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Exploring the Mesolithic and Neolithic transition in Croatia

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    Exploring the Mesolithic and Neolithictransition in Croatia through isotopicinvestigationsE. Lightfoot1, B. Boneva1, P.T. Miracle1, M. Slaus2& T.C. OConnell3

    The generalised picture of Mesolithic marinediet giving way to a Neolithic terrestrial diet,as derived from isotope measurements, hasbeen both championed and challenged in thisjournal. Here new results from the Balkansoffer a preliminary picture of a diversity offood strategy, both before and after the greattransition.

    Keywords: Balkans, Croatia, Mesolithic, Neolithic, diet

    IntroductionIsotopic evidence indicates that Mesolithic people in Europe tended to be heavily reliant onaquatic foods, while Neolithic subsistence was dominated by agricultural products (Tauber1981; Richards & Hedges 1999; Schulting & Richards 2001; see also papers in Bailey &Spikins 2008 and Price 2000, respectively). The Neolithic package consisted of farmingand non-farming elements, including domesticated crops, such as emmer wheat and barley;domesticated animals, including sheep, goats, cows, pigs and dogs; the use of pottery; andthe establishment of permanent settlements (Whittle 1996). However, this suite of elements

    1 Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3DZ, UK2 Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Zrinski trg 11, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia3 McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2

    3ER, UK Author for correspondence (Email:

    Received: 2 December 2009; Accepted: 24 February 2010; Revised: 19 July 2010

    ANTIQUITY 85 (2011): 7386


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    was neither adopted in its entirety nor at the same rate in every region (Eriksson et al. 2008;Bocquet-Appel et al. 2009; Gkiasta et al. 2003; Forenbaher & Miracle 2005).

    Various models have been proposed for the spread of agriculture from western Asia, mostfamously Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforzas (1973) wave-of-advance model. In this theory,agricultural communities have a demographic and dietary advantage over foraging groups,as farming can support a larger population per land unit (Bocquet-Appel 2002; Bellwood &Oxenham 2008). The strict application of this model calls for a near-complete populationreplacement throughout Europe. At the other end of the spectrum is the argument thatindigenous forager peoples adopted farming with little or no populationmovement (Dennell1983). Although in some areas one or other of these extreme models may be accurate, itseemsmost likely that in others a combination of the two occurred, with interaction betweenforager and farmer groups (e.g. Gregg 1988; Zvelebil & Lillie 2000; Robb &Miracle 2007).

    However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the MesolithicNeolithic transition inEurope was heterogeneous in both its manner (e.g. Tringham 2000) and speed (e.g. Gkiastaet al. 2003; Forenbaher & Miracle 2005; Bocquet-Appel et al. 2009). Thus regional studiesexamining the diversity of responses to incoming subsistence regimes, technologies or peoplesare of growing significance (cf. Liden et al. 2004). The Balkan Peninsula is of particularimportance since farming is thought to have entered Europe via this region. Here we usetemporal and spatial comparisons of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes from bone collagento investigate the dietary changes that took place during this transitional period in coastalareas of Croatia, and so assess the diversity in Neolithic adaptation.

    The spread of the Neolithic in south-east Europe and CroatiaThe Balkans have traditionally been perceived as having a lowMesolithic population density,and having been rapidly colonised by agricultural immigrants (e.g. van Andel & Runnels1995). More recently, scholars have argued for the presence of foragers, with distributionmaps suggesting an aquatic adaptation (Boric 2005). Models for the spread of the Neolithicin the Balkans have therefore come to include a role for indigenous foragers, with a complex,mosaic pattern of transformation (Tringham 1971, 2000; Zvelebil & Lillie 2000).

    Croatia is particularly interesting as there are two main distinct ecological regions:the Adriatic coastal zone (Istria and Dalmatia), where agriculture was spread by seafarers(Forenbaher & Kaiser 2005); and the inland Pannonian basin, which received agriculturevia an overland route (Chapman & Muller 1990). On the Adriatic coast, the beginning ofagriculture is closely paralleled by the spread of Impressed Ware pottery (e.g. Chapman &Muller 1990) and population change seems to have played a large role in the transition tofarming (e.g. Biagri 2003). Other models suggest a scenario whereby there is a combinationof population movement and indigenous adoption (e.g. Forenbaher & Miracle 2005). Theearliest Neolithic in continental Croatia belongs to the Starcevo culture which appearssuddenly in c. 6000 cal BC (Minichreiter & Bronic 2006). Agriculture is thought to havereached this area via an overland route that spread north from Greece (Gkiasta et al. 2003;Bocquet-Appel et al. 2009). Juric et al. (2001) argue that as there is no evidence for a gradualdevelopment of agricultural methods, the arrival of farming must be part of a colonisationprocess.


  • Research

    Exploring the Mesolithic and Neolithic transition in Croatia through isotopic investigations

    Macro-evidence for diet in coastal and inland CroatiaEvidence for Mesolithic diet from the Adriatic coast is limited as no archaeobotanicalevidence has been discovered (despite the intensive flotation programmes of recent projects)to suggest which plant foods may have been exploited. Nevertheless, the sites of Pupicina(Miracle 2001, 2002), Abri Sebrn (Miracle et al. 2000) andVela Luka (Cecuk&Radic 2005)provide evidence for game hunting (red deer, roe deer, wild boar, fallow deer, hare, martenand fox), fishing (including deep water species such as tuna and dolphin) and gathering ofmarine and terrestrial molluscs.

    More dietary evidence is available from the Neolithic sites along the Adriatic. Excavationsat Tinj-Podlivade (Chapman et al. 1996), Danilo Binj (Moore 2007), Grapceva Cave(Borojevic et al. 2008) and Bukovic-Lastivine (Chapman et al. 1996) have shown thatNeolithic diets included domestic crops: einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, free-threshing wheat,hulled barley, oats, flax and lentil; and domestic animals: sheep/goat, cattle and pig. Wildfoods were also utilised; acorn, juniper and almond were gathered, and red deer and harewere hunted. In addition, marine shells have also been found, but their food value is thoughtto have been modest (Schwartz 1988; Moore 2007).

    A sequence of several cultures, the Starcevo, Sopot and Vucedol, is found in inlandCroatia throughout the period of the Neolithic, and all are thought to have been primarilyagricultural, growing legumes, einkorn and emmer wheat, and raising sheep, goat, cattleand pigs (Juric et al. 2001; Obelic et al. 2004). The choice of sites for settlement duringthe Starcevo period, however, suggests that they were chosen for their access to areas forhunting, for gathering fruits and nuts, and rivers for water and fishing, as well as foragricultural potential (Minichreiter 2001).

    Isotopic evidence for dietStable carbon and nitrogen isotopic analyses of human remains can be used in conjunctionwith the evidence from archaeobotany and zooarchaeology to provide quantitativeinformation about past diets (Lee-Thorp 2008). As the skeleton is made from consumedfood and drink, isotopic ratios in the diet are retained in bone collagen. Due to the effects ofmetabolic processes, the proportion of 15N increases with each trophic level, and thereforestable nitrogen isotopic ratios provide an assessment of degrees of meat-eating (OConnell& Hedges 1999). As both freshwater and marine ecosystems tend to have long foodchains,nitrogen stable isotopes can be used to distinguish between aquatic and terrestrial diets(Schoeninger & De Niro 1984). Carbon isotopic ratios allow for discrimination betweentwo types of plants (C3 and C4) with different mechanisms of carbon uptake (Vogel &Van der Merwe 1977), and between marine and terrestrial foodwebs (Schoeninger & DeNiro 1984). As the isotopic ratios at the base of the food chain vary through space andtime (Stevens & Hedges 2004), it is necessary to sample contemporaneous fauna whereverpossible.

    The stable isotope composition of bone collagen reflects the diet over the majority of adultlife, thus indicating an average diet (Hedges et al. 2007). Changes in diet between foodstuffsof similar isotopic composition will not produce a change in consumer bone collagen stable


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    Figure 1. Map of Croatia showing analysed sites.

    isotope ratios. Furthermore, physiological effects in the consumer (e.g. starvation: Mekota etal. 2006) and environmental influences on soil or plants can theoretically produce isotopicdifferences in bone collagen (e.g. Farquhar et al. 1982; Heaton 1987). Infants tend to havehigher 15N values than adults due to a trophic level increase associated with breastfeeding(Fuller et al. 2006). In the discussion below, therefore, infants are excluded where discussingtypical population values.

    In total, 42 humans and 95 animals were sampled from a range of sites across Croatia(Figure 1); however it should be noted that it is not certain that every human samplerepresents a different individual. The number of human individuals available per site issmall, as is common in these periods; nevertheless, when combined the samples represent areasonably sized dataset. The Neolithic human samples presented here span the whole of theNeolithic and include samples from two sites, K

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