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Climate shaped how Neolithic farmers and European hunter-gatherers interacted after a major slowdown from 6,100 bce to 4,500 bce

Abstract

The Neolithic transition in Europe was driven by the rapid dispersal of Near Eastern farmers who, over a period of 3,500 years, brought food production to the furthest corners of the continent. However, this wave of expansion was far from homogeneous, and climatic factors may have driven a marked slowdown observed at higher latitudes. Here, we test this hypothesis by assembling a large database of archaeological dates of first arrival of farming to quantify the expansion dynamics. We identify four axes of expansion and observe a slowdown along three axes when crossing the same climatic threshold. This threshold reflects the quality of the growing season, suggesting that Near Eastern crops might have struggled under more challenging climatic conditions. This same threshold also predicts the mixing of farmers and hunter-gatherers as estimated from ancient DNA, suggesting that unreliable yields in these regions might have favoured the contact between the two groups.

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Fig. 1: Four major axes of expansion of the Neolithic transition.
Fig. 2: Axis-specific expansion speeds and climatic conditions.
Fig. 3: Hunter-gather ancestry and climatic conditions.

Data availability

The data collected for this study are available from the Open Science Framework repository (https://osf.io/2hcqr/?view_only=c06b3949770549379ff7e5e4eceaf876).

Code availability

The code used in this study is available from the Open Science Framework repository (https://osf.io/2hcqr/?view_only=c06b3949770549379ff7e5e4eceaf876).

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Acknowledgements

R.B., A.E., M.L. and A.M. were supported by ERC Consolidator Grant 647797 ‘LocalAdaptation’. R.B. and J.S. were supported by ERC Consolidator Grant 617627 ‘ADaPt’. E.R.J. was supported by a Herchel Smith Research Fellowship. F.T. was supported by ERC Advanced Grant 295733 ‘LanGeLin’ and funds from the 5 × 1000 Year 2013 assigned to the University of Ferrara. V.S. and L.K.B. were supported by the Gates Cambridge Trust. P.M.D. was supported by the HERA Joint Research Programme ‘Uses of the Past’ (CitiGen) and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 649307. P.R.N. was supported by FP7 MC Career Integration Grant number 322261 ‘NEMO-ADAP’. We thank D. Reich, M. Lipson, A. Szecsenyi-Nagy and I. Mathieson for giving us pre-publication access to ancient DNA data. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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Contributions

A.M. devised the project. L.B. and R.P. collected the archaeological data. L.B. calculated the expansion routes together with A.M. R.B. curated the palaeoclimatic reconstructions and conducted the analyses of climate and expansion speed together with A.M. and A.E. L.K.B. conducted the CRW analysis together with A.M. E.R.J., M.L. and P.M.D. collected the ancient DNA data and ran the relevant analyses together with A.M. F.T. collated the information on Mesolithic sites. A.M. wrote the first draft of the paper together with L.B., R.B. and E.R.J. L.B., R.B., E.R.J., A.E., F.T., V.S., M.L., P.M.D., L.K.B., P.R.N., J.S., R.P. and A.M. interpreted the results and revised the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Lia Betti, Robert M. Beyer or Andrea Manica.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Stavroula Kousta.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Process of selecting the connecting segments of the Neolithic expansion routes.

a, Main vertices (blue circles) and routes of expansion (in yellow, red and green) from the core area (grey polygon) at time X before common era (BCE); Neolithic sites present before time X indicated as small black circle and blue circles, blue lines showing the minimum convex polygon around the sites’ distribution. b, At time X - 100 years, a new main vertex of expansion is identified by redrawing a minimum convex polygon over the updated set of Neolithic sites. Two possible connecting segments are identified (dashed lines), including the shortest segment connecting with previous vertices, and an additional segment whose length was less than 150% of the former. c, To identify the most likely expansion route, we counted the number of Neolithic sites that occurred in the following 300 years (up to time X - 400 years; small red circles) within a buffer zone of 50 Km either side of the connecting segments (orange shaded rectangles) and divided it by the segment length. d, The segment with the highest density of filling-in sites in the following 300 years was selected. e, Solid lines show the obtained expansion routes. Where these cross oceans in unrealistic ways, we added a minimal set of additional waypoints to force routes to run along coasts instead (dashed lines). Country borders were plotted using ref. 75.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Mean expansion speeds of each expansion axis.

Lisnes were obtained by taking the derivative of the cumulative distances in Fig. 1. Colours correspond to the same routes as in Fig. 1. Slowdowns are highlighted by a black line. The dashed black line represents a threshold below which expansions were considered to be subject to a slowdown.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Expansion axes and mean summer temperature.

a, The expansion axes superimposed on a map of mean summer temperature days at 5,500 BCE. b, Mean summer temperature experienced along each expansion axis. Blue, purple, orange and green lines represent the Mediterranean, Central European, Scandinavian, and Northeast European axis, respectively. The slowdown is highlighted by a black line.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Expansion axes and mean winter temperature.

a, The expansion axes superimposed on a map of mean winter temperature days at 5,500 BCE. b, Mean winter temperature experienced along each expansion axis. Blue, purple, orange and green lines represent the Mediterranean, Central European, Scandinavian.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Expansion axes and mean annual temperature.

a, The expansion axes superimposed on a map of mean annual temperature days at 5,500 BCE. b, Mean annual temperature experienced along each expansion axis. Blue, purple, orange and green lines represent the Mediterranean, Central European, Scandinavian, and Northeast European axis, respectively. The slowdown is highlighted by a black line.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Expansion axes and precipitation of the driest month.

a, The expansion axes superimposed on a map of precipitation of the driest month days at 5,500 BCE. b, Precipitation of the driest month experienced along each expansion axis. Blue, purple, orange and green lines represent the Mediterranean, Central European, Scandinavian, and Northeast European axis, respectively. The slowdown is highlighted by a black line.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Expansion axes and net primary productivity.

a, The expansion axes superimposed on a map of net primary productivity days at 5,500 BCE. b, Net primary productivity experienced along each expansion axis. Blue, purple, orange and green lines represent the Mediterranean, Central European, Scandinavian.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Distribution of Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites during the Holocene.

Maps are based on data from a, the Palaeolithic Radiocarbon Europe Database v2134 (younger than 9,500 BCE); b, Steele and Shennan33; and c, Pinhasi, Foley and Lahr32. Country borders were plotted using ref. 74.

Supplementary information

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Video 1

The expansion of farming based on dates of first arrival. Blue, purple, orange and green lines represent the Mediterranean, Central European, Scandinavian and Northeast European axes, respectively. Country borders were plotted using ref. 75.

Supplementary Data 1

Details of the archaeological sites with the earliest radiocarbon date reliably associated with early Neolithic cultures with evidence of domestication (including the list of problematic dates that were removed from the dataset).

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Betti, L., Beyer, R.M., Jones, E.R. et al. Climate shaped how Neolithic farmers and European hunter-gatherers interacted after a major slowdown from 6,100 bce to 4,500 bce. Nat Hum Behav 4, 1004–1010 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0897-7

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