Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rowley-Conwy 2011

Rowley-Conwy, Peter
2011 Westward Ho! The Spread of Agriculture from Central Europe to the Atlantic. Current Anthropology 52:no page numbers yet assigned. (Can be found on-line, but is not yet published.)

I usually stick to environmentally- or zooarch-themed articles in this blog, but I was so excited by the new Rowley-Conwy article on the spread of agriculture in Europe, that I wanted to share.

Rowley-Conwy compares the Cardial Neolithic (Southern Europe), the LBK (Central Europe), the TRB (Northern Europe), and the Neolithic of Britain and Ireland, and comes to two conclusions: a) the spread of agriculture occurred largely through immigration by agriculturalists, rather than through "idea diffusion" across an existing forager population; and b) said immigration is better characterized as "lurches of advance" (nice phrase!) rather than a "wave of advance".

I work on early agricultural societies in two very different parts of the world, and the shift in perception about the spread of agricultural that Rowley-Conwy describes here has been very noticeable over the last decade. When I started working on these issues, there were debates about indigenous development of agriculture vs. immigration of farmers, but at this point, immigration is the consensus interpretation in both regions.

The strength of Rowley-Conwy's argument lies in its scale and comparative approach. OK, so I'm a sucker for any good regional-level analysis, but the leapfroging process of agricultural immigration is not visible on an individual-site level, or along a few kilometers of coast. A wide brush is needed to paint this picture.

The comparative aspect is equally critical, not so much the comparison between the different parts of Europe, but the comparison between Europe and the Middle East, where we know agriculture was an indigenous development. Many of us who have studied the earliest agricultural societies of the Middle East have been puzzled by arguments for indigenous development of agriculture in other parts of the world that show none of the hallmarks of indigenous development that characterize the Levant, such as significant pre-agricultural sedentism, and a long history of intensive use of local resources. That is not to say that indigenous adoption of agriculture could not have occurred in different ways in different places, but arguments for indigenous adoption of agriculture in the absence of any clear predisposition toward an agricultural way of life, and without any posited explanation other than "people like agriculture", are not convincing.

Rowley-Conwy's article moves the debate about early European agriculture forward in two very useful ways. The first is his argument that dairying was an important component of the Early Neolithic in Europe. That's been difficult to prove where I work because we don't have large enough samples of cattle, sheep, or goats to look at age profiles. (There were some interesting arguments over a case of pleurosis that left its mark on a human skeleton, though. There are many causes of pleurosis, but in historic times, one of the most common was drinking contaminated milk.) It would be nice if Rowley-Conwy influenced more zooarchaeologists to report age profiles and evidence for dairying from Neolithic sites.

Secondly, the article shifts focus from "foragers in transition" toward "foragers in contact." If farmers immigrated into and across Europe, they came into contact with preexisting societies, and the genetic evidence suggests a fair amount of intermarriage. In some places, such as Portugal and Denmark, we see co-existing farmer and forager societies long after the introduction of agriculture. The dynamics of these interactions are far more interesting to me than attempting to explain why foragers might adopt agriculture in general.

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