sheep/goat herding in a system of low-level food production that was integrated into foraging practices rather than used to replace them. Furthermore, rather than being a short-lived transitional state, low-level food production formed part of a subsistence strategy that lasted for several centuries, although its adoption had significant long-term social consequences for the adopting community at Boncuklu. Material continuities suggest that Boncuklu’s community was ancestral to that seen at the much larger settlement of Çatalhöyük East from 7100 cal BC, by which time a modest involvement with food production had been transformed into a major commitment to mixed farming, allowing the sustenance of a very large sedentary community. This evidence from Central Anatolia illustrates that polarized positions explaining the early spread of farming, opposing indigenous adoption to farmer colonization, are unsuited to understanding local sequences of subsistence and related social change. We go beyond identifying the mechanisms for the spread of farming by investigating the shorter- and longer-term implications of rejecting or adopting farming practices.

Map of central Anatolia showing the principal sites mentioned in the text.

Interesting excerpts:

The persistence of foraging and rejection of farming at Pınarbaşı is also worthy of further consideration. Pınarbaşı’s longevity as a settlement locale in the early Holocene appears to have been based on hunting of wild mammals, wetland exploitation, and significant focus on nut exploitation, all afforded by its ecotonal setting between the hills, plain, and wetland. Perhaps this existing diversity, including nutritious storable plant resources, was a key factor in a lack of interest in adopting cultivation. Another factor may have been a conscious desire to maintain traditional identities and long-standing distinctions with other communities, in part reflected in its particular way of life and its specific connections with particular elements in landscape, for example the almond and terebinth woodlands whose harvests underwrote the continuity of the Pınarbaşı settlement.

The variability in response to the possibilities of early food production in a relatively small geographical area demonstrated here is notable and provides an example useful in evaluating the spread of farming in other regions. It shows the possible role of indigenous foragers, the potential patchwork and diffuse nature of the spread of farming, the lack of homogeneity likely in the communities caught up in the process, the probability of significant continuities in local cultural traditions within the process, and the potentially long-term stable adaptation offered by lowlevel food production. The strength of identities linked to exploitation of particular foods and particular parts of the landscape may have been a major factor contributing to rejection or adoption of food production by indigenous foragers.

The results are also relevant for understanding the processes that underpinned the initial development of farming within the Fertile Crescent itself: that is, the region in which the wild progenitors of the Old World founder crops and stock animals are found. Recent research has rejected the notion of a core area for farming’s first appearance in southwest Asia and demonstrated that farming developed in diverse ways over the Fertile Crescent zone from the southern Levant to the Zagros, very analogous to the situation just described for Central Anatolia (2). Cultivation, herding, and domestication developed in that region, and it seems inescapable that exchange of crops and herded animals occurred between communities (2), involving a spread of farming within the Fertile Crescent, leading eventually to the Neolithic farming package that was so similar across the region and which spread into Europe (5). Central Anatolia was clearly linked to the Fertile Crescent, with significant evidence of exchange and some shared cultural traditions from at least the Epipaleolithic (22). The evidence presented here demonstrates very clearly the movement of crops between settlements and regions in early phases of the Neolithic through exchange, and thus allows us to identify episodes of crop exchange that were probably taking place within the Fertile Crescent itself, but are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish due to the presence of crop progenitors across much of the region.

A very interesting read in combination with 14C-radiometric data and climatic conditions showing potential triggers of dispersal of Neolithic lifeways from Turkey to Southeast Europe, e.g. Dispersal of Neolithic Lifeways: Absolute Chronology and Rapid Climate Change in Central and West Anatolia, by Lee Clare & Bernhard Weninger, in The Neolithic in Turkey, Vol.6 (2014), Edited by Mehmet Özdogan, Nezih Basgelen, Peter Kuniholm.

The Late Neolithic (6600-6000 cal. BC) witnesses the rapid westward dispersal of Neolithic communities, apparently reaching the Aegean in the space of a very short time (ca. 6600 cal. BC). This process is linked to the demand of individuals, groups, and communities for less vulnerable conditions in the face of climate fluctuation associated with RCC. Coastal areas not only offered respite from more frequently occurring physical impacts (extreme winters and high drought risk) in inner Anatolia, they may also have provided refuge for weaker (more vulnerable) social groups (…).

Featured image, from the latter: “In the Early Pottery Neolithic (7000-6600 cal. BC) there occurs a clear break with precedeing (PPN) traditions, attested by abandonment and decreasing size of settlements, albeit that evidence for migration of groups westwards towards the Aegean is still ambiguous (black arrows: human migrations; white arrows: Anatolian obsidian)”

See also:

Migration vs. Acculturation models for Aegean Neolithic in Genetics — still depending strongly on Archaeology


Recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Archaeogenomic analysis of the first steps of Neolithization in Anatolia and the Aegean, by Kılınç et al. (2017).


The Neolithic transition in west Eurasia occurred in two main steps: the gradual development of sedentism and plant cultivation in the Near East and the subsequent spread of Neolithic cultures into the Aegean and across Europe after 7000 cal BCE. Here, we use published ancient genomes to investigate gene flow events in west Eurasia during the Neolithic transition. We confirm that the Early Neolithic central Anatolians in the ninth millennium BCE were probably descendants of local hunter–gatherers, rather than immigrants from the Levant or Iran. We further study the emergence of post-7000 cal BCE north Aegean Neolithic communities. Although Aegean farmers have frequently been assumed to be colonists originating from either central Anatolia or from the Levant, our findings raise alternative possibilities: north Aegean Neolithic populations may have been the product of multiple westward migrations, including south Anatolian emigrants, or they may have been descendants of local Aegean Mesolithic groups who adopted farming. These scenarios are consistent with the diversity of material cultures among Aegean Neolithic communities and the inheritance of local forager know-how. The demographic and cultural dynamics behind the earliest spread of Neolithic culture in the Aegean could therefore be distinct from the subsequent Neolithization of mainland Europe.

The analysis of the paper highlights two points regarding the process of Neolithisation in the Aegean, which is essential to ascertain the impact of later Indo-European migrations of Proto-Anatolian and Proto-Greek and other Palaeo-Balkan speakers(texts partially taken verbatim from the paper):

  • The observation that the two central Anatolian populations cluster together to the exclusion of Neolithic populations of south Levant or of Iran restates the conclusion that farming in central Anatolia in the PPN was established by local groups instead of immigrants, which is consistent with the described cultural continuity between central Anatolian Epipalaeolithic and Aceramic communities. This reiterates the earlier conclusion that the early Neolithisation in the primary zone was largely a process of cultural interaction instead of gene flow.
Principal component analysis (PCA) with modern and ancient genomes. The eigenvectors were calculated using 50 modern west Eurasian populations, onto which genome data from ancient individuals were projected. The gray circles highlight the four ancient gene pools of west Eurasia. Modern-day individuals are shown as gray points. In the Near East, Pre-Neolithic (Epipaleolithic/Mesolithic) and Neolithic individuals genetically cluster by geography rather than by cultural context. For instance, Neolithic individuals of Anatolia cluster to the exclusion of individuals from the Levant or Iran). In Europe, genetic clustering reflects cultural context but not geography: European early Neolithic individuals are genetically distinct from European pre-Neolithic individuals but tightly cluster with Anatolians. PPN: Pre-Pottery/Aceramic Neolithic, PN: Pottery Neolithic, Tepecik: Tepecik-Çiftlik (electronic supplementary material, table S1 lists the number of SNPs per ancient individual).
  • The realisation that there are still two possibilities regarding the question of whether Aegean Neolithisation (post-7000 cal BC) involved similar acculturation processes, or was driven by migration similar to Neolithisation in mainland Europe — a long-standing debate in Archaeology:
    1. Migration from Anatolia to the Aegean: the Aegean Neolithisation must have involved replacement of a local, WHG-related Mesolithic population by incoming easterners. Central Anatolia or south Anatolia / north Levant (of which there is no data) are potential origins of the components observed. Notably, the north Aegeans – Revenia (ca. 6438-6264 BC) and Barcın (ca. 6500-6200 BC) – show higher diversity than the central Anatolians, and the population size of Aegeans was larger than that of central Anatolians. The lack of WHG in later samples indicates that they must have been fully replaced by the eastern migrant farmers.
    2. Adoption of Neolithic elements by local foragers: Alternatively, the Aegean coast Mesolithic populations may have been part of the Anatolian-related gene pool that occupied the Aegean seaboard during the Early Holocene, in an “out-of-the-Aegean hypothesis. Following the LGM, Aegean emigrants would have dispersed into central Anatolia and established populations that eventually gave rise to the local Epipalaeolithic and later Neolithic communities, in line with the earliest direct evidence for human presence in central Anatolia ca 14 000 cal BCE
  • On the archaeological evidence (excerpt):

    Instead of a single-sourced colonization process, the Aegean Neolithization may thus have flourished upon already existing coastal and interior interaction networks connecting Aegean foragers with the Levantine and central Anatolian PPN populations, and involved multiple cultural interaction events from its early steps onward [16,20,64,74]. This wide diversity of cultural sources and the potential role of local populations in Neolithic development may set apart Aegean Neolithization from that in mainland Europe. While Mesolithic Aegean genetic data are awaited to fully resolve this issue, researchers should be aware of the possibility that the initial emergence of the Neolithic elements in the Aegean, at least in the north Aegean, involved cultural and demographic dynamics different than those in European Neolithization.

    Featured image, from the article: “Summary of the data analyzed in this study. (a) Map of west Eurasia showing the geographical locations and (b) timeline showing the time period (years BCE) of ancient individuals investigated in the study. Blue circles: individuals from pre-Neolithic context; red triangles: individuals from Neolithic contexts”.