First Farmers of Europe

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Achilleion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 226

Last Hunters and First Farmers on Cyprus . 229

The first farmers in Europe arrived on the shores of Greece as migrants in the first quarter of the seventh millennium b.c. They brought with them an economy based on the cultivation of wheat, barley, peas, and beans and the herding of sheep, goats, cows, and pigs. The striking feature of this Early Neolithic ("New Stone Age") culture was its life in compact villages. These villages were recognizably modern in form and had populations of perhaps 300 or 400 people, four times larger than the loosely organized bands of foragers that had preceded them in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. The first farmers came from western and southern Anatolia (modern Turkey) and sailed across the Aegean Sea to Crete and mainland Greece. A second wave of migrants, much smaller than the first, may have infiltrated into northern Greece by land through Turkish Thrace. The precise coordinates of the point of origin and the forces that set all these migrants in motion remain among the most controversial issues in Aegean prehistory.

Greece before the arrival of Neolithic immigrants was sparsely inhabited. Upper Palaeolithic foragers (c. 42,000–15,000 b.c.) had occupied many parts of Greece, including Thessaly, Epirus, and the Argolid, at the end of the Pleistocene era. They left behind hearths, animal bones, plant remains, and stone tools in small caves and rock shelters. After the last glacial maximum (c. 20,000 b.c.), most of the known Palaeolithic sites were abandoned, and by the end of the Pleistocene the human presence in Greece was greatly reduced. Large tracts of land, and all of the islands, appear to have been unoccupied for several millennia. People trickled back into the country during the following Mesolithic period in the early Holocene (c. 9000–7000 b.c.). Mesolithic sites are found in Epirus, Thessaly, the Argolid, and some islands (e.g., Corfu in the Ionian Sea, Youra, and Kythnos in the Aegean). Mesolithic foragers were evidently seafarers specializing in the intensive exploitation of marine and other aquatic resources, such as shellfish and large deep-sea fish. They confined their settlements to the coastal fringes of the mainland, where they left their stone tools, plant remains, hearths, and human burials in caves and at open sites situated among the sand dunes that overlooked the estuaries and lagoons that were formed by the rapidly rising level of the sea. The best-known site of this period was excavated at the Franchthi Cave in the southern Argolid (Peloponnese) in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was for a time thought possible that these Mesolithic foragers, whose origins and connections, if any, are with the Palaeolithic foragers who preceded them, may have independently taken the first steps toward the domestication of plants and animals that form the backbone of the later Neolithic economy. This hypothesis of independent local invention of agriculture, however, is not supported by archaeological evidence and has been abandoned. The first farmers brought their village-based farming economy with its domesticated plants and animals with them from regions where it was already an old and established pattern. The archaeological record shows that the farmers appeared suddenly c. 7000–6800 b.c., bringing with them not just a new economy but also an entirely new way of life, material culture, and settlement pattern. There is a clear cultural break between the latest Mesolithic communities and the new Neolithic village-based societies.


Before turning to the important question of the homeland of the migrants and the reasons for their migration, the characteristics of Europe's earliest farming culture should be described. The chronological range for the first farmers spans the early seventh to the early sixth millennium b.c., a period archaeologists call the Early Neolithic period. The Neolithic in Greece as a whole consists of four periods, designated Early, Middle, Late, and Final, and it ends c. 3200 b.c. with the beginning of the Bronze Age. This article is concerned only with the first of these periods.

The first villages are found in the eastern half of the country, from Macedonia in the north to the Peloponnese Peninsula in the south. The largest concentration of villages is in Thessaly. The islands were not inhabited, except for the largest (such as Crete, Euboea, and Corfu), where there were no more than one or two sites. The mainland cannot be described as densely inhabited. There are probably no more than about three hundred Early Neolithic sites, and their total population at the time was no more than a few tens of thousands. The villages are found well inland, often near a copious spring or a perennial river, such as the Peneios River in Thessaly. The early farmers apparently selected only the best and most reliable soils for farming. Studies of pollen from cores taken from lakes and swamps show that forest cover was not adversely affected by clearing of fields for nearly a thousand years after the first farmers arrived. One can conclude from this that village farming was simple, based on the clearing of small fields that could be cultivated with digging sticks and hoes to grow wheat, barley, and pulses. Herds of cattle and sheep were grazed on meadows in nearby hills. Villages were relatively few in number and small in size, and they were distributed more or less evenly throughout large areas: there are about 120 Early Neolithic sites in eastern Thessaly with an area of nearly 1,000 square kilometers, and this is the most densely populated region. There was little competition among the villages for resources, and if one can judge by the seemingly undifferentiated architecture and burial practices, little in the way of social competition within them.

This does not mean that these farming communities were simple in the way of the earlier Palaeolithic bands. The material culture recovered by archaeologists throws much light on the lives of these people, pointing to a level of complexity unparalleled in earlier periods. Early Neolithic villages had an open plan, as can be seen at Nea Nikomedeia in Macedonia (fig. 1) and Sesklo in Thessaly, with rectangular houses of wattle-and-daub construction (upright wooden poles set in foundation trenches and with smaller branches woven between them and plastered over with puddled clay) or of mud brick laid in courses on fieldstone foundations (fig. 2). Roofs were thatch and clay supported by cross beams and a system of internal clay buttresses or wooden supports. Windows and doors, judging from surviving clay house models found on Neolithic sites, were few and simple. Internal arrangements were not very complex either: an open central hearth for light, heat, and cooking; some stone- or clay-sided boxes for storage; and a few raised benches of clay to serve as furniture. Textiles probably brightened and softened the interiors, and the outside walls were perhaps painted. The decorations on the walls of the house models have geometric designs resembling textiles and painted pottery.

The inventory of Neolithic material culture is rich and varied. Metals in the earliest period were unknown. Shell and bone were used to fashion hooks, fastenings for clothing, and personal ornaments in the form of bangles and amulets. Curious mushroom-shaped plugs of fine stone are thought to be studs for the ears or lips. Stamps of stone and clay with geometric designs reminiscent of textile designs may have been used to stamp pigment on skin and textiles or perhaps to mark ownership of goods. Fine-grained rocks, often imported from distant sources, were fashioned into ground stone celts, rectangular or trapezoidal implements with beveled edges mounted in antler sleeves and wooden handles, used as axes and adzes. Flaked-stone tools were fashioned from long parallel-sided blades of flint and obsidian. The high quality of the blades suggests that specialized flintknappers served Neolithic communities, and the importation of obsidian from the island of Melos to all the mainland sites is evidence of organized long-distance trade. Remarkable also are large blades of light-brown flint, nearly a chalcedony, that were imported from outside Greece, perhaps from Bulgaria or Romania. Small figurines of clay and stone—often, but not exclusively, depicting females—have abstract proportions and features, especially curious coffee bean–shaped eyes. These easily recognizable figurines have excited considerable discussion, particularly from proponents of a so-called mother goddess cult. Careful analysis of the figurines and their contexts has failed, however, to provide a clear-cut explanation of their meaning, and they may be anything from children's toys to representations of votaries or a variety of ghosts, spirits, or deities.

Decorated pottery constitutes one of the most interesting classes of finds from Early Neolithic villages. In the earliest phases it is painted in one dominant color, either red or black, but it soon came to be painted with abstract geometric designs that again call to mind shapes seen in modern local textiles and basketry. The shapes are simple, with small rounded bowls and jars predominating. The shapes and their specific decorations vary from region to region, which suggests to archaeologists that after an initial colonization the different regions of Greece (e.g., Thessaly, Peloponnese, Crete) began to develop along parallel but independent lines. The analysis of the designs found on the pottery of the later phases has been used to establish connections between sites within regions, perhaps resulting from the practice of marital exogamy (in this case, female potters moving from their home villages to their husbands' villages). The Neolithic pots do not seem to have been used for cooking or storage, and one of their most important uses was perhaps to signal status and communicate symbolic messages encoded in the decoration.

Such glimpses into the social lives of the first farmers offered by the evidence of jewelry, figurines, and pots are tantalizing but incomplete. As already noted, the generally undifferentiated house architecture within settlements does not point to great differences in wealth or status. Although larger and more finely constructed buildings have been identified at Nea Nikomedeia and Sesklo, these may be shrines, chieftains' houses, or some other kind of public buildings. The evidence is too slight to reach reliable conclusions.

Burial practices are widely believed by archaeologists to be good indicators of the status and standing of the living, and rich graves found among poor ones are usually interpreted to mean that similar differences in wealth existed among the living. Neolithic burial practices are as difficult to interpret as the figurines, pottery, and architecture. Children are found buried under house floors, but this sort of intramural burial is common in societies around the world and through time. Adult burials, curiously, are only rarely encountered. The detailed study of the Neolithic burials at Franchthi Cave serves to illustrate the evidence. In the millennium from 6500 to 5500 b.c. there are eight burials consisting of infants or young children interred in pits. Adult burials are missing, although individual bones from adults were found throughout the site. Even given the limitations of preservation and excavation, it must be inferred that the majority of adults were disposed of elsewhere. To judge from earlier and later burial practices in Greece, adult bodies were disposed of in ways that may have included cremation, exposure, and interment.

Burial goods are sparse. Only one grave had unequivocal offerings, a baby with a broken (ritually "killed") pot and a small marble bowl with three feet. Clear indications of differences of wealth and status are otherwise not seen. The different methods of disposal for adults and infants may be an indication of rank, status, and position. At Franchthi there were also isolated bones from hands and feet among other parts of the body, some of which were found in rooms of houses. This interesting emphasis on body parts may be an echo of the widespread Near Eastern practice of honoring ancestors by retaining body parts (often the head) for veneration in houses. While it is too soon to draw firm conclusions about Europe's first farmers from this scanty evidence, clearly the belief systems and social lives of these people may have been more complex than the simple architecture of the villages would otherwise lead one to believe.


Whence came the first farmers in Europe? Nearly a century of archaeological research has given a decisive answer to this question. All lines of evidence point to the Near East, specifically the region stretching from the Levant north through Syria and Turkey to the Zagros Mountains in Iraq, as the place where village-based agricultural economies made their first appearance. This core area, a vast arc encompassing many different environments and climatic niches, was labeled the Fertile Crescent by the American archaeologist James Henry Breasted. The wild ancestors of the plants and animals that form the core of modern agricultural economies are found here, as are the remains of Early Neolithic sites, such as Jericho, Abu Hureyra, and Jarmo. These sites date from as early as 10,500 b.c., much earlier than any sites in Greece. The principal characteristics of these early villages include rectangular houses made of mud brick on stone foundations in open villages, pottery, "coffee bean–eye" female figurines, and polished stone axes. The material culture is much the same as that found in Greece and many parts of Southwest Asia as well.

Although the chief characteristics of Neolithic life were developed in the Fertile Crescent, the Neolithic culture of Greece has a particular resemblance to the Neolithic cultures found in Anatolia (modern Turkey). Research in the late twentieth century established that Anatolia was one of the core areas where Neolithic civilization got its start. Large Early Neolithic towns are found here, as early as any found in the Near East (e.g., Çayönü in the southeast and Aşıklı Hüyük, Çatal Hüyük, Can Hasan, and Hacılar on the Anatolian Plateau). These sites flourished at the end of the eighth millennium b.c., the culmination of a long period of established village life. They provide close parallels with the early Greek Neolithic culture, particularly features such as internal adobe buttresses in houses, figurines, decorated pottery, stamps with geometric decoration, and an industry of obsidian blades. The Greek Neolithic can be seen as a peripheral extension of the Anatolian cultural core.

Undoubtedly some, perhaps all, of the inhabitants of Early Neolithic Greek sites arrived as immigrants. On the island of Crete the site at Knossos (later the site of a Minoan palace) was founded nearly nine thousand years ago. This typical Neolithic village has no precedent on the island. The village has rectangular houses built of mud brick on rectangular foundations in a typical Neolithic open plan. The monochrome pottery, figurines, axes, and obsidian blades have no exact parallels, but they are very similar to the cultural products of Anatolia. Taking into account that there were no human inhabitants of the island before the foundation of this village and that the domesticated plants and animals (wheat and barley, sheep and goats) the villagers cultivated had no wild ancestors on the island, the conclusion that the farmers at Knossos arrived as seafaring migrants is inescapable—and indeed unsurprising. The exploitation of obsidian from the quarries on the Cycladic island of Melos, documented at Franchthi Cave throughout the Mesolithic period, is clear evidence for the presence of seafarers plying the Aegean Sea in the two millennia preceding the appearance of Neolithic villages in Greece. Mesolithic sites are found on some islands (e.g., Kythnos and Corfu), as are some Neolithic sites, not only on Crete but also on Corfu, Youra, and Euboea. The existence of these islands (with their resources of fish, birds, seals, turtles, and obsidian) was most likely well known to the inhabitants of coastal Anatolia long before the time of the first migrations of farmers.

Where in Anatolia did the first farmers come from? The exact location is not known, but the southern coast around Antalya and the western coast in the general vicinity of Izmir are likely candidates. These points on the Aegean coastline have always been the natural outlets for the inhabitants of the fertile Anatolian Plateau, even into the modern day. Neolithic sites are known in these areas, but no one site or group of sites can yet be identified as the "mother culture" for the Greek Neolithic. Colonists would have followed strings of islands from the Dodecanese to the Cyclades and to Crete and the mainland, never losing sight of land as they moved among the islands that are scattered across the Aegean like stepping-stones. Alternatively they could have taken a northern route through Turkish Thrace into Macedonia and Thessaly. From the Early Neolithic sites in northwestern Turkey clustered around the Sea of Marmara (the Fikirtepe culture), migrants could have sailed south through the strait known as the Dardanelles into the Aegean, retracing as it were the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts, or they could have traveled westward along the land route that later became a Roman military highway called the Via Egnatia, which connected Constantinople (Istanbul) to ports on the Adriatic Sea. Perhaps all of these routes were exploited at one time or the other.

Immigrant farmers may have encountered small pockets of Late Mesolithic peoples when they arrived on Greek shores. It has been argued on the basis of the occurrence of certain Mesolithic stone tool types among those of more characteristic Neolithic type that the farmers at Franchthi Cave may have taken some of the locals in their midst. No evidence exists to indicate that the Mesolithic peoples themselves took any independent steps that led to agricultural origins. Their sites were few, very small, and widely scattered. In contrast, Neolithic sites were much larger, more densely concentrated, and usually completely new foundations. (Franchthi Cave, Sidari in Corfu, and perhaps Theopetra in Thessaly may be exceptions.) The plants and animals cultivated and herded are typical Near Eastern domesticated species, and there is little or no evidence for independent experimentation in the Mesolithic with plant or animal domestication. In short, all the evidence available points to a major cultural break between the Mesolithic period and the succeeding Neolithic period.


The hypothesis that the first farmers migrated in sufficient numbers to colonize new lands can no longer be seriously doubted. The archaeological evidence already discussed supports it, as does the pattern of radiocarbon dates for Early Neolithic sites with progressively younger dates as one moves westward from the Near East into Europe. These dates show a steady march of Neolithic culture across the Continent. There are also strong genetic links between modern-day Europeans and Near Easterners that can be explained by assuming a shared ancestry, something that has been confirmed by genetic studies beginning in the 1980s. This migration, or demic diffusion as it is called by archaeologists, certainly was a major force in Greece and southeastern Europe, even if the migrants mixed to greater or lesser degrees with native populations left over from the Mesolithic as they appear to have done in northern and western Europe.

A theoretical model used to explain demic diffusion, the Wave of Advance, was developed in biology to predict the pattern of spread of new species of animals through novel environments. According to this model, a population of organisms is more or less stable at its geographic center but tends to expand at its margins in small-scale random movements of individuals. These movements collectively create a bow-shaped wave where population continues to advance geographically, even if at a very slow and locally unpredictable way. Imagine mice introduced to a deserted island. Once established they will begin to spread. Behind the frontier, geographically speaking, that divides the part of the island with mice and without mice, the mouse population will eventually stabilize as the animals adapt to their new environment. On the edge, however, because mice have no competitors in the uninhabited area, the population will continue to grow, and mice will spread. The resulting moving population edge or frontier is the Wave of Advance. Theoretically at least, early farmer populations behaved much the same way. Even after the population in much of Anatolia had reached a balance point among people, the land suitable for agriculture, and the technology to exploit that land, the population would continue to expand outward, at least along the frontier, to new valleys and new shores where there were few competitors for land and resources.

The Wave of Advance is a good descriptive model, but archaeologists want also to account for the specific historical and individual circumstances that induced particular cultural groups to leave their homelands and cross the Aegean to Europe. The circumstances, or incentives, that induced or persuaded early farmers to take the risk of an open-sea crossing to Greece or the equally dangerous overland passage through Thrace were no doubt many and complex. The general line of speculation, however, focuses on a relatively narrow range of possibilities. The idea of population pressure at home can be eliminated. The available farmland in Anatolia was by no means exhausted by Early Neolithic farmers, and millions of people live there in the twenty-first century, demonstrating that, technology permitting, the agricultural potential of the region is vast. The technology of early farmers, however, was based on the considerably less-efficient use of local irrigation, digging sticks, and hoes. The best soils located near springs and rivers were perhaps preferred by these farmers, and they were willing to move from valley to valley or island to island in search of them. Perhaps there was a population movement analogous to that which brought the Norse to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland: limitations imposed by the inheritance of the best land to only one or a few children. Those who did not stand in line to inherit land sufficient to support new families, especially those on the frontier, may have elected to move into uninhabited lands, where they could have their pick of choice lands to cultivate.

Another possibility for the migration of early farmers to Greece is that adventurers, who have lived in every age, explored new lands and then returned with like-minded family and friends to become colonists. The study of the homesteaders and pioneers in the New World has revealed that the motives of these people were truly diverse. Some sought the wilderness to found utopian social or religious communities, and the same thing has been suggested for the earliest Aegean farmers. Perhaps they were escaping from the social and economic upheavals that apparently affected much of the Near East and Anatolia c. 7000 b.c. and after. Many sites were burned or abandoned at this time, and there is evidence for local displacements of populations that continued for some time. These disruptions may have been caused by climatic change, warfare, economic and religious movements, or some other kind of social convulsion. Whatever the explanation, the Aegean migrants may have been attempting to avoid the conditions at home by moving to remote and previously uninhabited regions.

The precise historical reasons for the coming of the first farmers to Europe may never be known, but it can be said with some certainty that Greece was the first part of Europe to have an established Neolithic culture. The newcomers originated in Anatolia and the Near East, and once they were established on European soil, they developed an independent and distinctive civilization that flourished for millennia. The descendants of these first farmers may well be the ancestors of modern-day Greeks, who can fairly lay claim to being the first Europeans in the modern sense. Without any doubt, the discovery by archaeologists of this prehistoric migration of farmers from Anatolian shores to the Greek mainland is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science.

See alsoFranchthi Cave (vol. 1, part 2); Knossos (vol. 2, part 5).


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Andreou, Stelios, Michael Fotiadis, and Kostas Kotsakis.

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ÖzdogȈan, Mehmet, and Nezih Başgelen, eds. Neolithic inTurkey: The Cradle of Civilization. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, 1999. (Overview of the Anatolian Neolithic sites discussed in this article that also documents that disruptions at the end of the eighth millennium b.c. may have triggered Aegean migrations.)

Papathanassopoulos, George A., ed. Neolithic Culture inGreece. Athens: Goulandris Foundation, 1996. (A region-by-region review of Neolithic culture by noted specialists in each field, with excellent maps and illustrations.)

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Pyke, Gillian, and Paraskeri Yiouni. Nea Nikomedeia 1: TheExcavation and the Ceramic Assemblage. BSA supplementary volume no. 25. London: British School at Athens, 1996.

Runnels, Curtis N. "The Stone Age of Greece from the Palaeolithic to the Advent of the Neolithic." In Aegean Prehistory: A Review. Edited by Tracey Cullen, pp. 225–258. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America, 2001. (Provides evidence for the paucity of native inhabitants in Greece in the millennia preceding the appearance of the first Neolithic farmers.)

Runnels, Curtis, and Priscilla Murray. Greece before History:An Archaeological Companion and Guide. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.

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Van Andel, Tjeerd H., and Curtis N. Runnels. "The Earliest Farmers in Europe." Antiquity 69 (1995): 481–500. (A specific case study of the colonization of Thessaly at the beginning of the Neolithic that tests the hypothesis that land near perennial water was preferentially selected by early farmers.)

Curtis Runnels

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