Skip to main content

Population Dynamics in the Southeast European Neolithic: Prehistoric Archaeology and Palaeogenomics

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ODYSSEA (Population Dynamics in the Southeast European Neolithic: Prehistoric Archaeology and Palaeogenomics)

Reporting period: 2018-10-01 to 2020-09-30

The Neolithic or agricultural ‘revolution’ is widely seen as a cornerstone of modern productive economy and as one of the most essential driving forces behind the sustained population growth since the beginning of the Holocene, c. 11,600 years ago. Early European agriculture is thought to have originated in Southwest Asia, where plants and animals were domesticated after a long process, in which foragers first settled down into village communities and became increasingly reliant on local resources and environments for their subsistence.

There are still considerable uncertainties regarding the origins of Europe’s first farmers and the nature of interactions between farmers and foragers. Neither the exact source of that ancestry trail, nor the demographics that sustained such a large population expansion are known, leaving important questions unanswered, such as: how many farmers migrated into Europe? Was there only one wave of migration or several? What was the size of populations at the wave front? Etc.

Recent advances in whole-genome ancient DNA research have shed new light on the dispersal of early farmers with their domestic plants and animals. Combined with other biomolecular proxies, such as stable dietary isotopes, and more traditional archaeological markers, such as burial practices, population genetics using ancient DNA provides a framework to explore the relatively complex interactions between farmers and foragers, who lived side by side in key frontier regions like the Danube Gorge in today’s Serbia and Romania, and the Eastern Marmara region in Turkey.

This project, integrating ancient DNA with high-resolution archaeological data, aimed to address how, in a practical sense, early farmers interacted with foragers, as well as with other farmers, during the initial phases of agricultural spread in Southeast Europe (c. 6,600-5,950 BC cal.). The role of indigenous foragers in the adoption of agriculture has often been overlooked and provides vital clues about one of the most important transitions in human history, with repercussions that are still felt today.
This project, conducted with support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, was both training and research, allowing a prehistoric archaeologist to move to a palaeogenetics laboratory for a period of two years, to learn and engage with the latest methods in ancient DNA research. The first six months of the fellowship were spent in immersive training, to participate in the entire process from DNA extraction to more complex population genetics inference. By joining forces with my colleagues in Mainz and their international partners, it was possible to test archaeologically-informed population models, and contribute to the first large-scale demographic modelling study using palaeogenomes from Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic settlements along the Danube highway, including over 15 high-coverage genomes from Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Austria and Germany:
During the course of the fellowship, it became clear that next to the grand sweep of the Neolithic expansion in Europe, there were regional trajectories involving farmers moving into forager communities, and possibly foragers moving into early farming sites. While some degree of complexity in farmer-forager interactions has been predicted before by archaeologists, based for example on continuity in chipped stone traditions across the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, only recently has ancient DNA research started to identify concrete cases of admixture between farmers and foragers, highlighting the need for finer-scale population genetic inference at regional, site-specific or even household levels. This project also emphasized the role of archaeologists in ancient DNA research, who, given the adequate training, can participate in the elaboration and testing of demographic models grounded in archaeology.