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Introduction of farming led to population 'boom-and-bust'

2 October 2013

Map of Central and North Western Europe with Points indicating archaeological site locations and colours delineate the sub-regions used to estimate demographic patterns (Figure 1, Shennan, S. et al. Nature Comms. 4:2486 (2013))

Research by Stephen Shennan and colleagues has provided evidence of a population 'boom-and-bust' following the introduction of farming in Western Europe.

The introduction of farming into Western Europe around 7,500 years ago is widely believed to have led to dramatic and sustained population growth, but new evidence from radiocarbon data indicates that instead populations grew initially, then collapsed in many regions. 

The research team on the ERC-funded EUROEVOL project, led by Stephen Shennan, examined the distribution of radiocarbon dates in several regions, and noticed that while there was evidence of a dramatic increase in human activity shortly after farming was introduced, it was not sustained.  Instead they saw evidence of population collapse in many regions. In some cases the proportional decrease in population size was on a scale similar to that estimated by historians for the much later Black Death.

Their study, which has just been published in the journal Nature Communications, is the first to show the existence of such a ‘boom-and-bust’ pattern.

The development of farming, about 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, completely changed humanity’s ways of life. Producing food by farming, as opposed to obtaining it by hunting and gathering, meant that far larger populations could be supported. This was the foundation for increases in fertility – leading to massive population growth – as well as many other changes in human ecology, including those in health, social structure and technology. 

As Stephen indicated:

  • What has not been appreciated until now is that those populations did not just grow steadily to higher levels. Our newly published study uses a novel statistical method applied to dated archaeological sites from before and after the arrival of farming in 12 different regions of Europe to show that populations were subject to booms and busts on a large scale.”

The reasons why these populations collapsed so dramatically remain unknown.  As co-author Adrian Timpson indicated:

  • "One possibility could be changes in climate, which can affect the suitability and productivity of crops in different regions but when we tested for correlations between population size and various climate indicators we found no conclusive proof of a link."

What is clear is that these dramatic collapses would have had important consequences for the economic, social and cultural lives of the early European farmers.

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