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Isotopic evidence for diet and mobility during the Neolithic transition to farming in the Near East

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A more sedentary lifestyle drove the growth of farming villages in the Neolithic transition

Representing the transition to agricultural production, the Neolithic is deemed one of the most important developments in human history. EU-funded research has contributed new knowledge on the origins of the first villages of the Near East.

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Isotopic studies are widely used to gather information on organic and inorganic compounds. Two examples of what such information can impart are knowledge on past human movements and diets and the ability to reconstruct previous environmental and climatic conditions. While this method has offered much information on the Neolithic transition in Europe, few such studies have been conducted in the Near East. In this region, the revolution in the subsistence base took place earlier than in Europe and was more complex in nature. Against this background, ISONEO project coordinator Andrew Millard states: “Thus, currently, we know little about the changes in diet and mobility of individuals and cannot compare this crucial region to the later transition in Europe or to parallel transitions elsewhere.” The research team worked to partly remedy this research imbalance.

Neolithic transition to farming in the Near East

Undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme, ISONEO utilised carbon isotope analysis to investigate the composition of diet in selected Neolithic populations of the Near East. The team’s use of strontium and oxygen isotopes in human tooth enamel enabled them to also explore how important migration was in creating and sustaining the population of Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in Jordan, Israel and Syria. The archaeological sites they used were ‘Ain Mallaha (Natufian), Tell Qarassa North (early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), Kharaysin (Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), ‘Ain Ghazal (middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B to Pre-Pottery Neolithic C) and Beisamoun (Pre-Pottery Neolithic C). Based on their results, project fellow Jonathan Santana reports, “we are able to demonstrate a significant level of human mobility in the Late Natufian period of ‘Ain Mallaha.” Late Natufian populations were hunter-gatherer groups that over time became more sedentary. ISONEO findings provide clear evidence of growing sedentarisation in ‘Ain Mallaha. “Therefore, our results suggest that the aggregation of people was a significant factor in the emergence of sedentarisation during the Natufian period,” Santana adds. Project results further show that most individuals from these sites were locals in their respective villages, with just two considered non-local in Tell Qarassa North and Beisamoun. Although the team could not identify a potential area of origin for the Tell Qarassa North non-local, the Jordanian Rift Valley or coastal areas are probable candidates. Strontium isotope data of the non-local from Beisamoun, located in the same area as ‘Ain Mallaha, suggests different regions of origin that changed from the Epipalaeolithic to Pre-Pottery Neolithic C.

Low mobility favours growth of robust farming villages

ISONEO research revealed that most individuals grew up in or near their villages in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites selected for the study. It also points to low or local human mobility patterns in Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites, supporting a model of interaction based on the mobility of few individuals/task groups in the southern Levant. “Low mobility could have been beneficial for farming villages to become sustainable and resilient during the Neolithic transition. Our results suggest that migration or inter-site exchange of people were not essential to yield solid, long-term and resilient networks of interactions,” Santana concludes.


ISONEO, Neolithic, Pre-Pottery Neolithic, Near East, farming, human mobility, sedentarisation, isotope analysis

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