New study finds warfare, not climate change, to blame for Neolithic population booms and busts

A recent study conducted by the Complexity Science Hub (CSH) suggests that social disintegration and violent conflict played a significant role in shaping the population dynamics of early farming societies in Neolithic Europe. Led by complexity scientist Peter Turchin and his team, the study adds an important piece to the archaeological puzzle.

For a long time, scholars have been attempting to understand the boom-bust cycles experienced by Neolithic farmer populations, including instances of widespread abandonment. While climate fluctuations have often been cited as the main driver of these cycles, empirical evidence has not fully supported this explanation. The new research published in Scientific Reports offers a different perspective.

According to Turchin, the study demonstrates that periodic outbreaks of warfare, rather than climate fluctuations, can better account for the observed boom-bust patterns in the historical data. To test the two rival theories—climate change and social conflict—the research team employed computer simulations and compared the results with existing historical data.

What sets this study apart is the use of an agent-based model on a large scale, focusing on the pre-state and pre-empire period of history. The model covers a significant portion of the European continent and examines interactions at the level of independent villages, unlike previous simulations that divided the area into larger regions. Dániel Kondor, a scientist at CSH and the first author of the study, explains that this approach allows for a more detailed exploration of village-level dynamics during that historical period.

Change of heart

Peter Turchin, known for applying mathematical models to analyze the rise and fall of complex societies, has expanded his research to include prehistoric periods like the European Neolithic. Initially, Turchin was skeptical about the applicability of social integration and disintegration concepts to such societies. The Neolithic era consisted mainly of small-scale farming communities with limited political organization and minimal social inequalities.

Turchin admits, “I confess that until recently I thought that such societies were quite resilient and not susceptible to social disintegration and collapse. There is no state or nobles to rebel against and, in any case, what’s there to ‘collapse’?”

However, Turchin’s perspective has evolved due to mounting evidence suggesting that Neolithic farming societies also experienced collapses. These cases of collapse were more profound than those witnessed in more recent societies since archaeology indicates that substantial regions were depopulated.

By acknowledging the collapse of Neolithic societies, Turchin and his team have taken a significant step toward understanding the complexities of social dynamics throughout human history. Their findings contribute valuable insights into the patterns of social disintegration and collapse, shedding light on the Neolithic period’s enigmatic population dynamics.

Archaeological proxies for population dynamics in western and central Europe during the Mid-Holocene. (a) Settlement counts associated with the Pfyn culture. (b) The number of occupied sites in central Germany (Hesse). (c) Estimated population density in the lower Rhine region. Reconstruction of population density in north-central Switzerland. Dashed lines in panels (c) and (d) represent the range of uncertainty given by the authors in the original publications. Credit: Scientific Reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-35920-z

Computer simulations

The study conducted by the researchers focused on the period between 7000 BCE and 3000 BCE, encompassing the emergence of agriculture in Europe and the onset of the Bronze Age. Their simulation model began with empty or occupied units on a map, representing independent farming villages. The simulation incorporated two key elements: population change within each unit based on climate variability during that time span, and interactions between units, including migration, division, and conflicts.

To validate their model, the researchers compared the patterns generated by the computer simulations with real-world data. They utilized a radiocarbon dating database and drew upon archaeological evidence of settlements. As settlement data were limited to specific regions and time periods, the team relied on Carbon-14 data for their model predictions.

The study’s findings challenge the notion that climate variation alone can account for the observed boom-bust dynamics during the Neolithic period. Instead, simulations that incorporated social conflict produced patterns that closely aligned with the radiocarbon dating data.

While the research does not claim to provide the definitive explanation for population declines during that era, it highlights that internal conflict leading to population cycles is consistent with the available real-world evidence, according to Kondor, one of the study’s authors.

Intense times

The study’s understanding of the Neolithic period acknowledges a complex social landscape, which aligns with extensive archaeological research conducted in Europe over the past century. According to Kondor, this era was far more dynamic than what non-specialists might assume.

The absence of consistent large-scale political organizations during this time might lead one to imagine a static existence, with people settling in a village for several millennia without much change in between. However, the research challenges this notion. In fact, it suggests that the period was characterized by greater violence than previously believed.

Numerous case studies have demonstrated that early farming societies experienced cyclical socio-political dynamics, transitioning from integration to disintegration. These cycles coincide with population cycles, and periods of disintegration are marked by significant outbreaks of violent conflict. Detlef Gronenborn, an archaeologist from the Leibniz Centre for Archaeology in Mainz, Germany, and one of the study’s co-authors, explains that this pattern extends beyond specific regions and time periods, indicating that disintegration and warfare were pervasive behavioral traits.

Furthermore, the study emphasizes that human interactions, whether cooperative or aggressive, form a complex system irrespective of political or economic organization. Kondor notes that individuals are inevitably influenced by their neighbors and the interactions between neighboring communities, emphasizing the interconnected nature of human societies.

Source: Complexity Science Hub

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