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The Neolithic (or "New" Stone Age) was a period in the development of human technology that is traditionally the last part of the Stone Age. The name was invented by Sir John Lubbock in 1865 as a refinement of the three-age system. The term is more commonly used in the Old World, as its application to cultures in the Americas and Oceania is problematic.

The Neolithic era follows the terminal Pleistocene Epipalaeolithic and early Holocene Mesolithic periods, beginning with the start of farming and ending when metal tools became widespread in the Copper Age (chalcolithic), Bronze Age or Iron Age, depending on geographical region. The term "Neolithic" thus does not refer to a specific chronological period, but rather to a suite of behavioural and cultural characteristics including the use of (both wild and domestic) crops and the use of domesticated animals. Some archaeologists have long advocated replacing "Neolithic" with a more descriptive term, such as Early Village Communities, although this has not gained wide acceptance.

Origins and regional development

In Southwest Asia (i.e., the Middle East), cultures identified as Neolithic began appearing soon after the 10th millennium BC. Early development occurred in the Levant (e.g., Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) and from there spread eastwards and westwards. Neolithic cultures are also attested in southeastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia by ca. 8000 BC.

Neolithic sites and traditions in South Asia include Mehrgarh in the Balochistan region from ca. 7000 BC, and Lahuradewa from ca. 6200 BC in the Ganges valley of the Indian subcontinent. Earlier-dated finds (ca. 8000 BC) of charcoal in some Lahuradewa sites provide indications of slash and burn cultivation techniques present in the area (National Seminar on the Archaeology of Ganga Plain, December 2004, Lucknow, India). Further to the west but still within the Ganges valley some studies of deposits at sites such as Sanai Tal lake have reported cereal pollens dated to ca. 13000 BC, indicating that this region may have exhibited some of the earliest-known Neolithic traits (National Seminar on the Archaeology of the Ganga Plain, December 2004, Lucknow, India).

In southeast Europe cultivational societies first appear by ca. 7000 BC, and in Central Europe by ca. 5500 BC. Among the earliest cultural complexes of this area are included the Starčevo-K'r's (Cris), Linearbandkeramic, and Vinča). Through a combination of cultural diffusion and migration of peoples, the Neolithic traditions spread west and northwards to reach northwestern Europe by around 4500 BC.

In Mesoamerica a similar set of events (i.e., crop domestication and sedentary lifestyles) occurred at about 4500 BC, although here the term 'Formative' is used instead of 'Neolithic'.

Early Neolithic farming is limited to a narrow range of crops (both wild and domestic) and the keeping of sheep and goats, but by about 7000 BC it included the domestication of cows and pigs, the establishment of permanently or semi-permanently inhabited settlements and the use of pottery. Not all of the cultural elements characteristic of the Neolithic (i.e., pottery, permanent villages, and the farming of domestic crops and animals) appear in the same order -- e.g. the earliest farming societies in the Near East do not use pottery, and in Britain it remains unclear to what extent plants were domesticated in the earliest Neolithic, or even whether permanently settled communities existed. In other parts of the world, such as Africa, India and Southeast Asia, independent domestication events led to their own regionally-distinctive Neolithic cultures which arose completely independent of those in Europe and Southwest Asia. Early Japanese societies used pottery in the Mesolithic for example.


A significant and far-reaching shift in human subsistence and lifestyle was to be brought about in those areas where crop farming and cultivation were first developed, then gradually improved. In these areas, the previous reliance upon a more nomadic hunter-gatherer subsistence technique was at first supplemented, and then increasingly replaced by, a reliance upon the yield produced from cultivated lands. These developments are also believed to have greatly encouraged the growth of settlements, since it may be supposed that the increased need to spend more time and labour in tending crop fields required more localised dwellings. This trend would continue into the Bronze Age, eventually giving rise to towns, and later cities and states whose larger populations could be sustained by the increased productivity from cultivated lands.

The profound differences in human interactions and subsistence methods associated with the early onset of agricultural practices in the Neolithic have been called the Neolithic Revolution, a term first coined by the Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe.

One potential benefit of the increasing sophistication and development of farming technology was an ability (if conditions allowed) to produce a crop yield which would be surplus to the immediate needs of the community. When such surpluses were produced they could be preserved and sequestered for later use during times of seasonal shortfalls, traded with other communities (giving rise to a nascent non-subsistence economy), and in general allowed larger populations to be sustained.

However, it should be noted that early farmers were also adversely affected in times of crop failures, such as may be caused by drought or pestilence. In instances where agriculture had become the predominant way of life the sensitivity to these shortages could be particularly acute, affecting agrarian populations to a sometimes dramatic extent which otherwise may not have been routinely experienced by former hunter-gatherer communities. Nevertheless, despite what must have been periodic setbacks in general agrarian communities proved successful, and their growth and the expansion of territory under cultivation continued.

Another significant change undergone by many of these newly-agrarian communities was one of diet. Whereas hunter-gatherer communities typically have diets with a larger proportion of animal protein, those farmers whose opportunities and motivation for hunting had lessened might have their food intake derived in large part just from the proceeds of their plant cultivation. The relative nutritional benefits and disadvantages of these dietary changes, and their overall impact on early societal development is still the subject of some debate.

The domestication of animals, either as working animal or as a food source (livestock), was another innovation which altered the societal characteristics of those Neolithic communities which adopted it. Animal by-product of dung could be used as a fertilizer, as fuel or even as a building material. Apart from providing a ready source of protein and dairy-based products, livestock animals could also be used for barter and trade. For those communities where pastoralism of grazing animals was developed, this often implied a more nomadic existence than is the case for purely crop-based farming, as the animals were herded or migrated to seasonal pastures (a practice known as transhumance).


From: The Races of Europe, Carleton Stevens Coon (1939)

The word Neolithic has two meanings, one purely technical, and the other of broader implications: (1) the manufacture and use of polished stone implements, in the form of axes, adzes, gouges, chisels, and hoes; (2) the conquest of the procreative forces of the biological world, through agriculture and animal husbandry. These two definitions, implying tools on the one hand and food on the other, do not always overlap, for some peoples may be considered Neolithic in one of the two senses only. Of the two, only the second is of really vital importance in human history. In fact, the change from food-gathering to food-producing was the greatest step in human development since the invention of language. (1)

The initial adoption of a Neolithic economy occurred, however, at few centers on the earth; one in the Old World and another in the New are all of which we can be sure at present. In the Old World, the plants and animals which were suitable for domestication ranged in a wild state in the highland zone from Anatolia to the Indus, with some species extending out along the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Abyssinia may have been a separate center for the domestication of some grain plants, but probably not of animals. Perhaps when the Yemen shall have been studied by economic botanists, this fertile highland on the other side of the Red Sea will assume a like importance.

In the millennia during which the glacier was retreating to its Scandinavian center and growing thinner, the climatic zones which made a well-watered grassland of this entire plateau belt moved northward, and the regions in which Old World civilization originated grew gradually drier. Afghanistan and Iran, now for the most part nearly desert plateaux, were then fertile; in Egypt the valley of the Nile was a string of swamps and jungly lakes, full of crocodiles and hippopotami.

It is now generally believed, although still unproven, that agriculture and the domestication of animals did not arise in the three valleys of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus, but in the highlands between them. The river valleys became important as centers of civilization because seasonal flooding and the deposit of fresh alluvium made it impossible for primitive farmers to exhaust the soil, thus permitting sedentary residence; furthermore, the development of irrigation and drainage canals were public works necessitating social solidarity, and kingdoms arose here while the highlanders kept to their villages and fought their feuds, as many of them still do today.

As Childe has pointed out, the acquisition of a new and more productive means of economic life has as one of its first effects an increase in the population. Agriculture and the domestication of animals did not appear in one day. The acquisition of a full Neolithic economy may have taken one or more millennia, and it only very gradually replaced hunting and collecting. The primitive slash-and-burn system, which must have been the first followed, and which was the earliest in Europe, prevents intensive use of the soil and promotes a slow but nevertheless positive type of nomadism.

The desiccation which followed the movement of the rain zones northward resulted initially in the migration of peoples into Palestine, North Africa, and southern Europe, in the form of the Mesolithic invasions, which we have already studied. These movements were not extensive, however, because the new economy of food production permitted a greater utilization of the drying soil on which wild animal and vegetable life, useful to man, had grown scarce. For a while emigration was unnecessary; but when the inevitable population increase had come, western Asia overflowed, and farmers moved into regions where the climate which had formerly blessed their homelands now prevailed.

The desiccation which followed the shifting of the cyclonic storm belts did not become complete until what is called, in northern Europe, Atlantic time, that is, in the neighborhood of 5000 B.C. Only by this time had Europe, south of the newly formed northern forest, really become climatically what the highland belt had been before: a temperate, well-watered parkland, instead of a chilly, treeless plain.

The same general date, 5000 B.C., may be tentatively set as the time of the beginning of agriculture and animal domestication. It was not until almost 2000 years later, however, that the disciples of this new economy were to expand and invade more than the threshold of Europe.

The Neolithic invaders of Europe, seeking new lands for farming and grazing, came as a further result of the same environmental shift which had impelled the earlier Mesolithic invaders, whom they supplemented without a gap, and with whom they blended. But the Neolithic invasion was not as simple as the Mesolithic. As the new economy spread, it affected a number of peoples. whose reactions were not all the same. Europe, the flew Stronghold of a lost climate, was broached in different places and in different ways.

MAP. 1

Map 1 will show, in a very general sense, the time scale of Neolithic invasions into Europe, and the routes by which these invasions may have come. It is to be noted that Crete became Neolithic before any of the European mainland, followed by Greece and the land near the Bosporus; eventually these agriculturalists spread into all the northern Mediterranean lands by sea. Meanwhile, other Neolithic farmers had been moving along the coast of North Africa from Egypt, and had crossed over Gibraltar to invade Spain. Hence they migrated northward and eastward, as far as the Swiss lakes and the Rhine.(2 Their agriculture, and their pig, sheep, and cattle husbandry, eventually spread over most of western Europe and even into England. At the same time still other farmers, in this case coming from Anatolia, or southeastern Russia, or both, were moving up the Danube, and eventually established themselves in the fertile valleys of Moravia and Bohemia, and even farther westward until they met the stream coming northward over Gibraltar.

These three movements were the primary invasions which brought a new, agricultural population into Europe. Later in the Neolithic there were two other movements of a different character. One was that of the Megalith-builders who sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and skirted the western shores of Europe to the British Isles and Scandinavia. These seafarers probably introduced the new economy to the northern isles and Scandinavia. Then there were the Corded people, so-called on account of the decoration on their pottery�who came from some mysterious point in southern Russia or the steppes of western Asia north of the plateau, and who were probably less dependent on farming than on pastoral nomadjsm and trade. Just as the Megalithic people carried civilization to the far western corners of Europe by sea, so the Corded people introduced the new enlightenment into the north, where the old hunting and fishing life survived.

Five invasions, then, converging on Europe from the south and east, brought a new population to Europe during the third millennium B.C., and furnished the racial material from which living European populations are to a large extent descended.

Mesolithic and Neolithic crania of Mediterranean type

Fig. 1. Muge, Portugal. Late Mesolithic or Earliest Neolithic.

Fig. 2. Long Barrow, British Neolithic.

Fig. 3. Corded from Gotland, Neolithic.

Redrawn to scale: Fig. 1, from Vallois, H., Anth, vol. 40, 1930, Fig. 2, p. 34. Fig. 2, from Crania Britannica, vol. 2, Plate 59. Fig. 3, from Kossinna, G., Ursprung und Verbreitung der Indogermanen, Fig. 102, p. 90.



Y chromosomal haplogroup J as a signature of the post-neolithic colonization of Europe

Hum Genet. 2004 Oct;115(5):357-71. Epub 2004 Aug 21.

Di Giacomo F, Luca F, Popa LO, Akar N, Anagnou N, Banyko J, Brdicka R, Barbujani G, Papola F, Ciavarella G, Cucci F, Di Stasi L, Gavrila L, Kerimova MG, Kovatchev D, Kozlov AI, Loutradis A, Mandarino V, Mammi' C, Michalodimitrakis EN, Paoli G, Pappa KI, Pedicini G, Terrenato L, Tofanelli S, Malaspina P, Novelletto A.

  • In order to attain a finer reconstruction of the peopling of southern and central-eastern Europe from the Levant, we determined the frequencies of eight lineages internal to the Y chromosomal haplogroup J, defined by biallelic markers, in 22 population samples obtained with a fine-grained sampling scheme. Our results partially resolve a major multifurcation of lineages within the haplogroup. Analyses of molecular variance show that the area covered by haplogroup J dispersal is characterized by a significant degree of molecular radiation for unique event polymorphisms within the haplogroup, with a higher incidence of the most derived sub-haplogroups on the northern Mediterranean coast, from Turkey westward; here, J diversity is not simply a subset of that present in the area in which this haplogroup first originated. Dating estimates, based on simple tandem repeat loci (STR) diversity within each lineage, confirmed the presence of a major population structuring at the time of spread of haplogroup J in Europe and a punctuation in the peopling of this continent in the post-Neolithic, compatible with the expansion of the Greek world. We also present here, for the first time, a novel method for comparative dating of lineages, free of assumptions of STR mutation rates.


The C282Y mutation may have been positively selected as it mitigates the infertility of celiac disease

Med Hypotheses. 2006;66(4):769-72. Epub 2005 Dec 13. Whittington C.

  • Celiac disease and C282Y homozygous hemochromatosis have a similar increasing incidence across Europe. Both have gradients of frequency which increase from Turkey to North West Europe and culminate with a high frequency in Ireland. These two gradients follow the path of the Neolithic settlers who reached the edge of Europe at Ireland. Celiac disease and C282Y hereditary hemochromatosis have opposite effects on iron absorption and probably on the absorption of some other divalent metals including copper. The C282Y mutation is estimated to be some 2000 years old. Celiac disease is likely a much older disorder. The C282Y mutation may have been positively selected for as it increases absorption of divalent metal ions in celiac disease and thus has a mitigating effect on the infertility which may be associated with celiac disease.
  • Hemochromastosis genomic Profile, including C282Y mutation
The Neolithic revolution of bacterial genomes

Trends Microbiol. 2006 Mar 25; [Epub ahead of print] Mira A, Pushker R, Rodriguez-Valera F.

  • Current human activities undoubtedly impact natural ecosystems. However, the influence of Homo sapiens on living organisms must have also occurred in the past. Certain genomic characteristics of prokaryotes can be used to study the impact of ancient human activities on microorganisms. By analyzing DNA sequence similarity features of transposable elements, dramatic genomic changes have been identified in bacteria that are associated with large and stable human communities, agriculture and animal domestication: three features unequivocally linked to the Neolithic revolution. It is hypothesized that bacteria specialized in human-associated niches underwent an intense transformation after the social and demographic changes that took place with the first Neolithic settlements. These genomic changes are absent in related species that are not specialized in humans.


Haplogroup frequency correlations in Southeastern Europe

Society for Nordisch Anthropology


1. Childe, V. Gordon, The Dawn of European Civilization; The Most Ancient East; The Danube in Prehistory; New Light on the Most Ancient East; Man Makes Himself.

2. Menghin, O., Weltgeschichte der Steinzeit, pp. 294�302.