Theme 3: Chronicling, mapping and correlating patterns of environmental and cultural change

Researchers: Volker Heyd (PI), Arek Marciniak (PI), Mark Thomas (PI), Jessica Smyth (PDRA), Adrian Timpson (RA).


The adoption of farming and greater reliance on cattle-based subsistence strategies occurred alongside substantial cultural and environmental change, e.g., greater impact on the landscape, new architectural and settlement styles and different forms of social organisation. One of the major selective forces shaping subsistence is likely to have been ecological conditions, such as soil type and climate. We know that selective crop choice and a concomitant reduction in crop diversity occurred as many of the crop species present in Aegean and south-eastern European Neolithic societies are absent in temperate Neolithic Europe (Kreuz et al. 2005; Conolly et al. 2008). Similar challenges may also have been faced with livestock, originally domesticated in the Near East.

Approximate posterior density of region of origin for LP/dairying co-evolution (Itan et al. 2009, PLoS Computational Biology)

Approximate posterior density of region of origin for LP/dairying co-evolution
(Itan et al. 2009, PLoS Computational Biology)

Using the biochemical and archaeozoological evidence from Themes 1 and 2, subsistence adaptation in the form of new pastoral practices and the use of secondary products will be investigated. This will be integrated with evidence from genetic adaptations, both of humans and domesticates (e.g. Itan et al. 2009; Purugganan & Fuller 2009). Demography plays an important role in determining the extent to which populations adapt to specific environments (e.g. Powell et al. 2009; Bocquet-Appel 2008). Migration, colonization, admixture and mating systems can affect the dissemination of culturally-inherited skills, subsistence strategies and gene variants, while cultural and genetic drift can also shape the chance maintenance or loss of cultural traits and alleles. For this reason environmental and climate change will be modelled at a series of different scales: within and between settlements, at regional, supra-regional levels, and across populations (Shennan 2002; Richerson & Boyd 2005).

The interweaving of environmental and cultural change is crucial in understanding the roles played by diet and domesticates in the mechanisms of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition and the development of early farming society in central Europe. Detailed examination of the archaeological context of LBK ceramic and faunal remains is thus another key element of Theme 3. Building on recent databases (e.g. Bickle & Whittle 2013), such a survey will assess the impact dairying and cattle-based agriculture had on the social structures of the LBK.

Specific objectives

  • To bring together (i) isotopic and dating evidence from the pottery residues and animal remains, (ii) a survey of the archaeological context (settlement, ceremonial and funerary evidence) of the LBK, and (iii) palaeoenvironmental/climate records.
  • To identify the critical drivers related to animal management, processing and, meat and milk consumption, for LBK people.
  • To model and assess the interplay between changing environmental, subsistence and cultural factors through in space and through time.

Two major hypotheses will be tested:

  • Regional and temporal variation in environment and climate correlate with domestic faunal subsistence strategies, and social and cultural variations;
  • Changes in subsistence and a shift to a mainly dairy-based economy within the LBK was a critical driver in the evolution of LP and dairying in Europe.

Materials and methods

Theme 3 employs two related approaches to understanding the relationship between environmental conditions and cultural/subsistence change in the LBK:

  • Determination of spatiotemporal correlations between environmental factors and markers of subsistence activity.
  • Generative spatially explicit simulation modelling of LBK demographic, cultural and genetic history coupled with approximate Bayesian computation (ABC).

Data is collated on a range of environmental proxies and tested for correlations across locations and through time with biomolecular markers of subsistence, settlement practices, archaeological evidence for social structure and material culture. Subsistence activity and demographic change is quantified using summed calibrated 14C date probability densities and correlations tested. A super-regional and systems-level integrative approach will also be undertaken through spatially explicit simulation modelling and ABC. Results will be translated back to LBK settlement and social systems, firstly on the intra-site level; secondly on an inter-site level within a region or two neighbouring regions; and then thirdly on the super-regional level of the whole LBK distribution, with strong implications on LBK culture as a whole, and its people.

Archaeological evidence

Ceramic and faunal remains, mortuary and settlement evidence.

Environmental proxies

Palaeoclimate, palaeovegetation, site location and soil type.

 Relating demographic proxies for population to subsistence and cultural practices

Summed calibrated 14C date probability densities are used as proxies for population size change and the timing of events and will be used to track the rise and fall of different subsistence practices at the target sites.

 Correlation analysis

Simulated patterns of archaeological activity are generated and compared to observed summed 14C date probability densities, enabling features of changes in subsistence activity proxies, as well as correlations with environmental factors, to be assessed statistically.

 Generative spatially explicit simulation modelling and ABC

Data sources are integrated in a statistically robust manner to identify the best explanations for the complex interrelationships between palaeoclimate and palaeoecological factors, and biomolecular, faunal, genetic and cultural markers of subsistence during the LBK.