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New research traces the spread of Neolithic practices into Europe

Alan Flurry

The spread of agriculture from the Near East and Fertile Crescent through Turkey and into Europe around 10,000 years ago was a complex and multifaceted process, one that archaeologists are trying to understand using one of the latest scientific techniques: stable isotope analysis. 

A new paper published in the journal PLOS One by Suzanne Pilaar Birch, assistant professor of geography and anthropology at the University of Georgia, and colleagues at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and Akdeniz University, Turkey, focuses on an Aegean island just off the coast of western Turkey as perhaps a pivotal site in the spread of Neolithic practices into Europe. 

“Current thinking reflects at least two main ‘streams’ of movement of domestic animals as agriculture spread: one through central Turkey that goes overland into the Balkans, and one that moves along the coast, from the Aegean through the Adriatic,” Birch said.

The site of Uğurlu Zeytinli Höyük (“Lucky Olive Mound”) on the island of Gökçeada was settled by these early farmers some 8,500 years ago. Although the island isn’t very far off the mainland, people would have had to transport their domestic animals by boat, including sheep, goats, pigs, and even cows. 

One question researchers wanted to address is the origins of people who settled the island; whether they were traveling along the islands and coast, or hailed from the interior of Anatolia.

Stable isotopes of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen become locked in our bones as we eat, drink, grow, and move, providing scientists with a way to track things such ancient diet, migration, and environmental change. 

In this study, stable isotope analysis of the animal bones found that the domestic animals from an early phase of occupation between 8,300-8,000 years ago, cluster separately from domestic animals in later phases, c. 7,500 and 7,300 years ago. The stable isotope values from animals in the later phases appear more similar to values from other archaeological sites found in the coastal region around the same time period, and were likely born, raised, and died on the island. The same analyses suggest animals from the earlier phase may have been imports from these more arid regions in central Turkey.

"The spread of agriculture resulted in the colonization of these regions by animals as well as people,” Birch said. “This study adds to the growing body of research that is giving us a more cohesive picture of the dynamics of agricultural spread in different environmental and climate settings through time."

The research was funded by a National Geographic Society, Committee for Research and Exploration Grant.

Image: Fig. 1 from the study.

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