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date: 20 August 2017

Agricultural Dispersals in Mediterranean and Temperate Europe

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Agriculture is, along with ceramics production, sedentism, and herding, a major component of the Neolithic as it is defined in Europe. Therefore, the agricultural system of the first Neolithic societies and the dispersal of exogenous cultivated plants to Europe are the subject of many scientific productions. To work on these issues, archaeobotanists rely on residual plant remains—crop seeds, weeds and wild plants—from archaeological structures like detritic pits, and, less often, storage contexts. To date, no plant with an economic value has been identified as domesticated in western Europe except maybe opium poppy. The earliest seeds identified on archaeological sites dated to about 5500–5200 bc in the Mediterranean and temperate Europe. The cultivated plants identified are cereals (wheat, barley), oleaginous plant (flax), and pulses (peas, lentils, chickpeas). This crop package originated from the Fertile Crescent, where it was clearly established, after a long polycentric domestication process, around 7500 bc (final Pre-Pottery Neolithic B). From the middle of the 7th millennium bc, via the Balkan Peninsula, the pioneer Neolithic populations, with their specific economy, rapidly dispersed from east to west, following two main dispersal pathways. One is the maritime road over the northwestern basin of the Mediterranean (6200–5300 bc), and the other is the terrestrial and fluvial road in Central and North Western continental Europe (5500–4900 bc). On their trajectory, the agro-pastoral societies adapted the Neolithic founder crops from the Middle East to new environmental conditions encountered in Western Europe.

The Neolithic pioneers settled in an area that had experienced previously a long tradition of hunting and gathering. The Neolithization of Europe follows a colonization model. The Mesolithic groups, although having exploited more or less intensively the plant resources, such as hazelnut, did not significantly change the landscape. The impact of their settlements and their activities are hardly noticeable through palynology for example. The control of the mode of reproduction of plants has certainly increased the prevalence of Homo sapiens, involving, among others, a demographic increase and the ability to settle down in areas that were, until then, not well-adapted to year-round occupation. The characterization of past agricultural systems, such as crop plants, technical processes, and the impact of anthropogenic activities on the landscape is essential for understanding the interrelation of human societies and the plant environment. This interrelation has undoubtedly changed deeply with the Neolithic Revolution.