Farmers without Borders

Ecological perspectives on the spread of animal husbandry from the Mediterranean to southeast Europe (6500-5500 BC)

Project Duration: November 2020 - October 2023

Funder: Fritz Thyssen Stiftung

Project director: Ass.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Maria Ivanova-Bieg (University of Vienna, Austria)


Dr. Marie Balasse (Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France)

Prof. Richard Evershed (University of Bristol, UK)

Prof. Mark Thomas (University College London, UK)

Postdoc: Dr. Magdalena Blanz (University of Vienna, Austria)



Project summary:

This research involves the study of the ecological, biological, and sociocultural factors that led to the rapid spread of animal husbandry in the Balkans around 8000 years ago.

Being one of the core questions of archaeology, often referred to as the “Neolithic” or “Agricultural” Revolution, the domestication of plants and animals in the semi-arid Mediterranean climate zone of southwest Asia has been the subject of an enormous body of literature. Yet, it is the ability of farmers to bring domestic species from the homeland of domestication into new environments that accounts for the profound global success of agriculture as a mode of subsistence. Like their free-living relatives, domesticates are adapted to specific bioclimatic niches. The problems and failures of farmers attempting to introduce crops and livestock into new biogeographic zones are well documented for the historical period: agricultural expansions entail complex adjustments in the dependencies between the abiotic environment, the natural ecosystem, the genetically controlled biological requirements of the domestic organisms, the human practices of management and manipulation, and the underlying social and cultural networks. It is the exceptional adaptability of farmers and their extraordinary capacity to expand into new environments that need better explanations but has received little attention in previous research.

The earliest successful introduction of domestic animals beyond their ecological homeland took place in the interior of the Balkans during the early sixth millennium BC. Here, within a few centuries, pioneer farmers spread northwards into areas with significantly different temperatures and precipitation regimes. The transformation which took place in the interior of the Balkans in the early sixth millennium BC was instrumental to the succeeding spread of the originally Mediterranean crop and livestock system across the entire European continent. In this process, the Balkans acted as a unique ‘laboratory’ for the adaptation of Mediterranean farming to higher latitudes.



Fig. 1 Differences in current climate between the coastal and interior areas of the Balkans. Image: Maria Ivanova-Bieg; climate data from Hijmans, R. J., S. E. Cameron, J. L. Parra, P. G. Jones and A. Jarvis. 2005. Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. International Journal of Climatology 25(15): 1965-1978.

The overall aim of this project is to elucidate the interrelationships of environmental, biological and socio-cultural factors which enabled the successful and rapid dispersal of farmers and their domestic animals across the Balkans. The research methodology comprises four key components: (i) analysis of absorbed organic residues in pottery, (ii) stable isotope analysis of faunal remains, (iii) statistical analysis of archaeological kill-off profiles, (iv) a novel approach using compound-specific deuterium (δD) isotope composition of absorbed lipid residues from pottery for a high-resolution correlation of subsistence and climate. Initially, the existing bioarchaeological information and related archaeological and radiometric data from the early phase of agriculture in South-eastern Europe will be collected and evaluated (Fig. 1). Organic residues on ceramics will be analysed and stable isotope analyses on animal teeth and bones will be performed. This information will aid in identifying the geographic origin, the environmental context and the causes of key transformations in herding and use of animal products.

The following research objectives will be addressed: (i) was free-range forest type of pig husbandry practiced by the first farmers in the Balkans? (ii) did the degree of human control of domestic pigs change and how did such changes correlate with the decline in pig herding beyond the coastal Mediterranean areas of the Balkans? (iii) did birth seasonality of cattle and sheep shift from a bi-modal to an uni-modal pattern in higher latitudes in the Balkans, causing subsistence stress for the pioneer farmers? (iv) did winter foddering of cattle and sheep intensify in the colder areas of the interior, causing further stress on the farming system in terms of workload and time investment? (v) is there an abrupt border or a gradual transition between the two patterns of predominantly meat (‘Mediterranean’) and predominantly dairy (‘Temperate’) use of animal products, as reflected in the residue record? (vi) was the rise in cattle herding in the forested temperate areas of the Balkans associated with intensification of cattle dairying and did cattle first develop into a major dairy species in these areas?

The project will focus on key geographic areas and will generate large and representative biomolecular datasets for the entire range of environments and cultural contexts between the Mediterranean and the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) homeland in Central Europe. These will allow us for the first time to reliably identify the geographic areas of innovation in animal husbandry, as well as the nature and environmental context of these innovations. Moreover, we will be able to integrate palaeoenvironmental, biomolecular and archaeological datasets in a quantitative manner to identify the most likely scenarios for the rapid northward expansion of pioneer farmers around 6000 calBC.




Balasse, M., Renault-Fabregon, L., Gandois, H., Fiorillo, D., Gorczyk, J., Bacvarov, K., Ivanova, M., 2020. Neolithic sheep birth distribution: Results from Nova Nadezhda (sixth millennium BC, Bulgaria) and a reassessment of European data with a new modern reference set including upper and lower molars. J. Archaeol. Sci. 118.

Balasse, M., Tresset, A., Bǎlǎşescu, A., Blaise, E., Tornero, C., Gandois, H., Fiorillo, D., Nyerges, E.A., Frémondeau, D., Banffy, E., Ivanova, M., 2017. Animal Board Invited Review: Sheep birth distribution in past herds: A review for prehistoric Europe (6th to 3rd millennia BC). Animal 11, 2229–2236.

Cramp, L.J.E., Ethier, J., Urem-Kotsou, D., Bonsall, C., Borić, D., Boroneant, A., Evershed, R.P., Perić, S., Roffet-Salque, M., Whelton, H.L., Ivanova, M., 2019. Regional diversity in subsistence among early farmers in Southeast Europe revealed by archaeological organic residues. Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 286.

Ethier, J., Bánffy, E., Vuković, J., Leshtakov, K., Bacvarov, K., Roffet-Salque, M., Evershed, R.P., Ivanova, M., 2017. Earliest expansion of animal husbandry beyond the Mediterranean zone in the sixth millennium BC. Sci. Rep. 7, 1–10.

Ivanova, M., 2020. Growing societies : an ecological perspective on the spread of crop cultivation and animal herding in Europe, in: Gron, K.J., Sørensen, L., Rowley-Conwy, P. (Eds.), Farmers at the Frontier: A Pan-European Perspective on Neolithisation. Oxbow Books, Oxford & Philadelphia, pp. 7–44.

Ivanova, M., Athanassov, B., Petrova, V., Takorovo, D., Stockhammer, P., 2018a. Social Dimensions of Food in the Prehistoric Balkans, Social Dimensions of Food in the Prehistoric Balkans. Oxbow Books.

Ivanova, M., De Cupere, B., Ethier, J., Marinova, E., 2018b. Pioneer farming in southeast Europe during the early sixth millennium BC: Climate-related adaptations in the exploitation of plants and animals. PLoS One 13, 1–23.