Beginnings of Farming in Northwestern Europe

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Neolithic Sites of the Orkney Islands . . . . . 281

Hambledon Hill . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 283

Transition to Farming along the Lower Rhine and Meuse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 286

By the end of the fourth millennium b.c. most of the peripheral archipelagos of northwestern Europe had been colonized by Neolithic farmers and exploited for animal husbandry and cereal growing. At that time in the whole of northwestern Europe cattle—and livestock in general—were central to the economy and to symbolical systems, buried with the dead, accumulated in deposits, and represented on megaliths. Even in coastal areas stable isotope analyses (using carbon and nitrogen) quite paradoxically show evidence of a diet based mainly on terrestrial resources. This situation is strikingly different from the marine-based diet found in the same regions at the end of the Mesolithic, that is, one or two millennia earlier, depending on the region considered.

This essay reviews the processes involved in the far-reaching economical, social, and cultural transformations that led from harvesting the sea to stock rearing. Most curiously, while they led to the same results in the overall region, they varied widely in their nature and rhythms in the different parts of northwestern Europe. A new, "Neolithic" way of life appeared as early as 5000 b.c., or even a bit earlier, in the Paris basin and in western France, but it took a millennium for animal husbandry and crop growing to cross the English Channel and settle in Britain. The appearance and diffusion of domesticates and cultigens, as well as farming techniques, might have involved a native Mesolithic component in Brittany and, to some extent, in Ireland. In contrast, the establishment of farming in the Paris basin seems to have been linked largely to the arrival of new population groups, which were connected to the Rhine Valley and central Europe. Acknowledging that diversity of situations, the following text is divided into discussions of each particular region.


In the Paris basin farming appeared abruptly at the end of the sixth millennium b.c., in connection with the arrival of a late Linearbandkeramik population originating from more easterly areas. This culture, represented from the Balkans to the eastern fringe of the Paris basin, had very long houses and a distinctive pottery style with linear designs. It was responsible for the spread of domesticates and cultigens in its distribution area. Whether this diffusion also involved an active role of local Mesolithic populations—via exchanges and acculturation—is still a matter of debate. In the Paris basin, however, the situation seems relatively clear. During the last centuries of the sixth millennium b.c., in the eastern part of this region, a "package" of new techniques—plant growing, animal husbandry, stone polishing, and pottery making—appeared, together with long-houses and single inhumations in flat graves.

Cuiry-les-Chaudardes, in the Aisne Valley 150 kilometers northeast of Paris, is a famous village of this period. It was rebuilt several times and includes about thirty very long houses. Hamlets of this kind also existed in the Marne, the Seine, and the Yonne Valleys. Linearbandkeramik people introduced peas (Pisum sativum), lentils (Lens culinaris), emmer (Triticum dicoccum), einkorn (Triticum monococcum), and naked barley (Hordeum vulgare var. nudum) to the Paris basin. Flax (Linum usitatissimum) and poppy (Papaver somniferum), represented at some Linearbandkeramik sites in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, have not been found so far. As for domestic animals, cattle (Bos taurus), pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus), sheep (Ovis aries), and sometimes goats (Capra hircus) are present at Linearbandkeramik sites of the area. Animal husbandry usually relied on cattle and sheep. Dog (Canis familiaris) remains are very scarce at sites of this period, but this only means that the species probably was not consumed.

The hypothesis of local domestication of cattle and pigs (technically possible, as their wild progenitors—aurochs [Bos primigenius] and wild boar [Sus scrofa scrofa] respectively—were present in western Europe) that had been promoted for some time has been rejected in the light of new metrical analyses and, with respect to cattle, DNA results. Sheep and goats, which had no wild ancestors in Europe, were domesticated in the eastern Taurus region in present-day Turkey and in the Zagros region on the border between present-day Iraq and Iran during the ninth millennium b.c. and the beginning of the eighth millennium b.c. From the beginning of the seventh millennium they spread across Europe following the two main streams of Neolithic dispersal: along the northern coastline of the Mediterranean and across the Continent following the Danubian corridor. When they entered the Paris basin, shortly before 5000 b.c., these species had a long history of relations with humans and had traveled about 3,000 kilometers from their point of origin.

Scholars lose track of the Mesolithic cultures in the Paris basin several centuries before the arrival of the Linearbandkeramik. The direct causes of this disappearance are unclear, although they probably are linked to the arrival of farming groups. Data documenting the end of the Mesolithic are scarce in this region, but the evidence from sites at Noyensur-Seine in the southeast or at Dreuil-lès-Amiens in the north, both dated to the middle of the sixth millennium b.c., shows no warning of an imminent change. Both sites have yielded quantities of large game bones and no trace of domestic plants or animals. Noyen-sur-Seine, located at the very bottom of an old branch of the Seine, very likely was a fishing camp, as shown by numerous eel (Anguilla anguilla) and pike (Esox lucius) bones as well as the presence of fish traps made of willow twigs and hooks made of boar tusk enamel.

By the mid-fifth millennium the hamlets of longhouses vanished from the Paris basin, and causewayed enclosures appeared. In the southern part of the region an original culture, the "Cerny group," emerged. Its pottery retained features from the Linearbandkeramik, but other characteristics were entirely new: funerary practices, for instance, with the erection of earthen long barrows clustered in large cemeteries, which replaced the Linearbandkeramik small graveyards of flat graves. Balloy and Vignely, south and east of Paris respectively, as well as Passy-sur-Yonne and Villeneuve-la-Guyard, in northern Burgundy, are important cemeteries from this period. Grave goods included new items, such as wild boar tusks, deer canines, carnivore teeth, pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) shells, bird talons, and flint arrowheads. They evoke a very different universe from the one represented by joints of domestic animals placed in Linearbandkeramik graves. These new symbols might have had their roots in the Late Mesolithic, as suggested by the evocation of hunting and the close parallels with items recovered at the famous, well-preserved Late Mesolithic cemeteries of Téviec and Hoëdic in Brittany discussed below.

Important changes also took place in the economic sphere. The production of flint blades, previously important, declined, and the lithic industry shifted toward a heavy, flake-based one. Animal husbandry focused almost completely on cattle exploitation, and crop growing was marked by the disappearance of lentils and peas and the introduction, probably via connections with the south of France, of a new cereal, the bread-type wheat (Triticum aestivum/durum).

At the same time in the northeast of the Paris basin the Rössen and Epi-Rössen cultures developed in connection with the Rhine Valley. Although they were different from their Linearbandkeramik predecessor in the Paris basin, they retained an important blade component in their flint industries. Animal husbandry, which relied partly on pigs, showed significant differences with both the Linearbandkeramik and the Cerny group. On the basis of the Cerny group and the post-Linearbandkeramik Rössen culture, a northern branch of the Chasséen culture (Chasséen septentrional) and a westerly branch of the Michelsberg culture developed and interacted in the Paris basin toward the end of the fifth millennium.

A new cereal, the hulled barley (Hordeum vulgare var. vulgare), appeared in the records of this period and tended to replace the naked variety (Hordeum vulgare var. nudum). Poppy, which had been present for a long time in more easterly regions, is evident on several sites of either culture. Wetlands started to be extensively exploited at that time. The settlements of Bercy on the eastern outskirts of Paris and Louviers in Normandy are situated in regularly flooded areas, at the bottom of the Seine and the Eure Valleys respectively. Their locations offer good parallels with the Late Mesolithic site of Noyen-sur-Seine, but they are devoted to different activities: Bercy and Louviers probably are linked to the use of good pastures for cattle and not to fishing. The latter point is confirmed by stable isotope analysis (especially nitrogen) that shows no indication of freshwater fish in the human diet.


Claims have been made that domestic animals appeared at the very end of the Mesolithic in Brittany. These claims relied on cattle and sheep remains at Beg-an-Dorchenn, near Quimper, in the southwest of this region, and at Téviec, near Quiberon, in the south. Some of these remains have been reexamined and turned out to be of much more recent date (Iron Age). Moreover, the reanalysis of the faunal assemblages from settlements dating to the end of the Mesolithic in this part of western France has not verified remains of any domestic animals except dogs. (Remains of this species have been found at Téviec.) The meat supply was based on a combination of shellfish, fish, large terrestrial and marine wild mammals, and various birds, mostly ducks and auks. Stable isotope analyses (carbon) have shown that among these different food sources, marine items were the most important. Livestock also is absent from funerary contexts at Téviec and Hoëdic, two Late Mesolithic cemeteries in the south of Brittany. In these contexts grave goods of animal origin are deer antlers, deer and wild boar mandibles, carnivore paws, and white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) talons.

In the 1990s, however, two complete bovine skeletons, in all likelihood domestic, were discovered below a long mound at Locmariaquer, in the Gulf of Morbihan. They were associated with an early date, c. 5300–5000 b.c., which corresponds locally to the Late Mesolithic. There are two potential sources for these domesticates. The first is the area to the south of the Loire estuary, where Neolithic elements of southern origin (Late Cardial), dating to the final centuries of the sixth millennium, have been found. The second is the eastern part of Brittany, where a village with longhouses of Villeneuve-Saint-Germain (a culture of Linearbandkeramik descent) character has been dated to the beginning of the fifth millennium. Other research has discovered a Mediterranean Neolithic influence on the late Mesolithic lithic processing techniques in southern Brittany, suggesting that a southern route is most likely.

Acquiring domesticates does not translate into becoming a farmer if technical knowledge was not transferred at the same time. Unfortunately, we have no zooarchaeological record of what followed this very first occurrence of livestock in Brittany, acidic soils often being merciless to bones. A few sites of the fifth millennium b.c., located farther south in west-central France, have yielded faunal samples containing sparse domesticate remains. They could indicate a gradual adoption of animal keeping, but more conclusive data is needed.

In Brittany stable isotope data showed a dramatic shift of the human diet from seafood to terrestrial resources occurring during the fifth millennium b.c. This shift presupposes a profound economic change and could have resulted from the adoption of farming. Whatever the real place of domestic animals in the Neolithic economy of Brittany and west-central France at that time, there is strong evidence that cattle and small livestock were at the center of symbolic systems in these regions. They are represented on megaliths of this period, as on the broken slab reused as capstones at Gavrinis and Locmariaquer, in the Gulf of Morbihan, and buried with the dead, as in the long mound of Saint Michel at Carnac (also in the Gulf of Morbihan). Their horns also adorn bowls of the Chambon and Monbolo groups, which extend from the Loire estuary to the Pyrenees in the mid-fifth millennium.

The appearance of domestic plants and plant growing in western France is not easy to trace either, data being scarce and incomplete. Bread-type wheat is the most common cereal found in the early to mid-fifth millennium b.c. in western Normandy, Brittany, and west-central France. This tends to confirm the role, also evident in pottery styles and lithic technology, played by the Mediterranean Neolithic, together with a Neolithic of Linearbandkeramik origin, in the dissemination of farming in the western part of France. Examples of naked and hulled barley also have been found at sites of the mid-fifth millennium b.c. Neolithic farming also spread over peripheral islands, and most of them were exploited for animal keeping and probably cereal growing before the turn of the third millennium b.c. Settlements in Brittany dated to this period on Houat Island, off the southern coast, and on Molène Island, off the western coast, contained quantities of domestic animal remains, mostly of cattle and sheep.


Strikingly, there is no evidence of domestic livestock or cultigens in Britain before the first centuries of the fourth millennium b.c., even though farming had appeared at about the end of the sixth millennium on the other side of the English Channel, in the Rhine Valley and in northern France. Domestic animals and cultivated plants seem to have appeared in great numbers in southern England around 3900–3700 b.c., often in causewayed enclosures (Maiden Castle, Dorset, and Windmill Hill, Wiltshire) or in funerary contexts, as in earthen long barrows (e.g., Fussell's Lodge, Wiltshire), where they outnumber other species.

The sacred character of tombs and the still unclear function of monumental enclosures have led many authors to consider faunal and plant remains found in these contexts as not representative of what really was produced and consumed in everyday life. Similar characteristics (with domesticates far outnumbering wild animals and cereal grains found in high concentrations) have been noted from noncausewayed enclosure sites in southern England, such as the settlement at Runnymede, Surrey, or in middens at Hazleton and the Stumble (in Gloucestershire and Essex respectively). The picture provided by causewayed enclosures perhaps is not that far from the economic reality of the period. This could signify that farming had taken over abruptly in southern England sometime around 4000 b.c.

With the exception of the Maiden Castle assemblage, the faunal spectra in southern England at the beginning of the fourth millennium b.c. correspond to those identified in the Paris basin and adjacent areas to the east during the last centuries of the fifth millennium and the first centuries of the fourth millennium in both causewayed enclosures and unenclosed settlements. These assemblages either are overwhelmingly dominated by cattle or else feature pigs as a major element. The first type (cattle) belongs to Cerny and Chasséen contexts (mostly in the western half and south of the Paris basin) and the second (pigs) to Rössen and Michelsberg contexts (in the northeast of the Paris basin and the Rhine Valley). This could point toward the Paris basin and to the Rhine Valley as areas of origin for the husbandry practices that appeared in southern Britain at the beginning of the fifth millennium b.c. Supporting this point of view are metrical data that show that Early Neolithic cattle from southern Britain were distinctly smaller compared with the local aurochs (which seriously weakens any hypothesis of local domestication). They also were very close in size to contemporary domestic bovines from the Paris basin and, to some extent, from western Germany.

Cereals found at Early Neolithic sites of southern England are mostly emmer and bread wheat, with einkorn and barley also sometimes represented. These were all species known at that time on the other side of the English Channel. These finds are in agreement with indications yielded by the Early Neolithic ceramic evidence, with the widespread Carinated Bowl style echoing, though not exactly matching, Continental Michelsberg and northern Chasséen (Chasséen septentrional ) pottery. Direct proof of contact across the English Channel is also offered by the presence of jadeite axes of Alpine origin in the south of England (and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland) around 3800 b.c. The presence of a few metadolerite axes from Plussulien (a polished axe workshop in the center of Brittany) in the south and the southwest of Britain also suggests contacts along a more westerly route.


As in southern Britain, there is no trace of domestic livestock or cultivated plants in Scotland before c. 4000 b.c. In this region acid soils have destroyed most of the zooarchaeological record relevant to the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. In coastal areas, however, shell middens have compensated for this acidity and have produced valuable data regarding the Late Mesolithic use of animals and the human diet. Several sites (namely, Cnoc Coig, Caisteal Nan Gillean, and Cnoc Sligeach) on the island of Oronsay (Inner Hebrides), dated to the end of the sixth millennium into the fifth millennium, produced quantities of limpet shells (Patella sp.) and remains of fish, mainly saithe (Pollachius virens); gray seal (Halichoerus grypus); harbor seal (Phoca vitulina); red deer (Cervus elaphus); wild boar (Sus scrofa scrofa); and marine birds, among them, auks, gannet (Sula bassana), geese, and ducks. Morton, in Fife, on the eastern coast of Scotland, yielded similar data.

As in the Mesolithic of Brittany, stable isotope analyses carried out on Mesolithic human bones from Oronsay confirmed the importance of marine items in the diet. None of these sites has produced bones of domesticated animals. Mesolithic plant remains found at Staosnaig on Colonsay (an island near Oronsay) and at Morton do not represent cultivated crops either but include a wide collection of wild greens, such as lamb's-quarter (Chenopodium album), corn spurrey (Spergula arvensis), and at Staonsnaig, a huge quantity of hazelnuts (Corylus avellana). (A cereal grain found at Staosnaig was radiocarbon dated to the second millennium b.c.)

A much different picture is furnished by one of the first Neolithic sites in Scotland, at Balbridie, in the Grampians. Dated to c. 3900–3800 b.c., it has a large timber hall, 24 by 12 meters (fig. 1), and has produced large quantities (more than 20,000) of charred cereal grains. Emmer wheat is the most important, followed by naked barley and bread wheat. Flax seeds also were present in the assemblage. As mentioned earlier, this plant has not been found in the Paris basin and western France but was encountered in the Neolithic of more easterly territories, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. This would suggest that domestic crops were introduced to eastern Scotland from a region situated in one of those areas.

Connections with the easterly territories also are implied in the timber hall architecture that finds good parallels in the Rössen culture. Unfortunately, Balbridie hall did not produce bones, nor did other Early Neolithic sites of mainland Scotland. Key information on Neolithic animal keeping has been obtained from the Orkney Islands. Probably already known to Mesolithic people, as revealed by lithic evidence, the Orkney archipelago was reached by farmers c. 3600 b.c., only a few centuries after the appearance of farming in the rest of Britain. The Knap of Howar, on the island of Papa Westray, is a small farmstead dated to this period. Shellfish, fish, and seabirds still were exploited at that time, as in the Mesolithic of mainland Scotland, but domestic animal bones far outnumber them in the assemblage. Animal husbandry relied on cattle and sheep; there was evidence of pigs as well but in far smaller quantities. Domestic animals had to be brought to the islands by sea, which indicates the existence of large seaworthy boats. The same is true of the Outer Hebrides, where farmers landed during the fourth millennium, introducing cattle, sheep, and pigs.

Paradoxically, Neolithic farmers of about 3000 b.c. also brought a wild species—red deer—to the Orkneys (from where it disappeared sometime during the Middle Ages) and at roughly the same time to the Outer Hebrides. In the Orkneys isolation of these animals on small islands quickly led to a significant reduction in their stature. Reasons for their introduction are unclear; the need for antlers as raw material does not seem to be a sufficient explanation, and a deposit of complete animals, at the Links of Noltland (Westray, Orkney), a site dated to the late third millennium or early second millennium b.c., argues that symbolic aspects are not to be neglected. However this deposit is explained, this example weakens any rigid definition that might be offered of the domestication process and domestic status.


Red deer was a major terrestrial resource for most of the Mesolithic groups in Europe. Research has shown, however, that the species probably was absent at that time from Ireland. It is likely that it was (re)introduced to the island at approximately the same time as it was to the Orkneys and the Outer Hebrides, at the turn of the third millennium, at least one millennium after the end of the Mesolithic in the area. Thus, Irish Mesolithic peoples did not know red deer and relied primarily on wild boar, birds, and fishes (mostly members of the salmon family and eels) with shellfish as well on the coastline.

Domestic animals (mostly cattle but perhaps also sheep) seem to have appeared for the first time in coastal contexts, in middens dated to the end of the Irish Mesolithic (mid- to late fifth millennium b.c.). The radiocarbon date obtained directly from one cattle bone recovered at the Late Mesolithic site of Ferriter's Cove, in the Dingle Peninsula (south-western Ireland), is situated c. 4350 b.c. At that date animal husbandry and plant growing had not yet taken hold in Ireland nor in neighboring Britain. As cited earlier, sheep and goats originated in the Near East and could not have been domesticated from wild progenitors in Ireland. Aurochs (Bos primigenius) were absent from earlier, Pleistocene and Early Holocene, contexts and probably never existed in Ireland.

This evidence points strongly to one or more episodes of contact between certain parts of Ireland and the western Continent, where domesticates and husbandry appeared during the sixth millennium b.c. (in Spain, Portugal, and southern France) and the early fifth millennium b.c. (in northwestern France). The appearance of a pottery style of Breton inspiration (the "Castellic" style) at the end of the fifth millennium or at the beginning of the fourth millennium at Achnacreebeag, on the Argyll Peninsula in the north of the Irish Sea (fig. 2), might substantiate such contact. The process of domesticate introduction in a Late Mesolithic context noted at Ferriter's Cove has a close parallel in Brittany one millennium earlier. The few stable isotope data obtained from human bones from Ferriter's Cove do not reveal any important impact of this introduction on diet, which continued to rely mainly on marine resources. As in Brittany, there is no proof that the presence of domesticates led to the adoption of animal keeping; it is not known whether or not husbandry techniques were introduced at the same time as the animals.

Information at present supports the idea that definitive animal husbandry and plant growing appeared in Ireland c. 3800–3700 b.c. as part of the "Neolithic package" that included houses, pottery making, stone polishing, and the building of funerary monuments. Sites at Tankardstown, in County Limerick, and at Cloghers, in County Kerry, that date to this period have produced evidence of rectangular house layouts together with the bones of cattle and sheep. Numerous grains of emmer wheat also have been found at Tankardstown. House plans dating to the beginning of the fourth millennium are widespread in Ireland, but owing to the acidity of soils, bones have been preserved at only a few. The pottery style represented at Tankardstown is of the Carinated Bowl tradition, also widespread in Britain (see above). Thus, the appearance of farming c. 3800–3700 b.c. does not seem to be linked to the introduction of livestock in the second half of the fifth millennium.

The appearance of farming in northwestern Europe was a long and complex process, stretching over nearly two millennia and effected through exchanges, influences, colonization, and acculturation. From that point of view, distinct regions tell rather different stories (see table): colonization of new territories most likely played a role in the dissemination of farming techniques together with livestock and crops in the Paris basin, in southern Britain, and to some extent in Scotland. In Brittany and in fifth-millennium Ireland more complex processes of interaction between farming incomers and local foragers seem to have been involved in the introduction of domesticates. In Ireland it is likely that two separate episodes of introduction occurred, one affecting some coastal areas during the late fifth millennium, the other, more widespread and from a different source, occurring at the beginning of the fourth.

Another striking dimension of the process is the numerous long-distance contacts involved, following routes between the Lower Rhine Valley and the eastern coast of Britain, the Paris basin and southern England, and the Continental facade and the Irish Sea. These long-distance contacts are perceptible through the circulation of very different items, such as pottery styles, lithic technologies, polished axes, cereals, and domestic animals. No general model can capture this complexity, and Gabriel Cooney's statement in Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland that it is essential to think about the Neolithic "in terms of local worlds linked by exotic elements" exactly applies here.

See alsoThe Mesolithic of Northwest Europe (vol. 1, part 2); First Farmers of Central Europe (vol. 1, part 3); Neolithic Sites of the Orkney Islands (vol. 1, part 3); Hambledon Hill (vol. 1, part 3); Transition to Farming along the Lower Rhine and Meuse (vol. 1, part 3); The Megalithic World (vol. 1, part 4); Avebury (vol. 1, part 4); Barnenez (vol. 1, part 4); Boyne Valley Passage Graves (vol. 1, part 4).


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Anne Tresset