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The CECD is an AHRC funded research group dedicated to examining the evolutionary underpinnings of human cultural behaviour, past and present. more>

Page Title - projects
Phase 1: Cultural diversification: Project 017
The origin and spread of Neolithic plant economies in the Near East and Europe

SUPERVISOR: - Stephen Shennan, James Conolly, James Steele

Sue Colledge (Institute of Archaeology, University College London)


The emergence of farming communities across Europe occurs some time after their initial appearance in the fertile crescent, and the dates associated with these farming settlements become progressively later with distance from the Near Eastern heartland. Although the Neolithic farming 'package' was adaptive, and secondary plant (and animal) domesticates emerged as agriculture evolved, its basis was the founder crops, which evolved in the Near East. We therefore know that something was spreading from the Near East. Whether this was the Neolithic farmers themselves, or their crops and the knowledge and technology to grow them, or some combination of both, is hotly and at times acrimoniously debated. The timing and tempo of this 'Neolithic diaspora' have also been the subject of much research over the last 30 years.

Achaeobotanical data from early crop remains, the most direct evidence for the spread of farming communities, show not only of when domestic species first appeared in any given region, but also the ecological characteristics of early farming practices. To this end, an archaeobotanical database containing details of the wild and domestic plants found on Mesolithic and Neolithic sites, together with associated 14C dates, has been established. This, in turn, will be linked to GIS map data of topographic, soil, temperature and rainfall patterns across Europe. The objective is to model the spatial, temporal, and ecological contexts of the first appearance and dispersion of plant domesticates, in order to understand how crops, early farming practices, and Neolithic peoples spread beyond their ecological homeland in the Near East.

The database comprises information on 200 sites (over 300 cultural phases) from Iran in the east and as far as Ireland in the west. Each taxon (e.g. species), which has been identified by the archaeobotanists responsible for the different sites, represents a separate record in the database and, to date, 7050 entries have been made. The records include references taxa that have been published (including wild and domestic cereals and pulses, fruits, oil plants and many wild or weed species). Archaeological literature on the dating at the sites helps identify inaccuracies in published articles, most significantly with respect to the contextual/chronological association of early finds of domestic crops.

Analysis of the presence-absence data for the sites using statistical methods revealed that there were clear distributional patterns according to geographic area, and as more countries have been added to the database these geographical and/or chronological trends have become even more distinct. The correspondence analysis plot produced after inclusion of data from the British Isles was extremely encouraging -- an east-west spread was replicated on the 1st principal axis. This demonstrates that the archaeobotanical records are of sufficiently high resolution to permit the analysis of the intra- and inter-regional dispersal of Neolithic plant economies.

Coward, F., S. Shennan, S. Colledge, J. Conolly and M. Collard (2008).
The spread of Neolithic plant economies from the Near East to Northwest Europe: a phylogenetic analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science. Vol 35(1):42-56.
Colledge, S. and Conolly, J (2007).
A synopsis of evidence for origins of farming on Cyprus and Crete. In: Colledge, S. & Conolly, J. (eds.) (ed\s) The Origins and Spread of Domestic Plants in Southwest Asia and Europe. California: Left Coast Press. pp. 53–74.
Colledge, S. and Conolly, J (eds.) (2007).
The Origins and Spread of Domestic Plants in Southwest Asia and Europe. Walnut Creek CA: Left Coast Press.
Colledge, S., J. Conolly and S.J. Shennan (2004).
Comparative analysis of archaeobotanical assemblages from Aceramic Neolithic sites in the eastern Mediterranean: Implications for the routes and timings of early agricultural expansion. Current Anthropology. Vol 45:S35-S58.

BANEA conference in March

This project was also presented as a part of the AHRB CEACB Neolithic Farming Conference held at UCL in 2003. Click here for further information.