Archaeologists have long regarded the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture as one of the most important developments in human history. V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) and Robert Braidwood (1907-2003) were among the first scholars to emphasize the importance of this change in human society. At its root was the shift from the reliance on wild plants and animals to domesticated plants and livestock. Domestication is the process by which humans are able to control the reproduction of plant and animal species and thus select for various desirable characteristics. In the Near East, just before ten thousand years ago, people began to select for desirable characteristics in wheat and barley and in sheep and goats. Later, cattle, pigs, lentils, and peas were added to the list of early domesticates. Throughout the millennia that followed, many more species of plants and animals were domesticated in other areas around the world, including China, Africa, and several regions in the Americas.

The transition to agriculture in the Old World traditionally marks the beginning of the archaeological period known as the "Neolithic," the final major division of the Stone Age. For many years, archaeologists noted that the Neolithic also saw the emergence of pottery production and ground stone tools, although these traits now have been shown to occur in pre-agricultural societies as well. Today, archaeologists see that the adoption of domestic plants and animals is only a single symptom of a major societal and economic transformation. During this period, people changed their views of many things, including the returns expected from their quest for food, acceptable levels of risk and uncertainty, their ability to change their environment, property rights and residential stability, definitions of kinship and residential groupings, and the benefits of more children. Most of these changes began back in the Mesolithic period, but they came together during the Neolithic to produce a dramatic change in society.

Farming spread from the Near East across Europe between 8,500 and 4,000 years ago. In some areas colonizing farmers dispersed into new habitats. Elsewhere, local hunter-gatherers adopted crops and livestock. Archaeologists must differentiate between these two processes, a challenging task. Despite some claims for local domestication, it appears that all the principal species of plants and animals used by the early European farmers initially were domesticated in southwestern Asia, so there is no "pristine" center of domestication in Europe itself. Radiocarbon dating has been immensely helpful in tracing the spread of agriculture in Europe.

Around 6500 b.c. the first European farmers appeared in Greece. Immigrants from Anatolia colonized fertile floodplains, lived in houses built of mud brick or adobe, grew emmer and einkorn wheat, and raised sheep and goats. These communities were similar to contemporaneous settlements in the Near East, although some of the details are significantly different. Native foragers in other parts of Greece also made the transition to agriculture, as reflected at sites such as Franchthi Cave.

From its initial European toehold in Greece, agriculture spread along two routes: west through the Mediterranean basin to Spain and Portugal and north and northwest along the Danube drainage and then into the river valleys that drain into the Baltic and North Seas. Within about two thousand years of the first appearance of agriculture in Greece, farming reached the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. It did not spread at a uniform speed. Sometimes the leading edge of farming jumped forward very quickly, and sometimes it stood almost still for centuries.

The Mediterranean dispersal followed coastal routes. Domestic livestock, especially sheep, as well as cereals and pottery appeared at sites along the coasts of Italy and southern France, such as Arene Candide (in Liguria, Italy), which differed little from the camps of the local foragers. Apparently, these items were passed along from community to community and integrated into the hunter-gatherer economy. Watercraft probably were crucial in enabling this contact.

The spread of agriculture north from Greece into the Balkans was the result of either colonization by farmers or local adoption of crops and livestock. The attraction of early farming communities to alluvial soils hitherto sparsely settled by foragers suggests that some population movement occurred. It is apparent, however, that certain Mesolithic groups adopted domestic plants and animals. In the Iron Gates gorges along the Danube, the inhabitants of such sites as Lepenski Vir (in Serbia) brought crops and livestock into their economy alongside fish, deer, and wild plants.

In the river valleys of central Europe, colonization by farmers was the primary means by which agricultural communities were established. Known from their incised ceramics as the Linear Pottery culture (alternatively, Linearbandkeramik or LBK), these people lived in timber longhouses, sometimes more than 30 meters long, along the tributaries of major central European rivers. They usually settled on a fine-grained soil called "loess" that they could farm for many years without much of a decline in fertility. In the west Linear Pottery communities reached the area of Paris, while in the north some ventured onto the North European Plain along the lower Oder and Vistula Rivers. Unlike the pattern in southeast Europe, where sheep and goat were the major livestock species, bones of domestic cattle are the most common types found on Linear Pottery sites.

The coasts of the Baltic and North Seas and the Atlantic Ocean were densely settled by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Nearly a thousand years after the Linear Pottery farmers appeared in the adjacent inland areas, the foragers of northern and western Europe saw no need to adopt domestic plants and animals. Their hunting, fishing, and collecting economy was more than adequate. Gradually, however, these peoples selectively adopted domestic plants. Shortly after 4000 b.c., cultivation and stock keeping became more important than foraging in northwestern Europe, Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland. As in the Mediterranean area, such watercraft as dugout canoes made it possible to transport domesticated plants and animals to the British Isles and much of southern Scandinavia.

A similar pattern is observed in the alpine regions of central Europe. Around the upland lakes of Switzerland and adjacent areas of Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Slovenia, Neolithic settlements replaced the camps of Mesolithic foragers. Originally thought to have been built on wooden piles placed out over the water of the lakes, these "Swiss lake dwellings" are now known to have been on the lakeshores. Their marvelous preservation of organic material, such as seeds, cloth, wood, and netting, has provided a glimpse of artifacts and food remains not often recovered at other sites.

Not everyone in Europe converted to agriculture. In parts of northern and eastern Europe, foragers continued relatively unaffected by the farming way of life, despite evidence for contacts between the two populations. Fishing and hunting continued to be the primary sources of food for many more centuries. These forest peoples readily adopted pottery, however, so it seems that they were in contact with farmers and made a conscious decision not to imitate them completely.

After the initial establishment of agricultural communities, it took some time for the mature farming systems that characterized later prehistoric periods to emerge. New types of cereals, such as bread wheat, and rye, were introduced, and different combinations of livestock species were tried and refined over the next two millennia. New local styles of pottery and houses soon replaced those of the earliest farmers, and extensive trade networks connected farming communities. The first traces of competition and warfare are seen in the archaeological record. At the same time, however, it is important to note just how quickly agriculture spread throughout Europe. It clearly was an idea that appeared at an opportune time, when conditions were ideal for its rapid adoption and dispersal.

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