First Farmers - new evidence
Salon IFA reports
Has one of the central questions about the British Neolithic been answered?
Despite a century of research, archaeologists still disagree about how farming began in Britain, with some arguing that it was a result of indigenous groups adopting the practice via trade and exchange and others contending that it was the consequence of a migration of farmers from mainland Europe.
Our Fellow Stephen Shennan, along with co-authors Mark Collard, Kevan Edinborough and Mark G Thomas, now think they might have the answer. In a paper published in The Journal of Archaeological Science (Volume 37, Issue 4, pages 671—900, April 2010) they present evidence for a marked and rapid increase in population density in southern England and in central Scotland around 6000 cal BP, which is the time when cultivated grain first appears in Britain. They argue that this finding is best explained by the migrant farmer hypothesis, with two sets of farmers from the Continent independently colonizing England and Scotland at this time.
Based on ethnographic data, the authors argue that farming usually supports much higher population densities in temperate regions than hunting and gathering and that the timing and rate of change in population size should provide clues as to the date and nature of the change to domesticated husbandry. They also reasoned that the number of monuments and settlements at any given period in prehistory could be used as a proxy for population size.
Plotting carbon-dated sites by 100-year time slices revealed that between 8000 and 6100 cal BP all regions of Britain were sparsely populated. Then, between 6100 and 5400 cal BP there was a dramatic increase in population density. South-west England was the first region to experience an increase. It was followed in the succeeding century by central Scotland. Subsequently, nearly all the regions of Britain experienced an increase in population density. Post-5400 cal BP, there were complex and varied demographic patterns.
The maps indicate that the migration to south-west England occurred before the migration to Scotland and not the other way around (as argued by our Fellow Alison Sheridan) and that (based on close similarities in animal bones) the migrants in both cases probably came from the Pas de Calais region or the Paris Basin in northern France.
Because each map covers 100 years, the authors say that it is difficult to be precise about how much time elapsed between the two migrations, but that the gap was probably less than a century. They also argue for rapid adoption of farming practices by the indigenous population of Britain, rather than the model proposed by some archaeologists (such as our Fellow Julian Thomas) that sees domesticated animals and crops used initially for occasional rituals and not becoming economic staples for hundreds of years.
The authors conclude that ‘the case for believing that the Neolithic transition in Britain was mediated by a large influx of farmers from continental Europe is compelling. The migrants’ arrival resulted in sudden and dramatic economic, demographic and social change that seems to have led to a “boom-to-bust” cycle lasting 600 to 700 years, with the initial rapid rise in population followed by an equally rapid decline, heralding the very different cultural patterns of the later Neolithic.’'