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Europe in ca. 4500-4000 BC
Europe in ca. 4000-3500 BC

Neolithic Europe refers to a prehistoric period in which Neolithic technology was present in Europe. This corresponds roughly to a time between 7000 BC (the approximate time of the first farming societies in Greecemarker) and ca. 1700 BC (the beginning of the Bronze Age in northwest Europe). The Neolithic overlaps the Mesolithic and Bronze Age periods in Europe as cultural changes moved from the south east to north west at about 1 km/year. The duration of the Neolithic varies from place to place, its end marked by the introduction of bronze implements: in southeast Europe it is approximately 4000 years (i.e., 7000 BC–3000 BC) while in Northwest Europe it is just under 3000 years (ca. 4500 BC–1700 BC).

Basic cultural characteristics

Regardless of specific chronology, many European Neolithic groups share basic characteristics, such as living in small-scale, presumably egalitarian, family-based communities, subsisting on domesticated plants and animals supplemented with the collection of wild plant foods and with hunting, and producing hand-made pottery, that is, pottery made without the potter's wheel. There are also many differences, with some Neolithic communities in southeastern Europe living in heavily fortified settlements of 3,000-4,000 people (e.g., Sesklo in Greece) whereas Neolithic groups in Englandmarker were small (possibly 50-100 people) and highly mobile cattle-herders.

The details of the origin, chronology, social organization, subsistence practices and ideology of the peoples of Neolithic Europe are obtained from archaeology, and not historical records, since these people left none. Since the 1970s, population genetics has provided independent data on the population history of Neolithic Europe, including migration events and genetic relationships with peoples in South Asia. A further independent tool, linguistics, has contributed hypothetical reconstructions of early European languages and family trees with estimates of dating of splits, in particular theories on the relationship between speakers of Indo-European languages and Neolithic peoples. Some archaeologists believe that the expansion of Neolithic peoples from southwest Asia into Europe, marking the eclipse of Mesolithic culture, coincided with the introduction of Indo-European speakers, whereas many linguists prefer to see Indo-European languages introduced during the succeeding Bronze Age. A few see Indo-European languages starting in Paleolithic times.

Archaeology of the Neolithic

Archeologists believe that food-producing societies first emerged in the Levantine region of southwest Asia at the close of the mini-Ice Age around 12,000 BC, and developed into a number of regionally distinctive cultures by the eighth millennium BC. Remains of food-producing societies in the Aegean have been carbon-dated to around 6500 BC at Knossosmarker, Franchthi Cavemarker, and a number of mainland sites in Thessaly. Neolithic groups appear soon afterwards in the Balkans and south-central Europe. The Neolithic cultures of southeastern Europe (the Balkans, Italymarker, and the Aegean) show some continuity with groups in southwest Asia and Anatoliamarker (e.g., Çatalhöyükmarker).

Current evidence suggests that Neolithic material culture was introduced to Europe via western Anatolia, and that similarities in cultures of North Africa and the Pontic steppes are due to diffusion out of Europe. All Neolithic sites in Europe contain ceramic, and contain the plants and animals domesticated in Southwest Asia: einkorn, emmer, barley, lentils, pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle. Genetic data suggest that no independent domestication of animals took place in Neolithic Europe, and that all domesticated animals were originally domesticated in Southwest Asia. The only domesticate not from Southwest Asia was broomcorn millet, domesticated in East Asia.

Archaeologists seem to agree that the culture of the early Neolithic is relatively homogeneous, compared both to the late Mesolithic and the later Neolithic. The diffusion across Europe, from the Aegean to Britain, took about 2,500 years (6500 BC - 4000 BC). The Baltic region was penetrated a bit later, around 3500 BC, and there was also a delay in settling the Pannonian plain. In general, colonization shows a "saltatory" pattern, as the Neolithic advanced from one patch of fertile alluvial soil to another, bypassing mountainous areas. Analysis of radiocarbon dates show clearly that Mesolithic and Neolithic populations lived side by side for as much as a millennium in many parts of Europe, especially in the Iberian peninsulamarker and along the Atlantic coast.

Genetics of the Neolithic

Archaeologists agree that the technologies associated with agriculture originated in the Levant/Near East and then spread into Europe. However, debate exists whether this resulted from an active migratory process from the Near East, or merely due to cultural contact between Europeans and Near Easterners. Currently, three models summarize the proposed pattern of spread:

1. Replacement model: posits that there was a significant migration of farmers from the Fertile Crescent into Europe. Given their technological advantages, they would have displaced or absorbed the less numerous hunter-gathering populace. Thus, modern Europeans are primarily descended from these Neolithic farmers.

2. Cultural diffusion: in contrast, this model supposes that agriculture reached Europe by way of a flow of ideas and trade between the Mesolithic European population and Anatolian farmers. There was not net increase in migration during this process, and therefore, modern Europeans are descended from the "original" Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers.

3. Pioneer model: recognises that models 1) and 2) above may represent false dichotomies. This model postulates that there was an initial, small scale migration of farmers from the Near East to certain regions of Europe. They might have enjoyed localized demographic expansions due to social advantages. The subsequent spread of farming technologies throughout the rest of Europe was then carried out by Mesolithic Europeans who acquired new skill through trade and cultural interaction.

Genetic studies have been utilised in the study of pre-historic population movements. On the whole, scientists agree that there is evidence for a migration during the Neolithic. However, they cannot agree on the extent of this movement. The conclusions of studies appear to be 'operator dependent'. That is, results vary depending on what underlying mutation rates are assumed, and conclusions are drawn from how the authors 'envisage' their results fit with known archaeological and historic processes. Consequently, such studies must be interpreted with caution.
Cavalli-Sforza's first principal component

Perhaps the first scholar to posit a large-scale Neolithic migration, based on genetic evidence, was Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. By applying principal component analysis to data from "classical genetic markers" (protein polymorphisms from ABO blood groups, HLA loci, immunoglobulins, etc), Cavalli-Sforza discovered interesting clues about the genetic makeup of Europeans. Although being very genetically homogeneous, several patterns did exist. The most important one was a north-western to south-eastern cline with a Near Eastern focus. Accounting for 28% of the overall genetic diversity in the European samples in his study, he attributed the cline to the spread of agriculture from the Middle East circa 10,000 to 6,000 years ago.

Cavalli-Sforza's explanation of demic diffusions stipulated that the clines were due to the population expansion of neolithic farmers into a scarcely populated, hunter-gathering Europe, with little initial admixture between agriculturalists and foragers. The predicted route for this spread would have been from Anatolia to central Europe via the Balkans. However, given that the time depths of such patterns are not known, “associating them with particular demographic events is usually speculative”. Apart from a demic Neolithic migration, the clines may also be compatible with other demographic scenarios (Barbujani and Bartorelle 2001), such as the initial Palaeolithic expansion, the Mesolithic (post-glacial) re-expansions., or later (historic) colonizations.

Studies using direct DNA evidence have produced varying results. A notable proponent of Cavalli-Sforza's demic diffusion scenario is Chikhi. In his 1998 study, utilising polymorphic loci from seven hypervariable autosomal DNA loci, an autocorrelation analysis produced a clinal pattern closely matching that in Cavalli-Sforza’s study. He calculated that the separation times were no older than 10,000 years. “The simplest interpretation of these results is that the current nuclear gene pool largely reflects the westward and northward expansion of a Neolithic group”..

Although the above studies propounded a 'significant' Neolithic genetic contribution, they did not quantify the exact magnitude of the genetic contribution. Dupanloup performed an admixture analysis based on several autosomal loci, mtDNA and NRY haplogroup frequencies. The study was based on the assumption that Basques were modern representatives of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers’ gene pool, and Near Eastern peoples were a proxy population for Neolithic farmers. Subsequently, they used admixture analysis to estimate the likely components of the contemporary European gene pool contributed by the two parental populations whose members hybridized at a certain moment in the past. The study suggested that the greatest Near Eastern admixture occurs in the Balkans (~80%) and Southern Italy (~60%), whilst it is least in peoples of the British Isles (estimating only a 20% contribution). The authors concluded that the Neolithic shift to agriculture entailed major population dispersal from the Near East.

Results derived from analysis of the non-recombining portion of the Y- chromosomes (NRY) produced, at least initially, similar gradients to the classic demic diffusion hypothesis. Two significant studies were Semino 2000 and Rosser 2000, which identified haplogroups J2 and E1b1b as the putative genetic signatures of migrating Neolithic farmers from Anatolia, and therefore represent the Y-chromosomal components of a Neolithic demic diffusion. This association was strengthened when King and Underhill (2002) found that there was a significant correlation between the distribution of Hg J2 and Neolithic painted pottery of the Cardium culture in European and Mediterranean sites. These 'Neolithic lineages' accounted for 22% of the total European Y chromosome gene pool, and were predominantly found in Mediterranean regions of Europe (Greece, Italy, southeastern Bulgaria, southeastern Iberia).
Haplogroup J2
Distribution of Neolithic Cardial Pottery corresponds with that of Hg J2
However later Y-DNA based studies, exploiting an increased understanding of the phylogenetic relationships, performing micro-regional haplogroup frequency analysis, reveal a more complicated demographic history. The studies suggest that “the large-scale clinal patterns of Hg E and Hg J reflect a mosaic of numerous small-scale, more regional population movements, replacements, and subsequent expansions overlying previous ranges”. Rather than a single, large-scale 'wave of advance' from the Near East, the apparent Hg J2 cline is produced by distinct populations movements emanating from different part of the Aegean and Near East, over a period stretching from the Neolithic to the Classical Period. Similarly, haplogroup E1b1b was also thought to have been introduced into the Balkans by Near Eastern agriculturalists. However, recently discovered that the large majority of haplogroup E1b1b lineages in Europe are represented by the sub-clade E1b1b1a2- V13, which is rare outside Europe. Cruciani, Battaglia and King all predict that V13 expanded from the Balkans. However, there has been no consensus as to exact timing of this expansion (King and Battalia favour a neolithic expansion, possibly coinciding with the adoption of farming by indigenous Balkaners, whilst Cruciani favours a Bronze Age expansion), nor as to where V13 actually arose (but point to somewhere in the southern Balkans or Anatolia) Overall, Y-chromosome data seems to support the "Pioneer model", whereby heterogeneous groups of Neolithic farmers colonized selected areas of southern Europe via a primarily maritime route. Subsequent expansion of agriculture was facilitated by the adoption of its methods by indigenous Europeans, a process especially prominent in the Balkans.

The data from mtDNA is also interesting. European mtDNA haplogroup frequencies show little, if any, geographic patterning, a result attributed to different molecular properties of mtDNA, as well as different migratory practices between females and males (Semino 2000). The vast majority of mtDNA lineages (60–70%) have been dated to have either emerged in the Mesolithic or Palaeolithic., whereas only 20% of mitochondrial lineages are "Neolithic". However, these conclusion have been questioned. Any undetected heterogeneity in the founder population would result in an overestimation in the age of the current population's molecular age. If this is true, then Europe could have been populated far more recently, eg during the Neolithic, by a more diverse founding population (Barbujani et al. 1998, from Richards 2000). As Chikhi states: “We argue that many mitochondrial lineages whose origin has been traced back to the Palaeolithic period probably reached Europe at a later time”. However, Richards et al. (2000) maintain these findings even when founding population heterogeneity is considered. In one such study, Wolfgang Haak extracted ancient mtDNA from what they present as early European farmers from the Linear Pottery Culture in central Europe. The bodies contained a 25% frequency of mtDNA N1a, a haplogroup which they assumed to be linked to the Neolithic. Today the frequency of this haplogroup is a mere 0.2%. Haak presented this as supportive evidence for a Palaeolithic European ancestry. However the conclusions of Haak's study were challenged by Levy-Coffman. She suggested that Haak failed to adequately consider other demographic and evolutionary events which could have caused the scarcity of mtDNA haplogroup N1a amongst modern Europeans. Furthermore, she argued that reconstructing our biological history based only on the DNA frequencies of extant populations is misleading, challenging the idea that Basques represent a proxy population for Palaeolithic Europeans (instead she attributed their genetic uniqueness to thousands of years of endogamy). Ultimately, she sees contemporary Europeans as "an entirely new and modern mix formed as a result of a number of demographic and evolutionary events over time".

Language in the Neolithic

There is no direct evidence of the languages spoken in the Neolithic. Some proponents of the Paleolinguistics attempt to extend the methods of historical linguistics to the Stone Age, but this has little academic support.

Discussion of hypothetical languages spoken in the European Neolithic is divided into two topics, Indo-European languages and "Pre-Indo-European" languages.

Early Indo-European languages are usually assumed to have reached Europe in the Chalcolithic or early Bronze Age, e.g. with the Corded Ware or Beaker cultures (see also Kurgan hypothesis for related discussions). The Anatolian hypothesis postulates arrival of Indo-European languages with the early Neolithic. Old European hydronymy is taken by Hans Krahe to be the oldest reflection of the early presence of Indo-European in Europe.

Theories of "Pre-Indo-European" languages in Europe are built on scant evidence. The Basque language is the best candidate for a descendant of such a language, but since Basque is a language isolate, there is no comparative evidence to build upon. Theo Vennemann nevertheless postulates a "Vasconic" family, which he supposes had co-existed with an "Atlantic" or "Semitidic" (i.e. para-Semitic) group. Another candidate is a Tyrrhenian family which would have given rise to Etruscan and Raetic in the Iron Age, and possibly also Aegean languages such as Minoan or Pelasgian in the Bronze Age.

List of cultures and sites


Some Neolithic cultures listed above are known for constructing megaliths. These occur primarily on the Atlantic coast of Europe, but there are also megaliths on western Mediterranean islands.

See also


  1. Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza
  2. (Renfrew 1987; Bellwood 2004)
  3. The art historian Marija Gimbutas (1989) has done much to propagate this view.
  4. P. Bellwood, First Farmers: The origins of agricultural societies (2004), pp. 68-69.
  5. Bellwood 2004, pp. 74, 118.
  6. Bellwood 2004, pp. 68-72.
  7. Richards et al., Palaeolithic and Neolithic Lineages in the European Mitochondrial Gene Pool. American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 59, pp. 185-203 (1996).
  8. L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, peoples, and languages, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 94, no. 15 (1997), pp. 7719-7724.
  9. Cavalli-Sforza.
  10. Rosser et al. 2000
  11. Rosser 2000
  12. F. Di Giacomo et al., Y chromosomal haplogroup J as a signature of the post-neolithic colonization of Europe, Human Genetics, vol. 115 (2004), pp. 357–371.
  13. L. Chikhi et al., Clines of nuclear DNA markers suggest a largely Neolithic ancestry of the European gene pool, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA vol. 95, no. 15 , pp. 9053-9058 (1998).
  14. I. Dupanloup et al., Estimating the Impact of Prehistoric Admixture on the Genome of Europeans, Molecular Biology and Evolution, 21(7):1361-1372 (2004).
  15. Rosser et al. (2000). NB Here, Rosser uses the nomenclature HG 1 for R1b, and HG 9 for J2
  16. Semino et al., The Genetic Legacy of Paleolithic Homo sapiens sapiens in Extant Europeans, Science Vol 290 (2000). Note: Haplogroup names are different in this article. For ex: Haplogroup I is referred as M170
  17. Di Giacomo et al., Y chromosomal haplogroup J as a signature of the post-neolithic colonization of Europe, Human Genetics 115:257-271 (2004)
  18. Semino et al., Origin, Diffusion, and Differentiation of Y-Chromosome Haplogroups E and J: Inferences on the Neolithization of Europe and Later Migratory Events in the Mediterranean Area, American Journal of Human Genetics, 74:1023-1034 (2004).
  19. Semino et al. 2000.
  20. "Y-chromosomal evidence of the cultural diffusion of agriculture in southeast Europe". European Journal of Human Genetics, doi:10.1038/ejhg.2008.249 [1]
  21. Battaglia 2008. "Balkan Mesolithic foragers, with their own autochthonous genetic signatures, were destined to become the earliest to adopt farming, when it was subsequently introduced by a cadre of migrating farmers from the Near East. Thus, unlike Crete, southern and central Italy and the southern Caucasus, the cultural transmission of the Neolithic package played an important role. Either the initial G and J2 Hg agriculturalists who colonized the Balkans at first flourished but later diminished in a similar manner to that proposed regarding the Linearbandkeramik in central Europe or the package was rapidly and robustly adopted by local Mesolithic people in the southern Balkans (plausibly characterized by E-V13), who underwent a demic expansion and a subsequent range expansion to the eastern Adriatic. These former foragers who had recently acquired the Neolithic tradition participated in 'leapfrog' colonizations up the Adriatic, where they eventually transmitted agricultural practices to resident Mesolithic populations".
  22. Di Giacomo 2004. However, both the data reported here and in the literature agree in showing that this haplogroup did not leave a strong signature in the peoples of the northern Balkans and central Europe, this being the most likely route for the entry of agriculturalists in the European continent north of the Alps, under the demic diffusion model. Instead, the raw frequency data from within the Iberian, Italian, and Balkan peninsulas are more in line with alternative routes of westward spread, possibly maritime.
  23. Cavalli-Sforza
  24. Rosser et al. 2000
  25. Rosser et al., Y-chromosomal diversity in Europe is clinal and influenced primarily by geography, rather than by language, American Journal of Human Genetics, 67(6):1526-43(2000).
  26. Richards et al., Palaeolithic and Neolithic Lineages in the European Mitochondrial Gene Pool, American Journal of Human Genetics 59:185-203, (1996).
  27. W. Haak, Ancient DNA from the First European Farmers in 7500-Year-Old Neolithic Sites, Science, Vol. 310. no. 5750, pp. 1016 - 1018 (2005).
  28. E. Levy-Coffman, We are not our ancestors: Evidence for discontinuity between prehistoric and modern Europeans, Journal of Genetic Genealogy 1:40-50, (2005).


  • Bellwood, Peter. (2001). "Early Agriculturalist Population Diasporas? Farming, Languages, and Genes." Annual Review of Anthropology. 30:181-207.
  • Bellwood, Peter. (2004). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20566-7
  • Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza. (1994). The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08750-4.
  • Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca. (2001). Genes, Peoples, and Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22873-1.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1989). The Language of the Goddess. Harper & Row, Publishers. ISBN 0-06-250356-1.
  • Renfrew, Colin. (1987). Archaeology and Language. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-521-38675-6.

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