The origin and spread of Neolithic plant economies in the Near East and Europe

The nature of the processes by which the economic and cultural elements regarded as Neolithic spread from the Near East across Europe continues to be the subject of much debate, despite or perhaps because of the lack of detailed information about what those elements were and how they differed from region to region. For example, the latest synthesis of the ‘neolithisation’ of Europe (Price 2000) omits any references to specific archaeobotanical data and shows very little awareness of the methods developed in the Near East to investigate the inception of cultivation and the early stages of the dispersal of techniques required to sustain the successful production of crops.

The lack of attention to the specifics of the plant economy is especially unsatisfactory because extensive work in recent years has produced large quantities of high-quality archaeobotanical information from sites throughout the Near East and Europe. However, it has not been brought together or analysed in a systematic manner on a large spatial scale. The analysis of detailed information at such a large scale is essential for understanding the origins and spread of Neolithic plant economies.

Aims and objectives

In this light, the aim of this project is to answer a series of key questions concerning the spread of the earliest domesticates from their origins in the Near East into and throughout Europe, on the basis of the compilation of a comprehensive database of archaeobotanical data from relevant sites.
- What are the characteristics of early Neolithic plant economies in the various regions of the Near East and Europe?
- What are the key factors that account for variation in early Neolithic archaeobotanical assemblages and plant economies: cultural tradition, local environment or spatial diffusion across cultural and environmental boundaries?
- What innovations were introduced as Neolithic plant economies spread from their area of origin?
- Was the speed of spread of Neolithic plant economies across the Near East and Europe related to adaptive changes in plant-based subsistence?

Principal investigator
Dr Sue Colledge
Principal project staff
Professor Stephen Shennan
Start date
Sunday, July 1, 2001
Completion date
Tuesday, June 1, 2004
Source material
Achaeobotanical data from early crop containing details of the wild and domestic plants found on Mesolithic and Neolithic sites.

Hunt, H.V., M. Vander Linden, X. Lui, G. Motuzaite-Matuzeviciute, S. Colledge, M. Jones. 2008. Millets across Eurasia: chronology and context of early records of the genera Panicum and Setaria from archaeological sites in the Old World. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17 Supplement 1: S5-S18.

Conolly, J., S. Colledge, S. Shennan. 2008. Founder effect, drift, and adaptive change in domestic crop use in early neolithic Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(10): 2797-2804.

Coward, F., S. Shennan, S. Colledge, J. Conolly, M. Collard. 2008. The Spread of Neolithic Plant Economies from the Near East to Northwest Europe: a phylogenetic Analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(1): 42-56.

Colledge, S. and J. Conolly. 2007. The neolithisation of the Balkans: a review of the archaeobotanical evidence. In A Short Walk through the Balkans: the first farmers of the Carpathian basin and its adjacent regions, edited by P. Biagi and M. Spataro, 25-38. Quaderno 12, Atti della Società per la Preistoria e Protostoria della Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia. Trieste.

Colledge, S. and J. Conolly. 2007. A review and synthesis of the evidence for the origins of farming on Cyprus and Crete. In The Origins and Spread of Domestic Crops in Southwest Asia and Europe, edited by S. Colledge and J. Conolly, 53-74. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.

Colledge, S. and J. Conolly (eds) 2007. The Origins and Spread of Domestic Crops in Southwest Asia and Europe. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.

Colledge, S., J. Conolly, S. Shennan. 2005. The evolution of Neolithic farming from SW Asian origins to NW European limits. European Journal of Archaeology. 8/2: 137-156.

Colledge, S., J. Conolly, S. Shennan. 2004. Archaeobotanical Evidence for the Spread of Farming in the Eastern Mediterranean. Current Anthropology Volume 45 Supplement: S35-S58.

Colledge, S. 2004. Reappraisal of the archaeobotanical evidence for the emergence and dispersal of the ‘founder crops’. In ¬Neolithic Revolution: New perspectives on south-west Asia in the light of recent discoveries in Cyprus, edited by E. Peltenburg and A. Wasse, 49-60. Levant Supplementary Series Volume 1. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Colledge, S. 2002. Identifying pre-domestication cultivation in the archaeobotanical record using multivariate analysis: presenting the case for quantification. In The Transition from Foraging to Farming in Southwest Asia, edited by R. Cappers, S. Bottema and U. Baruch, 141-152. Berlin: ex orient.