New Study shows it was Feast or Famine for Europe’s First Farmers
A new study based on a catalogue of radiocarbon dates has shown that populations plummeted after periods of agricultural booms in Europe, a finding that contradicts previous beliefs that agriculture led to population growth.
The change from hunting and gathering to farming settlements in Europe first began in Greece around 8,500 years ago and gradually spread across western Europe over the next few thousand years. While the transformation was initially viewed as a time of abundance in which crops were grown and food was plentiful, the latest research shows that early farmers had a tough time. The study authors have proposed that this may have been due to soil degradation through deforestation and overuse of soils, ending in disease and warfare.
The researchers compared ancient land use and climate indicators against a comprehensive database of 13,658 radiocarbon dates from archaeological sites across Europe. The data tells a story of Stone Age (or Neolithic) farming economies suffering a crash around 4000 B.C.
Over a period of three to six centuries, some regions suffered population losses of 30 to 60%, which is equivalent to population losses that occurred during the bubonic plague (‘Black Death’) across Europe during the Middle Ages.
A later, smaller population boom happened around 2800 B.C. , which surprisingly were not linked with climate conditions as once believed. "It may be the case that the second boom is the outcome of a secondary product revolution—mainly dairying, which may have started earlier but gained momentum later," said archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Dublin. The ability to digest milk into adulthood only developed around 8000 years ago as a result of a mutation which enabled adults to retain the enzyme that breaks down lactose.
There is often the assumption that new technology leads to periods of growth, abundance and other advantages for humanity. However, the current study shows that isn’t necessarily the case, and indeed reflecting on our own modern society shows that so-called advances in food technology could be disastrous for humanity’s long-term preservation.